Behind the scenes of the opera-movie “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Teatro Comunale Bologna: the costume designer Claudia Pernigotti

After collaborating with Pasquale Grossi and William Orlandi as assistant to the sets and costumes, Claudia Pernigotti from 2000 to 2013 was the Head of the Costume Service of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna where she signed the costumes for numerous productions. She collaborates assiduously with the director Rosetta Cucchi for whose shows she has signed the costumes. Among others Rodelinda and Zaira at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, La Traviata for Teatro Comunale in Modena, L’Arlesiana and Salome at the Wexford Opera Festival, La Favorite at the Teatro La Fenice, Adina at the Rossini Opera Festival and Risurrezione at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

We met Claudia Pernigotti at the Teatro Comunale Bologna in the midst of rehearsals for Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera-movie that will be broadcast on Rai5 this evening – Wednesday 10 March at 9.15 pm.

Can you introduce your educational journey?

After attending classical high school, I decided to enroll at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts whose access, at the time, was for classical graduates, subject to passing the entry exam. After passing the exam, I attended the Scenography course with Professor Gastone Mariani and the History of Costume course with Professor Luisa Spinatelli, who later introduced me to the world of costume design. As it often happens in this profession, I started working as a volunteering assistant, first with the set designer Paolo Bregni and then with Pasquale Grossi, who has been my teacher and mentor: I worked many years with him.

Where does your passion for costumes come from?

I believe that it all started when I was very young. I was  nine or ten years old when I started going to the theatre with my parents to see shows that defined an era – think of The Tempest or The Good Person of Szechwan directed by Strehler. At first I was not fascinated by the world of costume design, but rather more generally by the world of theatre, by the stage. I found my way over the years mainly thanks to Professor Spinatelli, who introduced me to Paolo Bregni, set designer of The Good Person of Szechwan.

Reading your biography, it is impossible not to notice your frequent collaboration with director Rosetta Cucchi.

I met Rosetta in Reggio Emilia at a production of Werther, I think in 1996, but I’m not sure. She was lead pianist and I was assisting Pasquale Grossi, who designed sets and costumes. We were two girls in love with what we were doing. Then we didn’t see each other for years until we met at Teatro Municipale. She had become an established musician and I was head of the costume design department and costume designer. She offered me a job at the theatre in Lugo where she worked as artistic director. It didn’t work because I didn’t get along with the director, so I left. After one year she called me to work on her first production – Tutti in Maschera at Teatro Chiabrera in Savona. Since then our collaboration has been constant.

What are your sources of inspiration?  

I believe there is not a fool-proof recipe that works all the time or that can be used in every production. Much depends on the motivation and inspiration conveyed by the director. Sometimes it takes very little – a reference to a film, the ghost of an idea, an image, a photograph seen by chance that sums up an idea that you already have in your head. Other times you must work on it a little more – you must get information, or use a trial-and-error approach before hitting the right note. For years Rosetta and I have talked about our work on the road –  she driving back to Pesaro and I to Piedmont. While driving. I have always had the best ideas behind the wheel!

Can you describe your approach to work? How do you create a character through costumes?

Also in this case it all starts with a discussion with the director I work with and then with listening. When working with directors, I try to understand the idea they have for a character; then I listen to the music and read the libretto of the opera. I do some research on the artist I will have to design the costumes for. I look for pictures of live performances, photos, videos. I try to understand what their built is, how they move on stage, which is essential in order to make a costume work. First of all, artists must like to see themselves wearing what the costume designer has made for them. If it doesn’t happen, everything becomes difficult.

Choose a favourite fashion designer – one from the past, and one from today.

Such a difficult question. There would be so many … Especially from the past. If I really had to choose, I would definitely say Monsieur Dior, still very modern: his Bar jacket, created in 1947, is still in production. If I had to choose a contemporary designer, I would say Maria Grazia Chiuri who, not by chance, is the head of the Dior house. She has been able to renovate it beautifully without betraying its original spirit.

Dior, Bar Jacket

From 2000 to 2013 you were in charge of the Costume Design department at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. How do you organise a costume design department?

When I started working there, I had just returned from a long and exciting experience at the Bastille Opera as assistant to William Orlandi. I had worked closely with a very high-level tailor shop, exceptional in professionalism, perfectly organized. The Teatro Municipale, despite being one of the most important Italian theatres, was very distant from that standard but it had a highly valuable staff. We decided to start building some installations and reorganise spaces and skills. We moved the warehouse to a different location (it’s still there) and automated it. In addition to reorganising preexisting spaces, the Management took on additional spaces, where one could work by dividing the staff into sub-departments (show production and assistance). Those were very busy but incredibly rewarding years. The basic organization had only partially changed – stable staff assisted by evening staff during the shows. Above all, the goals had changed. Unfortunately, the economic crisis and the resulting cuts in personnel have meant that over the years it was no longer possible to manage resources as it had happened the past.

Is there a favourite costume among those you have designed? And a “difficult” costume whose production has turned out to be particularly satisfying?

I have so many favourite costumes, as many are the shows I have worked on in my career. All of them are costumes for female roles. One is the Rodelinda costume worn by Sonia Ganassi in the opera of the same name staged at the Martina Franca Festival. One of the most “difficult” ones is Miss Lovett’s costume in Sweeney Todd. The opera singer who wore it was exceptional but very, very overweight. I managed to make it a strong point and not a flaw. On stage she was adorable.

What is the opera production you are emotionally the closest to?

Choosing one is impossible. Many are the reasons why we get emotionally close to a production. Some are professional reasons, others are often more personal. For example, the production I worked on forty days after the birth of my son. It was Rigoletto at the Teatro di San Gallen in Switzerland. An incredible effort! I had moved there with my son, grandparents, part of my house. I barely slept, I nursed  my son between fittings, I worked as intensely as usual, no special treatment. On the night of the premiere I was exhausted. When the curtain rose, I ran into the bathroom to hide and cried. I had made it!

You are currently working on the production of Adriana Lecouvreur for the Teatro Comunale in Bologna.  It is an opera in film form that will air on Rai 5 – Rai Cultura on March 10th. It has been a challenge, right?

I have worked with Rosetta for many years, so I am quite used to challenges. But we have done anything like this before. I am very, very curious to see how our work will be edited for television. To see how Rosetta and the television director will be able to convey the emotions of the live performance.

In a recent interview the director Rosetta Cucchi has revealed some details of the production of Adriana Lecouvreur. For example, the great 18th-century actress will wear costumes from different centuries. How did you approach this project?

With lots of enthusiasm! Working on different historical periods for one show happens so rarely. The first act is set in the 18th century, then we step into the 19th century.  The third act is set the Roaring Twenties and the final act is set during the student revolts in the 20th century. Four researches, four ways of interpreting the characters, four women with something in common – love, passion and art. Also four different ways of designing costumes. The tailors who made the costumes have been of great help.

In the latest production of Adriana Lecouvreur, the famous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais will play the main role. Did you work with her in designing her costumes?

I have not discussed the design directly with Kristine but I looked at many photos of her, I studied the costumes that I think best suit her, watched videos online. She is a beautiful woman who is able of transforming herself according to what she wears. This is why designing costumes for this show has been difficult – she has to play the same role in different historical periods, with different attitudes. From crinoline to trousers in one act!

Can you describe one of the costumes that Adriana (Kristine Opolais) and the Princess of Bouillon (Veronica Simeoni) will wear?

Adriana makes her appearance on stage as an acclaimed artist doing her make-up in her dressing room. For her I chose a turquerie, a costume with an oriental mood – soft chiffon trousers, a whale-bone corset and a flowing dressing gown. Her hair is styled in a simple but refined way which emphasises her beauty.

Then on stage Adriana wears a Watteau as a “real” stage costume. She wears it to thank her audience. About ten Indian shawls were skilfully sewn together in order to get the fabric we used to make that full costume. We were lucky to find these shawls after going through many disappointing samples. The Princess is Adriana’s counterpart: she’s cold and calculating, while Adriana is cheerful and passionate. I wanted to emphasize this appearance character with color.

In the second act Veronica wears an important white duchesse dress embellished with organza pleats and chiffon ruffles. Ice-cold. I was very lucky to work with two perfect artists, excellent in their roles.

What do you think is the future of theatre?

The future is now. Proof of this is the project I have just completed. The pandemic was a tragedy for our sector, one of the most affected. Only through new ideas like this we have the opportunity to continue to work and produce culture now and in the immediate future. It should not be the solution to all evils because I believe each of us has suffered in their own way but it can be a way through which we can reach a new normal.

I hope that through television our work will reach those who, for a million reasons, have never been to the theatre. Especially young people. The average age of the audience is rather high. The real problem is finding a new audience that will give new life to theatre and participate in a more interactive way.

Photos: Andrea Ranzi (Casaluci-Ranzi),Getty, Michele Crosera, Michele Monasta

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