Costumes, a heritage to harness

Antonio Mancinelli e Rocco Talucci

The cataloguing of over three-thousand costumes made for performances at the festival was commemorated last November with an exhibition at the Palazzo Collicola, curated by Pietro Maccarinelli and Monica Trevisani. It represents that first step in the exploration of the history of the Umbrian festival through clothes worn by the artists. But it is far from complete. The festival has a close relationship with the costumes that have been shown onstage over the last sixty years. It boasts a rich and important history of names and shows that are so famous they have gone down in the annals (and, in some cases, extraordinarily quickly, as was the case with the Orlando furioso directed by Luca Ronconi in July 1969) of the history of theatre of the mid-20th century.

Orlando Furioso, directed by Luca Ronconi (1969) © Fondo Lionello Fabbri

They are creations that recount the great school of Italian costumes of every generation, including names such as Piero Tosi (who together with Bice Brichetto designed the figurines for a production of La traviata by Luchino Visconti in the early 1960s), and Nando Sacrfiotti and Gabriella Pescucci before they made it big in American cinema. The opening show of the first edition of the festival in 1958 was Verdi’s Macbeth directed by Luchino Visconti, for which the costume designer Piero Tosi created dark costumes, in perfect synthesis with the libretto and what happens on stage, with purples and sky blues as if from a painting by Hayez. Even at the height of his production, Tosi always found time for Spoleto, where he also returned with sensual costumes for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, conducted by Thomas Schippers in a 1971 production. The concert was so successful that it was repeated the following year. Manon was dressed in lace, with an original late 19th century underdress and striped socks that remained seared into the memory of Marco Tullio Giordana who was then a young spectator, as he recently recounted to an audience at the Teatro Menotti. The years passed by, artistic directors came and went, and in 2013 Tosi once again returned to Spoleto. He had won a lifetime achievement Oscar just a few months before was rightly received as a venerated maestro as he returned to the stage for Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto with pastel colours, bustiers, tailcoats and the 18th-century costumes created by Sartoria Tirelli.

Manon Lescaut - directed by Luchino Visconti, conducted by Thomas Schippers (1971) © Fondo Lionello Fabbri

Not only have the costumes of femmes fatales and nobles given personality to the stage. In the 1970s, when Romolo Valli was artistic director of the festival, two costume designers left their mark with two highly successful shows. Making his debut with the fairytale musical La gatta Cenerentola, Roberto De Simone burst onto the stage with real vitality and inspiration. It was 1976 and the costumist Odette Nicoletti dressed the great Isa Danieli and the washerwomen in large, white dresses, underdresses, aprons and headscarves. The year before another woman, Gabriella Pescucci, had created costumes for another historic show that was born at the Festival dei Due Mondi. Napoli chi resta e chi parte – with a plethora of Neapolitan actors including Massimo Ranieri, Mariano Rigillo, Angela Luce, Angela Pagano diretti da Giuseppe Patroni Griffi – featured the elegant costumes of frequenters propping up a bar and rags for the poor emigrants ready to depart for America. The festival has always been highly interdisciplinary since its first edition. This perspective has always made collaborations between fashion designers and artists inevitable. In 2020, the music of Ludwig van Beethoven met Roberto Capucci in Le creature di Prometeo, which was performed in Piazza Duomo. In 2019, Jean Paul Guatier told the story of his life with Fashion Freak Show, a completely new kind of show, at the Teatro Nuovo Gian Carlo Menotti. Dancers, singers, actors who did their stuff to the notes of pop, funk, disco, with all the costumes designed by Gaultier in which even less expert audience members could not fail to recognise the bust with cone breasts made for Madonna or the sailor-style striped t-shirt.

La gatta Cenerentola by Roberto De Simone (1976) © Fondo Lionello Fabbri

Another singular encounter between fashion and the stage is that with Maurizio Galante, the Italian couturier based in Paris who designed costumes for opera and theatre shows many times. These include Danza Macabra, directed by Luca Ronconi, or Don Giovanni in 2017, with rigorous form and symbolic colours. He chose red, the symbol of seduction, for Don Giovanni, and wisteria, a metaphor for melancholy, for Donna Elvira. With that, he challenged the proverbial superstition of those who do theatre; indeed, there are no negative outcomes – just the triumph of beauty.

Don Giovanni - directed by Giorgio Ferrara, costumes by Maurizio Galante (2017)