Opera Gli Equivoci Nel Sembiante

Baroque opera
« Gli Equivoci Nel Sembiante », Scarlatti, 1679
Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago, IL, USA – October 2014

Stage director : Sarah Edgar
Musical director : Craig Trompeter
Costume designer : Meriem Bahri
Set designer : Brian Novatny
Light designer : William C. Kirkham
Photographers : Charles Osgood – Benjamin Brachi – Elliot Mandel

Meriem Bahri’s lavish costume design brings the baroque era vividly to life through embroidered silks, flowing linen sleeves and colorful ribbons on every surface."

Barnaby Hughes, Stage and Cinema, October 26, 2014

PERSONAGGI

Clori, ninfa, innamorata di Eurillo (Soprano)
Lisetta, sua sorella minore, segretamente innamorata di Eurillo (Soprano)
Eurillo, pastore, innamorato di Clori (Tenore)
Armindo, gemello di Eurillo (Tenore)
ninfe, pastori 

In Contini’s libretto of Gli Equivoci Nel Sembiante, this short description of the characters lets us right away imagine the cascade of complications which will result from one of the most favorite themes of seventeenth century Italian literature: relatives separated at birth, love triangles and wrong identities.

The intricate plot also posed some challenges from a costuming point of view. How to make the duo of tenors looking like each other enough to confuse the two sisters? How to make the audience believe it as well, in our cabaret-sized venue, where the distance between the audience and the singers is so intimate?

The idea of having the singers disguised and masked came to me when I learned that the opera was first presented during the end of the Roman Carnival season in 1679. Instead of the Arcadian landscape chosen by Contini and Scarlatti, placing the story into the context of the premiere sounded a very appealing card to play! Thus, we would have the characters inhabiting the mythical city, in the most festive time of the year.

At that time, Pope Innocent XI ruled Rome’s cultural amusements with draconian measures. Fortunately, private performances were continuously supported by aristocrats like Queen Christina of Sweden, who often encouraged new theatrical adventures in her Roman palace and went against papal reforms prohibiting women on stage and décolleté dress.

Clori, a fashionable Italian woman of the 1670s, while disguised as a shepherdess for the carnival, would indeed have exposed a generous cleavage and uncovered shoulders. In addition, she would certainly have completed her look with a modish hairstyle like the “hurluberlu”. Her appearance in this show was inspired by a charming portrait of Ortensia Mancini, duchess of Mazarin and native of Rome.

Eurillo, Clori’s lover, would have chosen a costume matching that of his beloved. By a happy coincidence that only twin siblings could explain, Armindo would have picked the same shepherd costume for the festivities! Their over-knees length coat made of deep blue brocade, worn over a puffy shirt and a pair of full, cherry-colored breeches, is decorated on the side by a big bow from the yellow sash of silk draped around their waist.

Still far from the naturalism movement, the wealthy people of the time took delight in pretending they were simple country folks by mixing rich pastoral-inspired fabrics and garments from the latest trends, with some cute outmoded details from the past, like ruffs, sleeves attached to the coat by ribbons, or specific facial hair styles.

Clori’s sister Lisetta, disguised as a fisher boy, plays also with that mix of styles by wearing a coat which looks like a 16th century doublet, while the cut of her breeches belongs more to the end of the 17th century. Her amusing costume was inspired by baroque prints full of imagery depicting a fisherman or a fisherman’s wife. Having Lisetta dressed as a boy was in tune with the time, too, and seems to fit her temperament. Indeed, cross-dressing was one of the most common classical commedia devices. Even if we would find more male in drag than women dressed as men, testimonies and prints clearly show Colombina dressed in Arlequin, with man trousers and jacket. In this particular case, female cross-dressing could have been practiced to highlight women’s trickery against men… while women in breeches were rather appreciated by male audiences!

Moreover, Queen Christina of Sweden was present at one the first performances of Gli Equivoci Nel Sembiante, and her influence in Rome was important. She was known for her free-thinking and her sometimes scandalous behaviour, as well as for being mysteriously androgynous and often dressed as a man. This trend for cross-dressing was also reported at the same time in other European countries such as in France, with the opera singer La Maupin known for wearing men’s clothing, or in England, with aristocratic women embracing male hunting costumes, as evidenced by the portrait of Mary of Modena, an Italian princess married to James II.

More generally, 17th century paintings of Roman Carnival such as those of Miel and Lingelbach, inspired the main colors and style of these costumes. Details visible on fashion prints and costume sketches from operas, plays or ballets of this specific period and location were also great historical sources for designing my designs. The leather masks, with their exaggerated features, were conceived specially for this show and based on Commedia Dell’Arte mask making traditions.