Opera L’Isola Disabitata

Baroque opera
“L’Isola Disabitata”, Haydn, 1779
Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago, IL, USA – September 2016

Stage director : Sarah Edgar
Musical director : Craig Trompeter
Costume designer : Meriem Bahri
Set designer : Zuleyka Benitez
Light designer : Lindsey Lyddan
Photographer : Charles Osgood

WHERE DID YOU FIND THE INSPIRATIONS TO DESIGN THE COSTUMES OF L’ISOLA DISABITATA?

This 1779 opera from Haydn, with a libretto originally written by Metastasio in 1752, provides clear leads on what the costumes should look like, even with just a few words.
Costanza, who has been on a desert island for 13 years with her little sister Silvia, is “curiously dressed in skins, leaves and flowers”, while the males, Gernando and Enrico, “in Indian dress”, arrive on this West Indies island after being attacked by pirates and enslaved for many years.
The short description of Costanza’s costume concurs with 18th century costume drawings portraying “wild women”: costume draperies were painted to imitate a tawny skin and long strings of leaves and flowers were embellishing the costumes. The “Indian dress” refers to Native Americans attires, usually symbolized by the use of many feathers and sometimes, animal furs. These specificities, easily recognizable by the audience, were combined with the most fashionable garments. However, the general silhouettes remained ruled by French stage conventions followed throughout Europe, with, for instance, the use of panniers (framework used for distending the skirt at the hips) and tonnelets (a kind of short skirt worn by men on stage).
Indeed, accuracy in term of history, geography or social context was not exactly a priority for stage costumes. In opera, certainly the wealthiest and the most visually demanding performing art of that time, the plot was almost a pretext to exhibit glorious costumes and sets. Even in theater, the 1770s saw only timid attempts to use scenery and costumes to evoke a more realistic milieu.

DO YOU THINK THESE STATEMENTS CAN ALSO APPLY TO THE COURT OF NIKOLAUS I, PRINCE ESTERHAZY, WHERE THE OPERA WAS FIRST PRESENTED?

Absolutely. The Esterházy family was one of the richest in the Habsburg Empire. The Prince was a grand patron of the arts, especially music, and was also Haydn’s generous benefactor. He owned the title “the Magnificent” because of his taste for great musical productions, flamboyant clothing (for instance, he wore a jacket studded with diamonds) and the construction of palaces like Esterháza, Hungary’s grandest rococo edifice.
It’s in this palace that L’isola disabitata was first presented for the Prince’s birthday. The stakes must have been particularly high, and Haydn’s opera had to be splendid; he couldn’t let the fire that broke out in the “Hungarian Versailles” just a few weeks earlier tarnish the presentation. After all, hadn’t the Prince paid for the restoration of Haydn’s house after it burned down twice, in 1768 and 1776? It would have been surprising if Haydn had not tried his best to satisfy the Prince’s high standards for such a special occasion.
In this context, and given the lack of influence from the outside world in the geographically isolated Esterháza (as Haydn wrote in some of his letters), the new and budding tendency toward realism in theater costumes in the 1770s had no serious chance to reach the court operas financed by Nikolaus I.

THANKS FOR EXPLAINING THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND! COULD YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC ABOUT THE COSTUMES WE’LL SEE ON STAGE?

They are directly inspired by costume renderings found for operas, theater or ballet exploring the theme of “wild women” and “Indians”: leaves, flowers, exotic animal skins (painted fabrics), fur and feathers embellish the costumes. For the reasons explained earlier, the costumes are not distressed, as nothing should show that the four characters had been living a miserable life for more than a decade.
The general shapes of the costumes follow the French codes for stage costumes, as well as the trends of the 1770s (as shown in representations of costumes worn in Haydn’s operas at Esterháza performed before and after L’isola disabitata; painting of a scene from L’incontro improvviso, 1775; and costume sketches for Armida, 1784).
Costanza, who “was extolling the wealth, wisdom, arts, customs and delights of Europe”, wears a court gown over a grand pannier and a large and elaborated grey powdered coiffure. Silvia, a lover of simpler things, wears a lighter and more juvenile version of her older sister’s look. Costanza’s husband, Gernando, wears a costume as sophisticated as his wife’s, with a hooped tonnelet and a tight bodice with “Amadis” sleeves, which are tight around the forearms. Enrico, the loyal friend whom Gernando helped to free, shows a slightly more modest, less European costume with a short chain to remind us of his past as a slave.
The rococo style is also depicted by asymmetrical designs and a palette of soft tones of pinks, greens and yellows and the progressive abandonment throughout the 18th century of richly embroidered fabrics for elegant and lighter draperies.