A production remembered

The costumes for Werther

A production remembered

By Annette Hasslert Risacher 22 January 2016


© Christian Leiber / OnP

The costumes for Werther

Annette Hasslert Risacher is Head of Costume Production at the Opera Bastille.

When a costume designer is invited to the Opera he first of all presents his project, developed in collaboration with the stage director, to the management. Monitoring the fabrication of the costumes then becomes the responsibility of one of the production managers. The creators come with pictures, sketches, partial models; each has his own method. Christian Gasc, always brings models. From these mock-ups, we start work on the sampling, that’s to say the selection of fabrics, then on the colouring.

For this production of Werther, all the costumes were dyed here on the premises, because it was impossible to obtain the necessary variety of colour nuances from outside suppliers. The Decoration Department undertakes all the dying and the creation of effects on the tissues such as the patina; they can also design original prints and patterns. In parallel, we meet with the Head of the Atelier flou (the couture workshop for women) and the Head of the Atelier tailleur (the tailoring workshop for men). Based on his artwork, Christian Gasc gives his guidelines for how the fabric should be cut. Afterwards I oversee the fittings with the performers. I must be attentive to the soloists and collect their sensations as of the first day of rehearsal in order to implement any possible modifications. The piano dress rehearsal is the moment we present the costumes to the rest of the team for the first time. It is my objective that on this occasion everything has been made and is "ready for use", even if there is always something to rectify. We deliver the finished costumes at the Full Dress Rehearsal, and then it is the Dress Department which takes over and becomes responsible for the costumes on stage.

From cutting to fitting, the design of a single dress for such a production requires at least two weeks. My mission consists of supervising the process, creating technical information sheets for each costume and ensuring smooth collaboration between the different workshops. We should not forget that a costume also consists of shoes, headwear, and hair styles... Each creation is a team effort: we all work together for one artistic purpose: the performance itself. This conjugation of skills from different departments has proved particularly successful in this production of Werther, which for me is a model of clarity and elegance.

Piotr Beczala et Elīna Garanča dans Werther
Piotr Beczala et Elīna Garanča dans Werther © Émilie Brouchon / OnP

For this production, we have made costumes which are rooted in the eighteenth century. This requires an expertise specific to the Workshop couturiers who know inside-out the dress vocabulary of many different eras. At the time of its publication, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther aroused such enthusiasm that the characters’ clothing deeply influenced and defined fashion in the second half of the eighteenth century; the long night-blue jacket and the yellow waistcoat of the eponymous hero were copied by all the young men of the time and became emblematic of the romantic aesthetic, all the more reason to remain faithful to this historical anchor. What is interesting with period costumes is not so much to look at a picture and copy the clothes we see, but to understand the logic and aesthetics of the garment and to adapt it. We must of course respect the era, but we must also take into account the viewpoint of today’s spectator. The historical origins must be recognisable without giving the impression that the soloists are squeezed into clothes that do not fit them. For this we pay attention to the cutting styles of the time, for example the fitted bodices, but we treat them with contemporary sensibility. We must also take into account the stage director’s personal vision of the eighteenth century and that of the costume designer. Even if Goethe and Massenet's Charlotte is adorned with pink ribbons, it is a coquetry that Christian Gasc strips away in order to be consistent with Benoît Jacquot’s staging which employs starkness to highlight the intimate drama of the opera. We must also avoid cluttering up or confusing the spectator’s vision. It is a pitfall that he avoids by his subtle treatment of colours, a hallmark of his work.

What ensures the elegance of Christian Gasc's costumes is his rigorous work on the colours. He selects a basic colour for each character and then develops variations around it. He may progressively introduce elements to convey different tones and moods whilst at the same time maintaining coherence. Take for example the character of Charlotte. Her dress is very bright at the beginning, during the joyous first act that takes place with children in a sunny courtyard. Charlotte’s whiteness gradually begins to darken, the dress remains almost the same but its colour intensifies. Ultimately, in the final scene when she joins the mortally wounded Werther, Christian Gasc decided to add a blood-red shawl, as if Charlotte is sharing her lover’s wound. The costumes for Werther demonstrate a controlled unity; we don't get lost in too many rich colours. For me, this production belongs to the realm of those where everything is crowned with success, where refinement and grace emanate from this symbiosis between sets, lighting and costumes.

Interviewed by Milena Mc Closkey

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