Different interpretations – costume designs for Madama Butterfly at the La Scala Museum, Milan.

madama-butterfly-foujita-1951Last November I was visiting Milan and had the opportunity to go to the opera at La Scala to see a semi-staged version of ‘Porgy and Bess’. It was intense and moving and very dramatic. The next morning I went back to La Scala to visit their museum to see their temporary exhibition featuring costumes from previous productions of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’.

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Sketches for the 1904 première of Madama Butterfly at La Scala, Milan. Costume designs by Giuseppe Palanti.

The première of ‘Madama Butterfly’ took place at La Scala 1904. The above sketch and the poster (below) comes from this production with costumes by Giuseppe Palanti (1881-1946).  The drawings for his designs were on display showing an interesting interpretation of a Japanese aesthetic as seen through the eyes of a late-nineteenth-century Western artist.

Naturally, costume designs for a staged performance are always going to be larger than life and to be visually effective they have to work for the front row to those in the gods. There was plenty of colour from the costume designer Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba, 1865-1936) in La Scala’s 1925 production for those seated at the back to appreciate.

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Costume by Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba, 1865-1936) for 1925 production.

Fast forward to 1951 and La Scala invites the Japanese artist, Foujita (1886-1968 ) to work with them on their latest Madama Butterfly production. Interestingly, his costumes were more muted with stylised motifs. Foujita was born in Tokyo and studied both in Japan and Paris. He lived most of his life in Paris becoming a French citizen in 1955. I can’t help but feel that maybe he was very well placed to create a ‘fusion’ collection of costumes for the opera.

By the time we see the costumes for the 1985 production, there is a change in sensibility resulting in a more contemporary less overtly historical look.

This is hardly surprising as the famous Japanese fashion designer, Hanae Mori (born 1926) created the costumes. I think her work gives us a more subtle interpretation with a nod to the historical. Indeed, one costume features a traditional Ukiyo-e image adding interest to a dramatic black costume.

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