Ye Olde Hot Mess

Creative costuming gives faded knight Falstaff scruffy charm

For Lady Gaga’s 2011 Thanksgiving TV special, production designer Vita Tzykun deployed “six trucks of set decorations and $10,000 of custom floral arrangements,” she recalls. “Gaga is very theatrical.”

So is Falstaff, the eponymous rake of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1893 opera, which follows the aging knight on a futile quest for a sugar mama.

Tzykun designed the 42 costumes for the new Wolf Trap Opera Company production of “Falstaff” with Gaga-worthy flair.

“Falstaff has a taste for glamour, but no money to make it happen,” Tzykun says. “He is a very creative character, so he finds every means possible around him to get a shadow of the appearance he once had.”

When Falstaff sets off to seduce some rich married ladies, he yanks a tablecloth out from underneath a full banquet spread and wears it like a cape. Later, when he disguises himself as the ghost of a huntsman, he steals decorative antlers and ties them to his head.

Through all the costume changes, Tzykun keeps each character in a particular color palette and provides the audience with other visual breadcrumbs. That’s especially important in the final act, when the entire cast disguises themselves as forest spirits to scare and punish Falstaff for his philandering ways.

While Falstaff may seem like a fool, cowering in his undersized, food-stained garb, other characters suffer greater indignities. Unable to tell anyone apart in their forest guises, Falstaff’s disloyal servant Bardolph ends up marrying another man by accident. Gotta watch out for those costumes.


The Change
With the orchestra chugging along, Colclough has exactly four minutes to get into this costume. “It’s the quickest change in the opera,” Tzykun says.

The Belly
“We built [baritone Craig Colclough] an incredible fat suit that is made largely out of compressed tutus,” Tzykun says. “It’s very lightweight and covered in nude fabric that looks extremely convincing.” It was so convincing, Colclough refused to wear the fat suit in rehearsals without a shirt. “He felt naked in just the suit,” Tzykun says.

The Cape
With no money to pay his tab, Falstaff adds insult to injury by stealing a tablecloth from a bar  and wearing it to a romantic rendezvous.

The Medal
Regardless of what else he wears, Falstaff always pins this medal to his chest — a relic from his glory days as a dashing knight.

The Mess
Falstaff is a bit sloppy. See: the food stains on his shirt.

The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna; opens Friday, dates through Aug. 17, $32-$85; 703-255-1868
Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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