Attilio Comelli Design Collection

The Royal Opera House has a collection of approximately 1,500 designs for costumes and accessories dating from 1898 to 1925. Attilio Comelli's costume design for a Flower Maiden in 'Parsifal'. Image © ROH Collections The majority of these designs are by the Italian designer Attilio Giuseppe de Comelli von Stuckenfeld (1858–1925), known as Attilio Comelli, who was appointed house designer to the Royal Opera House in the 1890s. In the mid-late 19th century, and even into the early years of the 20th century, principal singers were often responsible for supplying their own costumes and designers were rarely credited in the nightly programmes. Comelli came to London in the late 19th century and quickly established himself as one of the most prolific designers for the London stage. He was credited as Artist in Chief at the Alhambra, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House in London, and also found time to provide costumes for some of the Savoy operas and for Christmas pantomimes in London and Australia.

Comelli was born in the northern Italian town of Gradisca d'Isonzo (then a part of Austria). He was the son of Federico de Comelli von Stuckenfeld (1826–1892), an engineer and cave explorer, who came from a wealthy background. Attilio Comelli. The Palazzo de' Comelli-Stuckenfeld, completed by the end of the 17th century, can still be found in Gradisca d'Isonzo. Comelli appears to have had several siblings, including possibly Emilio Andrea Comelli (1862–1929). Emilio was a costume maker or designer active in London during the early 20th century, and could be the person Comelli was referring to when he described his research technique in the following magazine article: ‘When I get the order to prepare designs for a new play… I first spend some weeks in studying, at the British and South Kensington Museum, every available authority on the period, and I frequently send my brother to Paris and Berlin, if there is a chance of getting information there that is not available in London’. (‘The Art of Theatrical Disguise’ by Sidney Dark, Cassell’s Magazine, July 1902, pp.162–7). Comelli married Cecilia Emily Middleton on 16 August 1900. He was 42 and she was 29, the daughter of John William Middleton, a physician. Their marriage certificate describes Comelli as an ‘Artist Painter’, while Cecilia is described as a ‘spinster’, indicating that this was her first marriage. By this time he was living at 25 Belsize Road, West Hampstead, London, where the couple appear to have resided for many years. There is no evidence they had any children. Comelli died on 8 September 1925 at the West London Hospital in Hammersmith, and was survived by his wife.

First night programme for 'Parsifal', 2 February 1914. Image © ROH Collections

During his time at the Royal Opera House, Comelli was responsible for providing the costumes for the first London performances of many operas, including La bohème (1899), Madama Butterfly (1905), La fanciulla del West (1911) and Parsifal (1914). His designs for La bohème remained in use until replaced by the current production, designed in 1974. The Royal Opera House Collections Department has 1,408 Comelli designs for 78 opera and ballet productions, representing an intriguing glimpse into the type of repertory performed at the Royal Opera House in the early 20th century. Besides the operas listed above, his designs also included those for Aida, Carmen, Elektra, Andrea Chénier, Salome, Faust, Otello, Die Walküre, Linda di Chamounix and Thaïs (1911). There are also designs for works with which today's audiences may be less familiar, such as La Du Barry, Tess, Proud Maisie and Iris. Some of the designs are for principal roles, such as one for soprano Suzanne Adams (1872–1953) as the Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro (1904). Other designs are for Chorus members, including 12 designs for members of the Female Chorus in La traviata.

Wardrobe staff and workshop at the Royal Opera House, 1901.The designs remained in the wardrobe of the Royal Opera House, surviving the theatre’s closure during the two World Wars, and passed to the Royal Opera House Collections Department in the early 1970s. The designs are mostly water colour on board, measuring 37cm (h) x 27cm (w). Original designs have Comelli’s distinctive signature together with the year of execution. Some drawings in the collection are copies created by the wardrobe staff to be used by the tailors and seamstresses. Some designs have a background illustration, others show details of the costume decoration, while still others concentrate on wigs, headdresses or accessories.

Attilio Comelli was an important and prolific designer. In Dark's article in Cassell’s Magazine, he remarked that Comelli was renowned for ‘…the originality and boldness of his enviable colouring’. His designs are to be found in most of the major theatre collections around the world: the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Harry Ransome Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.

The Royal Opera House Collection is, however, the largest single record of his extraordinary output. When added to the costumes, programmes, press cuttings, prints and photographs recording this significant period in the history of the Royal Opera House, the designs complete the picture. They are a colourful and practical record of what productions looked like, and there are often annotations regarding the fabrics to be used or the singers who will be wearing the finished item.

Acknowledgements: The cataloguing and digitization of the Attilio Comelli Collection is generously supported by The Idlewild Trust. Special thanks to Jennie Walton for biographical information.

The Royal Opera House Collections own copyright of all the images in the Attilio Comelli Collection.