2 October 2014 at 5.11pm | 2 Comments
Our 'How to Stage an Opera' series offers different perspectives on the practicalities of staging an opera, from the initial research through to the final performance.
What makes a stage? It can be behind a proscenium arch, in the round, at the base of an amphitheatre, a clearing in a crowd, almost anywhere – but it must, for a time at least, provide a clear definition between the area for performance and the area for the audience. The expectations engendered by such a set-up and how they can be usurped – most obviously the breaking of the fourth wall – has long been a source of delight for playwrights and directors. In their production of Il babiere di Siviglia, directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier go to town with the idea – but always take their inspiration first from the masterful comedy contained within Rossini's score.
Christian Fenouillat's set design gives us a large box that fills almost the entire width of the proscenium arch. Its smooth, doorless sloping walls are somehow reminiscent of a cathode-ray tube television, while the oversized footlights perched at the front of the box further assert that this is to be our performing space – a big 'look here', expressed in both 20th- and 19th-century terms. But wait! With no doors, how are our performers to reach the stage? The answer depends on two specific responses to the score put forward by Leiser and Caurier: the first about Figaro, and the second about Rosina.
The first idea jumps on the bandwagon of a reading of the opera that has been popular almost since the opera's premiere. Here the, impulsive, energetic, near-omniscient, near-omnipotent and fundamentally jolly barber Figaro is a simple cipher for Rossini himself. Figaro is at the very least clearly on a different plane from the other characters – not actually really involved in or motivated by the events (apart from for cash reward), but an orchestrator who is crucial in driving the action. He is a creator, not a pawn in the composer's game.
It only makes sense, then, that he should be unbound by that theatrical box. For his first entrance, Rossini gives Figaro arguably the best tune in the opera, 'Largo al factotum'. Accordingly, Leiser and Caurier have Figaro enter from the auditorium, dashing down the orchestra stalls to leap triumphantly onto the stage. Not so for characters further down the pecking order. Take the hapless servant Fiorello, who has had to hustle an entire orchestra (complete with double bass) over the high back of the box to land in a muddle at the bottom. Even the aristocratic Almaviva has had to clamber on from the side. The directors make clear the hierarchy implicit in Rossini's score, while also heightening the absurdity of this archetypal opera buffa – Fiorello's desperate attempts to hush the orchestra, unfeasible in any setting, become especially futile here.
The second of Leiser and Caurier's responses looks at Rosina's sad situation. She is being kept incarcerated by her guardian Don Bartolo, who plans to marry her and keep her for himself. Thus she sings her first aria 'Una voce poco fa' within the box, now closed at the back as well to really emphasize the point. No windows, no doors, no nothing, apart from a chair and some darts that Rosina can hurl against those smooth walls. It's an absurd exaggeration, again in keeping with the farcical nature of the work – but one that does also reflect the pathos of Rosina's imprisonment.
So how do the other characters get on stage? Magically doors slide up, a staircase appears from nowhere, and all snap down again the moment their function is fulfilled – delightfully surprising and hilariously mean. We stay within this magic box for the rest of the opera – for the Act I finale, where the box is raised and tipped about in direct expression of the rank confusion; for Rosina's seething temper storm; and for the happy ending. Even this affords the characters no escape – but then, this is the only place they come to life.
Il barbiere di Siviglia runs 13 September–11 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous support from Professor Paul Cartledge and Judith Portrait OBE and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.