2 September 2016 at 11.55am | Comment on this article
Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) is perhaps the most famous opera buffa – a style of Italian comic opera that plays on the comedy of imbroglio and tangles both the characters and the audience in a web of confusion. The delightful entanglement of Rossini’s most popular comedy is reflected in The Royal Opera’s production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. With their usual collaborative team of set designer Christian Fenouillat and costume designer Agostino Cavalca, Leiser and Caurier think outside of the box by performing within one.
As the opera begins, we glimpse Rosina longingly looking out from behind the slats of her window shutters and the bars of her balcony – a hint of the confinement she suffers at the hands of her guardian Bartolo. Figaro begins his showy and fast-paced patter song ‘Largo al factotum’ while emerging from among the audience. As this staging breaks down the fourth wall, Figaro schemes with Count Almaviva to break down the defences of Bartolo’s house in order to visit Rosina, leading the way into a lively world of artificial reality.
The scenery changes and Fenouillat contains the cast in a simple, boxy setting. As the suffocating realization dawns on us that Bartolo’s house is doorless, that this set has no visible entrances or exits, the production has established the desire to escape that drives the plot. It is a box of fireworks waiting to be lit.
The escapism that results comes in many forms, from the kaleidoscopic palette of daringly clashing pastels to the vibrancy of Cavalca’s 1950s-inspired costumes, which in turn evoke a relatively restrained decade on the cusp of social revolution. Pushing at the boundaries of these visual limits, the score and libretto are echoed in the set and costumes as they come together in a jarring explosion of vivid and cheeky colours. By setting the opera in an over-sized toy box, the playful visuals create a type of psychedelic comedy that highlights the fun and farcical nature of opera buffa. It’s a refreshing angle on a favourite take for Leiser and Caurier, whose productions often play with feelings of repression – from their Der Ring des Nibelungen (Geneva) set in post-war Germany, to their Norma (Salzburg Festival) set in Mussolini-era Italy. In Il barbiere, the set not only breaks free from itself, but hints at the youthful rebelliousness with which the 23-year-old Rossini energized the score.
Rossini was an innovator who created his masterpieces by bending the operatic rules of his time and whose work often threatened conventions. Leiser and Caurier’s unburdened direction invites us to see the cell-like set as an embodiment of the limits that the composer felt; the vivacity of the production visualizes Rossini’s pent-up creative frustration that resulted in his pioneering music.
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.