It is quite interesting to be doing such different Rossini operas as Il viaggio a Reims and Il barbiere di Siviglia in the same opera house. In many aspects, Rossini is always Rossini, and his music is full of wit and provides endless inspiration. But this being said, the two pieces could not be more different. Viaggio is an inherently problematic piece where, fundamentally, nothing happens; the first task of a director is to reintroduce some sort of narrative where the dramaturgy is almost completely missing. Barbiere is quite the opposite: it is very close to being a perfect piece. The libretto, if complicated at times, is extremely efficient (it helps to have Beaumarchais as a direct source of inspiration), the plot moves forward without any moment of weakness, one comical situation leads to the next, each character is clearly defined – in short: it works just the way it is.
Just the way it is: what does that mean for a director? One could fall from modesty into despair: what is one supposed to do as a director with such a piece? Actually, what our duty is with any opera: tell the story as clearly as possible, and bring out what makes the piece special without being in the way. In other words, find the right mix of humbleness and ambition in order to serve a masterpiece.
One of the keys in doing this is, ironically, not to take the piece for granted. To treat it with the utmost respect does not mean that one mustn’t think about it or question it; on the contrary, one must assume that if it is so good, it is because it goes far beyond what one thinks it is. In the case of a comedy, I think the devil lies in the details. Barbiere is full of comical situations, yes, but how can we bring them out in the funniest possible way? I tend to think that identification is an essential process in a situation-based comedy. To come back to Viaggio, we knew we were on to a good idea when we started telling people that it would take place on an airplane; everyone immediately identified and started telling personal stories about bad airplane food, unfriendly flight attendants, endless waiting, important connections missed etc. We had found a common basis of understanding with the audience from which the comedy could derive. In the case of Barbiere, of course, we didn’t need to invent anything as in Viaggio; but still, if you look at it in detail, there is room for specification. The best example is Bartolo’s character. He is always presented as a doctor, and that is always more or less taken for granted. But what if you ask yourself what kind of doctor? What does he precisely do all day? If you find an answer to that question, not only do you make him come more alive as a character; you also find a key to Berta’s role; you are suddenly blessed with concrete situations and objects for several pieces (in particular the Basilio aria, the finale, the quintet); you have material which enables you to feed the basic situations that are given in the piece, and which enables the audience to identify with a lot of them – and this, in the end, is what makes the comical situations even funnier. I am taking the example of Bartolo’s profession, but of course this is true of all the details that are left “open” in the opera. What does Rosina do while she is singing her aria, for instance? What can account for her incredible coloratura and make it come alive? What situation should we find her in, in order to underline the incredible immersion into her intimacy provided by the libretto? Until that moment, we are outside a house that is presented as completely inaccessible, and Rosina is just a head at a window; and within a few seconds, we are not only inside the house, but directly looking into the most private parts of her life! This structural “jump” is also often taken for granted (set change; next scene: Rosina’s room), which deprives it of its dramatic strength and originality. But if you ask yourself what exactly she is doing in her room, you may find a way of making the abrupt transition more interesting. And you might make the scene actually quite funny.
Another reason why it is so fruitful to try and “concretize” the abstract things in a comedy libretto is, in my opinion, that having a concrete or realistic basis for the piece gives you the freedom… to detach yourself from reality every now and then! In Rossini in particular, perhaps more than in Mozart, for instance, I have the feeling that one is always walking on a fine line between realism and abstraction. The reason is that the humor alternatively lies in the situations and in the music itself. Sometimes Rossini’s music is very “realistic”, if one may say so (the extreme example being the storm in the second act of Barbiere); sometimes, at any rate, it follows the action quite closely and linearly, and the main task of the director is to build very precise mechanics that keep up with the tempo of all the things happening on stage, which in itself is no easy task (for instance in the beginning of the first finale or in the second act quintet, where a lot of complicated information has to be delivered to the audience). But sometimes, and this is perhaps when Rossini is most Rossini-like, the music just takes over the action. See the end of the first finale, when all the characters think that they are going crazy. The action in itself, or even the words, are not inherently funny. Yet it is one of the most delectable scenes in the piece: the humor is in the music itself – the orchestration, the repetition ad absurdum of a classical structure, the typical crescendo just make us laugh. I think the scenic solution for this is to follow the same process: “take off” from reality, from the concrete situation, and just follow the music into a certain form of abstraction. For me, there are always moments in Rossini comedies where the action becomes less psychological and more choreographed or stylized. But of course, to come back to my first point, it is easier to “take off” if you have a concrete ground to take off from. The more recognizable the setting, the more powerful the occasional stylization, and the more interesting the going back and forth between the two.
I think, in this respect, our whole approach is well summed up by the set. If the Barbiere mechanics function so well, one of the reasons is that the action tightly revolves around the same place: Bartolo’s home. There is clearly an inside and an outside, and the distinction is essential: the house is initially like a fortress where Rosina is locked up, and Almaviva’s goal is to get in and get her out – with the help of Figaro, of course. But the more the story moves on, the less solid Bartolo’s prison gets – and his entire world collapses in the end. The challenge for us was to find a device that was a home, but that was fun to watch; a single setting, but with transformations, showing how Bartolo’s solid beliefs progressively dissolve. An object which, like Rossini’s music, would be apparently very simple, but in reality quite complex, illogical and full of unexpected developments…
This is why we designed what we called our “surprise box”. You are welcome to open it… but beware! It is only the beginning of a “folle journée” which might finish upside down.
The director of the production