Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Bad education

The Barber of Seville as seen by Damiano Michieletto

By Solène Souriau 24 January 2018


© Luigi Caputo

Bad education

Damiano Michieletto's production of The Barber of Seville is back on stage at the Opéra Bastille, much to our delight. A portrait of the highly sought-after director whose production of Rossini's "opera buffa” elates audiences every night. 

When the curtain rises on Damiano Michieletto's production of The Barber of Seville, these tagged walls of the buildings, this "Barracuda" bar and its neon sign in pink letters – where a few regulars are lounging around - this old blue Ford parked in the middle of the stage; all this can be disconcerting for the spectator. By transposing the plot to the popular neighbourhood of an archetypal Mediterranean town, the Italian director portrays daily life today in its most commonplace details: a game of cards, neighbours sharing a beer, clothes hanging from the windows. Nevertheless, the spectator, who is more familiar with this sort of audacity these days, very quickly finds his bearings. The balcony, an iconic element in the libretto and around which the entire plot revolves, has not disappeared: it still operates as the link between a wide open exterior and the confinement of the domestic world, the sole guarantee for Rosina of her one and only area of freedom which is also, more broadly speaking, that of the opera. 

For Michieletto, a single decor suffices, and using a rotating platform he is able to alternate between the facade of the building and the interior of Dr Bartolo’s house. This dichotomy of space, materialised by a role-reversal where the interior is as evocative as the exterior, gives way to one more symbolic, an overpowering indoor melodrama which is stifling the young girl’s desire for emancipation. Although the balconies and windows are constantly occupied and buzzing with life, evoking Italian films of the sixties, the popular and colourful interior is reminiscent of the films of Almodovar, the photography of Robert Polidori as well as the hot and steamy novels of Federico García Lorca. 

These are all references that nourish the world of the Italian stage director who clearly wishes to place his Barber of Seville in a rich social and Latin folk tradition. In the same way that Bartolo's room, full of old trophies and stacks of files, betrays the character’s greed, the director assembles a multitude of stage effects, a welter of information, so as to give depth to his characters and endow them with a tangible past. Furthermore, he does not hesitate to forge closer links between the characters – Berta is no longer the housekeeper but Bartolo’s sister – in order to anchor the opera, not in a social drama where the issues are linked to questions of power, but in a more profound family story.    

Rossini today

"For me, it is obvious that all the libretti set to music by Rossini speak to us about contemporary life and the world today". As the director explains, updating the libretto is the only way of bringing this drama to life: "The problems are always the same. The story tells of the oppression of a young woman by a man who sexually desires her. The real problem is not the money". Thus the characters, judging by costume designer Silvia Aymonino's sketches, are more inspired by pop icons of the 20th century than by 18th century fashions. The count looks a bit like Pete Doherty and the shadow of Penelope Cruz hangs over Rosina. The walls of her room are covered with posters of singers and young actors – that of Johnny Depp is particularly noticeable – making this prisoner appear familiar and recognisable to us. Rosina is no longer an aristocratic pupil, well-educated and languid, but the present-day incarnation of an insolent and determined adolescent. 

We are far from Beaumarchais' version which emphasised the nobility and elegance of the character (it is certainly difficult to imagine that this Rosina will become the Countess of the "Marriage"). Except that when all is said and done this exuberant southerner is close to the version of Rossini and Sterbini, proving herself to be unflinching in the face of her oppressor, and certain arias of her arias such as "Questo cane de tutore, ah che rabbia mi fa!", are of an astonishing brutality. Let us not forget the words of Stendhal: "Rosina is not so much amorous as cunning and mischievous” and Michieletto seems to agree.

© Bernard Coutant / OnP

Furthermore, the director seeks to invest his characters with an instinctive depth and refuses to summarily reduce them to the empty models of character comedy. He gives them a real personality and opts for bold interpretations. The Count, for example, acts like a man whose social position and wealth excuse a mischievous frivolity and lack of seriousness. As seen by the director, his only interest in this adventure is in seeking a passing and almost libertine entertainment. 

This vision of a privileged man corresponds moreover with Beaumarchais’ original version where the Count explains that he is desperately searching for a young woman "whose name is Rosina, of noble blood, an orphan and married to Bartolo, an old doctor in the city ". Even if the Count is mistaken and Rosina is still only Bartolo’s pupil, the desire that drives him is certainly not that of signing a marriage contract. Against all expectations, Bartolo's character appeals to the director and seems to arouse within him profound feelings of empathy: "I like Bartolo very much. He is a man who suffers from loneliness and would like to be loved. He will always be a loser. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. I must admit that I recognise myself a little bit in him... "

Avoiding repetition

This season, the spectator will witness the revival of this production which Damiano Michieletto intends to be more spirited than ever. "I work with the singers and when it comes to a new cast and a different ensemble, new ideas spring forth and I can develop and improve the performance. A staging is never perfect, there is always something new to discover". And from the first day of rehearsals, he carefully observes the singers so as to subsequently adjust himself to their concerns whilst remaining as close as possible to his original ambitions. 

With just a few comments, he goes through each character and explains his intention behind each gesture, each action. For Damiano Michieletto works with living bodies and their morphology, taking into account their capabilities just as much as their limits. In his opinion it is paramount to transmit energy to the singers who, when confronted with the revival’s new decor, may feel alienated: "Repetition has to be avoided at all costs. I give them energy so that they can make the staging their own, for if they feel that it is not their production, the audience also will receive this impression".

© Bernard Coutant / OnP

Staying alert: this is Damiano Michieletto’s obsession. In a realistic aesthetic, the director opts for temporal continuity, with music that unfurls the greatest arias in the repertoire in a setting that also unfolds before our eyes. This ambiance of reality nonetheless gives way to moments of madness, such as the climax at the end of Act I, where the characters are seized by an emotion that transcends them: the music takes possession of each of them and launches a frantic race. By means of deft lighting changes, the work tumbles into a muddled round dance where the characters, the musicians and the opera itself fall prey to a disembodied frenzy, given over to a collective trance. 

Alternating hyper-realism with fanciful explosions, Damiano Michieletto endeavours primarily to study human nature in all its contradictory facets. Clearly, the transposition is intended not so much to cause indignation as to involve the spectator in a spirited and rich story. Attention is paid to simple actions within a perpetual flux, always related to the music and united with the desire to quite simply make the audience laugh. 

For, in his words, "the comedy is in the details", and even if it is only a comedy, all the same we cannot prevent ourselves from recognising the director in one of Beaumarchais’ celebrated remarks: "What do we ask of the Theatre? That it gives us pleasure! Weaknesses, excesses, these things never change but conceal themselves in a thousand forms under the mask of prevailing morals: to tear away the mask and show them barefaced, such is the noble task of the man devoted to the Theatre".

Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioacchino Rossini
The composer's opera buffa transcends the spirit of Beaumarchais’ comedy and combines the absurd with a touch of satirical realism in a score where rhythm and virtuosity place the comic effects in an ongoing dramatic narration. ...

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