Opera Philadelphia

Director's Notes on The Barber of Seville

By Michael Shell

The Barber of Seville is a love story. It is a story of two people, Rosina and a disguised Count Almaviva, overcoming obstacles to be together. Through the help of an ingenious barber they outwit Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian, and are united. The manner in which this story unfolds is funny, passionate, and quite frankly, totally absurd. Rossini was a master at this type of storytelling. His music makes all of these elements come alive and makes the absurd plausible. That being said, I have never really liked this opera. All of the productions I had ever seen, except for the 1974 John Pierre Ponelle film and a few other exceptions, are mostly displays of all the shtick and schlock habits that performers and directors have picked up during the years. For me, these productions only elicit what I call “courtesy laughter.” That is, laughter which is an obligatory response to cover up the pain that you feel watching something that you wish were funny, but really isn’t.

When I was in college I had a professor who once told me, “Opera is a like a trip to a museum. We preserve the past. We show people a time gone by.” Now, while I love museums, there is a huge difference between visiting a building that preserves the past work of artists and attending a live theatrical experience in which the audience is an active participant. In fact, I think this is the crux of one of our issues in trying to usher opera into the future. But I digress. This analogy, however, brings up an interesting point. With both the museum and theatrical experience being different but equal in enjoyment, with an opera as famous as The Barber of Seville, the typical production should be as fulfilling as it is when going to a see a favorite painting at MoMA or The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Unfortunately, it is often like seeing a horrible reproduction of a Monet in a motel room. So, it is in the spirit of both the museum curator and the contemporary artist searching for a way to reach his audience that this production was born.

Historically, the first performance of Barber was a technical failure, and its second was a huge success. Within one week it went on to be a legitimate hit. It was my desire to create a production as fresh, new, and funny as that successful performance all those years ago. In an effort to design a world that would suit this endeavor, all the while grounding us in Spain, I turned to the films of Pedro Almodóvar which have all of the elements of a Rossini opera. Almodóvar is brilliant at walking the line between dramatic comedy and melodramatic absurdity. His films are also deeply embedded in Spain and Spanish culture. By using his films as inspiration, we are rooting ourselves in Spain and hopefully giving these characters a new depth, which ultimately reveals much more heart and humor.

Whether you have seen an Almodóvar film or not (and if it is the latter, I highly recommend seeing one), it is of no consequence. What you need now is an open mind. Allow yourself the treat of not needing to know anything but what is introduced to you in the moment and what comes to you in this specific environment. Remember when you first saw a Monet on a museum wall and not in a motel room? Try to imagine you have no idea what is going to happen when the opera starts. Forget you know the tunes or any of the jokes in the libretto. In doing this, hopefully we will share my new love for this piece and discover fresh new aspects to this well-known opera. Together, we will see it as it may have been seen in that successful second performance: fresh, new, heartfelt, and pretty darn funny!

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