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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 5

Alain Gauthier, Staging Barber of Seville

by Wah Keung Chan / February 12, 2008

Alain Gauthier has a long history with líOpťra de Montrťal, first entering the Atelier lyrique in 1993 as a stage-directing stagiŤre, then later becoming a stage manager and assistant director. In 2005, he remounted Chabrierís Lí…toile with the company, later directing the same production with the Cincinnati Opera, who reinvited him for its summer festival staging of Cosi fan tutte. Fresh off his production of Carmen with the Edmonton Opera this past autumn, he now undertakes Barber of Seville as a director for the first time, with six upcoming performances from February 2-16.

What are your initial thoughts on staging the Barber of Seville?

We are working with a set production that was created over 30 years ago. Itís more traditional, set in the beginning of the 19th century, when the opera was premiered. I will be trying to give a bit of freshness and lightness to the comedy mechanism. The sets had an aesthetic from the 1970s, with brownish colours, so we redid them with lighter colours, like those found in Spain, with a lot of oranges and yellows to give it a sunnier side. We did the same with the costumes to make it look more like a comedy, like a childrenís play or TV show, very colourful.

So, you changed the costumes?

We used the original concept, but we had to redo the costumes (either they were not fresh enough or the sizes didnít work), so I asked Louise Gauthier to go with lively, brighter colours. The original dress made Rosina look like an old lady. Itís the same with most of the props, which are in an orange palette; itís almost a clichť from Spain, but when I was thinking of Seville, I thought of the famous oranges that come from there. We destroyed everything and rebuilt it, so it feels like a new production.

How do you work with the text?

I try to stick to the plot and the text, which is very difficult in a comedy like The Barber of Seville, but still leave my mark somewhat. I canít reveal everything, but for instance, thereís a Spanish prop, an orange fan, that will be in the opera throughout. It allows the characters to hide their private conversations and to fan themselves (because itís warm in Seville!). The fan gives me many possibilities through the opera. It becomes almost abstract. The props are very crucial in Barber, and nothing will be there just to look pretty; there is nothing on stage that wonít be used.

What can you say about characterization, when it comes to the singers?

It was quite easy on this show because the casting was great: I almost didnít have to do anything. Julie Boulianne is a young girl, full of energy, so sheís perfect for Rosina. Frederic Antoun (Count Almaviva) is handsome and full of energy. Aaron St. Clair Nicholson (Figaro) is personally funny himself and Donato di Stefano genuinely looks like a Bartolo. Most of my work involved making sure the audience knows whatís going on onstageóit has to be very precise.

The finale of Act I is always problematic. How do you approach it?

Everything is a mess, and often you canít understand any of the words. For instance, in one segment, the soldiers almost seem to be robots, no longer humanóitís very abstract. For a time, youíre in the charactersí minds and the action is a sort of poetic illustration of whatís going on in their heads. I rely heavily on the choreography to make things clearer (through lighting and, of course, the fans!).

What is the moral of the story?

Itís classic Commedia dellíArte, so itís a very simple message: love always triumphs. You have a young man in love with a woman, and they do everything they possibly can to be together. Ultimately, itís that you should be with the person you love, not the person whose money you want.

How do you compare Rossiniís Barber with Mozartís related opera, Le Nozze di Figaro?

The two operas are very different. In Mozart, you have a more psychological approach to the characters. Rossini makes them more playful and more absurd. Mozartís opera is a comedy, too, but the Count and the Countess can be quite dark. For Rosina, there may be one line where she sounds hurt, when she thinks the Count betrayed her (thereís just a hint of tragedy), but other than that, itís fun all the time, through Rossiniís use of the music and the words.

How do you interpret the music and use it to your advantage in the production?

Itís a delight for me to work with Rossinióitís fabulous. Everything is illustrated through the written music. You just have to move to the music, and everything appears much clearer than it would be with just the text. There is nothing in the music that has no meaning. For the comic element in Rossini, it illustrates a reaction. If itís not written, you have to find out why. For instance, why does Rossini repeat the same phrase? Itís either that something is happening or thereís two ways to say it. We try to find different meaning to the words. The music gives you even more things to use as a stage director. Iím very lucky to have experienced singers in this production. For instance, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson and Donato di Stefano have performed the opera very often and they helped me with particular meaning in the text that I may not have thought of.

How much of your concept do you prepare in advance, and then how much do you adjust during rehearsals, if necessary?

I prepare a lot in advance, since there are only 2 weeks of rehearsal. In fact, we have to get the whole show done in a week, since weíre now starting to do run-throughs. I always have a plan, but my plan changes all the time. I donít always have time to write absolutely everything down, so I have a great assistant who writes down the necessary changes for staging and new ideas. Iím very lucky because the singers are always very creative and innovative. They feel that they can suggest things to me; there is always a discussion. Sometimes you canít do this, but Iím a very open-minded director this way. I hate working with people who just want my instructions and nothing else. n

(c) La Scena Musicale