If you are accustomed to mounting outdoor spectacles of fire, air and water with casts of thousands performing for audiences of millions, a comic opera or two is nothing to get fussed about.
“It’s not big. There’s the cast, the chorus, the orchestra. There are maybe 100 people. That’s good,” says Spanish stage director Joan Font, speaking in fast and cheerful French as he takes a brief break from rehearsing The Barber of Seville at the Canadian Opera Company (COC) in Toronto.
Font is the founder and artistic director of Barcelona’s Comediants, an artists’ collective renowned for large-scale public spectacles and street theatre. Deploying fireworks, giant balloons and even pools of water, Comediants has been called on to celebrate everything from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 to the 1,000th anniversary of the city of Hanoi in 2010. Since the 2000s, however, Font has increasingly been invited to work in conventional theatres, especially opera houses. His company’s version of La Cenerentola visited the COC in 2011, delighting audiences with riotously coloured costumes that looked as though they were assembled from craft paper by a happy kindergarten class (but were actually created by Comediants designer Joan Guillen). With Guillen’s help once again, Font now tackles the machinations of Rossini’s well-loved Barber.
“He’s a mythic figure,” says Font of the scheming Figaro. “He’s a Pantalone, he’s a Harlequin, a Falstaff. There are six or seven at most in the world. … He exists outside of time.”
Guillen can then draw his visual references from anywhere he pleases, although he has a particular affinity for the revolutionary artists of the early 20th century: The show’s colourful geometric designs are inspired by the Bauhaus movement and the Russian Constructivists and include a guitar that looks as though it was plucked from a Cubist painting. It’s important, says Guillen, speaking through a translator in his native Catalan, to avoid the stereotypical Spanish dancer costumes that the Andalusian setting might seem to demand.
“I tell my students [of scenography] that stage design is not history or archeology. You have to create your own world on the set,” Guillen said.
His solution, as with La Cenerentola, is to create a minimal set so that the opera’s comic characters, defined by their colourful costumes, stand out.
There, Font expects viewers to both delight in Figaro and recognize outrageous versions of themselves, the way you might see yourself in the multiple reflections of fun-house mirrors.
“One will ask, ‘Am I Figaro?’ Another will say, ‘I am closer to Bartolo?’ Another will say, ‘I am the Count,’ ” he says, rhyming off the comic characters of the fixer, the blocker and the romantic lead for whose ultimate happiness the complicated plot unfolds.
Both men see their stage work as a rather natural evolution of street theatre – all you have to do is scale it down a bit to move inside those great big opera houses – and think its overstated, exuberant style makes it a good fit with the opera buffa.
Guillen loves David Mamet, “but I could not design a David Mamet play,” while Font says that no matter how many classic dramas he is assigned, he can never really do tragedy.
“I always open a door to hope and to play,” he says. “You’re an adult, so you can’t be a child? I find that terrible.”
The Barber of Seville runs at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre from April 17 to May 22 (coc.ca).