Compromise, coordination and collaboration – creating a new trilogy at Welsh National Opera

It is 200 years since the premiere of The Barber of Seville. To mark the occasion Welsh National Opera (WNO) decided to put on the opera alongside Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and commission a third opera to complete the trilogy (both Barber and Figaro are based on the same comic trilogy of plays by Pierre Beaumarchais). Director Sam Brown was picked to direct The Barber of Seville, which premiered on 13 February in Cardiff. He talks to IAM about the project, and how the creative team came together to coordinate a trilogy.

Two years ago Welsh National Opera and its artistic director David Poutney contacted me regarding a trilogy they wanted to produce. David’s idea was to combine Rossini’s The Barber of Seville with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and also commission a new opera to complete the trilogy.

I was asked to direct a new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville with Nicholas Lester as Figaro, Claire Booth as Rosina and Nico Darmanin as Count Almaviva. Tobias Richter is directing a new production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro with David Stout as Figaro, Anna Devin as Susanna and Mark Stone as Count Almaviva. WNO then commissioned Russian-British composer Elena Langer to create an opera to finish the trilogy – Figaro Gets a Divorce – with a libretto by Pountney himself. Pountney’s cast includes David Stout as Figaro and Mark Stone and Marie Arnet as Susanna. All three operas premiered in Cardiff and are now touring across the UK to Bristol, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Birmingham, Plymouth and Southampton.

The catch to the trilogy is that all three directors are using the same creative team. Set designer Ralph Koltai, costume designer Sue Blane and lighting designer Linus Fellbom have been working on all three productions in the trilogy, helping to draw them together whilst retaining a sense of individuality to the productions.

Barber of Seville WNOAlthough I have been given a huge amount of creative and artistic freedom with my production, it is inevitable that I have been considering the other two operas when directing Barber. The costumes and scenery automatically link the three together (although the set is adapted for each opera) and we have also worked out a few subtle links through the use of props too – in particular with regard to an ‘armoire’ which provides the means of escape for the characters in Divorce, and a means of entry in Barber. I’ve read the score of Figaro Gets a Divorce and heard a run through which has helped me to gauge what happens in the finale to the trilogy. I haven’t had a huge amount of contact with David or Tobias to discuss our artistic intentions – and I think this has helped us retain our individuality. As David is Artistic Director of WNO and also curated this project he has of course been overseeing Barber and Marriage. And as intendant of the Grand Théatre de Geneve which is co-producing, Tobias had an interest in seeing what I was up to.

Working with a creative team who are not only thinking about your specific production is an extremely interesting experience. Myself, Richter and Pountney each met with Ralph separately to discuss the set and we worked out how it would function for the three operas. Sue’s costumes were created entirely from scratch – she worked out a way for the costumes to work creatively and artistically for each of our productions, and so the characters could be recognised throughout the trilogy by the audience.

Barber of Seville WNOWorking on the trilogy has been a positive but unique process – it is not a way I’ve worked before but it’s been hugely enjoyable. The main compromise we have encountered has been rehearsal space. Because the three operas will be performed on consecutive days throughout the run, we all need to spend time on the stage to refine our productions. I was given one week on set in the middle of the rehearsal period and the rest of the time was spent in a rehearsal space instead.  Some of the cast members for Richter’s Marriage of Figaro are also in Pountney’s Figaro Gets a Divorce which means that rehearsal schedules need to be arranged with caution – it is extremely challenging for the singers.

It’s been a pleasurable experience getting to work with the various cast members, directors and the creative team. This is the first time I have ever worked with WNO and it has been a wonderful experience – especially watching the premieres of all three operas.

The Barber of Seville is at Birmingham Hippodrome 1-4 March; Venue Cymru, Llandudno 8-11 March; The Bristol Hippodrome 15-18 March; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 22 March; Milton Keynes Theatre 29 March-1 April; and Theatre Royal, Plymouth 5-8 April.