Curiosity Cabinet on Stage with Music

scene from ‘The Barber of Seville’ (photo Jacob Lucas)

I would never recommend a live stage performance solely because of the set. Story and performance always take precedence. I will now make an exception to that policy, probably the only time you’ll ever catch me doing that.

The design for Seattle Opera’s current production of The Barber of Seville is so intricate, mesmerizing, colorful and just plain fun, that it alone is worth the price of admission. Then add to that Rossini’s effervescent music, and the superb singing and acting in this production, and you are spending a couple of hours in aesthetic heaven.

I can’t praise the set without also praising the lighting. Tracy Grant Lord (from Auckland, New Zealand) was the production designer and her lighting partner was Matthew Marshall (Sydney, Australia). Their South Pacific addresses are explained by this Barber being a co-production with Opera Queensland and New Zealand Opera.

As the opera unfolded the set kept getting cooked in new ways, some in-your-face, some subtle. By the end I wanted to see it all over again, like revisiting a movie that delighted with more clues, twists and turns than could register the first time around.

Alas I saw the opera near the end of its run. Only one performance remains (Saturday, Oct. 28). If you don’t have the privilege of seeing this production, this 40-second trailer will give you a taste of the hilarity delivered by its every aspect. This is not a staging that allows your eye to settle on any one place for long. Someone with A.D.D. would feel right at home.

The set was one giant multistory curiosity cabinet, wrapping three sides of Seattle Opera’s huge stage. Wherever there was a door, shutter, window or curtain, surprises lay in wait for us. The opera is a farce, only here a lot more than doors were being opened and closed all night.

During one scene double doors opened to reveal a troupe of red-uniformed Spanish polizia (the opera is in Italian), enveloped in fog, who march downstage. Where did they come from – a steambath, a freezer? With stage-pictures like that striking you frequently from every side and corner, the only thing to do is toss aside logic and bubble with delight.

curiosity cabinet, 17th century

The “cabinet of curiosities” was clearly the inspiration for this production. These elaborate pieces of furniture (in Germany called Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer) first appeared in the 1500s. They were status symbols for the wealthy and miniature museums for the scientific-minded. Monarchs were particular enthusiasts. The various drawers, shelves and cubicles displayed a range of natural history objects and exotica such as preserved fishes, stuffed animals, sea shells and corals, antlers, horns, claws, feathers, gems, ancient coins, medals, clockwork components, dried plant parts, and small portraits. Imagine what a stimulus to the imagination these cabinets must have been for any child who glimpsed their treasures.

In the 20th century the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) adapted the curiosity cabinet tradition to create his boxed assemblages, which became highly sought after.

Genuine curiosity reflects a seeking nature and lively intelligence. Through the Renaissance and into the Age of Enlightenment curiosity cabinets provided beautiful repositories for countless objects strange and mysterious. And several centuries later those same cabinets have now inspired a rollicking 21st century rendition of a delicious two-century-old opera.

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