When Spain colors Florence

Dramatic designs for Maggio Musicale

Kathleen Groutt
December 14, 2006

In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy describes Florence in shades of brown, gray and black.  Not so in this fall’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s updated production of Mozart’s early opera, La Finta Giardinieria.  Jesús Ruiz, Spanish scene designer and costumer, has created a backdrop of Florence with color-saturated buildings in classical form, complete with columns, cornices, capitals, pilasters, and arches. Ruiz’s Florence is alive with attention-grabbing hues— primary colors red, blue and yellow, with some secondary tones thrown in for good measure.  The juxtaposition of blue sky with an emerald green column next to a red-orange building immediately and beautifully assaults the senses.

But if Ruiz’s buildings are a begining course in the principles of color, the costumes and set pieces quickly become in-depth illustrations of the details of color composition. Don Anchise, a magistrate whose villa and garden forms the story’s framework, is completely outfitted, head-to-toe, shoes included, in harmonious gray-mauve. All cast members, no matter the color of their outfit, have matching shoes for that same finished look–so very Florentine!

Arminda, the niece of Don Anchise who arrives to celebrate her engagement, struts about the stage like a peacock; each time she makes a wide-sweeping turn, her cape fans out with a red-blue palette that shines with magenta, crimson and violet. Her height was a magnet on this unique cat-walk.  Serpetta, the housekeeper, displays a campy style perfect for giving her A-line dress, trimmed at the hem with a band of feathery plumage, just the right swing when she sa-shays across the stage. She ironically wears the garden’s paler shades of green in contrast to Count Belfiore’s emerald-green head-to-toe ensemble.

La Finta Giardiniera’s set pieces were 1950s-style chairs, upholstered so that petals radiated from the chair’s center. Matching footstools were covered with a petal motif, all done either in vi-brant orange, pink or green.  By the end of the opera, when some semblance of order returns to the characters’ chaotic lives, the blue sky gave way to a calming ocean backdrop, photographed, computer-enhanced, enlarged and dropped onto the big stage. In any language, un vero spetta-colo!

Another Spaniard and familiar name at the TMMF is Sigfrido Martin-Begué, who designed the scenes and costumes for Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, an earlier production in the Teatro’s fall lineup. Program notes indicate that Martin-Begué was the scene designer and costumer for the 1993-94, summer 1995 and the 2001-02 productions of Il Barbiere.

Photographs from these earlier productions reveal that the costumes have remained similar, but the sets seem to have evolved with some new flourishes.  Set designs have a Gaudi-esque quality that gives just the right amount of whimsy to this comic opera. Male costumes are mod-eled on the harlequin/troubadour/toreador tradition, with the women in stylized Spanish outfits, wearing hair combs and ruffled flamenco-styled dresses, scalloped in black.  All this definition had the effect of being painted on rather than sewn. A true visual delight! Tossed in were deco-rative touches from playing cards, which became particularly striking when two nuns strolled across the stage wearing black scapulars showcasing the heart, club, spades, and diamonds motif.

Their head pieces were even stiffened to create a heart-shaped bonnet.

Both Il Barbiere di Siviglia and the city of Florence hold a special place in operatic history. With Il Barbiere comic opera, or opera buffa, and its bel canto style, achieved recognition as a distinc-tive form.  In Florence, opera was born when the Florence Camerata, a group of 16th-century  intellectuals developed a musical theory based on its own productions, thus laying the frame-work for opera today.

Florence’s rich operatic tradition continues as Maggio Musical Fiorentino presents Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme on January 19, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28.  Information is available at 055 277 9350, or www.maggiofiorentino.com.

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