El barberillo de Lavapies (Barbieri) Teatro de la Zarzuela, 2006 ( Jesus Alcantara)

Francisco Asenjo Barbieri / Luis Mariano de Larra
El barberillo de Lavapiés

Teatro de la Zarzuela
(Madrid, 11 March 2006)

Christopher Webber

Tangling with Tradition

As we know, Tradition amounts to little more than une recherche du temps perdu. Any Guardian of Tradition who solemnly tore up their ticket on witnessing Calixto Bieito’s alleged desecration of El barberillo de Lavapiés might do well to ponder this fact. Another fact – that Bieito’s production proved a huge hit with the theatre-going public – may have been down to his detailed and imaginative direction of a fine cast. It may also have been down to his team’s superlative choral, choreographic and production values. But it may conceivably have been down to respect for De Larra and Barbieri’s work of art, a respect going deeper than any mere Tradition.

Having said which, it was hard to see what all the fuss was about. A dog’s bad name is apt to hang him, but as with the La verbena de la Paloma seen in Spain and at the Edinburgh Festival a few years back, by Bieito’s (or pan-European) standards this is a pretty conservative piece of work, though beautifully executed and using the best modern theatrical techniques. Outrageous costuming? Well, no. Aristocrats, Walloon Guards and most of the rest are dressed in a conservative approximation of 18th century period costume. Only Lamparilla with his eternally subversive leather jacket, streetwise sidekick Lope and be-cardiganed Paloma link directly to our own time – until the very end, where in a stunning coup de theatre the rotting rat-warren of a set revolves, to reveal its stadium-like lattice of steel supports festooned with the entire cast in 1980’s gear, a tableau vivant of Almodóvar’s Madrid, transvestites, addicts and all. Explicit bodily functions? Well, of course there were a few of what one’s great aunts would have called Moments – including a spectacularly funny one when a drunken and despairing Don Luis appears on an upper balcony and unwittingly pukes, then pisses over the fleeing Marquesita.

Plenty of robust humour then, lots of anarchic activity, but nothing much to frighten the horses. What then? Bieito cuts the dialogue substantially, running all three acts into one unbroken span, but the narrative is crystal clear and, like the musical content, unsullied. So that wasn’t it either. No, what causes the outrage is something subtler – a conscious subversion of Tradition itself. Entering the auditorium we are presented with the most traditional front cloth anyone could wish to see, a prettily executed antique map of 18th century Madrid. No sooner does the music get under way, though, when out pops Lope, a gangling juvenile delinquent in baseball cap and sneakers, swigging from a can of Coke and as he runs his finger suggestively round the map borders of Lavapiés, challenging the audience with that knowing, irritating leer known only to hormonally over-active teenagers. Lope – precisely judged by young actor Daniel Esparza – continues to pop up throughout, an unsettlingly modern adjunct to that eternally disruptive spirit of aimless mischief which de Larra and Barbieri capture so well in their “little barber” himself. They, not Bieito, created this world in which a change in regime amounts to no more than a change of suit, where political cynicism is endemic, where only the irrepressible vitality of the people keeps them from a terminal trampling.

El barberillo de Lavapies (Barbieri) Teatro de la Zarzuela, 2006 ( Jesus Alcantara)
Lamparilla (Moncloa) holds court, whilst the omnipresent Lope looks on.

In case all this sounds impossibly serious, I must emphasise again how consistently light the production touch, how wonderfully engaging the relationships between characters. It is left to us, the audience, to make the connections. Ramón Oller’s choreography is a telling mix of jota, seguidillas and soft-shoe shuffle. Francisco Maestre’s slobbering pervert of a Don Pedro comes close to stealing the scene, but Beatriz Lanza’s Paloma, Julio Morales’ Don Luis and Elena Rivera’s Marquesita are equally vivid. Bieito is never prepared to let his singers merely stand and deliver, and Rivera and Morales’ Act 2 dúo is a fluid and alive piece of staging, political and sexual frustrations mixed in an explosive outburst of credible passion. No praise can be too high for Marco Moncloa’s Lamparilla. The part lies high for his smoothly-produced baritone, but his imaginative delivery of music and text are as compelling as his acting, which is saying something. Lanza is not quite at his level, vocally, and there is something of a pronounced “beat” these days to her warm but not ideally supported mezzo. Theatrically, though, she easily holds her own. The end is movingly quiet. Left alone on stage at last after the hectic maelstrom of activity, all passion can finally be spent between Paloma and her barber-lover. The lights fade to black and we tactfully leave them to it.

For most of the audience this was a memorable Barberillo, thoughtful and hugely entertaining. De Larra was no literary genius but a talented, visionary man of his time; and departing from the letter of his text has allowed Bieito to recapture its spirit for ours. In doing so he provides the best possible setting for the drama proper – that provided by the music. The director clearly believes that Barbieri’s most popular zarzuela is no frail old lady, but a lusty piece of goods strong enough to stand on her own feet without concession to cortesía or Good Taste. He pushes the envelope, certainly, but does so with a trusting commitment which re-engages us in a masterpiece of music theatre, vibrant, funny, tuneful and with a social thrust which has lost surprisingly little of its cutting edge. In an evening as good as this, anyone coming to El barberillo de Lavapiés for the first time without prejudice, could not fail to be excited. That, my Lord Guardians, is the only Tradition really worth preserving, and Calixto Bieito has done just that.

© Christopher Webber 2006

El barberillo de Lavapiés
zarzuela in 3 Acts
music by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri
text by Mariano de Larra

Cast: Beatriz Lanza (Paloma); Elena Rivera (Marquesita); Marco Moncloa (Lamparilla); Julio Morales (Don Luis de Haro); Francisco Maestre (Don Pedro de Monforte); Luis Álvarez (Don Juan de Peralta); Daniel Esparza (Lope); Amalia Barrio, Xavier Pascual (dos voces). Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela; Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid; Miquel Ortega (conductor); Calixto Bieito (director); Mónica Quintana (stage design); Mercè Paloma (costumes); Antonio Fauró (chorus director); Ramón Oller (choreography); Xavier Clot (lighting)

El barberillo de Lavapies

Production, Teatro de la Zarzuela (originally 1998)

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