Thursday, 21 July 2016

Looking for Beaumarchais

(first published on

I had decided, with my partner, to go to Seville on holiday. This was only partially random , as I am interested in flamenco and she wanted guaranteed heat: in the end it was pin the tail on the bull, or pick a name from a Tio Pepe hat, if you like.

Serendipitously, we also found ourselves in the city that the mid-18th century revolutionary-minded playwright Pierre Beaumarchais co-opted for the only two stage works for which he is remembered, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. More than this, I was/am in the process of preparing the role of the Count for a new production of Mozart’s opera after the latter play. I felt as if I had an ideal apple-for-the-teacher/director opportunity ahead of me.

What did this city have to offer the tourist with a vested interest in its appropriated past then? Well, it turns out that Seville is a decorous city which doesn’t push its world-famous cultural associations. There are a couple of half-hearted signposts to ‘Rosina’s Balcony’ and a plucky but ultimately abject hairdresser in the centre, called The Barber of Seville. A guidebook that told us of a more likely home for the Factotum (‘Barberia Pajaritos’ in the Triana Barrio) turned out to be out of date. Nonetheless, Rossini’s opera on the first play is 200 years old this year, which merited due homage.
Setting the Marriage of Figaro in the environs of Seville turned out to be a French censor-dodge by Beaumarchais so it wasn’t a great surprise that the Plaza Donna Elvira was as close to Mozart as we got. That and a statue of the composer outside the main concert hall.

As is so often the case though one needs to scratch, sideways, at the surface. For example; we went in search of ‘authentic’ flamenco. Though we dodged the central tablaos, priced and packaged for tourists, we still found ourselves among foreigners when in the back bar of La Carbonerìa in the old town (the pair of shows we saw were very good). The Peñas, Seville’s speakeasy flamenco network, remains out of reach of the casual visitor. As Carmen would have said, by way of bargaining; ‘near the ramparts of Seville is my friend Lilas Pastia’s place’… but then she was offering an invitation to an outsider to join her and her smuggler companions. There’s nothing illicit about the present day Chez Lilas Pastia.

No, the authenticity of the Sevillano experience is in the transaction of the encounter, not just in the apprehension. You can’t quite catch it on an SD card. So: Christopher Columbus’ tomb in the Cathedral is just another massive silver box — but the monument outside the old city walls brings out a pride in a local tour guide that makes a Brit defensive of Nelson. Once you get over the fact that there’s next to no paprika in chorizo then you can taste something new and fine. We went to the underwhelming Art Museum and were shooed out having overstayed our welcome, looking past the canvases at the extraordinary building. I recall these things in retrospect.

We saw a gardener, one of about twenty in the grounds of the Alcazar Palace, carefully working around his beard to clip the uppermost extremities of a maze. Perhaps, for a moment, with my entrance ticket and sense of entitlement I was another bourgeois patron — yes, a Count — looking through an ageless Antonio. Albeit Antonio on a cherry-picker. Maybe I did stumble on Beaumarchais after all.