British-born designer Rob Howell is in an unusual position, in more ways than one.
Unlike most theater and opera designers, he creates both costumes and sets. Another way in which he stands out is that he has three productions running in New York at once: the Broadway version of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s “Matilda the Musical,” which opened to enthusiastic reviews in 2013, and for which Howell won both Olivier and Tony awards for set design; Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” which Howell designed in 2009, and is currently at the Metropolitan Opera, and his latest production, the critically well-received version of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” which is also at the Met now. “But that’s the life of a set designer,” Howell says with typical modesty. “It was a coincidence that ‘Carmen’ was coming back into season. It was nice to be here and see it again. I had only five or six notes. Everything is kept so fresh here [at the Met], it’s astonishing.
“I like mixing opera and Broadway stuff,” he adds. “It’s amazing how many people overlap.”
He and director Richard Eyre chose to set their version of “Le Nozze di Figaro” in the Thirties, because they considered the bias-cut looks of that decade more flattering and sexier than the boxy cuts of the Twenties. They also believed that the Thirties were the last possible time anyone could take seriously the idea of droit du seigneur (the probably apocryphal right of a feudal lord to deflower a servant on her wedding night, which is integral to the opera’s plot).
His original notion for the striking set, which has a Moorish air, involved the idea of birdcages. He also wanted to make provision within the set for the possibility of outdoor space, which provides a new dimension and added flexibility for staging. He also wanted to address the way the room, intended to belong to the engaged couple, Susanna and Figaro — the setting for the opening of the opera — suddenly fills with all of the count’s servants, who are legion. Howell didn’t like this, and it was one impetus behind his design for a revolving multi-chambered set, so that the Susanna-Figaro bedroom could be a different space from that where the servants are setting up the wedding feast; where the staff are “polishing doorknobs,” as he puts it.
As for the colors, Howell says, “I wanted to have a uniform tone connecting the household.” At the beginning of the opera, the count has on a red dressing gown, and, at its end, his wife, the countess, is wearing a bright red dress. Then, too, there are red details running through the servants’ costumes throughout. Many wear uniforms that are terracotta in shade, with white trim, which the designer said he chose because they look lighter than the traditional black-and-white versions, which is in keeping with the light comedy of the opera. The red dress at the end of the show is very slinky, as is a satin dress the countess wears in an earlier scene, which is detailed with a slingshot jumper effect. Amanda Majeski, who plays Countess Almaviva in this production, is slender, but Howell points out that, during the long life of a Met production, the various roles will be played by singers who may have very different shapes, and so the costumes are purposely designed to fit a variety of body types.
“There is a responsibility here, I think,” he said of designing looks that will be universally flattering. “I didn’t want it to have lumps and bumps everywhere.”
The look of the men’s tailoring in the Thirties featured “very full” pants with “a lot of cloth,” and fitted jackets.
Howell found Eyre excellent to work with because he was sharing with the director “almost private thoughts.” (As in, “‘Would you mind casting an eye over this?’” or just noting “‘I saw this,’” and bringing it to one another’s attention.) Together they saw Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, “The Rules of the Game,” which was one of the inspirations for the opera’s design. A motif that Eyre had found helped inspire the Moorish theme of the set.
“I might not be able to get anything out of it,” Howell says, referring to a director’s ideas and suggestions, but he says he finds it inspiring to work in tandem in that fashion. “I’ve worked with some directors who just say, ‘Do it like that.’ That kills everything. Then I just think, ‘Why am I here?’”