Cher Public

The girls downstairs

altre_dueRome, June 16, 1800. Emilia sits in the lodge of Palazzo Farnese, of which she is the doorkeeper. She is a resilient, strong-willed and somewhat hardened woman. After all, she has long been in the employ of the Palazzo’s formidable occupant, Baron Scarpia, and witness to so much of his wickedness.

She has heard it all and seen it all; she is accustomed to the constant comings and goings, and all sorts of tumult. So, when a celebrated opera singer is glimpsed anxiously rushing upstairs to the Baron’s quarters, Emilia initially does not attach much importance to it. She just voices her chagrin at her employer’s tastes, wondering why this powerful man would waste so much time on an over-the-hill soprano, when he could have any woman in Rome (herself included).

Emilia has a visitor. A younger, attractive woman sneaks into Emilia’s lodge: her name is Iride Sciarrone, and she has come to the Palazzo to fetch her husband. Emilia husband Nando also works in law enforcement a jailer at Castel Sant’Angelo. As a matter of fact, when Iride arrives, Emilia is polishing the expensive silverware Nando has brought home, gifts from prisoners asking for favors.

The two women patiently wait for the end of Sciarrone’s shift. He is working overtime, as his boss has a particularly delicate job to do that night. To kill time, they engage in conversation, commenting the noises, the screams and commotion coming from the upper floor, and gossiping about every body. They dish the dirt about a servile “sbirro”, who has the habit of quoting Latin phrases and who is rumored not to have much interest in the opposite sex; a particularly nasty torturer; a Cavalier suspected of revolutionary sympathies —  even the police chief himself. The juiciest gossip is however reserved for the famous prima donna, trashed for her low birth and easy morals. Even her skills as a singer come into question.

Such is the premise for Tosca e le altre due (“Tosca and the two women downstairs”), a play written by Franca Valeri. Ms. Valeri, who will be 90 years old this year, is one of the most versatile and well-known Italian personalities. Since the 1950s she has been a beloved comedian on stage, TV and the big screen, and a successful playwright. A fervid opera lover, as well a veritable gay icon, Ms. Valeri has founded one of the most prominent voice competitions in Italy, and directed many opera productions. One of her funniest radio sketches was “The Tenor’s Wife”, a parody of the typical stage wife, who refers to her husband as “we”, and is widely thought to allude to Franco Corelli’s notoriously omnipresent spouse.

Tosca e le altre due, premiered in Spoleto in 1978, begins as a light comical satire, and gradually morphs into something darker, with a twist that I will obviously not reveal. Both characters are much more layered than they appear at the beginning. Emilia is authoritarian, conservative, suspicious of anything new and fiercely loyal to her master. Scarpia embodies the only world she has ever known and the key to maintain a sort of social status (in a world like Papal Rome, being the housekeeper of the most powerful person in town has its advantages).  But later she reveals generosity and self-sacrifice. Iride, the outsider (she is from Milan), is a woman with a past and very fearful for her future: her husband his not exactly the most gentle and amiable man in Rome.

The play receives its first American production presented by Kairos Italy Theater, the only New York City based troupe focused on bilingual theater (Italian and English), which performs in a new multi-arts facility called The Cell, located in Chelsea. It is played in Italian, but thanks to the English surtitles, non-Italiophone opera lovers will have no problems at all at following the plot and detecting the numerous, often hilarious operatic allusions.

The sets are, to say the least, parsimonious, placing  particular emphasis on the fine acting. Laura Caparrotti, who is also the producer of the play and KIT’s artistic director, plays Emilia, the role created by Valeri herself. She channels Ms. Valeri’s theatrics to perfection, certainly not an easy task, showing impeccable comic timing and a unique knack in delivering the snide remarks with which her part is peppered. Marta Mondelli made an utterly plausible character of Iride, a role which could lend itself to easy stereotypes. Her progress from frivolous chatterbox to anguished, desperate woman is thoroughly and painfully tangible. Particularly heartfelt was her monologue during “Vissi d’arte”.

The play, a mere 75 minutes long, is interspersed with brief excerpts from the opera itself. Guess whose recording they used?

The show closes on February 21; only four performances are left. For tickets and more information, go to brownpapertickets.com.

  • manou

    Sounds like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I would have gone but I am the wrong side of the pond.

    Thanks for “The Tenor’s Wife” -- obviously modelled on Corelli since the tenor is called Animelli.

    Anema e Cuore…

    • Yes, tenor Animelli is definitely Corelli, although at the time, Mario Del Monaco’s wife thought she was the object of Franca Valeri’s parody and threatened to sue the comedian (or she actually sued her and then withdrew the lawsuit, I don’t remember). Perhaps because Signora Del Monaco was from Veneto, and in this clip Valeri sports a very Veneto accent.

  • yappy

    Tosca e altre due! O what joy! Wrong side of the pond too, alas. Always wanted to see this, play or movie.

    and can’t find a DVD either. :-(

    • This is a movie directed in 2003 by Giorgio Ferrara, the second husband of Adriana Asti (the actress who created Iris) but I know for a fact that Franca Valeri is not happy with the result because she does not agree with the director’s choice to show Tosca and all the others opera characters, who in the play are never seen. Too bad it was not directed by Adriana Asti’s first husband, Bernardo Bertolucci.
      As far as I know, this movie was a box office bomb and it’s not on DVD.

      • yappy

        Ah, thanks for that fact. Interesting though that as Valeri played the lead and co-adapted her piece or the screen I would have thought she was more involved in the process.
        Even if the author didn’t like it and it bombed, I’d still like to see it. It’s so frustrating to give up when you’ve dug your teeth in…

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    The best Tosca since Victoria Sladen has been Phyllis Cannan: bags of voice!

  • manou

    Rich seams here -- Kate Pinkerton learns that her husband has fathered a child (and is not thrilled with the news), all the offstage bits from Trovatore brought centre stage, Gilda gets raped by the Duke (mise en scene: Calixto Bieto), the Commendatore has a chat with St Peter about making arrangements to send the Don in the other place, and so on and so forth.

    (One for Betsy Ann when he wakes up)

    • armerjacquino

      Not to mention what the Marschallin’s getting up to during Act II.