Tosca e le altre due (Tosca and The Two Downstairs)
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
February 6, 2010
Tosca is my favorite opera. I love the blend of romance, high passion, politics, and religion. Now we have Tosca e le altre due (Tosca and the Two Downstairs), written in 1978 by the Italian comic actress and satiric playwright Franca Valeri. She does to the 1900 Puccini opera what Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead did to Hamlet. Two women on the fringes react to the intrigue, lust, torture, and blood of the Tosca-Cavaradossi-Scarpia triangle; one of these women creates a drama of her own. In its U.S. debut, with translation by Natasha Lardera, Tosca and the Two Downstairs presents a funny and reflective sideshow that parallels and condenses the opera's action.
Set in Rome 1800 during Napoleon's Battle of Marengo, the opera Tosca is based on a melodrama by French playwright Victorien Sardou. Floria Tosca, a shepherdess turned celebrated singer, is lovers with painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, but the reactionary police chief Baron Scarpia wants Tosca for himself. When Mario helps an escaped political prisoner and is subsequently arrested himself, Scarpia tries to cajole Tosca into sleeping with him in exchange for Mario's life.
Directed by Laura Caparrotti, performed in Italian with English supertitles, Valeri's derivative play parallels and condenses the three-act opera. The prologue, voiced by Rocco Sisto, promises that in a romantic triangle where the rebuffed lover is the chief of police, blood will be spilled.
Valeri's play opens with the opera's first notes, and jumps to the "Te Deum" at the end of Act I. Two women occupy a pew at the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle—the palace doorkeeper Emilia (Caparrotti), a traditionalist who supports Scarpia's policies and is married to Nando the jailer, and Iride (Marta Mondelli), an actress and former prostitute who gave up the stage to marry the torturer Sciarrone and bear his children—and his beatings. Emilia, aware of Scarpia's desire for Tosca, is scandalized by his actions during worship: "Does he think about her in church, too?" She is also worried that the black-veiled Iride is a spy. Both women stand to sing the "Te Deum"—an octave below soprano.
At the Farnese Palace (Tosca's Act II), in the floor below the main action, Emilia tries to wake up Nando, speaks her admiration and worry over Scarpia, and calls Tosca a cow who thinks she's better than everybody else. Iride knocks and asks to wait with Emilia until her husband's torture shift is over. Their gossip over the political goings-on and their sharing of personal histories is punctuated first by Tosca's cantata, then by Mario's screams under torture. When Emilia asks, "Was your husband your first?" Iride replies, "In rank, not in number"—then the actress counts on her fingers up to 92.
Emilia goes upstairs to check on Scarpia's dinner and retrieve her own. Left alone and overhearing Tosca's prayer ("Vissi d'arte"), Iride recalls her glory days portraying Cleopatra in Venegono. In her own prayer she laments to God over her miserable marriage. When Emilia returns with bread, wine, and a carving knife, Iride sneaks the knife behind her back, and concocts a plan to escape Sciarrone and Rome to return to the stage. She demands to know how much is the price to buy a man's clothes from Emilia as a disguise. Iride: "Quando?" Emilia: "'Quando'?" Iride: "Il prezzo!"—paralleling the scenario and dialogue of Tosca and Scarpia above. Tosca and the Two Downstairs is full of such operatic in-jokes, as well as quips about Italian dialects that suffer slightly in translation, and other humorous material.
As the conservative yet compassionate Emilia, Caparrotti enunciates the Romance language well, and clearly portrays the hardworking lower-class woman who knows her job and has a host of observations about her "betters." As the actress who exchanged the dramatic for the domestic, Mondelli's portrayal and pronunciation is a little muddied at first, but she grows clear and strong in passion, grace, and beauty as she longs for her theatrical days. If she sang soprano, I could see Mondelli playing Floria Tosca.
The English supertitles hang from a screen in just the right position so one can follow the action and read the translation. Some of the supertitles were mismatched early in the play, though. Another technical glitch—whether this was playwright's, director's, or technician's fault, I couldn't tell—was that the transition from Act II's action to Act III's didn't allow for the hours that must have passed between those two acts, from evening to dawn. The play's "sleeping moments" should have happened during, not after, the shepherd boy's song from Act III.
The set design by Lucretia Moroni complements the play well, as do the costumes. Overall, Tosca and the Two Downstairs is an enjoyable work that should appeal mostly to Italophiles, opera buffs, and lovers of satire and parody.