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Carole Di Tosti
Franca Valeri's play using a "Tosca" backdrop is sharp, current.
"Tosca e le Altre Due" ("Tosca" and the Two Downstairs)
March 20 to March 30
Dicapo Opera, 184 E 76th Street, Manhattan (between Third Ave. and Lexington)
Presented by Kairos Italy Theater www.kittheater.com and Dicapo Opera
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm
$35.00 general admission; Box Office (212) 868-4444, www.smarttix.com
Reviewed by Carole Di Tosti March 25, 2014
Marta Mondell (L) and Laura Caparrotti (R) play women who will witness the events of the opera, "Tosca," in "Tosca and the Two Downstairs," a dark comedy by Italian playwright Franca Valeri.
The opera "Tosca" by Puccini, is known for its gorgeous music, piercing violence, dramatic plot and dynamic characterizations. What is less familiar to Americans is that "Tosca" is the backdrop for a brilliant satire written by Franca Valeri, an influential, contemporary Italian woman playwright. Valeri employs the plot line, main characters and setting of the opera (1800, Rome) as her fuel to set ablaze various issues which resonate for us today. With wit and dark humor she exposes paternalism, economic classism and injustice in Italian culture and society, providing subtle cautionary threads of wisdom along the way. In her timeless rendition, Valeri's concepts and themes trend with global currency and poignancy, making "Tosca e le Altre Due" ("Tosca" and the Two Downstairs) an amazing play which opera buffs and discerning audience members will appreciate. Directed by Laura Caparrotti and now at the Dicapo Opera, the production is running until March 30. The work is translated by Natasha Lardera.
This is a play within a play. The lead characters are two commoners realistically and expertly played by Laura Caparrotti (Emilia) and Marta Mondelli (Iride). These married women from Rome and Milan are the focal point of the action while the events related to "Tosca," Scarpia's capture and torture of revolutionary Cavarodossi, and Scarpia's attempted sexual bullying of Floria Tosca happen "offstage." The plot of Tosca runs simultaneously with Valeri's play. However, we never see the characters in Tosca; we only hear about them through reports and comments from Emilia and Iride; we briefly hear Tosca singing. Emilia and Iride give us much to laugh about lower and upper class culture. Through their characterizations, Valeri provides an elegant dissection of society and the confines of the powerful.
Valeri has set the scene predominately downstairs, in the doorkeeper's lodge of the Palazzo Farnese. This is Emilia's and her husband's residence; Iride waits there for her husband who is in Scarpia's employ. Upstairs, there are interrogations of prisoners/revolutionaries like Mario Cavarodossi. They are tortured to extract confessions or confidences. The women hear and see who comes and goes during this evening (the events of Tosca). They remark cattily (about Tosca's allure and other topics) while the agonized screams of those being tortured occasionally punctuate their conversation. Their presence in the bowels of the Palazzo is symbolic; this "downstairs" represents their low status in the hierarchy of power and indicates that the corrupt political structure is enabled by the weaknesses of crass and obtuse commoners like these two.
Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.
Emilia is the wife of the porter of the Palazzo Farnese. Beholden to her employer (the corrupt Baron Scarpia) and obedient and supportive of her husband (the jailer of the Castel Sant'Angelo), Emilia is politically compromised. She appears slavishly dense. Without compunction she upholds the machinations of Scarpia's twisted, brutal actions as chief of police and dismisses his barbarousness, as she discusses him with Iride. This is Valeri's sardonic humor at work. In her characterization of Emilia, she creates one who appears to be an inglorious, unheroic commoner. We wonder at this buffoon and comic figure being in a pivotal role. At first glance, she represents the antithesis of Floria Tosca who is courageous and defiant with Scarpia. Valeri is particularly wry in trumping Emilia's base ignorance as Emilia praises her boss' reputation to Iride. It is not lost to us that Emilia's obsequious, sycophancy reveals weak mindedness. It appears that her behavior perpetuates her own oppression and the sufferings of those who would free Italy and make it a republic, albeit according to French ways.
Like Emilia, Iride appears to lift up the culture's oppression, classism, feminine stereotypes and paternalism. Iride, an actress and former prostitute from Milan, is married to Sciarrone who is Scarpia's henchman and sadistic torturer at arms. As Iride waits for him to finish his bloody work of the evening (torturing Cavarodossi to extract the whereabouts of a dangerous political prisoner), she presents herself presumptuously and superciliously. When she compares herself to Tosca, Emilia cuts her down with edgy humor. Caparrotti and Mondelli have crafted these characters with precision and realism necessary for their later reveal.
The women chatter about what they hear upstairs (as the opera's plot line continues) and gossip about the other strata of society related to the characters of Scarpia, Spoletta, Roberti, Tosca and Cavarodossi. Gradually, the faux walls of personality begin to crumble and Iride and Emilia confide in each other. Iride reveals that she intends to be free of her loathsome husband who is brutish and violent. Her plan is to escape. Even if she has to become a prostitute once more, she will have independence. She prefers a life of freedom to one of abuse and enslavement. Iride couldn't have confessed her soul to a more kind, empathetic and rational friend; Emilia deeply knows the score living with her jailer husband in the innards of the Palazzo. She understands the difference between love and hatred and decides to risk her own life to help Iride. Risking life and position is an act of noble courage. Yet, in helping to free Iride, Emilia also frees her own soul and vitiates her own life of paternalistic oppression.
Valeri's beautiful tie in with the opera comes when the stage moves into shadow and the figure of a woman dressed in a robe and hood enters. It is Tosca who has come downstairs while the women have gone elsewhere. Discovering the large knife Emilia has been using to cut up food, she takes it and leaves. Tosca, like the two women downstairs, will deliver freedom to herself and her lover Cavarodossi by her own hand. With Emilia's knife, Tosca stabs the villain Scarpia believing she has freed herself to free Cavarodossi. But Scarpia double-crossed her and had Cavarodossi executed. Tosca commits suicide. Emilia and Iride refer to her act of throwing herself over the battlements of the Palazzo.
Valeri's final thematic twist is in the comparison of the two women commoners and Tosca. The characterization of who they are is clarified with Tosca's actions. This is brought to the fore because of the superb direction of Laura Caparrotti who knows the play's themes and has cleverly teased them out through wonderful performances and true-to-life-staging and action.
As a result, in this production we realize that the play is not merely a satire by Valeri who is poking fun at the opera. It is an explication of women's behavior and choices in a paternalistic, classist, oppressive culture. The parallel between the two women and Tosca, despite their different positions, is strong. All women are suppressed in a society where men get to make the decisions and hold women as sexual hostages or mouse housewives. Women have few viable choices; they are labeled as whores if they try to live by the same standards as men. As a result, when a woman attempts to control her own life, she often makes poor decisions. Thwarted by men in control, she is unable to carry herself to freedom. Tosca's suicide shows that Tosca believes she can never be free of her guilt, remorse and grief over Cavarodossi's death. Her belief has generated visions of a hopeless future: she cannot continue in life, seek redemption and love another. If she is to live to the next day, Tosca must embrace an identity and life apart from Cavarodossi. She cannot. She is still in bondage. Valeri presents this as a powerful feminist trope; Tosca destroys herself because she cannot break free of herself and escape.
This is not the case with Emilia and Iride. They have found an inner strength and self-fulfillment. They are able to define who they are for themselves. They no longer allow a man (their husbands) to control or define what they can and cannot do. This is revolutionary power for the time and from two unlikely sources, a wonderful Valeri irony. Indeed, there is the possibility that both women have been dissembling all along. By their actions we see that they have experienced a dynamic inner reformation. They recognize that they can choose to be free. These measures of freedom born out of Emilia's act of great kindness and understanding have done more to overthrow the political machinations of the corrupt and wicked than Tosca's killing of Scarpia. It is clear that both women are free from the binding enslavement of love that forced Tosca to fall prey to those like Scarpia and become a killer like him.
Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.
In this clever production, Valeri's play is a vindication of women as a cautionary tale. There is the way of Tosca and there is the way of Emilia and Iride. One brings life, hope and freedom, the other, destruction enabled by the paternalism that oppresses and harms men and women.
Valeri's ending reveals the way of hope as the women say a farewell that never ends, well acted by a poignant Mondelli and understated, humorous Caparrotti. In this superb production we are free to embrace their hopefulness. Emilia and Iride are emblematic of the potential power of "the little people" to achieve the deepest honor and nobility with love and understanding, an honor more courageous and elevated than Tosca's dramatic act. The production makes Valeri's message clear. Despite horrific oppression, in one's desire to seek a just life, the change must come from within. The freedom sought must first be the freeing of the self from bondages, or violence and oppression will continue to haunt. In this aspect, the two downstairs have cemented a bond and worthy foundation to build a power structure on.
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