Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

The Last Pulcinella: watching Massimo Ranieri fall between two stools

The film L’Ultimo Pulcinella was screened at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Paris on February 8, 2010 and was heartily welcomed by the very indulgent audience of Italo-philes. However, if this film is going to make it outside of the most uncritically sympathetic audiences it will need a lot of luck. The director, Maurizio Scaparro, was at the screening and he said in the introductory remarks that the film is based on a scenario by Roberto Rossellini, a script that was unfilmable because of the odd juxtaposition of plot elements, one day in Naples, next day in Paris. He was determined to see Massimo Ranieri in the lead role, and he eventually decided to adapt the story to modern circumstances. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise, however, the problems with the script are still quite evident, and may have even been exacerbated by the adaptation. What results is a film that is not really neo-realism, nor is it musical theater, but rather something lost in between.

Massimo Ranieri

The Last Pulcinella stars Massimo Ranieri, the renowned Italian singer and actor. His early fame in the 1960s was with pop songs in the style of San Remo, where he twice won the top prize. In the 1970s he started in a new direction with his album entitled ‘O Surdato Nammurato” a live recording of one of his theatrical performances of Neapolitan sketches. This album, with its cover photo of him dressed in the white pajama costume of Pulcinella, has become a classic and it established the future trajectory of his career. Today he is best known as an interpreter the classic Neapolitan repertoire, and he has come out with several more collections of Neapolitan standards, the latest one in 2009. Many of these songs are over one hundred years old and they have been interpreted over and over again by innumerable singers from the most talented to the ridiculous. His renditions are superb, as he uses his clear and sharp voice to bring out the bel canto qualities of these songs, while at the same time making them enjoyable for the modern ear. In this film Ranieri plays a custom made role, as Michelangelo, a Neapolitan actor who performs Pulcinella. His voice and abilities are as breathtaking as ever, but alas, the years have erased Michelangelo’s youthful good looks. This does not stop him, though, and he continues to evolve and when he arrives in working class Paris in search of his missing son, he wants to bring the theatrical traditions to a new generation of performers. Ranieri’s Pulcinella performances in the film are wonderful. His ability to become the Commedia dell’Arte character has been perfected over a long career and this shows. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make the film palatable.

One glaring problem is the lack of veracity. There are plot twists and little conflict-resolutions throughout that conveniently fall from the sky without rhyme or reason. All of the points of tension: Michelangelo’s son’s escape from Naples, the suspicions of the elderly actress toward the immigrant neighbors, and especially the belligerence of the police force and the glimpses of police brutality, are dangled for a moment in front of our eyes, then blithely forgotten. The discovery of an empty theater just waiting for the protagonist to arrive, and the impressive artistic talent of all the neighborhood characters who just happen to saunter in, are elements that would work fine in a Broadway musical, where the audience doesn’t really care about all the niceties of logic – just get to the music, but they are absolutely insulting to the intelligence of someone watching a film that is supposed to be “realism.” This story calls on Deus ex Machina contrivances so often that it hardly seems worth it for Deus ever to climb back into his Machina, God might as well just hang around on the set so that he’ll be right there for his cue. Or better yet, cut out all the stillborn subplots and concentrate on the performers. The plot would be tolerable if it led to music, for instance, something for the Colombina character (Margot Dufrene) to sing in explanation of her sudden infatuation with Francesco, played by a severely underutilized Domenico Balsamo. The story is a variation of the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” formula from 1940s Hollywood, and as such calls out pitifully for big finale performance, which never materializes. How about letting Francesco or one of the other young males share the Pulcinella character with Ranieri to demonstrate how this tradition will be passed on to the next generation. Massimo Ranieri, also at the screening, said that he saw a bit of Pulcinella in all of the immigrant youths. Unfortunately, this never comes across in the film.

The Last Pulcinella needs to decide what it is: a story about the problems of multiethnic youths in the housing projects of the modern European metropolis, or a celebration of the blending of traditional European (here Neapolitan) art and the arts of the newcomers. I think it is clear that given the talent of Ranieri and all the young actors, the second option is the one that holds the most promise, and the scene in which Ranieri performs a classic song to African accompaniment should erase any doubts. And incidentally, there was no need to come all the way to Paris North to find racial intolerance, police brutality and frustrated, unemployed African youths with talent – they could have found all that by the truckloads right back home in Naples. Perhaps it is too late to save the film, but it is never too late for the stage. Could this someday make a successful stage musical? It is one that I would love to see.



February 9, 2010 Posted by | cinema, music, theater | , , , | 1 Comment

La Maladie de la Famille M. at Odeon – presenting the unprecedented

A theater piece created by Fausto Paravidino and staged by Radu Afrim. Uh… who? That question arises often when viewing the season offerings at Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, given the theater’s propensity for bringing new and innovative productions, artists and playwrights to the attention of Parisians. Europe is vast, tastes differ, sensibilities clash, subtleties get lost in the shuffle, so the daunting task of selecting pieces to bring to Paris is easily matched by the equally difficult task of sensitizing Parisians to the esthetic value of these choices.

Ateliers Berthier, Paris 17e

Ateliers Berthier, Paris 17e

For this reason, Théàtre Odéon, has developed a sophisticated system of educative advertising and informative promotional program to introduce Parisians to the works it is presenting, and La Maladie de la Famille M. currently at Odéon’s Ateliers Berthier in the 17th arr., is a good example. For those whose interest is piqued by the possibility of seeing this award winning theater piece by the modernist playwright Paravidino from Teatro Stabile and directed by an influential new talent of Romanian theater direction, Radu Afrim who brings the resurgent National Theater of Timisoara to Paris, the Odéon website gives ample opportunity to find out more.

There one can see an intriguing video clip from the production. download a press kit with bios of Paravidino and Afrim, as well as get much info about the development and history of this production. Note also the “rencontre hors-les-murs,” a presentation taking place elsewhere in the city, in this case, at the Italian Cutlural Institute. On June 15, Fausto Paravidino will be interviewed by journalist Jean-Louis Perrier, of the magazine Mouvement.

While you’re there at the website, you can also read a bit about Odéon’s outreach programs for schools, the theater’s print publications, and you can listen to some interviews, and read about accessiblities. If you prefer, you can do your reading in English, because the website is fully bilingual. This web presence is a model of how theaters can present themselves successfully using the new technologies of the 21st Century.

La Maladie de la Famille M.

June 11-21, 2009 at l’Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe

Important: The piece is presented at Ateliers Berthier,

at rue André-Suarès and Boulevard Berthier in the 17th arr.

Métro / RER C Porte de Clichy.

June 14, 2009 Posted by | theater | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le Chanteur de Mexico has won over a reluctant Paris!

Le Chanteur de Mexico has won over a reluctant Paris!
July, 2007
It could have been a disaster. The decision of Théâtre du Chatelet’s new director, Jean-Luc Choplin to mount a production of this old chestnut, but he did it and it worked. “Le Chanteur de Mexico” is a well known French operetta from 1951, written by the now eclipsed composer Francis Lopez, and animated on the stage and screen by the dated matinee idol Luis Mariano, who aged in the part as that decade waxed and waned. For most Parisians, the very thought of this piece smelled of stale postwar cigarettes and grandmother’s lavender candies, so the challenge was daunting. It didn’t help that Choplin’s resume included a stint as artistic advisor “chez Disney” and at Galleries Lafayettes. They were smelling blood along the Seine. How did he turn it into a success?

The traffic stopping poster

The traffic stopping poster

He did it with a sophisticated gay friendly aesthetic that gave it a totally new spin, and a brash new appeal. The planning must have been mind boggling, but for the public, it began with the posters, the enormous Pierre et Giles posters that went up on Metro stations and elsewhere around the city in mid 2006. It stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I saw one. A nearly life sized, thoroughly charming young mariachi stands there, hand on hip in his black charro outfit so tight he seems to have been squeezed into it with a shoehorn and a jock cup, surrounded by a kitschy garland of plastic flowers and costume jewels. Kitsch is the operative word here, but a quality of kitsch that elevates it to the realm of true art.

The story has been modernized as well, with the use of a movie set story device and a touch of drag. The casting was also brilliant: Rossy de Palma, the earthy gay icon of Pedro Almodovar’s films is featured as the Diva, and Clotilde Courau, who plays a Montmartre flower vendor in the operetta but in real life is nothing less than a royal princess (of Savoia, as in the Italian royal family). The stunningly handsome Ismaël Jordi shines in the title role, with his clear, rich and powerful tenor voice that could be Roberto Alagna or the young Placido Domingo. In fact, it’s rumored that Roberto Alagna was approached about this role, but that he turned it down. No matter! Jordi, is brilliant and it is always exciting to see someone of such talent at the beginning of his career.

The staging is by Emilio Sagi, and is like a world of huge potted palms and Pierre et Gilles kitsch, a Carmen Miranda dollhouse come alive. The dialogs have been pared down to give more emphasis to the music. The music can be thin at times, and the services of a top rate orchestra are essential to win over the refined ears of this Parisian public, and this is accomplished perfectly by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, which fills this magnificent hall with rich sonority.

It was Choplin’s inaugural production in 2006, and it was such a success that it was reprised for the month of June, 2007. Now it is over, but surely not for another sleep of fifty years. There will certainly be more productions and opportunities to see it, especially with all the modern technologies. Right now it is easy to find Luis Mariano on YouTube singing the great Mexico production number with his Desi Arnaz style. I don’t doubt that Ismaëlito will be far behind.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | theater | , , | Leave a comment