Italian legend gets her NYC due

Unique take on ‘Tosca” heightens political angle

In Italy, everybody knows Franca Valeri — whether as playwright, as actress, as comedienne, or all three.

In the United States, almost nobody knows of her. Not yet.

An actress and director a little less than half Valeri’s age, small, dark, vivacious Laura Caparrotti — adjectives she herself applies to her role model back there in Italy — is trying to change all that.

“Tosca and the Two Downstairs” (“Tosca e le altre due”), a satirical drama by Franca Valeri, is to be presented at an art center in Chelsea called The cell. The director is Laura Caparrotti, who also costars in it with Marta Mondelli. That’s the entire cast, though there are other, imagined characters whom we become aware of from time to time — through screams of a man being tortured, up over the ceiling over these ladies’ heads.

The year is 1800. The city is Rome. The women — working-class women, mind you, though one of them has higher pretensions — are Emilia (Ms. Caparrotti), gatekeeper of the Palazzo Farnese; and Iride (Ms. Mondelli), whose loving husband is at the moment beating another man to death, one flight up, on orders of Rome’s chief of police (the evil Baron Scarpia).

The man being beaten to death is an artist and revolutionary named Cavarodossi. He’s the lover of Tosca, the glamorous singer for whom Scarpia also has the hots. All this in straight parody of the high-flown emotionalism of “La Tosca” — the 1900 opera wrought by Giacomo Puccini from a potboiler by Sardou.

IRIDE: Pardon me please. Maybe my [husband] is done. I’ll go out

EMILIA: No rush. There’s time for you to tell me everything.

IRIDE: Do you think I am from Rome? I don’t know if you have realized…

EMILIA: Well, I did get this….

IRIDE: Come closer or they will hear us. I met my husband here in Lazio. I was traveling, understand? I am from Venegono…in the countryside of Lombardy, almost by Milan. Do you know it?

EMILIA: You caught me unprepared.

IRIDE: Our towns are more — how can I say? — we’re more evolved. Women travel. There is nuttin’ wrong, nothing.

EMILIA: Same here. It all depends on why you travel.

IRIDE: I was a theater actress, you know. Oh my…if only my husband knew what I am telling you now. He is an angel but he is so old-fashioned…

(Screeching yell of the tortured)

On July 31 of this year, Franca Valeri will be 90 years old. She has starred in more than 50 movies, an even greater number of plays and monologues (many of them written by her), endless television, countless radio work. She has directed much, written much, taught much.

The first-ever performance of “Tosca e le altre due” — directed by and co-starring its author as Emilia — was at Spoleto, Italy, in 1978, when Laura Caparrotti, back there in Rome, was 11 years old. “I always loved her,” says unapologetic acolyte Caparrotti, but had never actually met her heroine until “writing a thesis that was all about her” at the University of Rome in 1990-91.

The cell, so named (and lower-cased) for biological as well as artistic implications, is a two-year-old multi-purpose ground-floor performance and exhibit space directly across 23rd Street from the former Chelsea Cinema West. Founded and run by two enterprising native Manhattanites (writer Nancy Manocherian and director Kira Simring), it accommodates, in their words, “everything from movement and music to plays, opera, film, poetry, reading groups, and the visual arts of course.”

There is a balcony, a stairway — “quite elegant” — and a large picture window. White walls. Seating capacity ranges from 65 to 75. To reach the administrators call (646) 861-2253 or go to www.thecelltheatre.org.

“Tosca e le altre due” will be in Italian, as written, with an English translation by Natasha Lardera projected onto a wall a la the Met Opera’s supertitles. All the sounds from upstairs are conveyed electronically.

Says director Caparrotti: “When I asked Franca Valeri for any written records of past performances, she said she doesn’t keep records. Some people once made a film of ‘Tosca e le altre due,’ but it wasn’t very good. They put all the upstairs happenings on screen instead of leaving it to the imagination.”

Franca Valeri’s name at birth in Milan was Alma Franca Maria Norsa.

“Norsa is a famous Jewish name in Italy, especially around Milan,” says Ms. Caparrotti, “and Franca’s father was Jewish.” Her mother was Catholic.

The father, in fact, along with Franca’s brother, took refuge in Switzerland during World War II, leaving Franca and her mother to exist in hiding in Milan for a year and a half in one concealed room in the back of an apartment in Via Santa Maria.

“She never talks about that,” says Caparrotti. Franca Valeri is evidently a tough interview altogether. “Believe me, when you interview her, you can be like sweat.” One thing that’s known is that she changed her last name from Norsa to Valeri in honor of the French Symbolist poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945).

It was while she was pent up in that room that she decided to become an actress — a career that would not be approved of by her good middle-class Jewish family, or for that matter by Italy’s Academia di Arte Drammatica.

“But she was a great success from the start,” says her disciple, and many years later that same Academia was only too happy to honor that same Franca Valeri with a special diploma for her life’s work.

She was twice married, outlived both husbands, and for around 50 years now, says Ms. Caparrotti, “goes everywhere with a dog” — that is to say, one dog after another — “with a very flat face and the name Roro. For 50 years, same dog, same name.”

Laura Caparrotti grew up in the vicinity of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — “my mother still lives near there” — from the turrets of which the unfortunate Tosca leapt to her death to escape a fate worse than death at the hands of Baron Scarpia.

Asked if she’s ever seen Puccini’s “Tosca,” Caparrotti gives a rueful smile. “Ah, yes, once — only once. Here in New York. I started going to opera when I moved to New York in 1996.”

She and her “assistant everything” — a young woman named Donatella Cordonesu — think The cell is architecturally just right for “Tosca and the Two Downstairs.” There is, indeed, even that stairway. But you don’t have to jump from it.

TOSCA AND THE TWO DOWNSTAIRS

Written by Franca Valeri

Directed by Laura Caparrotti

Performed in Italian with projected English subtitles from a translation by Natasha Lardera

A Kairos Italy Theater presentation

February 3 through 21

At The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

www.thecelltheatre.org; 1-800-838-3006; www.brownpapertickets.com

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