Sometimes live theater requires that you just sit there and be entertained as the action washes over you like a warm bath and you leave feeling cleansed by the virtue of the fact that you were able to sit there for two hours. And then there’s the “other” kind of theater — the kind that requires…make that “demands” you to participate — sometimes intellectually, sometimes emotionally and sometimes with the involvement being to the point of being visceral. These are the demands of Teatro de Ciertos Habitates from Mexico at the REDCAT, part of the Disney Concert Hall complex.
Monsters and Prodigies — The History of the Castrati, scripted by the late Jorge Kuri, is their current production which is staged by Claudio Valdés Kuri. Valdés Kuri explains, “We are a contemporary theater company residing in Mexico. Our projects are developed through long gestation periods, parting from very specific risks and questionings. We look for change and deputation in each montage. The work is bestowed fundamentally upon the multidisciplinary artist: actor/musician/dancer.” We, as the spectator who becomes a participant, are eventually involved in it all. The strength of Valdés Kuri’s ability to make this happen lies in his capacity to contrast opposites — foolishness with harmony, violence with gentleness. These singer-actors are capable of singing the most beautiful melodies but are also capable of pleasurable nonsense in a well-blended fusion of history and fantasy with a devastating mixture of gravity and irony that provokes the public to view the cruelties of an age.
This current work requires unexpectedly everything you’ve got and then some. A Theater/Opera mise-en-scène that undertakes an unprecedented artistic, social and cultural phenomenon — the history of the castrati — seen as both artistic prodigies and disfigured monsters at the same time, boys born in poverty who were propelled to the range of stars in the frivolous constellation of the great courts of Europe. Through a dramatized conference presented by two-headed Siamese twin surgeons and an opera columnist, the audience is taken on a three-century journey, moving them from the succulent extremes of the Baroque to the beginnings of the technological 20th century, where beauty has been annihilated by reason.
Start with thinking of Alice in Wonderland with Tweedledee and Tweedledum being the 17th century Italian Siamese twin surgeon/barbers who specialize in their newly found skill of preserving the youthful vocal tessuratura of the male youth through castration while working out of their Naples barbershop. The narrator, who is a gossipy harpsichord-playing (and quite talented) bewigged opera maven, looks like something out of a Moliere farce. The obligatory loin-clothed noble savage/idiot savant outwardly abused and humiliated is slyly but blatantly our interpreter of the others’ foibles. There’s a Mr. Ed facsimile as the hoof-stomping talking horse played by an aggressive centaur kept behind waist-high stable doors and therefore seen only as naked from the waist up but heard to be frustratedly pawing the ground as he proselytizes while exuding an animal carnality and glistening with sweat and sex. Last but not least, a character looking like Mr. Toad from the classic Wind in the Willows with more and more elaborately androgynous costumes as the play progresses, and the voice of — yes, that’s right — a genuine castrato. Was he or wasn’t he? Only his barber/surgeon knows for sure. I personally believe that the actor playing this character, for whatever reason, is a genuine castrato. (I know for a fact that he is — but I’m sworn to secrecy. Loose lips sink ships…)
Last, but not least, Napoleon and Napoleon’s horse. Yes, that’s right. Napoleon enters riding a dressage trained Appaloosa right there on the stage which is a large sand-filled area not much bigger than a boxing ring, which, come to think of it, that may be what it was supposed to represent, not unlike some ’30s German theater sets. All this and then add one last fillip; it’s in Spanish with subtitles. This was not an evening of sitting in front of the TV watching CSI :Miami repeats and looking for the clues. This was truly live theater with no slouches allowed.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is much too simplistic a manner in which to approach this theater piece. With these characters in mind, there is an actual story created by this 18th century phenomena of castration. This play is a mosaic that gathers the extravagances of this outstanding and enigmatic florid chapter of European cultural history. Delivered with off-the-wall humor and terrific musical aplomb using scores from Rameau, Pergolesi, Bononcini, and Handel, this raucous farce reaches back to the era of the castrati — superstars of 18th-century opera whose heavenly prepubescent voices won swooning adoration across the continent’s highest courts. We have a swift review of three centuries of music and its history and its fashions from “bel canto” to techno passing through Claude François and Madonna told through a feast of scenes that give form to this musical altarpiece: the presence of castration in the Italian opera, the arch Baroque dance, the tales and superstitions related to monsters, mythological or just imaginary, all joined to create a macabre entertainment.
Monsters and Prodigies is a revealing spectacle as it peels back the skin of one of the sublime mysteries in musical history as if it were peeling the skin from a pleasingly painful sunburn. With a precise and wild gaze, ironic and reflexive, a picaresque scene hallmarked with circus-like aesthetics, it celebrates the theme of the castrati in an ironically tender fashion in which the incomparable voice of the castrati is revealed.