Theater archives

Goldoni’s Villeggiatura: Living on Credit, Circa 1762; Pushkin’s Boris: Tyrants Then as Now


Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) was coming to the end of his reign as Venice’s leading playwright when, in 1762, he wrote a set of three full-length plays centered on the experience, common to all urban societies, that Italians call villeggiatura—getting the hell out of the city, when the hot weather sets in, and retreating to your villa in the country. Like the city slickers who invade the sticks in every other species of Western comedy from Vanbrugh’s The Relapse to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Goldoni’s characters get away only to discover that, in the country, they’re twice as mixed up as in town. Smanie (“madness”), the first word of the first play’s title, seems to be the key to everyone’s behavior throughout. Only the servants, who have the burden of cleaning up the chaos wrought by their masters, display a modicum of sanity.

Goldoni’s trilogy wasn’t particularly well received in its own time. Europe needed a few centuries’ experience of tragicomedy to realize what he was up to, with a special assist from Chekhov, three of whose four masterpieces also deal with the upheaval caused by city dwellers’ arrival at their country estates, in a manner similar enough to make you wonder if he could have known this relatively obscure set of plays. When Giorgio Strehler, co-founder of Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, first produced a condensed, one-evening version of Goldoni’s trilogy in 1954, what kept European stages’ interest piqued was the work’s startlingly Chekhovian quality.

This was evident in the new production—another one-evening condensation, adapted and staged by the actor Toni Servillo—that visited New York last week, courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival. A joint production of the Piccolo Teatro and the Teatri Uniti of Naples, Servillo’s rendition of the trilogy was something like a “Best Of” in many respects: It squeezed highlights from the three plays into a reasonably coherent whole. It balanced Goldoni’s 18th-century realism, bound by his elegant sense of the era’s stage proprieties, with a modern directness of tone that made every event vivid. And its designers managed to create a full picture of this high-living society with an ingenious, totally contemporary minimalism: Two backdrops and a small assortment of furniture, subtly and evocatively lit, stood in for a vast array of indoor and outdoor locales.

This poor-theater evocation of lavishness was exactly right: Goldoni’s upper-middle-class characters all live lavishly on credit, keeping up appearances while sinking deeper and deeper into debt. The need to make a wealthy marriage causes at least half the fevered torment of their on-again, off-again love affairs; barely knowing who they themselves are produces the other half. Children of the bourgeoisie who ape the free-spending aristocrats of yore, Goldoni’s people live in the age just before the revolution; their similarity to Americans of the bailout era is almost tangible.

Haughty, hard-pressed Leonardo (Andrea Renzi) and his extravagant sister, Vittoria (Eva Cambiale), are tentatively coupled, respectively, with the clever but headstrong Giacinta (Anna Della Rosa) and the superficially conventional, opportunistic Guglielmo (Tommaso Ragno). When Giacinta’s foolishly amiable father, Filippo (Paolo Graziosi), invites Guglielmo to travel to the country with them, he triggers a series of events, exploding into one another like a string of firecrackers, that ends with both couples securely engaged, and neither entirely happy about it. In counterpoint to this central tale of loves dislocated and partially regained, Goldoni sets the simpler relations of the two households’ no-nonsense servants and the misadventures of the perpetual freeloader, Ferdinando (Servillo), as he dodges the embraces of Filippo’s love-hungry older sister (Betti Pedrazzi).

While all these characters are utterly adorable, none of them is wholly likeable as a person: That’s Goldoni’s way. Servillo’s cast balanced brilliantly on the cutting edge of this paradox, giving all of the characters their due, making their shortcomings clear along with their virtues. Their charm made the high place that Italians claim for Goldoni among the inventors of modern drama seem entirely deserved.

The high place that Russians claim for Pushkin as a theater poet, too, seemed amply justified in Declan Donnellan’s production of Boris Godunov. First staged nine years ago for Moscow’s Chekhov International Theatre Festival, Donnellan’s rendering of a play better known in the much different form of Mussorgsky’s opera still appeared fresh, taut, and forceful, though periodically marred by annoying gimmickry. Because Pushkin’s play is so infrequently staged outside Russia, Donnellan’s efforts to show its contemporary relevance only emphasized its classical heritage, above all Pushkin’s debt to Shakespeare. The gimmicks were all of the kind commonly used to liven up contemporary Shakespeare productions: putting the characters in modern dress, giving the chronicler, Pimen, an old-fashioned typewriter, installing a TV set in the border tavern, turning the assemblage of Polish nobles into a political rally with handheld mikes, and so on.

Of course, Pushkin’s play has contemporary relevance: Every play that says politicians are ruthless, treacherous schemers has contemporary relevance. But not every such play has such striking similarities to Shakespeare, notably to Richard III, bursting out all over it. For an English-speaking audience, the evening’s prime source of interest is the mental agility with which Pushkin transforms his models into something at once specifically Russian in meaning and universal in stature. No wonder Russians venerate him; his deep passion for Shakespeare liberated his imagination instead of enslaving it.

Mussorgsky’s hero is the crowd. Neither guilt-racked Boris (Alexander Feklistov), a usurper who has attained the throne through murder, nor his con-artist rival, Grigory (Evgeny Mironov), a runaway monk who claims to be the murdered Czarevich Dmitri, was heroic enough to suit the composer. To Pushkin, they represent contrasting versions of the crime-fueled hunger for power. Mussorgsky notoriously resisted composing the “Polish act,” in which the fake Dmitri allies himself with a Polish leader’s daughter, Marina Mnishek (Irina Grineva). Pushkin, in contrast, puts this scene at the core of his work: Marina extorts “Dmitri” ‘s true identity from him and then eggs him on to czardom anyway. Donnellan’s production, loud and often crudely showy in its playing, coarsened the edges of this powerful work, but never diminished its grandeur.

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