Arts Listings

‘Belefagor’ Opera at San Francisco’s Thick House

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 29, 2007

Belefagor, aka “The Devil Takes a Wife,” Machiavelli’s only novella, about an unfortunate devil who returns to earth and is “suffocated by the sheer social force to conform and consume,” adapted to opera by Lisa Scola Prosek; and an aria from Peter Josheff and Jaime Robles’ work-in-progress based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, will be presented this weekend at the Thick House Theater, 1695 18th St. on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill.  

Belefagor will be conducted by Martha Stoddard, artistic director of the Oakland Civic Opera, with stage direction by Jim Cave, who draws on the physical theatrics of Commedia dell’Arte, featuring a “soft set” by filmmaker Jacob Calouseque, of interactive real-time video composed of original footage shot on location and in studio in Prague: “a ‘soft’ environment” in both large scale and close detail, integrated into the depth of the stage. 

The title role of Belefagor will be sung by tenor Aurelio Viscarra, and will also feature baritone Clifton Romig, sopranos Maria Mikheyenko and Eliza O’Malley, and mezzo-soprano Gar Wai Lee, accompanied by Katrin Wreede (violin), Rachel Condry (bass clarinet) and Alexis Alrich (piano). 

The aria from Francesca’s Complaint, in which the female protagonist from the Paolo and Francesca story from Canto V (“The Whirlwind of Lovers”) of Dante’s Inferno tells Dante and Virgil of their tragic love and murder, will be sung by Eliza O’Malley, for whom it was composed, accompanied on piano by Alexis Alrich. 

The operatization of Belefagor came about when Lisa Scola Prosek noticed that the satiric tale, by the famed (and often defamed) political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli “seemed the same as Alberto Moravia’s novel, The Conformist [adapted by Bertolucci for the film of the same name]. In The Conformist, the hero, marrying into a bourgeois family, is oppressed by their need for ostentation, to show off their wealth to others. I was teaching in Marin, and could see the same thing in our society: certain cars to have; certain things, like playing tennis, for children to do ... the social pressure is enormous. And that’s what destroyed Belfagor in Macchiavelli’s Renaissance novella.” 

Prosek discussed Machiavelli’s great influence on Commedia and later forms of low humor: “The Barber of Seville is really the same as Macchiavelli’s play, La Mandragola [The Mandrake].” Her opera is “overall, classic” in form, a kind of “Minimalist Bel Canto. It has arias, an ingenue, a basso buffo, a passionate tenor, both a shrill and a pretty soprano ... vocally, it covers the entire menu of classical opera. And from the overture on, the bass clarinet is the voice of Belfagor.” 

“Everybody wants to deconstruct forms now, but it’s difficult to deconstruct what you don’t know,” she continued, “like deconstructing the human body if you don’t know anatomy. Formal opera isn’t done much now. People want it to be like a musical—and sung in English. I’m bilingual, and the story’s Italian, andthe music cries out for the language. It just can’t be “Baby, baby!’” It’s sung in Italian with supertitles.” 

Francesca’s Complaint is the “first unit” of a “work very much in progress,” a collaboration between composer and clarinetist Peter Josheff and poet Jaime Robles, based on an extension of Dante’s 33 lines in Canto V of the Inferno, when Francesca “approaches Dante and Virgil, telling her story to justify herself as an innocent who doesn’t belong in Hell,” according to Robles. 

(In Dante’s poem, he encounters Paolo and Francesca, who have been killed by her husband, his brother, for their adultery. Francesca tells of how reading together a poem of courtly love sparked love between them.) 

“Eliza will sing the aria that’s from about halfway through the libretto, and is the part closest to Dante,” said Robles. “It’s a rewriting of what’s in those 33 lines. She takes the same stance, yet more contemporary: Words are deceivers, words and stories deceive both listener and speaker. It’s addressed to the audience as well. Francesca denies her own responsibility.” 

In the libretto, that aria is followed by a trio between Dante, the Latin poet Virgil (his guide through Hell) and a figure Robles invented, called Love, with “Dante examining the medieval troubadour stance towards love, Virgil a more classical, pragmatic sense—and the Love figure a more existential take.” From there, the piece changes. 

“Dante kicks it all off, and then the libretto moves into another area altogether,” said Robles. “Dante and Virgil meet Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother, buried in ice in the Ninth Circle of Hell, which isn’t treated in the Inferno; it’s talking about war, about families and betrayal, the battle between siblings as the cause of war. I drew from the war journals, some from recent wars, for it.” 

“It’s a chamber opera,” commented Josheff, “All in Jaime’s own words, freely interpreted from Dante, but trying to capture all the emotions in the aftermath of a violent life. Paolo’s brother used him as a surrogate to woo Francesca, a bait and switch game. So Francesca sees herself just as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why is she in Hell? The music tries to capture that poignant sense, of her consciously suffering her fate, trying to work it out in her mind. The opera is for a chamber orchestra, and I’ve been writing in installments as piano pieces. This will be the first time we’ll see Eliza sing from memory and act out Francesca on stage to music. We’ll be able to glimpse what it will all be like, down the road. Exciting for us!” 



8 pm. Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Thick House Theater, 1695 18th St. on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. $15. (415) 401-8081.