London, June 1969
Nothing to tell about the Anna Magnani Company‘s work because it doesn’t exist. It’s simply formed whenever the occasion demands it to perform La Lupa. It opened the production in Florence in 1965, and since then has played in Milan, Rome and Genoa as well as visiting Russia, Austria, Switzerland and France. Not unusually, England is last on this impressive list: without Peter Daubeny it’s doubtful if it would be on it at all.
The production marks Anna Magnani‘s return to the stage. The occasion of its opening in Florence sounds pretty impressive, the whole audience going wild after Magnani‘s fifteen-year absence from the stage. It was performed at the Maggio Musicale which was coincidentally (or maybe deliberately) the scene of so many extravagant and hugely expensive productions just after the war. It was then a theatre run on the lines of an opera-house, with just three or four exclusive productions running for just a few nights each. Critics feared Magnani‘s return would revive the grand occasions of the past, but in fact the production turned out far better than anyone could have expected.
It is directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I can, if you like, rehearse Zeffirelli‘s credentials, but they’re well enough known to make familiar reading. I’ve been taken through his 1961 Old Vic Romeo and Juliet line by line by God knows how many avid admirers, and listened to implausible stories of just what went wrong with the Gielgud Othello he directed in the same year. More significantly, Zeffirelli was assistant to Visconti on one of Magnani‘s most famous films Bellissima in 1953. His attempts to film Shakespeare have met with varying success, and his most recent English production of Much Ado About Nothing for the National Theatre seemed to me to elaborate more than it illuminated. His facility for swamping a text with miscellaneous campery has given him a controversial reputation, and he might, were he running true to form, have been expected to revel in the nineteenth-century melodrama. Instead, he has tailored it down.
To understand the temptations, it’s worth explaining that the author Verga was basically a short-story writer, who originally wrote La Lupa as a simple tale and intended to adapt it as an opera libretto. Instead, he wrote a play, with a text close to the libretto but with dialogue turned from verse to prose. It was first performed in Turin in 1896. Verga is now remembered, or rather placed, as the original author of Cavalleria Rusticana on which Mascagni based his opera in 1890, making his adaptation without the author’s permission. Verga became involved in a long drawn-out law suit over the adaptation, which was still going on when he died.
Zeffirelli has rediscovered the work and directed it, not at all as an opera-manqué but is realistically as possible. The moonlit Sicilian country scene is naturalistically designed, and he has tried to remove the extreme sentimental trappings of the character of the she-wolf. The story tells of a middle-aged woman who falls in love with a young man, who rejects her to marry her daughter instead. Insanely jealous, she returns and ruins her daughter’s household, driving the man to lift an axe to ill her as the curtain falls. As realistically as possible.
The play is plainly suitable as a gilt edged star chariot, and Magnani by all accounts does magnificently. She is, I suppose, the world’s most accomplished emotional actress, here offering a performance that will probably put in the shade the whole debate about whether Joan Plowright should have been allowed to ride in on an emotional vehicle at the National Theatre a few months ago. She’s an actress I tend to respect rather than to venerate, but she does have an enormous and authoritative following. Born in 1908, Magnani began her career in night-clubs and repertory companies before making her first appearance on film in 1934. She’s best known in this country for her appearances in Rossellini‘s Open City (1946), Renoir‘s The Golden Coach (1954) and The Rose Tattoo which Tennessee Williams wrote specially for her in 1955. In fact, he wrote a number of plays with her in mind, but she never appeared on stage in any of them.
The Times wrote of her playing in La Lupa that “hers is a very great performance, a deeply tender and moving study of a woman who is the victim of her own sensuality”. Playing in a lower key, Osvaldo Ruggeri is excellent as the boy, and the dancers in the company are apparently remarkable for looking as if they learnt to dance naturally, and not in some highly artificial ballet school.
Verga‘s play survives the star treatment unusually well. He is finally a difficult figure to place in Italian drama, writing only a few plays which inadequately bridge that odd gap between melodrama and the world of Pirandello. Zeffirelli, who worked on Visconti‘s film of La Terra Trema, based on Verga‘s novel I Malavoglia, seems to have realised that Verga does not at all belong to the tradition of Italian showmanship initiated by the theatre of D’Annunzio. La Terra Trema is one of the great films of the neo-realist cinema, and it has in it the remains of a style of writing that is really never continued on the Italian stage, but which does deal with an area od Sicilian life with unusual realism and sympathy.