In the Colonial period Strada Stretta – Strait Street – was the heart of Valletta's jazz scene and red-light district. It's a long, lamp-lit, narrow place (you can practically touch hands across the overhanging galleriji), draughts of sea breeze bringing warmth and chill equally. Nowadays it thrives on a crowded café culture, partying 'til dawn, and a kaleidoscope of humanity from buskers and chancers to despairing lovers. A place of embraces, glances and first meetings, kisses for free. Largely surviving the Second World War, the many boarded-up derelict buildings – a mixture of high sandstone walls, cracked doors, flaking paint, rotting sashes, rusting lattices, jagged window panes, shuttered secrets – create an extraordinary atmosphere. Some are being restored. Others are being rejuvenated. The Splendid, a bordello in times past, is one such, its scent and scene defined by distressed surfaces and crumbling architecture … a silent fireplace, bared wires … shadows, corridors, locked rooms. At the back there's a window left half open, to let wander, they say, the ghost of a girl murdered in lust. Supported by the Valletta 2018 Foundation under the artistic curatorship of the university academic, fine art historian and philosopher Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, The Splendid (The Strada Stretta Concept) has become a justifiably well-supported culture hub, providing an intimate venue for innovative creative expression in all areas of artistic life and community exchange.
Schembri Bonaci trained in theatre direction in Moscow, working with Pyotr Fomenko. A determined individual of intricate thought and lexicographical mind, seeking new tensions, new connections, new psychological perspectives, forever gilding and coding the simple with unlikely, unthought of associations or derivatives, rarely content to leave anything untouched or unargued, happiest turning cadences into question marks, his productions inevitably challenge and defy. Purity, beauty, dissonance, provocation, black moods, mischief, restless wild-cards, the suddenness of the unexpected, calm winds turned into savage Mediterranean storms – all go into the cauldron that is his questing, grizzled personality.
Oscillating between high culture and the vernacular, his one-off seventy-five-minute abridgement of Turandot, without interval, proved a journey offsetting the familiar with complex subtexts, its soundworld one of Italian opera interposed with jazz breaks, local minstrelsy and English narrative links filtered through bar-room piano, trumpets, saxophone and guitars. Puccini's unfinished three-Act score (1921-24) and Gozzi's original commedia dell'arte play (1762), different in emphasis from Schiller's moralistic 1801 re-reading of the plot produced in Weimar by Goethe, seed and steer the action. Circumventing Alfano's 'happy' Act Three completion, the adaptation stops where Puccini left off.
Staging and lighting (naked walls, glowing candles) was economical; the costumes minimal (orientally evocative yoked sackcloths, dark lounge suits, white commedia dell'arte masks); the staging maximal (the scenes angled variously through three simultaneous acting/audience spaces (plus entrance hall, stairs and upstairs passageway), any two accessible via split-screen monitors to any one audience).
Not every aspect worked, onward flow and the timing of pauses for one. The relative smallness of monitors for another – easier on occasion to focus on just twenty-five percent of the material (the performance in the room we were immediately in) than tangle with an excess of dramatic information and flickering images. Striking, though, were the juxtapositions of language and musical vocabulary, between them generating a multi-timbre Turandot of deliberated, clashing experience – from Puccini's notes transmogrified into American jazz to the vowel accentuations of the Maltese bormliza, two troubadours improvising unearthly, tight-throated, haiku-like melismas taking us to places, modes and tuning temperaments eerily alien to Western ears. But then is not Turandot a tale of Asian colours east of Byzantium …?
The principal roles were finely cast. As Turandot, Maryana Bodnar – tall, blonde, regal in posture and profile, haughtily beautiful, coolly penetrating of eye – epitomised the princess of the steppes “begirdled by ice", Gozzi's proud “tigerish woman". Her presence was commanding, her delivery unrelenting. Mirjana Pantelic, warmer in spirit, portrayed Liù the forsaken slave-girl in softer, suppler light, for all her statuesque grace cutting a vulnerable figure trapped behind the bars of her prison (the slats of her leafless fan-like head-dress), with only death to come – the blacked-out final moment of the production, brutally sudden. “What is love? Love is sacrifice” (Schembri Bonaci). Creating the part of The Unknown Prince (Calaf), Charles Vincenti did all that was vocally required of him – a tenor of mellow Maltese/Italianate voice but big projection (belying his slightness of frame), pencil-moustached, black-scarfed in the Bohemian way, sure of his words and notes. Alone in the moonlight, come 'Nessun dorma' – straight then with saxophone obbligato (José María Castro Alonso), he scaled the heights, his voicing searing across the room, a man richly sure he will win his queen.
The evening was not without encores, albeit private ones, and, befitting the unorthodoxy of the location, not within The Splendid but outside. Still in character, a glass of wine, a shot of rakija to loosen inhibitions, unaccompanied, Bodnar and Pantelic took to the Silk Road, stretched murmurs and lingering half-smiles seducing the night: a Ukrainian folk song, the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen, a Serbian air. Curved, arching phrases, the languor of aftermath, chiselled clarity. Their voices echoed down Strait Street, ringing off the walls, circling broken rooms. Passed one o'clock, lost in dream, Schembri Bonaci watched, gazing into the November darkness beyond what had once been his home.