Beneath the covers: Notes on 'A comedy of tenors'

Opera superstar Tito Merelli pauses midway through opening the bedroom door to eavesdrop on a hushed, rushed conversation between his wife, Maria and another man (who, unbeknownst to him, is Carlo Nucci — newest opera darling and boyfriend of his daughter, Mimi). Tito tarries till he confirms his great fear: Maria is having an affair.

This is not true, however. What Tito has witnessed are passionate gestures, words and escape stratagems taken out of their proper context and into his own unassailable betrayal narrative.

Lorenz Martinez and Issa Litton lead the cast of Repertory Philippines' A comedy of tenors by Ken Ludwig. The show, directed by Miguel Faustmann, runs until February 18 at OnStage Theater, Makati City.

Ken Ludwig enjoys this game of hide-and-seek in A comedy of tenors, currently staged by Repertory Philippines under the direction of Miguel Faustmann. A Paris concert featuring the world's leading tenors — Merelli, Nucci, and Jussi Björling — is about to start in three hours. As farce would have it, Björling has to withdraw from the performance due to his mother’s sudden death, forcing producer Henry Saunders to hire his assistant-slash-son-in-law, Max (whom he has little fondness for) as a last-minute replacement tenor. One problem solved. A million others are waiting to unfold.

Here, truth is concealed in the most direct, even sincere dialogue. That what the characters say are true in their reality and false in the audience's — while remaining intelligible to both — is a triumph of Ludwig's writing, and provides much of the play's hilarity. When Tito confronts Maria, for example, the exchange sounds like the latter's detailed account of her affair, when in fact she's referring to the love between Carlo and Mimi.

Speaking of which, the young couple enriches the story's theme of hiding. When we meet them for the first time, they reveal themselves from underneath the sheets draping the hotel sofa. All along hearing Tito speak to Maria about killing whichever man touches his daughter. Mimi and Carlo, hidden as they may be, are not in the dark.

But the most impressive cover-up is pulled off by bellhop, Beppo (interpreted masterfully by Lorenz Martinez), who's hiding in plain sight. A splitting image of Tito, with a golden voice to boot, he saves the day when the enraged tenor quits the show. Beppo's face becomes the mask that allows him to live out a fantasy he's always had.

Joining Martinez and Litton are Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (Tatiana Racón), Noel Rayos (Max), Mica Pineda (Mimi), Arman Ferrer (Carlo Nucci), and Jeremy Domingo (Henry Saunders).

It's one dramatic irony after another, and while the audience revel in the string of misunderstandings, they are also privy to the unchronicled lives of the celebrity and the producer. Exposed are Tito's insecurities (about old age and a dimming career) beneath his fierce front; the wild ambitions of Beppo beneath his calm, almost meek demeanour; and the heart of Henry, who appears willing to do anything regardless of consequences because the show must go on.

Almost all characters are portrayed as caricatures (shoutout to Issa Litton for her explosive Maria), except for Max (Noel Rayos), making him the humanizing force in the bizarre ensemble. He's simply happy to perform, aware of his talent's limits — or maybe of a dream far more worthy of pursuing. But he, too, has a personal chaos to attend to. Back in the US, his wife is about to give birth.

The story that begins with a death winds down with a birth. Max's newborn and Mimi's pregnancy bring the warring heads into peace. As if Ludwig is saying, What's the point of youth and fame without anyone to call family? Riot aside, A comedy of tenors has a tone of resignation. Tito accepts that Mimi is not a baby anymore and that he is past his prime; while Henry has warmed up to Max.

In the finale, both audience and characters find themselves in the same place: behind the curtain, as the concert of the century is seconds away from starting. Tito, Beppo, Carlo, Max, and soprano, Tatiana Racón have their backs against us. We hear the cheers they hear. Both them and us, for once, agree on the same reality happening when words are no longer spoken.

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