Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > A Polish Siegfried in Saragossa and a Bare Ballerina in Bucharest

A Polish Siegfried in Saragossa and a Bare Ballerina in Bucharest

18 Mar 2002

Another fine (if slightly chilly) weekend in Bucharest. You know, I'm getting to like this city more the longer I stay here. Now that I am not coming and going from a hotel, and now that it is warm enough for me to wear a (rather Romanian-looking) black leather jacket instead of my (absolutely Western) hooded parka I get very little hassle from pimps and maradonistas, and I bet I would get none at all if it weren't for my (very Western, but very convenient) Eagle Creek daypack. Add that to the fact that now (1) I know plenty of good places to eat, (2) even a "chilly" March day is warm enough to make street food OK, and (3) I don't really have to "find" a place for each meal because I have a very pleasant place of my own, and my hassles are down to a very few, like the fact that I still haven't really mastered the trams and buses, or that annoying little matter of being no more able to express myself in Romanian-language conversation than a typical Romanian four-year-old (I may be going on five now, thanks to lessons).

Friday evening I saw Saragosa, 66 de Zile (Saragossa, 66 Days), an excellent play based on Jan Potocki's Romantic-era romp Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Although the story is set in a rather mythical Spain, the author was Polish, and many of you will be familiar its incarnation in the brilliant 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript, quite possibly the best film ever to come out of that country (Sorry, Zanussi. Sorry, Wajda, Kieslowski, Polanski. I call 'em as I see 'em.) Both the book and film are a sort of Canterbury Tales, but with stories within stories to the point where it is hard to keep track. (That's OK, just enjoy the ride.) A sidelight on the book: Washington Irving, probably accidentally, plagiarized one story from it for the Tales of the Alhambra. And one on the film: star Zbigniew Cybulski (he plays Alfons van Worden) died shortly after, making him (I'm told) as much a legend in Poland as James Dean is in America.

Alexandru Dabija's stage play is (a little) more linear than the book or film, but certainly lives up to their high standard. The staging was simultaneously stark and spectacular, with elaborate costumes but with sets simple to the point of being almost non-existent. (Venta Quemada was represented only by its signpost.) This staging was an interesting contrast to the auditorium of the Odeon, where it took place, a 400-seat nineteenth-century gem designed as much for box-to-box flirtations as for actually seeing a play.

The Odeon is actually rather magical. It seems to defy the laws of physical space that so large a stage and so large an audience can fit into a building, which looks from the outside like a 200-seater. Such magic is very appropriate for the affair at hand: one never knows whether the beautiful, amorous Emina and Zibelda are ghosts, demons, or fleshly women, whether Pacheco is a possessed madman or a rather strange young aristocrat, whether the forces of the Inquisition, the Cabalist and his family, and the Geometer are what they seem or are part of an elaborate masquerade, whether the Cabalist's beautiful sister Rachel merely imagines the Gemini or whether they have actually been conjured, or, quite simply, whether any of this is to be taken as real or whether these are simply players, putting on a show for our benefit and perhaps that of the young, valiant, foolhardy Alfons van Worden.

As for the production (yes, another review of a play you won't see. Sorry. Come visit.): Cristian Iacob as Alfons was not quite as wonderful as the late Zbigniew Cybulski, but he was close. More than anyone else in the play, he seemed a bit in the shadow of the film, copying Cybulski's haircut, bearing, and mannerisms to a tee, thereby limiting himself to being something of a copy. Alfons doesn't really do much except be brave to the point of foolhardiness and react to the strangeness going on around him (Siegfried in Wonderland), and if it weren't for what Cybulski had managed to make of that, one would not fault Iacob for finding a bit less.

(I'm not going to keep ticking off actors' names, on the theory that those who are tracking know the characters and probably no one reading this will know Romanian actors.)

The sisters Emina and Zibelda were beautiful, sensual, and seductive, their interaction with Alfons duly amorous; the men of their Gomelez clan (Alfons's maternal relatives) were fierce, especially when using their flintlocks to scatter the previously intimidating men of the Inquisition; Pacheco was alternately mad and lucid, and fine in both aspects, and his master the hermit was both appropriately simple and appropriately imperious; the Cabalist was wonderful in his sheer calm about waking up magically transported to the Soto's gallows (one got the feeling he had been in similar places before) as the Soto brothers (mannequins, actually) slowly descended from the ceiling on their ropes; Rachel was beautiful in an entirely different way than the sisters, less a male fantasy and more of a whole person (and certainly an intellect) in her own right; and the Geometer had his own little romp with Emina and Zibelda, only for him Emina had elaborate mathematical diagrams leading strategically to her erogenous zones. And, oh, yeah, there two guys dressed up as a horse. And Mosquito had a clown nose. And Emina and Zibleda's servant was actress inside an automaton with the body and hair of a buxom blonde Bavarian, but with black skin. And I'm not sure why in Act II a large balsa-wood airplane was hanging from the ceiling, but it was.

Potocki really was in Spain (in 1791; he also was in what is now Moldova in 1784, so there is a vague Romanian connection), so his Andalucia is a bit less arbitrary than Calderon de la Barca's Poland in La vida es sueño. He clearly had the same fascination with the place as Washington Irving a generation later. To this day, Irving is famous in Spain for reviving the interest in their Islamic past and the mixing there of the "Three Religions of the Book". If Potocki had had a better publisher, it could have been him.

Much of the weekend was spent at places I've already written about, and I don't want to bore you with recaps. I did visit an excellent small museum, the Zambaccian, up north by Piaţa Doribanţilor (Piata Doribantilor). First rate work by several turn-of-the-century Romanian artists, a dozen or so lesser works by major French Impressionists (Zambaccian was rich, but not rich enough to buy a major Pissaro or Cezanne) and a downright Goya-esque portrait of Zambaccian himself by Corneliu Baba. Put it on the visit list if you ever get here. The nearby Piata Doribantilor is pretty cool, too: some good bars and coffeeshops, a small indoor market, and Bucharest's best bread at Brutaria Deutschland. Plus lots of cool old villas in the neighborhood, some good minor sculpture in the streets around, etc.

Saturday evening I went to a movie: Ocean's Eleven. I liked it. I know that's not a universally held opinion. I suppose that the fact that my favorite performance was Elliott Gould's near-cameo doesn't speak entirely well for the thing, and I realize that it is ultimately Hollywood fluff (in this case, crossed with Vegas fluff), but I think they updated the story well, didn't slavishly copy the Rat Pack shtick, etc. Not a great movie, I guess, but not the embarrassment typical of a remake.

Sunday evening I back to the Opera, this time for Bizet's Pearl Fishers, sung in Romanian. For those who don't know the work in question, two men, friends, Sri Lankan pearl fishers (I've read that they were originally supposed to be Mexican, but politics intervened) are both in love with the same woman, who happens to be some sort of vestal virgin, meaning that the cost of acting on this love is a death sentence both for oneself and for her. Needless to say, this rather tests their friendship, the mores of society, the authority of religion, etc. It also makes for a really cool contrast between opera singers in the foreground acting out the overt plot and dancers in the background portraying the souls of the vestal virgin and the pearl fisher she ends up with. (His friend ultimately gets killed helping them escape). If any one wants to provide a more reverent summary, feel free.

It was every bit as good as I hoped, with a few aspects one might not have anticipated. The operatic principals were dressed in a manner equidistant between China and nineteenth-century Europe: lots of silks, colors limited to black, white, grays, tan, and beige, some use of gold facepaint, definitely less reflective of Asia (and not at all of Sri Lanka, where this is ostensibly set) than of nineteenth-century European fantasies of Asia. Zurga and Nadir were both longhaired, the Priest wore a fake pate that made him look rather like a Chinese monk, and Leila looked fit to attend a ball in Second Empire France. The chorus were arrayed on risers and dressed in primary-colored costumes with appropriately South Asian masks. The corps de ballet, entirely female, were in a similar palette to the principals, hair slicked back, and wearing garments barely more concealing than a two-piece bathing suit augmented by a nearly transparent white dress. However, next to the principal dancers, the corps were heavily clad: Andrea Duta (I'm not even going to bother with the diacritical marks in that surname) wore only the lower half of the corps' outfit, dancing the entire performance with her breasts bare (she covered up only for her curtain call) and the redoubtable Cristian Craciun (about whom I wrote as Mercutio in Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet last fall) was wearing little more than a tied-off loincloth.

"What about the music?" I hear you ask. Well, it was great. I suppose Bizet is one of the few French composers to really belong in the first rank, and the orchestra and singers were certainly equal to the task placed upon them. So was the audience, for once: I guess word was out on this one, and the opera buffs were out in force, enforcing a certain reduction in the audience babble. Not that it was down to zero, but close. Pretty good, given that some of these people must have come just to watch Cristian's muscles or Andrea's breasts.

Bizet and his librettists no doubt intended Pearl Fishers as more than just spectacle, so it seems fair to ask, "what does this all mean?" OK. Ossified authority is bad and worth defying, even if that gets you killed. Friendship and love are a lot more important than the order of society, and if one of them has to give, it should be the latter. Our souls are mute, and can even be a bit nasty, but they sure are sexier than our bodies. Oh, and this was supposed to be set someplace exotic, and now a costume straight out of Bizet's own world can look as exotic to us as all that Ceylonese rigamarole was to him and his contemporaries. Also, if it's not exotic enough, you must be wearing too many clothes.

On the Jewish Museum front: there is some politics about why they don't yet have an Internet connection and email, but my contact there is sure that if I can turn them up a place to host a website for free, that will break that impasse. It's not a money matter as such, it's conservative old men who can't imagine why they need to have email. My current thought is that some American university (or perhaps some American or Israeli Jewish charity) should be willing to host the site for free. Anyone know a relevant institution that has shown a strong interest in the history of Eastern European Jewry? Any other ideas?


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Originally written: March 18, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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