Requiem pour un Bookmaker chinois (1995-96) (Urbana16)

(1996 French version, revised and translated into Spanish in 2000)

Opera-revue for flute, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, percussion, synthesiser (piano), six actors-singers, and tape.

Commissioned by the French Government.

Duration: 1 hour

Creation of the “put in space” version in March, 1996 at the CNSAD in Paris by TM Ensamble + directed by Laurent Cuniot. Creation of the scenic version at the Centro de Experimentación Teatro Colón in August, 2000 under the direction of Rut Schereiner.

The intervention of three fragments of fixed sounds is not realised as a true electroacoustic part but as a theatre-like “effect.”

In both cases the scenography and the staging were created by François Wastiaux.

Synopsis of John Cassavetes’ film, main source for the script.

The film’s action is set in Sunset Boulevard (Los Angeles), before Cosmo Vitelli’s Crazy Horse West cabaret. Vitelli is an ordinary man. The “club” is his life, he runs it, though he is not the owner. In fact, the cabaret is supported by a lender’s dollars. The day when Cosmo finally is going to make the last payment, he decides to hold a big celebration: limousine, Dom Pérignon, orchids, and his most beautiful dancer, Sherry. He accepts an invitation from a private gambling club. He loses everything. The “organisation” controls him: if he kills the old rival, the Chinese bookmaker, the mafia will pardon his gambling debt. Cosmo kills the bookmaker, becoming a perfect target. He survives because the mafia is made up of amateurs. Free again, but with a bullet in his body, he comes back to the Crazy to present the night’s show.








Last Requiem for a Chinese Bookmaker or Le Requiem pour un Bookmaker chinois – Chamber opera

We are going to assist to the splendours and miseries of Cosmo Vitelli, an indebted owner of a little cabaret. During the representation’s one hour of duration, the scene is taken up by the orchestra.

Mr Sophistication – Cosmo’s alter ego and the presenter of the somewhat ridiculous revue of Cosmo’s cabaret – has a difficult task: to fill Cosmo’s absence as he is busy with the mafia.

As he will not be able to motivate the girls and make the cabaret work by himself, the help from the technical staff will be essential (lighting, sound, makeup, etc.).

There is no point in insisting on the parallelism between the precision needed, in a film, for the realisation of a scene, and, in an opera, for the pursuit of harmony between scene, script, direction, score, and public. Going beyond the technical aspects, the set goal is not to accurately represent a universe that, fatally, escapes us (the film noir B film) but to channel, in opera’s conventions, the subversive dynamics that were the daily bread of a filmmaker who is subject to the Hollywood dictatorship.

Which are those dynamics?

  1. The action is born dead. It exists only through music. The whole action is soft and weak. Everything revolves around the score.
  2. Time either stops or goes too fast.
  3. The sides, and therefore the places, are not rivals but intermediaries. They are put on top of each other to produce a new improbable space, at the centre of which lie the score and the performers.
  4. There is not a limit between good and bad people at that time of awareness eclipse, when the announced death rubs shoulders with the purity of sound. The brightness of black humour which will never make us say: “time has stopped” or “ok, we’ve understood.”

The script

What challenges us the most in Cassavetes’ way of narrating this criminal story is the postponement of the main artistic obstacle: showing the corpse. Raskolnikov’s murder, as well as Cosmo’s (or that which Hamlet endlessly postpones), are not controlled by the action. The characters dance by themselves over the burning ember of the absence of murderous hate. Little does the corpse matter. What interests us is the isolated man before his act.

The script reflect that perception that makes of “Killing of a Chinese Bookie” a blurry, almost mute film, in contrast with the common image that we have of the filmmaker. For “Requiem…” we have kept a short and concise dialogue, avoiding the film noir author’s tics and discourses and using direct and precise replies.

The opera rebuilds the film. When the latter alternates between cabaret scenes with “outdoors” we have mixed them in two places that can be put on top of each other: Cosmo’s cabaret and the mafia’s theatre. Transformed by the score, the point of the eclipse of the weak against the strong, in a blind spot of his consciousness, Cosmo Vitelli manages to escape the contingency of death thanks to a theatre that he himself has imaginarily built at his will. That is where his strength comes from.

The score

“Opera-Revue” for an ensemble of musicians made up of a flute (also a piccolo flute), a clarinet (also a bass clarinet), a French horn, a trio of one percussion, one string, and a keyboard, joined particularly by a magnetic tape (purely anecdotic).

The writing of the actor’s voices is of great importance to the score. The sung and spoken parts are entirely written and measured in a way that produces a constant dialogue with the instrumental parts.

Contrarily to what might be expected, I have not organised the action according to recognisable themes, but so that each of them refers to precise musical textures. Beyond the classic texture categories (polyphony, chorale, accompanied melody, etc.) I have established relations between the instrumentation and dramatic situations, ways of executing and specificities in which the actors-singers are treated as some of many markers of a created sonic space.

The dialogue is readily comprehensible, always within a level where the theatrical is placed over the vocal effect.

The characters

Cosmo Vitelli, the cabaret’s manager (Bass-Baritone)

Teddy or Mister Sophistication, the cabaret’s presenter (Tenor)

Sherry, a cabaret’s girl (Mezzo) and her double who speaks little and dances (actress)

Mafia Man 1 (M1: John, the regulator, the intermediary) (Tenor-Martin)

Mafia Man 2 (M2: Mort, Le Gorila) (Bass-Baritone)

Mafia Man 3 (M3: Eddy, Marty, The Dealer, The Accountant, The Gunsmith) (Baritone)

The musicians are present in the cabaret scene.

The Place 

Crazy Horse West, Cosmo Vitelli’s cabaret. In the 1970s, on Sunset Boulevard, Place Pigalle, or Palermo Viejo.

Structure and development     

In a schematic manner, we can say that the play is made up of 22 scenes, one opening, and one epilogue. The musical organisation is thought in such a way that it assumes the action’s role, and it is crystallised in materials that have little in common with the idea of the theme or leitmotiv.

There are three main tempis through the play that will interweave the musical action: a very slow 32 crotchet pulse, an intermediate one of 53 and a faster paced one of 80 crotchets. The one with 132 crotchets, which is also present, has to do with the impetuous and violent nature of the mafia characters, who are akin to the silent film’s characters (here the mafia is not scary, it is amateur but it can become bloodthirsty and violent). Our hero, Cosmo, paradigm of ambiguity, will also sometimes be in this “tempo.”

The three tempi (in fact 32.5, 53, 79.5) have equivalences of metric modulation. There can be a change between one and another sometimes imperceptibly.

The explicit musical references made in the play have a direct relationship with the description of the characters, their privacy. Mr Sophistication’s “Vals” gives him the dreamy appearance of a great artist, certainly very decadent, but also simple and moving. Cosmo’s tango emphasises the vulgarity of this Italian New Yorker, a new rich who has come to a situation which only his charm helps us excuse: a colonial war (Corea) past, a present as a cabaret manager, and a future as a criminal (murder of the Chinese Bookmaker).

Sherry, in her slow folk song tinged by frayed blues, contributes to strengthen the lack of definition (that feeling which is present throughout the whole first scene) which is an important form factor. The opera seems not to begin. The audience do not quite know whether they are attending a rehearsal, an embarrassment, or an overture. Time is stretched and the true beginning of the action seems to be delayed.

What lies behind the true beginning is precisely the action to which we finally arrive. The actors, after a kind of strike, decide to start. Towards the end of the first act, Crazy Horse West starts to work, which allows us to take the action into other scenarios: the coming and going between the game room and the cabaret in the second act, or the mafia’s theatre in the third.

[ Urbana Cycle ]
[ Opera / Theatre Music ]