Review: "Opera Buffa!" Orchestrates an Extended Aria of Absurdity

Opera Buffa!

Written and performed by Maria Cassi and Leonardo Brizzi

Presented by Compagnia Maria Cassi at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo’ at NYU

May 7, 2024

Maria Cassi and Leonardo Brizzi. Photo by James O'Mara
One might meet with skepticism a claim that art and performance transcend language. While there are ways other than words to get a point across or even to tell a story–that is, they do not require language–if there is language that one does not understand, one must miss something, right? Maria Cassi and Leonardo Brizzi's multilingual, multigenre Opera Buffa!–a single performance of which is part of the 2024 In Scena! Italian Theater Festival, which runs from April 29th to May 13th at multiple venues throughout the five boroughs and offers free admission to all events–is described as "an almost mimed performance" of a sequence of songs; as both music and miming convey meaning non-verbally, one might presume a show that is light on the spoken word, a presumption upheld by the absence of the supertitles translating Italian into English that feature in most In Scena! performances as well as in opera, whether opera buffa–that is, comic opera shaped by the commedia dell'arteopera seria, or opera more broadly. This assumption, however, would be not only inaccurate but also unnecessary.

Cassi is an actor, a mime, a singer, a comedian, a writer, a director, a producer, and more, and she is improbably good at all of these things, as Opera Buffa! showcases. Although the show incorporates miming and mimicry, Cassi talks, sings, and vocalizes non-verbally while also performing with her whole body and a wide range of facial expressions, switching between speaking and singing, to the accompaniment of Brizzi's very serious Maestro on piano, in Italian and in English.

And she is very, very funny.

She begins by talking about her native Florence and Florentines more generally, particularly their verbal and non-verbal vocal tics and the types of characters present throughout the city. This throughline, traced in both Italian and English, strings together Beatles songs, an extended take on Don Giovanni and how it is impossible to understand the words in Italian operas, appeals to the audience to be as serious as possible in response to the Maestro, mimicry that becomes an airline safety announcement, a medley sung in the round by the two, and Cassi serving as the Maestro's very bad assistant and occasional co-pianist (if using body parts other than one's hands counts as playing the piano). Increasingly, their dynamic becomes that of a parent trying to rein in an impish, irascible child, but again, this all serves as a backdrop to very skilled performers creating an hour of story and song that passes in the time it takes to mime the blink of an eye.

-Leah Richards and John R. Ziegler

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