‘Caravaggio’ reviewed: a musical too many

As the first soft rock chords came blasting from the pit of the Mediterranean Conference Center theater, I knew I would need to muster some resolve to endure the hours to come.

Caravaggio the Musicalan original production by the MCC directed by Malcolm Galea, shown at the MCC between September 20 and 25. It featured a script and lyrics by Joe Julian Farrugia and music by composer Paul Abela with choreography and musical staging by Felix Busuttil.

The musical purports to be a biographical look into the life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the tortured Italian painter with a Maltese connection.

It isn’t the first time the Renaissance artist was made an ambassador of Maltese art (take the recent Biennale pavilion for instance). I doubt those who have a bone to pick with this premise would much enjoy a musical celebrating Caravaggio’s Maltese exile and ensuing knighthood (the Maltese crosses galore in the second act and accolades of This Land make for a rather eye-rolling viewing).

Mercifully (although not greatly consoling), the Maltese connection is not as central to the plot as the tortured genius trope driving the musical along.

Michele (Cameron Walker-Pow) is portrayed as a troubled, struggling artist with anger issues, who, while belittled by the artist Baglione (Roger Tirazona), still makes his way into the graces of his boss Del Monte (Lawrence Gray) with the help of his love interest(s) Lena (Talitha Dimech) and Minniti (Ryan Grech).

The acrimonious intrusions of Baglione greatly aggravate the unstable Michele, who eventually murders Baglione and is forced into exile.

Among Michele’s many demons are Chiaro (Katerina Fenech) and Scuro (Neville Refalo) – personifications of the artist’s inner turmoil inspired by his characteristic chiaroscuro technique. They appear from time to time to drive him into tempestuousness.

Exiled to Malta and later knighted, he decides to shun Chiaro and Scuro and rid himself of their influence, but they soon slither back and exasperate him further until he repeats his past mistakes tenfold.

No one can fault the cast’s musical ability, which is indeed the saving grace of a production concocted from many of the usual clichés (the tortured artist trope is a fairly standard one).

Tirazona, who plays the antagonists Baglione and Rodomonte, shines particularly in this respect, having a natural and skilled presence on stage. On the other hand, Louis Andrew Cassar, who plays Ranuccio, suffered from very clunky, exaggerated acting despite his vocal capabilities.

All throughout, given the plot’s unadventurous, clichéd tendencies – both in terms of dialogue and the musical pieces – the actors are not much encouraged to add depth to their characters, opting instead to act out their parts competently but not engrossingly.

Dancers jaunting onstage in a flurry of claps and twirls do close to nothing for the piece

Hindering further from the hope of getting lost in the narrative is the often sharp, almost jarring transition from dialogue to music throughout. While in one moment we see the characters exchange lines, the next moment is an explosion of intense music rarely in keeping with the preceding moment’s tempo or temperament.

Despite these difficulties, some musical pieces did come across rather well. The Aeterna Christi piece, based off a hymn by St. Ambrose, was rather pleasant, along with the music and interpretation of My Lady My Madonna swear What a Shame.

The musical’s weakest element by far is its choreography. The dancers jaunting onstage in a flurry of claps and twirls do close to nothing for the piece except fill the expanse of the MCC stage. Rather than accentuate elements of plot or extend a scene’s emotional range, the dancers move almost independently of it – a disjuncture common to most of the musical.

Maltese crosses galore populate the second act.

The musical only shines when Caravaggio’s masterpieces take center stage. My favorite scene, in fact, showed Michele at his easel and his model reclined before him, with a detail of the famous painting in the background in all its splendor. The simplicity and balance of that scene were most welcome.

Sadly, whenever Caravaggio’s works make their way as props onstage, they are often husks of their original source, robbed of color and formed from heavy, graphite-looking lines. One would think that a musical about Caravaggio would showcase his paintings more fully.

I left the MCC rather uninspired and slightly disappointed. Caravaggio’s masterpieces are some of the most important artworks ever produced and stand the test of time precisely because of their subtlety – a quality that MCC’s musical lacks entirely.

While I cannot help tipping my hat at the team’s audacity to produce an original musical at such a scale, it is unfortunate that its creative scope is so limited.

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