"At the Brink"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 25, 2011
The fact that opera was invented, perfected, and made immortal on Italian soil—the genre’s semi-official birthplace is the Palazzo Corsi in Florence, where Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne” had its première, in 1598—might make you think that Italian politicians would take care to safeguard the art and celebrate its vast influence. Yet the government of Silvio Berlusconi has shown startling indifference, if not outright contempt, toward opera and other traditional genres. Last year, it was announced that the Unified Fund for the Performing Arts, which covers opera, theatre, dance, and film, would be slashed by thirty-seven per cent. At least a few of Italy’s storied companies seemed doomed to extinction, and others faced a threadbare existence.
In March, one man made a notable protest. Riccardo Muti, who long directed La Scala, in Milan, and who now leads the Chicago Symphony, was conducting Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Rome Opera. The production arrived in the midst of elaborate nationwide observances of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy. In that historical moment, Verdi played a significant symbolic role: “Va, pensiero,” the lofty chorus of the Hebrew slaves in “Nabucco,” became an unofficial national anthem, its Biblical lament alluding to the long struggle under Austrian rule. On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va, pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva l’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Sì, I am in accord with that ‘Viva l’Italia!’ ” he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, “When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!’ ”— Oh, my country so beautiful and lost!—“I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va, pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.
Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike. He succeeded in casting doubt on the patriotic credentials of a regime that came to power through chauvinistic spectacles; indeed, he seemed almost to be comparing Berlusconi and his American-style media operatives to the old Austrian occupiers. Such tactics elicited an immediate response. The finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, who had earlier said, “You can’t eat culture,” met with Muti and agreed to roll back the cuts. Berlusconi came to a later “Nabucco” performance, amid loud boos and heckling from the public, and made a show of going backstage to greet Muti. Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to more decisive effect.
No one in Italian opera is feeling secure. I stayed in Italy for all of June, thanks to a fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, and attended performances in Naples, Florence, Venice, and Rome itself. Signs of austerity were everywhere: in Venice, a staging of Wagner’s “Rheingold” had to give way to a concert rendition. Nor is there any guarantee that funding won’t be cut again. The stopgap measure that was put in place—a slight increase in gas taxes—is hardly calculated to win new fans for opera, particularly with a deeper financial crisis looming. Still, the art form retains a passionate following following on its native ground: the Arena in Verona, which presents open-air productions in the summer, draws half a million people each year. Opera remains, fundamentally, a popular art with élite trappings— the antithesis of corporatized pop culture in the Berlusconi mode.
The Rome Opera, whose ornate old auditorium is trapped behind a cold modernist façade, has never attained the prestige of La Scala. Yet it has a rich history, from the première of “Tosca,” in 1900, to legendary nights under the conductor Tullio Serafin in the mid-twentieth century. The current artistic director is the composer and conductor Alessio Vlad, a suave Leonard Bernstein protégé, who has brought a degree of order to the company after several chaotic years. Even so, the house has endured the usual struggles. Vlad had originally planned to end the season with Franco Zeffirelli’s historic version of “La Bohème,” but the budget was insufficient, and instead Vlad aired out some picturesque old sets by Pierluigi Samaritani, who died in 1994.
The cast on opening night was imperfect. The Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, customarily stylish in Italian repertory, was in dry, reedy voice as Rodolfo, and the big-toned Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava made for an oddly stentorian Mimi. Idiomatic diction was in short supply. The orchestra, though, played brilliantly; James Conlon, in the pit, obtained a performance rich in impressionistic atmosphere—delicate splashes of harp reminded you of how much Puccini owed to Debussy—and unsentimentally potent in effect. The lamentation for Mimi at the end had unexpectedly crushing weight. In the long-smoldering operatic rivalry between Milan and Rome, the underdog may be gaining ground, not least because Muti has more or less defected from one city to the other.
La Fenice, the splendid old theatre of Venice, had to be rebuilt after a notorious act of arson destroyed the extant building in 1996. Venetians are still debating whether the acoustics of the new house match those of the old; to my ears, the sound is uncommonly vivid, in this case illuminating hidden corners of Wagner’s “Rheingold” orchestration. (I now thought of how much Debussy owed to Wagner.) Amid more uneven casting, the baritone Richard Paul Fink stole the show with a full-voiced, savagely witty portrayal of Alberich, and the tenor Marlin Miller lent a fresh, songful timbre to the part of Loge. Whether Robert Carsen’s full production of the opera will make it to the Fenice stage is an open question.
Teatro di San Carlo, in Naples, reopened last year after an ambitious renovation. To the surprise of seasoned observers, the work was done on time and on budget; no felonious electricians set fires. The house for which Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi wrote at least a dozen masterpieces looks more glorious than ever. There is, however, another acoustical controversy; the Neapolitan director, composer, and author Roberto De Simone has lamented that the sound is not what it was. Muti, also a Neapolitan, inevitably became involved in the dispute, saying that the acoustics were actually better than before.
When I was at San Carlo, De Simone was directing Giovanni Paisiello’s 1769 comic opera “L’Osteria di Marechiaro,” a tale of aristocrats and peasants entangling at a seaside tavern. Paisiello influenced the young Mozart, and although he lacked anything like Mozart’s genius, he possessed a captivating lyric gift. The San Carlo singers, led by the earthy mezzo Marina Comparato, had a firm grasp of the Neapolitan-opera style, not to mention extended passages couched in the local dialect. People around me were laughing at jokes that would have eluded me even if I spoke Italian. The orchestra sounded a bit thin; perhaps the acoustics were to blame, although I hesitate to contradict Maestro Muti on this point.
In Florence, Maggio Musicale, Italy’s leading music festival, presented “The Coronation of Poppea,” Monteverdi’s eternally modern drama of erotic scheming at the court of Nero. The opera had its première in Venice, in 1643; the Teatro della Pergola, where the Florence staging took place, opened for business just fourteen years later. Although the structure was rebuilt several times over the ensuing centuries, the basic plan has remained the same. The sense of continuity that results from hearing opera in such a space is what cultural tourists prize most. The historical resonances that we think we hear echoing from the masonry may be purely imaginary, but they are strong enough so that they become quasi-physical sensations. I felt as much when I realized that my Venice hotel was around the corner from the little house where Vivaldi wrote “The Four Seasons.”
The Florentine “Poppea,” which was overseen by the venerable opera director Pier Luigi Pizzi, was a co-production with La Fenice and Teatro Real in Madrid, and it had a degree of international glamour missing from other events I attended last month. The superstar mezzo Susan Graham headed a lustrous cast, and the Baroque specialist Alan Curtis brought in members of his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. In a lean season, this show had a well-fed look. (Curtis’s high-class Baroque ventures have the financial support of the best-selling crime novelist Donna Leon, who is well versed in Baroque opera.) Curtis’s latest version of “Poppea” puts some undue stress on the tenors, but it chooses a satisfying sequence among the many editorial alternatives that exist for this score.
Pizzi’s staging often teetered on the edge of haute-couture kitsch: Nero’s soldiers were attired in short-shorts and sleeveless tops, and in one scene the Emperor donned a feathered ensemble reminiscent of Big Bird at his most flamboyant. Yet it was the most fully realized theatrical conception I saw in Italy, the relationships among the main characters thoroughly and thoughtfully developed. Many directors have brought out a homoerotic vibe in the duet between Nero and his companion Lucano—the two are supposed to be extolling Poppea’s beauty but seem rather wrapped up in each other— and Pizzi encouraged his performers to go further than most: the tenors Jeremy Ovenden and Nicholas Phan mimed a lusty makeout session, even as they sang with close attention to verbal and musical detail. There was nothing exhibitionistic about the sequence; it had the intimacy and spontaneity of a real-life encounter.
In opera, money buys you many things, but above all it buys you time: time to rehearse, time to resolve interpretive conflicts, time to find theatrical cohesion. The question of where the money will come from is one that opera companies all over the world are anxiously pondering, whether they derive the better part of their funds from the state, as in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, or draw on private donors in the American style. What the art form needs, in either case, is a persuasive justification for the expenditure. Muti, in conversation with the Chicago critic Andrew Patner, came up with a succinct formulation: “If you kill the culture, you kill the country.”