Viva Verdi!

Almost midnight here in Parma - close to Verdi's birthplace. He entered the world 200 years ago in the hamlet known as Le Roncole.  Nearby Piacenza also lays claim to this operatic genius but, to be honest, Parma was easier to get to and I had a hunch that  Parma's Teatro Regio and, even its notoriously difficult public, would do justice to their almost-native son. A few times during the day and, even last night, I had reason to doubt my choice.

The decision makers in Italy seemed shy of just presenting their  great man and his work simply and directly. Last night, for example, an evening of Verdi celebrations at Parma's Teatro Due seemed sadly short of Verdi's music. There were swing dancers, a jazz combo and even something advertised as a "Trovatore Ballabile" with lots of stiff, strutting, acrobatic dancers but not a note of that rip-roaring, searing opera.

This morning the mayor of Parma and various dignitaries gathered in front of Verdi's monument at the main square in Parma. A small group of Japanese, German and British Verdians were in attendance alongside the big gathering of locals. Three huge wreaths were laid the biggest, in sunny yellows, from the people of Nuremberg - a city usually associated with that other opera genius celebrating his 200th. Lots of chatting and fussing and general muddle seemed to take place and we all waited for a promised performance of "Va Pensiero". I stood among a group of middle-aged Italian women chatting at the tops of their voices and taking it in turns to tell the others to "sssh." But no orchestra, no chorus in sight. Then the speeches ended and, like a very sedate flash mob, my chatty companions suddenly materialized on stage. And a man played an electric keyboard and I folded my arms ready to be aggrieved (What! No orchestra!) But instead I was deeply moved by a group of ordinary Italians, in everyday clothes, giving heart and soul in song to the great man.

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Then, this evening, I doubted again. The concert at Teatro Regio promised the Russian conductor, Yuri Termikanov but instead a young Italian led the orchestra in some dull, ballet pieces that I am not sure pleased Verdi himself that much. It all felt a bit flat and, again, I felt exasperated with organizers who could not just be upfront and give us good, well-loved Verdi on this good, well-loved man's day.

After the intermission, the singers walked on. The Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa carried herself with such confidence and, even, grandeur, that I sensed things were about to take off. And in Aida's Act 2, Triumphal March, trumpets, chorus and that stunning Amneris and her equally impressive colleagues we got the Verdi we'd all come in search of.  From Japan, from America, from the UK and from Parma itself, we got that sense of what George Bernard Shaw called 'scorched earth.'

Passion is a word that,  like 'awesome' has been lost to us, probably forever. But sitting in that auditorium this evening, I was reminded that Verdi, more than any other composer can convey blazing human passion. (And in Verdi's day, you didn't have a 'passion' for selling socks or  eating bruschetta but that's a whole other matter.) The house exploded at the end of the Aida even the loggioni up in the gods called for more. So we were given, inevitably "Va Pensiero" - the great Hebrews' chorus. And, (unlike the Met audience that will applaud several bars before the end) the Parma audience waited until you could hear the last breath of the last singer in the back row and then into the silence someone cried, "Viva Verdi" and again the house exploded. To think that this man, born 200 years ago, can still move us so deeply.

But after "Va Pensiero" they still weren't done- we applauded and applauded and they came back and did the lovely "Libiamo" from Traviata. Even the chorus master who was in civilian clothes stayed on stage and sang his heart out. But we couldn't let it end there so they were all brought back and after a lot of confusion, shrugs, leafing through scores, the young conductor called the 2 fanfare trumpeters back and they did the whole triumphal march all over again. It's past midnight, I'm tired after a big day. There is nothing else to say at this point but "Viva Verdi."

The Froth But Not the Coffee

 Last weekend took me on a last-minute press trip to Milan and Lake Como. More about that later in "Journeys"  when I can transfer my pictures to the Mac. But, for now a confession. My hotel, The Four Seasons, was a hundred yards from La Scala but I could not make it to a performance. On the Friday night they were giving Massenet's  "Manon" - never a favourite and on the Saturday, Verdi's "Luisa Miller." I had no ticket and the press trip kept me out and about and just far enough  from the great temple of opera, on the Friday night,  to feel that, if I cupped my hand to my ear, I might even hear a few sublime voices echoing through the hot, turgid Milan night air. Saturday took me to Lake Como, to a gorgeous resort called "Casta Diva" - once the home of legendary 19th century soprano, Giuditta Pasta and just across the lake from a villa that once housed composer, Vincenzo Bellini. It is said that he could hear her rehearsing. 

I was far enough away by then for those fantasies of hearing present-day singers to fade away. And the "Casta Diva" resort did their best to compensate by providing a young soprano and tenor to serenade us during dinner. But the longing for La Scala was too great. I ate a starter, applauded the fine young singers, looked at my watch and calculated that I could perhaps, just perhaps, find a way to sneak into  the last act of "Luisa Miller."   My hosts saw my dilemma and provided a taxi. I rode the 50 minutes into Milan in the company of Luigi, an articulate and informed driver, who told me stories of the "Clooneyisation" of Lake Como. More on that in "Journeys."

Luigi and I arrived in town too late  for that last act. I bid him farewell, and made my way to the great green doors of the opera house. I pulled one open and stepped inside. La Scala's ushers, Le Maschere, as they are known, were standing around in little groups waiting for their working evening to end. I was too late so what was I hoping for?
"Can I just sneak into the ovations?" I heard myself asking . "We can't do that," said an usher. "Please - just a  quick glance." This was tantalizing. I could hear a tenor off in the distance. I hadn't looked at the cast, hadn't had the time but even through the thick walls, I sensed it was one of the greats. "Go on," I persisted, "just a peek." I was advised to come back when the show was over in 15 minutes. I wandered outside for those 15 minutes. On this late June night, the air was thick with heat and unmoving. Lovers kissed among the trees on the little piazza in front of the theatre. The great glass-roofed 19th century Galleria arcade was quiet. Nearby a new gelato parlour beckoned but I had my date with the ovations.

When I returned to the theatre, a kind young usher, ushered  me into the auditorium. THAT auditorium. The one that still somewhere in its ether, holds the echoes of voices from Caruso to Pavarotti.  This is the theatre that looks the way we all imagine a great opera theatre should look. Red velvet, gold filigree, chandeliers - all wildly impractical for truly listening to and seeing an opera but this is La Scala and most of us don't careThe singers came out for their bows. And sure enough, there was one of my favourite tenors, the great Argentinian, Marcelo Alvarez And wonder of wonders, there was baritone, Leo Nucci, 70 years old and bowing to tumultuous applause. I joined in. How daft is that? But by now I had realized that I was getting the froth if not the coffee in the cappuccino. And in Italy how bad could that be? 

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