Verdi and Wagner in Italy


Oct 10 2013 - Verdi's 200th in Parma

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.

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."

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