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Writings & Speeches

November 2013

We heard Verdi's “Va, Pensiero” on four different occasions on our recent opera extravaganza to Italy — once in an opera house during a performance of Nabucco; once protesting Italian budgetary cuts for culture and the arts in the square in front of the opera house in Bologna; once by Italian tourists singing with unrestrained emotion, tears in their eyes, in the Nabucco room at the Verdi Museum in Busseto, and once at a street fair alternating with rock music blaring through loudspeakers.

My wife and I are opera fanatics. What better place to feed our fanaticism, our palates and our penchant for travel than northern Italy where Giuseppe Verdi lived and worked until he died in 1901. And we would celebrate his music, along with cities he loved, this 200th anniversary of his birth.

We began our 17-day opera journey in London and ended in Zurich with opera performances in between in Bologna, Cremona, Brescia, Turin, Parma, Busseto, and Milan. By the end of it all, we had heard and seen Les Vepres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers), L'elisir d’amore, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, Nabucco, Rigoletto, I Masnadieri, Falstaff, Otello (twice), Don Carlo, theVerdi Requiem, a Wagner/Verdi Concert and the ballet, Don Quixote. We returned in time to see Washington win in overtime against San Diego.

The large and heavily government subsidized or privately supported opera companies throughout the world will have little competition in terms of operatic grandeur from the jewel box opera houses in northern Italy. But, opera lovers who go there need not worry. While the individual performances are good enough, the cumulative musical experience is overwhelming, and the environment is incomparable — the violins of Cremona, the 300-seat opera house in Busseto, the translucent pizza in Parma, the elegance of aging men with rakishly set Borsalino hats, the Baroque solidity of Turin, the presence of “Va, Pensiero,” everywhere, the Correggios, Verdi's composing desk, his piano, his home, his gardens.


It all started with a performance of The Sicilian Vespers at the Royal Opera House in London. It had never been performed there before. It was an elegant, smooth, and technically complex performance, typical of the Royal Opera House, staged as an opera within an opera house within an opera house — the Royal Opera House. Great chorus, direction and orchestration. The next night: the ballet, Don Quixote. We loved it. The reviews were lukewarm.

          Then, to Bologna, a city of arched covered walkways, some decorated with graffiti, others opulent with porticos, gates and towers. At Largo Respighi, the square in front of the opera house, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the streets leading to it were filled with students celebrating the weekend. Cars were at a standstill, able to move only a few miles an hour on streets filled with bicycles, backpacks, and students partying, singing, drinking and protesting. Thousands sat in the square in front of the opera house, then applauded, as slowly out of the opera house first came the chorus, then the orchestra, then the conductor, surrounded by protesters with banners and graffiti opposing cuts in government funding for culture and the arts. Then, explosively, the opening chords, then softly the strings introduced “Va, Pensiero.” Later, during the opera, a man clad only in a minimal rag slowly rose from the chorus singing “Va, Pensiero,” hands pleading upward, bereft. Perhaps a metaphor for the stripped down funding for the arts and culture of Italy. Otherwise, the staging of Nabucco was virtually non-existent. It was almost like a concert version. But the power of the music came through from the very beginning of Act 1, with the vibrancy of the orchestra and chorus and the resonance of the high priest. We began to understand what the budget cuts were all about: little funding for production, staging, rehearsal time, for a company performing about eight operas a year — with occasional superstars brought in to sing some of the principal roles. In Italy, because of decreased funding and because there are no tax advantages for individual contributions to the opera, both the small and large opera houses are hurting. The casts of the operas in Bologna, unlike most of regional companies, include a wide range of singers from throughout the world, particularly from Eastern Europe. There were, however, very few persons of color in the orchestra or casts of any of the opera houses we visited.


The next day we drove to Cremona for a matinee performance of L’elisir d’amore. Cremona is the city of Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri — the renowned 16th and 17th century violin makers. The shops are filled with violins, violas and cellos. Violin makers, music schools, sheet music, concert advertisements are everywhere. And Museo del Violino, a modern new museum that just opened in September, is filled with rare violins made 300 years ago by Stradivari and Guarneri and even earlier ones by Amati. There are descriptions of how they were made, the difference between the old and the modern violin, and a wooden 20-foot egg-shaped ellipse — a shell where you can listen to the great string players and watch them perform on a screen above. Outside the modern museum (which is housed in what was once a building to honor the arts of Mussolini’s Fascism) stands a 15-foot aluminum sculpture of a string instrument — a violin? cello? double bass? It is broken into many planes, much like a Picasso or Braque. Music as a metaphor for the damage done to Italy and its heritage by the politics some 80 years ago? The cathedral square is a gem — mystical, detailed, white, particularly at night when the cathedral is lit. There is a restaurant at the square, Il Violini, where we enjoyed the best haute cuisine Italian food on the trip.

The opera house in Cremona, Teatro Comunale di Ponchielli, partners with the Circuito Lirico Lombardo, an organization that produces fully staged operas and trains singers for performances in four Italian cities: Cremona, Brescia, Como, and Pavia. This year, Circuito Lirico Lombardo is producing L’elisir d’amore, Otello, The Flying Dutchman, Tancredi, and La Finta Semplice, each opera performed over about a month in the four cities — each city with the co-responsibility for one of the operas. The purpose is to share expenses, bring great operas to smaller venues, and provide access to opera at a reasonable cost. We were fortunate to see L’elisir d’amore in Cremona where the direction and choreography were excellent though the setting (the 1930s) was a bit disconcerting, but not off-putting enough to diminish the enjoyment of Donizetti’s music. The house was filled with children enjoying their Saturday matinee excursion to a theater built on foundations laid some 250 years ago.

The opera house in Brescia is about 33 miles from Cremona. It is similar to others in northern Italy but in our mind the most beautiful in its lushness and elegance. It was here we saw Otello, one of the five operas produced by the Circuito Lirico Lombardo this year. Iago, in particular, was superb — charming, manipulative, without conscience, and beautifully sung and acted by Roberto Gazale. He moved like Juan Diego Florez. Otello, sung by Walter Fraccaro, was a powerful adversary. The production was traditional but spare.

We then stopped in Bergamo, the birthplace of Donizetti, a remarkable city on two levels: one a rather modern lower town and an upper Medieval and Renaissance town that can be reached by walking, by funicular, or by car to the periphery. The upper town is filled with churches and squares, courtyards, gardens, narrow streets, and shops. Lunch at Al Donizetti in an open but covered patio. The lasagna, made with taglio cheese, is worth a special visit. Afterwards, a too quick look at the Teatro Gaetano Donizetti — but no performance.


In Turin, we saw Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra and La Traviata on consecutive nights. Turin reminds us of Vienna, reflecting its many years of Austrian control: beautiful Baroque buildings, palaces, villas overlooking the river, a city of cafes, wide boulevards, immaculate open squares, 19th century streets, arcades, very sophisticated. Although upscale restaurants typically do not open until 8:00 p.m., there are many cafes open for opera patrons before a performance.

Teatro Regio di Torino, the modern opera house built in 1973, is shaped like a huge covered oval with wooden walls and floor stained bright red. It is banked like a contemporary movie house with one level of boxes circling the amphitheatre-like setting. The sight lines are superb. The company usually performs 15 operas a year with virtually all Italian casts. Occasionally, however, for some key roles, an international star is brought in — Ambrogio Maestri, Barbara Frittoli, Angela Meade, Danielle De Niese, Patricia Racette — all of whom are performing this season. Gianandrea Noseda is the General Director of the opera house and conducted the performance of Simon Boccanegra. Irina Lungu, who sang Violetta in La Traviata, received a well-deserved ovation after a moving and beautifully sung performance, clearly forgiven by the audience for the few missed high notes at the end of the first Act — a notoriously difficult requirement so early in an opera. Devid Cecconi was particularly effective as Rigoletto. Ambrogio Maestri, one of few international “names,” was Simon Boccanegra. It was difficult not thinking of his great portrayals of Falstaff or of Dr. Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore, which we felt were better suited to him. The Teatro Regio is a serious company with its repertory singers — virtually all Italian — singing in Rigoletto one night and then Simon Boccanegra or La Traviata in the same week. The company has a core of about six key singers who, over the season, perform in from three to eight operas. Although the production and direction were not exceptional, the overwhelming impression after hearing those three soaring Verdi masterpieces on consecutive evenings was remarkable. The melodies just kept rattling around our heads day after day.

The days in Torino were filled. It is worthwhile to visit the Oriental Museum if only to see the translucent white Tang horse, a spectacular multi-fold Japanese screen of cranes, the shimmering silk carpets from Iran, and a Japanese Zen garden as effective as any outside of Kyoto.

Turin is a wealthy city, which experienced violence, bombing and terror during World War II. Those days are remembered in the Museum of Resistance. With video displays and interviews of partisans, fascists and Holocaust survivors, the museum recalls the resistance of Turin — resistance to Mussolini, resistance to Communists, resistance to the allied forces, resistance to starvation, resistance to displacement, resistance to German occupation. It was a time of suffering, with little commitment to a war with few articulated purposes or emotional support for most Italians. It made us think that perhaps, given the conflicting strains during the war, it might be better entitled the Museum of Survivorship. Verdi’s political ties to Turin are also evident; in the 1860s, he served as an early member of the Italian Parliament in the Palazzo Carignano, which now houses the Museum of the Risorgimento.


Our next stops were Parma and Busseto, the sites of the Verdi Festival, held each year in October and this year honoring the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth. First, in Parma, the rarely performed I Masnadieri, a blood and thunder Verdi opera, with passages that foreshadow his later operas, followed the next day by a powerfully sung, acted, and directed performance of Falstaff in the 300-seat opera house in Busseto — probably the artistic highlight of the trip. It was as if you were experiencing a private performance. The role of Falstaff was sung and acted with great comic flair by Piero Terranova, the Russian baritone, who alternated with Renato Bruson — also the director. And, one could hear, in this, Verdi’s last opera, an almost sarcastic response by Verdi to Wagner as if he were saying, “ I can do that” in the rolling languorous song of the love-struck Fenton in the final act. It would have fit perfectly in Die Meistersinger. And a final Rossini-like riff, as if Verdi were saying in music, “I can do Rossini too,” what the libretto said in words, “Life is a joke.”

The Verdi experience is not limited to opera performances. Parma and Busseto are the center of the Verdi legacy. Verdi was born in Roncole, only 19 miles from Parma. As a teenager, Verdi lived at Casa Barezzi, now a museum in Busseto, where Antonio Barezzi was his mentor and patron. He later employed Verdi to teach music to his daughter, Margherita, the woman who would become Verdi’s first wife. Four years after their marriage both Margherita and their two children were dead. Verdi was 27. Ten years later, Verdi moved to Sant’Agata, three miles from Busseto, where he spent most of the next 50 years. Each locale claims Verdi as its own. Each town is decorated with banners, posters, and photographs of Verdi.

The Museo Nazionale Guiseppi Verdi in Busseto was opened in 2009 at the site of the magnificent 16th century Rennaisance Villa Pallavicino — a castle-like villa of 21 rooms. Each room is dedicated to one or more of Verdi’s 26 operas, where replicas of the original sets are painted on the walls, and the original costumes, recordings by the great artists of the last 100 years, a music room for concerts and HD projections, original billboard advertisements of the operas, are on display — with audio guides describing the circumstances of the production and the inspiration for each opera. It was here, in the Nabucco room, that about 30 Italian tourists spontaneously began to sing “Va, Pensiero.” They all knew the words. Then they quietly left the building and boarded their waiting tour bus. Next year a wing honoring Renata Tebaldi will open at the site.

Nearby, in Sant’Agata, is the Villa Verdi. Here is the house Verdi lived in for 50 years with Guiseseppina Strepponi, his mistress and later his second wife. Here is the bed in which he died, brought from Milan. (In Milan, outside the Hotel Grand, the crowd spread hay on the streets to muffle the sound of horses’ hooves so as not to disturb the dying maestro.) Here are his pianos, his books, letters from Cavour, his gardens, the trees he planted, his carriages and the writing desk where he composed in the middle of the night. (Apparently, he could “hear” the melodies, the harmonies, and the choruses, without the use of a piano for the initial composition.) It took Verdi 46 days by horse and carriage to get to St. Petersburg for the opening of Forza del Destino. And upstairs at the Villa Verdi lives his great, great, great grandchild (descendents of Verdi’s cousin, who he adopted as a child) and his family. They, too, were at the Busseto performance of Falstaff. Verdi left the royalties for his works to the Rest Home for Aged Musicians (Casa di Riposo per Musicisti — “Casa Verdi”) in Milan to provide a home for the final years of needy musicians and singers of Italy. Now that the copyright royalties on Verdi’s works have run out, the retirement home relies primarily on donations from around the world. Both Verdi and Strepponi are now buried on the grounds of the “Casa Verdi.” It is said that at his public memorial service in Milan, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, he was mourned by 300,000 people.

Yes, Parma is also famous for Parma ham and parmesan cheese, staples and ubiquitous in any Italian restaurant in northern Italy. The ham is served typically in translucent slices with no accompanying embellishment. And then there is the pizza: the trick is to make the dough covered with parmesan or taglio cheese so delicate that one cannot tell when the cheese ends and the very thin, virtually invisible, crust begins. It is almost like filo dough. An elegant spot to sample Italian antipasto in Parma is at the outdoor café, Trattoria Salumena Sorrelle Picchi — a restaurant that also has an attractive buffet for those who wish to take food out. For a more “formal” experience, try La Greppia.

Parma, not surprisingly, has a cathedral and a baptistery. The baptistery is unlike any we have seen before. Although the exterior of the baptistery has eight sides and a flat roof, the interior has 16 sides soaring perhaps 50 feet to a point, like a mitered or conical cardinal’s hat. It looks like a huge funnel from the inside. How did the architects do that? The interior is a riot of color, materials, and shapes. Frescoes, arches, lunettes, carvings, porticos, balconies, tile, marble, loggias in four tiers, spiral upward to the point — frozen music. Remarkably, the baptistery, started in 1196, has images of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, Hebrew biblical icons, and signs of the zodiac, along with representations of the stories of the New Testament.

The Romanesque cathedral, too, is filled with beautifully preserved, huge frescoes by 12th and 13th century artists and a spectacular ceiling by Correggio. And no trip to Parma is complete without a visit to the Galleria National, a museum devoted, in part, to the paintings of its native sons, Parmigianino and Correggio. A highlight inside the museum is the dramatic Teatro Farnese, a 16th century theatre-in-the-round, steeply banked, amphitheatre-like — a wooden masterpiece.

Parma keeps offering its riches. It is the birthplace of Toscanini and he is honored by a museum that provides an overview of his life and his commitment to Verdi. As a young man, Toscanini played the cello in the first production of Verdi’s Otello in 1887. He conducted Verdi’s operas during Verdi’s lifetime and for 50 years afterwards.

The Verdi Festival concluded with two concerts in Parma: the first, a Verdi/Wagner concert performed by the French National Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti. The orchestra was twice the size of what we had been accustomed to in the last two weeks. It seemed that Gatti was at his best and emotionally more committed to those beautiful long Wagnerian interludes than to Verdi’s more familiar and accessible melodies. The festival concluded with a strong performance of the Verdi Requiem, also conducted by Gatti, which emphasized the chorus and orchestra. The performance was highlighted by the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner from Burma, who was enthusiastically greeted by crowds in the street and at the performance, on the occasion of being given honorary citizenship of Parma.

La Scala in Milan, not unexpectedly, was a contrast — primarily in the size and complexity of the production compared to the much smaller opera houses in northern Italy. The staging of Don Carlo was more technically demanding, the chorus larger and more dominant, the orchestra fuller and more accomplished, the direction more obvious and professional. But the overall impression of Verdi’s masterpiece of Don Carlo was somewhat disappointing. The “auto-de-fe” scene was neither violent nor frightening. The monks and the Grand Inquisitor more like observers than activists. The production would have seemed “over the top” in the venues of Busseto or even Turin or Bologna, but it did not provide the emotional tension that is an integral part of the opera. But the music . . . ! And after (or before) the performance you can pray for forgiveness at the massive cathedral across the square for indulging in a 10-Euro cappuccino in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, also only a few steps away.

We took a train through the Alps to Zurich and a performance of Otello before our flight home. Opera is serious business in Zurich. The company puts on about 25 operas a year, about the same number as the Met. Each of the principals was professional and accomplished. The production, however, tried to improve on Shakespeare and Verdi by casting Otello as a white U.S. Army officer, apparently in Iraq, in love with a dark-haired Muslim beauty, Desdemona, alternatively dressed in a white burka with a headscarf or a bright red revealing dress right out of La Traviata. The stage was overwhelmed by a huge mock-up of a U.S. tank, a frightening long muzzle pointed directly at the audience. Why? What had the Swiss done in coming to the theater to deserve that metaphor? Fortunately, we could shut our eyes and just listen to the accomplished voices and orchestra ply again Verdi’s magic.


All of the opera houses, with the exception of Teatro Regio in Turin, are similar. They are all Baroque, horseshoe shaped, with ornate chandeliers and three to six tiers of boxes. Even the 300-seat opera house in Busseto has three tiers, starting from the stage. The theaters are heavily decorated with gold, white and beige trim — with gold predominating. In the side boxes, apart from the first row in each box, the sight lines are often non-existent. In many of the houses, the back rows of the boxes provide no view of the stage. Best to book in the orchestra, unless you are in a box that has a straight-on view of the stage. Red plush velour is everywhere. The stages themselves did not seem amenable to lifts, pulleys, or other mechanical devices to facilitate modern set changes. These companies simply cannot create the stage magic of New York, Paris or London. The point is the music. It is not Cirque de Soleil.

Often, ushers have charts telling you where to sit because seat numbers might not be readily visible. Each opera house has an elevator, but it is hidden, sometimes around the back of the theatre, sometimes behind a door leading you down a narrow corridor. You will be accompanied by an attendant who will unlock the elevator and take you to your designated level, or the closest level the elevator goes to. Railings on stairs are spotty. (It is difficult in Italy to make changes to national monuments — even for safety purposes.) Subtitles are in Italian; on one occasion they were also in English. They are, however, very high up — perhaps 40 feet — almost at the ceiling of a five-tiered opera house. The audiences, almost without exception, were exceedingly elegant and well dressed, often in designer clothes, pearls, Borsalino hats — and no jeans. The exception was the occasional opera tour group — usually from the United States. The audiences rarely applauded during a performance, even after the block-buster arias. They saved their considerable enthusiasm for the end of the performance.

The good news is that the so-called regional opera houses are not burdened with the cost of a permanent orchestra or chorus. That is also the bad news. It is not easy to present complex and large-scale operas with a chorus and musicians that are part time. And the savings are not sufficient to allow for expenditures for sophisticated productions. Moreover, the absence of funds (and historic preservation regulations) prevent expenditures for capital improvements of the stage, which would enhance the magic of the productions.

There is often a problem getting tickets, given the small number of performances of each opera, whether part of the Verdi Festival in Parma, the Circuito Lirico Lombardo performances in Cremona or Brescia, or the repertory companies of Bologna or Turin. The opera theaters are filled — virtually no empty seats. Last minute won’t work. Each venue has its own website, with an on-again — off-again online system. Sometimes, the ticket offices are open only in certain months or days or hours, or tickets are available only through a third party intermediary. But all of this is doable with time and patience — and a little Italian.

We drove about 750 miles criss-crossing northern Italy. We found it helpful to stay in hotels outside the center of the city, where streets are often blocked to cars, parking is scarce, and there are a lot of dead-ends and one-way streets. Pedestrians use streets as sidewalks. The tricky part is to visit the cities and see the operas without changing hotels every night or having to drive long distances and then doubling back to see a performance.

Overall, our trip was about music in all of its forms: on the stage, in the streets, in the shops, in the museums, in the architecture. Only a few of the singers, apart from the international stars brought in for specific performances, will make it to the stages at the major opera houses, and, yes, a few singers hold final notes of an aria with tremulous voice for too long a time. But no matter. The experience is overwhelming. The musicality comes through, the genius comes through, the melodies still reverberate in our heads. We remember what Italy has given us. We admire the mostly young musicians who have devoted their careers for the pleasure of their audiences. And with little compensation. And, yes, we remember, too, the baptistery in Parma, the violin makers, the covered walkways, the translucent pizza, Verdi’s desk, the crying tourists singing “Va, Pensiero.”

Two thousand years ago, Ovid, the Roman poet, concluded his masterwork, Metamorphoses, with the words, translated from Latin,“. . . my lines will be on people’s lips through all time; if poets’ prophesies are right, my name and fame are sure.” His last word was “vivam” — “I will live.” So, too, will Verdi.

Gene Rotberg is President of the Center for Contemporary Opera. He previously was Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank.