IN: News & Features

A Bostonian Operamane in Italy


Parma's Teatro Regio
Parma’s Teatro Regio

BMInt is delighted to publish the ruminations of one of our “far-flung correspondents.” In his retirement Ron Sampson adds wordworker to the catalog of his skills.

These are parlous days for opera companies, and not just in the United States where there is generally no subvention of them by government. A few years ago Opera Boston—a dynamic and enterprising outfit which gave worthy performances of operas often not frequently performed—declared bankruptcy, thereby adding another bleak chapter to the history of opera in our Athens of the West. And last year the future of our national operatic treasure—the Metropolitan—was in doubt as management insisted on substantial economies (especially in salaries and benefits), various unions steadfastly resisted, and the company’s endowment reflected the depredation of years of drawn down principal. The Met disputes were reconciled shortly before the season began, a matter of great relief to me because I now have a cherished “goddaughter” occupying a chair in the cello section of the great Met orchestra.

But even companies in Italy, the country which more than any other can lay claim to being the spiritual home of opera, are suffering. Turin’s Teatro Regio was threatened recently by the resignation of its music director just before a North American tour unless proposed economies, which in his view would have thwarted the company’s growth, were reversed. At La Scala Milan the company became embroiled in a scandal over the borrowing of sets from the Salzburg Festival, intended as a means to reduce production costs. And at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, which I revisited last year after an absence of nearly 40 years, the conductor Riccardo Muti resigned, citing “inadequate serenity” in the company to achieve the results he wished. Shortly thereafter this became a self-fulfilling prophecy when management announced that it planned to fire all orchestra and chorus members effective January 1, 2015, and to rehire them as independent contractors at substantially reduced levels of compensation. Chaos was averted when constituent groups of employees agreed to lower salaries, and the performance that I feared might be lost went ahead as scheduled.

The economic problems encountered by opera companies can spring from multiple sources, but they all start with the inherent cost of producing opera: no other art form comes close to involving as many people as opera. Soloists, orchestra, chorus, often dancers, directors, set designers, the conductor, assistant conductors, singing and language coaches, set builders, stagehands, electricians—the list goes on and on without even mentioning the large staff at the front of the house. During my years on the Board of Sarah Caldwell’s much missed but never fiscally sound Opera Company of Boston in the 1970s and early 80s, we figured that a new production would cost around $200,000, and that was in the context of an admittedly provincial house. The likely cost today, especially in more prominent opera houses, is a substantial multiple of that figure, and this at a time of declining opera attendance in the United States and of declining government subvention of all arts in countries such as Italy which have been economically troubled for a number of years.

It was with this troubling picture in mind that I decided to move attending performances at the fabled opera houses of Italy from roughly the middle to near the top of my personal bucket list. Prior to this year I’d only experienced opera in two Italian houses, Rome and La Scala Milan, plus a concert performance at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the principal conservatory of music in Rome. This year I was able to add Bologna’s Teatro Comunale and Parma’s Teatro Regio, as well as revisiting Rome. I have many to go.

Attending opera in Italy is different from attendance in the United States. It is somehow a more serious undertaking, with a large proportion of the audience fully invested in how well the work is performed, quick to shout their pleasure when events meet their high expectations, but equally quick to vocalize unkind, hurtful thoughts when a performance falls short. In reflecting on the importance of opera in Italy one need only consider the status of Giuseppe Verdi among Italians in the 19th century, a century almost entirely spanned by his life. A few of these examples may be familiar to you.

For the most part unintentionally, Verdi became an important symbolic figure in the Risorgimento that led eventually to the Kingdom of Italy and the independence of the different states of the Italian peninsula, principally from Austrian yoke. More than one of the choruses from his early and middle period operas became the patriotic songs of the Risorgimento, most notably “Va, pensiero” from his third opera, Nabucco, which I had the pleasure of singing with the Yale Alumni Chorus in 2003 in, of all places, Moscow’s Kremlin. And in the middle of the century a commonplace cry for independence that one could usually shout without substantial risk of arrest was “Viva Verdi!”, with the spelling of the composer’s name understood by many to be in fact an acronym for “[Viva] Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia!”, Vittorio Emanuele II being then the King of Sardinia, a leader of the Risorgimento and later the first king of a united Italy.

During his lifetime Verdi’s works became as well known to the Italian man in the street as are the exploits of Tom Brady in the Boston of today. When Rigoletto was in rehearsal in Venice in 1851 Verdi refused to allow its most famous aria, “La donna e mobile”, to be rehearsed except under the most confining circumstances, so sure was he that otherwise the melody would end up being sung by every gondolier on the Grand Canal well in advance of the opera’s first performance. And after his final opera, Falstaff, had its premiere at La Scala, with Verdi then aged 79, thousands—few of whom had been able to get a seat in the theater—gathered outside his hotel and were placated only when he made an appearance on the balcony. On more than one occasion, and in different Italian cities, when he emerged from an opera house after the premiere of one of his works, adoring crowds would unhitch the horses from his carriage and pull it themselves to his hotel. At the memorial service on the occasion of Verdi’s death in 1901 Arturo Toscanini conducted a chorus of more than 800 voices in “Va, pensiero”.

Well, things are certainly different in the Italy of today. There is television, movies, professional soccer and no end of other distractions to hold the attention of Italians, all very different from the 19th—the Verdi—century. But it is still an art form taken very seriously in that country, and for that reason opera lovers quite naturally feel motivated to experience the great Italian houses.

My first experiences were in Rome in 1974 and ‘75, as adjuncts to attending the Italian Open tennis championships. The Teatro dell’Opera was originally known as the Teatro Costanzi. In 1926 it was bought and renovated by the City Council of Rome and its name changed. The renovation is memorialized by a plaque suspended above the proscenium arch which acknowledges in large, inescapable letters the support of Vittorio Emanuele III, then the king, and of Benito Mussolini Duce. That plaque was there in 1974 and remains there today. That a bust of Mussolini still decorates the entrance to the Foro Italico (originally the Foro Mussolini) where the Italian tennis championships take place and the Olympic Stadium sits, is yet further testimony to the fact that a considerable segment of the Italian people continues to be relatively uncritical of the man.

In the Rome opera house in 1974 and 1975 I was lucky to see two wonderful performances of Madama Butterfly with one of the great Cio-Cio Sans of that era, Renata Scotto, as well as performances of a few other works. But most memorable was a Don Carlo (one of the operas of Verdi’s maturity) in June 1974. Everything started well and one had reason to be optimistic given the line-up of distinguished performers involved: conductor Thomas Schippers, director Luchino Visconti (already a famous film director), and singers of the calibre of Cesare Siepi, Gianfranco Cecchele, and the American divas Grace Bumbry and Martina Arroyo. But the intermission between the second and third acts stretched on interminably, the natives became restless, and nasty remarks were hurled back and forth between members of the audience and the orchestra, some of which Italians sitting nearby were reluctant to translate for me. At one point the concertmaster rose from his seat in the orchestra pit and brandished his bow threateningly toward someone among the front rows. Finally, after more than an hour the performance was renewed and proceeded without further incident to its conclusion. The next day Il Messaggero di Roma reported that the two American sopranos had simply refused to proceed with Act III because they had yet to be paid for the full run of Don Carlo performances. Under the stagione system common in European houses, full payment for, say, 4 or 5 performances of the same opera is expected by the soloists immediately after the first performance. Fortunately, said the newspaper, the then General Manager of the Rome Opera, the composer Giancarlo Menotti, was in the audience and was able to resolve the problem backstage. All in all, a very Italian evening.

A personally embarrassing experience at a performance in Rome took place a year later, in May 1975. After a full day under the hot Roman sun at the Foro Italico watching the Italian Open I went into the city to attend a concert (rather than staged) presentation of La Damnation de Faust, an opera by Hector Berlioz, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Arriving early, I enjoyed a pizza and carafe of raw red wine at a nearby cafe. My seat at the performance was in the center of the front row, and the hall’s configuration was such that the conductor, Igor Markevitch, was situated not 15 feet from me on a very low stage. The lights went down and, under the influence of sunshine and wine, so did I. My first view when awakened by applause at the end of Act I was of Maestro Markevitch, who had turned to acknowledge the audience and was staring directly at me. In the 40 years since, I have made it a practice never to drink alcohol before attending a performance of any kind whatsoever.

After 1975 I attended no further opera performances in Italy until a Wagner Ring Cycle at the queen of Italian houses, La Scala Milan, in 2013. Like its counterpart in Rome, La Scala is magnificently colorful and ornate on the inside but quite small compared with the Metropolitan Opera. The Met accommodates around 4,000 opera goers, while La Scala seats slightly fewer than 2,000 and Rome only 1,600. This gives both Italian houses an intimacy which the Met lacks, and perhaps more importantly enables excellent singers who lack big voices more of an opportunity to make their mark than is afforded by the cavernous Met.

Some months ago I returned to Italy to experience two houses new to me: the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, and Parma’s Teatro Regio. Both are quite small, seating 1,034 and 1,400, respectively, and are relatively unadorned compared with their Roman and Milanese counterparts. But opera is taken at least as seriously in these small cities, and the modest size of the houses again enables voices of limited size to be effective which might elsewhere be overpowered by the orchestra or lost in the reaches of a vast hall. It is said, incidentally, that the title of the house in Bologna, Teatro Comunale (People’s Theater) connotes the city’s history as a center for the Communist movement in Italy, while Parma’s Teatro Regio (Royal Theater) is evidence of that city’s historic royalist bias. Politics is never far away in Italy.

Parma is very near Verdi’s birthplace, a wide spot in the road known as Roncole, and near as well to the small city of Busseto where Verdi and his second wife established their home during the last several decades of his life. Busseto always made a great deal—and does to this day—of the fact that it was Verdi’s home town, and indeed the tiny opera house there is the Teatro Verdi. But while Verdi was reluctantly agreeable to having Busseto’s theater named after him, he vowed never to enter, and indeed in the years from the theater’s inauguration in 1868 until his death in 1901 he never did, notwithstanding that it’s located only a few miles from his home. Why? When he was only 21 he had been turned down for the position of organist at a nearby church. Though that had occurred 34 years before the Teatro Verdi was built, he never forgot it, nor did he ever forgive Busseto.

rigoletto qtThe final evening of my trip to Italy last October was spent in Rome for a performance of one of Verdi’s masterpieces, Rigoletto. It was a performance to which I was especially looking forward, but it fell far short of expectations: the conductor chose fast tempi that robbed the opera of its gravitas, and the vocal work was unremarkable. Why was this result especially disappointing? Because Rigoletto was my introduction to opera nearly 60 years ago, an introduction that overwhelmed me at the time with its display of the glories of the art form generally and of the human voice in particular. That introduction was provided by a mid-1950s RCA recording (still available on CD) which featured the golden age voices of Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, Jussi Bjoerling and Giorgio Tozzi, with Jonel Perlea conducting the forces of the Rome Opera. Acquired when I was 15 or 16, that performance [here] remains—for good or ill—the one by which I continue to measure all others.

Ron Sampson is a retired Boston lawyer and long-time opera lover who is a past Board President of the Longy School of Music and The Harvard Musical Association.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for this fascinating tour of Italian opera history and culture, the more interesting for the author’s weaving personal experience with humor and fine writing.

    Comment by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely — May 28, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  2. A lovely piece that brings back memories for me, too, especially my shock in 1998 at seeing the “Mussolini Duce” plaque above the proscenium at the Rome opera house. Later that year I had several encounters (one of them ironically amusing) with elderly admirers of Mussolini in Rome, central Tuscany and Naples.

    I merely wish to add an instance of opera-singer behavior in Italy that is in sharp contrast to anything that ever happens here. It was in 1998, I believe; a performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” with Leo Nucci and an East European soprano (whose name I’ve forgotten). It was wonderfully sung, and toward the end of Part II, when Nabucco and Abigaile are virtually at one another’s throats in a fierce duet (she has already falsely claimed that he had died), the audience went wild with cheers and applause. Nucci beamed, stepped to the front edge of the stage hand in hand with the soprano, extended his hands to the audience, and then embraced the soprano lovingly and kissed her, to the increased ravishment of the audience. When the applause subsided, they slid back into their ferocious stage-hatred to complete the end of the act. I had never seen so blatant an example of illusion-breaking in opera before. It was, at least to me, both charming and amusing.

    Comment by Alan I Levitan — May 29, 2015 at 5:40 pm

  3. Delightful article! I can only add that, having toured around in several smaller Italian theaters, each one an architectural jewel and an acoustic marvel, I came to view the “théâtre à l’italienne” as one of the cornerstones of European civilization.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — May 30, 2015 at 11:11 am

  4. Thank you for the informative article on Italy–and also on the American opera scene. Yes, the Italians are honest (mostly) that Mussolini was one of their leaders, tho’ they did do nasty things like not allowing Mussolini’s widow to open a restaurant under the Mussolini name; and remember that Mussolini started as a Socialist even to being that party’s newspaper’s editor.. My concern here is that opera here may become associated with the Left and may get taken down by a popular revolt against The Left and its domination by the Liberal Elite (The “Administative/Technocratic Five Per Cent” who are on nightly display in the South End; I noticed them walking back to my cheaply-parked car from Odyssey Opera last week).
    But enough of politics (which does threaten American opera, too). Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston of late lamented memory (for me the seasons between 1966 and 1970) was perhaps at its peak then; however by the mid-1970’s I started to meet people who felt she had lost her artistic integrity with the much delayed and finally cancelled Roger Sessions “Montezuma” with no refunds. Several years later (1977 I think) Montezuma was staged without any priority or other compensation given to the prior season’s ticketholders. My aunt came with a friend from out of town to see it while I passed it up. In 1982 Caldwell staged “Orpheus in the Underworld” with the plot butchered and my favorite aria from it dropped just in order to allow Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca to appear together for the first time since “Your Show of Shows”. (Sorry, but that sort of thing is what TV and PBS re-runs are for.)
    The question about Caldwell’s company is whether they were on surer financial footing in the 1960’s than in the ’70’s; if anything I fear the acquisition of the former Savoy Theater as the Opera House was what dragged them down. Has anyone written a history of the Opera Company of Boston? Since many of the principals are now passed things can be dealt with more truthfully–but the company did give us some spectacular theater while they were at it; plus some bombs of “The Fisherman and His Wife” sort (a good piece for 6-year olds but tiresome for adults).
    Is there any on-line source where I can find out whom they had for which roles in the late 1960’s. I’m not sure of whom I heard and saw and it would be useful and a relief to know whether I did see and hear the likes of Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Renata Tebaldi, etc. in person. I was there the night that a relatively unknown tenor (Anastasios Verenos or something like that) pushed Joan Sutherland in “La Traviata”–and she fell over! She recovered from the move very well but the was Much Talk of it next morning in the papers and even on WNAC radio.
    Oh for the days when announcements would be made on AM radio stations such as WNAC: “tonight’s BSO concert starts with a Mahler symphony whose first movement runs 36 minutes: latecomers will not be seated until the movement’s end, so the word is be there on time!” Yes, in the days I still watched late night TV news one of the stations would cover the opening of the BEMF (now Big Business in Boston–why the Mayor might even show up) but Real Culture is rarely covered; I notice that lately the Metro has stopped mentioning Real Culture–come to think of it now the Metro is not mentioning anything of note and is getting too thin to serve as a breakfast table placemat (a restaurant in Lynn does this too).
    Anyways, thanks for the view of opera in Italy; makes me want to try going there sometime and reminds me I haven’t looked at for a few months. Reminds me of a missed opportunity to try taking in a Haydn’s Armida in Berlin in 1991.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 31, 2015 at 2:11 pm

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