An Opera Lover's Guide to Genoa, Italy

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On Saturday April 30 I did a Verdian double-header, attending the Met’s HD broadcast of Il Trovatore at BAM Cinemas and then hearing Rigoletto in the house. These two works, along with La Traviata, were composed between 1851 and 1853 and are known as the Popular Trilogy of Verdi’s middle period. All are classics and always are worth hearing again because of the riches they yield even to someone who knows them well. I am considering a post for you soon about the Met’s Rigoletto production, which is part of why I went back to see it.

I am also planning a post about Italian conductors and wanted to hear Marco Armiliato, one of the pillars of the Italian wing of the Met, conduct Il Trovatore, and Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal guest conductor, lead Rigoletto. It struck me that both maestros are from Genoa and I began to think about that wonderful city and its relationship to opera. 

The capital of the small Italian region of Liguria (the Italian Riviera) happens to be the biggest port in the Mediterranean and the fifth largest city in Italy. It was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. For much of its history, Genoa was an independent republic that rivaled Venice and then joined Turin in leading the fight for the unification of Italy in the 1860s. It has a magnificent, amphitheater-shaped setting that cascades down to the sea. There is the largest medieval quarter of any city in Europe and amazing palaces that contain remarkable art treasures.

Wagner said, after seeing Genoa, that Paris and London were dull by comparison. He set sail from Genoa down the Ligurian coast and ran into rough seas. He became ill, began to hallucinate and suddenly his ears echoed with an insistent E-flat chord that played out in waves. When he was taken on shore in the Ligurian city of La Spezia, he was brought to a guest house. It was there that he took the sounds of the Ligurian sea and transformed them into the music that opens Das Rheingold under the Rhine river.

Luisi and Armiliato are hardly the only opera people to come from Genoa or nearby. The tenor Fabio Armiliato (brother of the conductor) and soprano Daniela Dessì, his partner in life, are both Genoese. They are one of the leading couples in opera, having sung more than 250 performances together in their illustrious careers. Fabio just sang his first Otello, in Belgium, with Daniela at his side. I have heard them in Tosca, Aïda, Norma, Madama Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West. Here they are in the final duet from Andrea Chénier. A shame they had to sing on such a terrible set that Fabio has to climb at the end! They have sung independently of one another at the Met and I imagine they will be back soon, perhaps performing together.

The excellent baritone Giuseppe Taddei (1916-2010) was from Genoa. He had a major career in Europe but did not make his Met debut (as Falstaff) until he was 69. Audiences loved him. Luciana Serra was one of the greatest of coloratura sopranos in the 1980s, famous above all for her amazing "Queen of the Night" in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

The rising young tenor Francesco Meli is from Genoa. He caused a sensation in Pesaro in 2008 in Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska and is gradually attracting international attention. Other nearby residents include the soprano Renata Scotto (from Savona) and the librettist Felice Romani, who was educated in Genoa. He was the preferred librettist of Bellini (seven operas, including Il Pirata, La Straniera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, Norma) and also worked with Donizetti (including Anna Bolena, L’Elisir d’Amore, Lucrezia Borgia), Rossini (Il Turco in Italia), Verdi (Un Giorno di Regno) and others.

A Storied Operatic History

When Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice opened in 1828, the management asked Romani to pick the opera to inaugurate the theater. Bellini had written an opera for Naples called Bianca e Gernando that Romani imported to Genoa and rewrote the libretto, calling it Bianca e Fernando. The theater stands on the Piazza De’ Ferrari opposite the Ducal Palace that is the city’s heart. The Carlo Felice was one of the most important opera houses in Italy until it was bombed in 1944. Genoa, as a port, was heavily damaged in World War II. The opera company performed in a cinema below Italy’s first skyscraper (grattacielo) until 1992, when a restored Carlo Felice opened to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus crossing the Atlantic. 

No musical figure was closer to Genoa than Giuseppe Verdi. He loved the sea air but also loved to breathe in the republican spirit of Genova la Superba (Genoa the Proud). He knew political figures such as Mazzini and Cavour there and loved the directness of the Genoese people, who are known for their absence of “bella figura” pretentiousness in a nation where a certain etiquette is highly prized.

Verdi first went to Genoa in December 1840 to stage his early opera Oberto, which opened January 9, 1841. Most of his works were given at the Carlo Felice during his lifetime and also under his direction. No city, not even Milan, had such a thorough artistic commitment from Italy’s greatest composer. Genoa was always his port of embarkation when he traveled by ship to faraway places. Starting in 1860 he spent every winter there as the Italian equivalent of being a “snow bird.” In 1874, Verdi rented an apartment in the gorgeous Palazzo Doria and switched to a better one on a higher floor in 1877 that included a huge terrace with sea views. The last time he saw the sea was on his stay from February to April 1899.

My second-favorite Verdi opera, after Don Carlo, is Simon Boccanegra (1857, revised 1881). It is among the favorites of Claudio Abbado and James Levine, two conductors whose opinions I take most seriously. Set in the mid-14th century, when the Republic of Genoa was at its zenith, it is a story of Shakespearean dimensions about the public and private lives of the Doge Simone Boccanegra and everyone in his sphere. You can hear the city’s spirit and flavor in its very evocative orchestral score.

I am providing four YouTube links from the famous 1970s La Scala production of Simon Boccanegra, conducted by Claudio Abbado with the brilliant staging by Giorgio Strehler. It is a landmark for anyone who saw and heard it, including the cast of Piero Cappuccilli in the title role, Mirella Freni as his daughter Amelia, and José Carreras and Veriano Luccheti alternating as Gabriele Adorno, Boccanegra’s rival who loves Amelia (not knowing she is his daughter) and Nicolai Ghiaurov and Ruggero Raimondi alternating as Fiesco, father of Amelia’s late mother and a sometime antagonist of Boccanegra.

“Come in quest’ora bruna” is a rapturous song of love sung by Amelia as the sun is rising on the Ligurian coast. You can hear, in the orchestral section at the beginning, the waves lapping against the shore:

A father/daughter duet with Cappuccilli and Freni in some of Verdi’s greatest writing:

The fierce Boccanegra/Fiesco duet:

The death of Boccanegra, with Cappuccilli, Freni and Luccheti:

After the successful La Scala premiere (February 9, 1893) of Falstaff, his last opera, Verdi went to Genoa to relax and oversee the production of his comic masterpiece at the Carlo Felice. The opera was a huge success there too and Verdi took curtain calls after every performance. During the day, he liked to stroll in the medieval quarter and stop for coffee and pastries at the Klainguti bakery. One day they proudly presented him with a new creation, the Falstaff cake, in honor of the composer and his opera. If you go to Klainguti today you will spot a framed, signed letter from Verdi thanking the baker and adding, “your Falstaff is even better than mine.”

When you see an opera set in a famous place, how much do you link your feelings for the place to the events and flavor in the opera?