Planet Opera: In Italy's Small Towns, Opera is Anything But Provincial

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While in Milan, capital of Lombardy, to take La Scala’s pulse, I indulged in my passion for opera in the provinces and found an interesting approach to how good opera can be staged in ways that are economically and artistically viable.

Attending a performance at a provincial Italian opera house is one of the real pleasures for the most ardent opera lover. In using the word “provincial,” I am not making a judgment but, rather, using an administrative term known to all Italians. Opera in the Italian provinces is anything but provincial.

Italy is composed of twenty regions (akin to an American state or a Canadian province). These regions have provinces (like an American county), with a city that is a capoprovincia (a county seat), the administrative hub and often the most important cultural center.

Let us take, for example, Tuscany. Its capital city, Florence, is also the capital of the provincia di Firenze (the province of Florence). But Tuscany has other provinces with their own capital cities: Arezzo, Grosseto, Livorno, Lucca, Massa Carrara, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena. Each province has smaller towns that look to the capoprovincia for governance. For example, the wine-producing town of Montepulciano is in the provincia di Siena.

Italy, like Germany, the other great homeland of opera, only became a nation in the mid-19th century, but is full of historic cities that were glorious centers of independent duchies. When Verdi composed and staged operas before 1860, he often traveled from Milan or Venice (both under Austria) to Parma (under France) or Rome (under the Vatican) or other cities that might have been free or under outside domination.

Centuries before Verdi, cities and states on the Italian peninsula were great rivals and frequent combatants. Florence and Pisa were at war for centuries. Genoa and Venice were rivals at sea. Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino and many other cities were thriving centers of art, science, culture and intrigue. Bologna, Padua, Pavia, Macerata, Pisa and Salerno all had important universities that attracted students from all over Europe.

In Italy there is a term, le cento città, that denotes a hundred cities that are citadels of culture, cuisine and historic significance. I could name another hundred that did not make the list. I have been to all of the cento città, and can attest to their fascination. I doubt that any other nation in the world has a hundred cities beyond the major urban centers (Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin, Genoa, Palermo, and so on) that are so steeped in culture. 

Most of these towns have a historic theater which is one of the three main buildings, along with the city hall and the cathedral, that are civic gathering places and points of reference. Every town I have named so far in this article has at least one beautiful and historic theater in which opera has been performed.

Lombardy, Italy’s wealthiest region, is remarkably diverse and full of important small cities of culture. From my hotel room in Milan I could see the alps to the north. Had I looked in other directions I could have seen the Lake District (Maggiore, Como, Garda) or broad, fertile plains and the Po, Italy’s largest river. For all of its industrial development, Lombardy also is one of the most important agricultural regions in Italy, especially for dairy products and the exquisite rice that becomes risotto alla milanese when combined with cheese, broth and saffron.

Brescia (population 200,000), Como (85,000), Cremona (75,000) and Pavia (72,000) are all provincial capitals in Lombardy that are reachable from Milan in less than 90 minutes. These four cities have created what is known as the Circuito Lirico Lombardo, a consortium that works collaboratively to create four opera productions every season. 

Each theater is primarily responsible for one of the productions, all of which play two performances in the four member theaters during an autumn season: Brescia’s Teatro Grande, Como’s Teatro Sociale, Cremona’s Teatro Ponchielli and Pavia’s Teatro Fraschini. In some years, the Circuito will add a fifth production rented from elsewhere. The orchestra is Milan’s I Pomeriggi Musicali and the chorus for the Circuito is the resident group in Como’s theater.

Between October and December 2012, the four cities all saw Puccini’s Tosca, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri and Verdi’s Ernani. All masterpieces by five of Italy’s best composers, presented in gorgeous theaters to eager audiences who take pride in tradition.

Late-Night Elegance in Brescia

I attended Ernani on a snowy night in Brescia. This was the Teatro Grande’s production for the recent Circuito season. The cast did not have any famous names, but all sang with passion and a connection to the language and story. The conductor, Antonio Pirolli, led a visceral and idiomatic account of Verdi’s youthful score. Andrea Cioni, who directed and designed the beautiful costumes with Valeria Donata Bettella, staged a performance that was not cutting-edge but told the complicated story well. Cioni was greatly helped by the efficient scenery by Dario Gessati. It was a very good night at the opera, better than comparable performances I have attended in larger theaters in major European and North American opera capitals. Prices ranged from 13 to 60 euros ($17 to $78).

And what a beautiful place to see an opera! The original theater on this site opened in 1634, It was renovated a century later and the 930-seat auditorium as we see it now is from 1810. Other additions were made in the 1860s. The audience dresses for the occasion, even more than at La Scala. The sober elegance of the Bresciani puts most Londoners, Parisians and New Yorkers to shame. And the opera starts at 8:30 pm so that people can start their evening with some of the delicious food and wine Brescia is famous for. 

The province of Brescia produces some of Italy’s best sparkling wines, and corks pop and glasses fill during intermissions at the Teatro Sociale. I used the opportunity to chat with Umberto Fanni, the genial artistic director of the theater. He told me that the four theaters decide together about repertory and then each takes charge of a production. This includes casting: some Circuito singers get their roles by winning a competition it runs. Many singers are Italians, with a sprinkling of Eastern European and Koreans. 

Fanni said that they do not have too many North American singers. I would encourage young artists to audition for these productions—it is the opportunity to learn Italian repertory in a setting where the language is used. The pleasure of singing in gorgeous, historic theaters cannot be underestimated. The pay might not rival that of companies in major Italian cities, but the chance to hone your craft in four historic theaters is a worthy tradeoff.

I contacted Barbara Minghetti, who has headed Como’s Teatro Sociale since 2001. She also is the president of Aslico (Associazione Lirica di Como) since 1995. This organization, founded in 1958, runs the competition for young artists and also manages the chorus that appears in the Circuito operas. I am told that Minghetti is first among equals in the Circuito. She noted that opera lovers from Milan often attend performances at one of the Circuito theaters. From what I gather, though, audiences from Circuito cities seldom go to performances at La Scala or the summer festival at the Arena di Verona. But they are very devoted to the fall season in their own theaters.

Minghetti said that, when the heads of the four theaters meet to pick the productions they will do, they take into consideration what La Scala is presenting and select operas that will not appear in Milan that season. This helps attract Milanese audiences to the provinces. I remarked to her that I found the Ernani production tidy and effective, one that could be rented to theaters elsewhere in Italy or abroad. She told me that any income derived from a Circuito production that is rented is divided among the four theaters, rather than going just to the theater that made the production. Aslico uses some of its monies in four education programs, each geared to different age levels and knowledge of opera.

I went to Pavia, where I was a student in the late 1970s and a regular at the Teatro Fraschini, to have lunch with Silvia Luraghi, a professor of historical linguistics but also an astute chronicler of the constantly shifting sands of the Italian opera scene. She noted that the audience for Circuito operas tends to be older than at La Scala. Luraghi observed that the paucity of young people is not because of the quality of the performances, which is good, but the fact that young Italians are no longer exposed to opera in the media (apart from the polemics of a La Scala opening night). During the Berlusconi years, opera almost entirely vanished from the national television and radio stations he controlled.

As I reflect on this experience, I find the Circuito model an interesting one. These are not co-productions in the way the Met and Covent Garden might do, but a consortium that shares its individual productions. I think that if financially challenged companies in other nations would consider co-presenting seasons based on an agreed-upon artistic vision, the quality of each production would be better if they only have to create one a year but get to present four. Italy, as is so often the case and despite its troubles, always seems to show us the way.

Photos of Teatro Grande in Brescia, Italy by Fred Plotkin