Things Are Looking Up for Opera in Northern Italy

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We hear so often that the state of opera, and not only, is so dire in Italy that it comes as a surprise to visitors and observers of this sublime nation that so much works well and gives a lot of pleasure. Opera companies the world over face challenges nowadays and there are those in Italy (Florence, Genoa and elsewhere) that are troubled. But there is good news too, especially across the north.

An important political change is that Matteo Renzi, the new prime minister, is pushing to reinstate arts education in Italian schools to assure that the next generation has more connection to, and inspiration from, Italy’s incomparable creative output. A recent change in the tax code now allows Italians to deduct a significant percentage of their charitable contributions, something that never existed before. 

Venice has seen a major revival in opera in the past few years and I owe you an article or two about what is going on there. Suffice it to say that the Teatro La Fenice (which reopened in December 2003 after being closed for nearly eight years following a devastating fire) has a rich and diverse upcoming season of 17 operas in its theater as well as the Teatro Malibran and Verdi's Otello in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace on the Piazza San Marco.

Verona’s outdoor Roman arena lights up again on June 20 with Un Ballo in Maschera as part of a summer season that includes Aïda, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, ballet and special concerts. The city also has a wonderful indoor theater, the Teatro Filarmonico, where opera and concerts are done in the colder months.

Each fall, the Circuito Lirico Lombardo—historic theaters in Brescia, Como, Cremona, Pavia— presents solid, idiomatic performances of operas, mostly from popular and less-known Italian repertoire. The Teatro Sociale of Como received the 2014 International Opera Award for accessibility, the only Italian theater to be honored this year.

In May I did a fast visit to Turin (or, as I prefer, Torino) and Milan to check on two of Italy's world-class companies and I am glad I did. I wrote enthusiastically about the Teatro Regio di Torino more than two years ago and things have gotten even better. The 2014-2015 season includes 13 operas and several ballets. 

Walter Vergnano, general manager, and music director Gianandrea Noseda, have built on the civic pride and sense of possibility created by Torino’s successful 2006 winter Olympics. Maestro Noseda has achieved even higher international esteem and profile. He and the orchestra are sought to make recordings with artists such as Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. The company recently toured Japan with full productions and will soon be the first Italian opera company to do a North American tour in many decades when it gives concert performances of Rossini’s William Tell this December in Chicago, Ann Arbor, Toronto and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The Teatro Regio will also take the opera to Paris and the Edinburgh Festival.

William Tell in Turin (Photo: Ramella & Giannese)

I attended a full production of Tell (above) and it was thrilling. While I certainly had my reservations about Graham Vick’s staging, it was better than Pierre Audi’s seen in Amsterdam last year that is scheduled for the Met in a future season. Musically, the Torino performance was fabulous. From the first notes of the cello in the famous overture, Noseda conducted with a vivid narrative sense as well as attention to the singers, making his orchestra as vital to the storytelling as one might hear in Wagner. Dalibor Jenis had the proper combination of tenderness and toughness in the title role. Americans Angela Meade and John Osborn did their country proud as Mathilde and Arnold and the chorus was splendid.

I went to Milan to see the late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra that premiered last year in Aix-en-Provence. While it will later come to the Met (and Barcelona, Berlin and Helsinki), I made the trip because this was the last time the entire cast directed by Chéreau and superbly conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen would be appearing together. The leads were outstanding: Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytemnestra) and René Pape (Orest).

Just as remarkable were the great artists who played smaller roles of servants and guardians, including Bonita Hyman, Renate Behle, Roberta Alexander (age 65), Donald McIntyre (79) and Franz Mazura (90!). The older singers played characters who maintained their loyalty to Elektra and Orest and the idea was brilliant. I felt that much of the action was played too far upstage, which might have worked better in the small theater in Aix than at La Scala. It also created unnecessary challenges for some of the singers. But, all told, it was an unforgettable night of opera.

Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role of Strauss's Elektra (Festival d'Aix en Provence)

Milan was abuzz with the news that Alexander Pereira, who was to become the head of La Scala, had his contract cut short following a polemica about his acquiring productions from Salzburg, his previous post, allegedly to balance the books on his departure. The selection of Periera was controversial from the moment it was announced.

Pereira will stay on through 2015 for one very important reason. Next year Milan will have its Universal Exposition from May 1 to October 31 and twenty million visitors are expected. In a move unprecedented in the history of Italian opera (and just about anywhere else), La Scala plans to present 184 consecutive opera performances, one for each day of the exposition. With the Expo and the offerings of opera in Milan, Torino, Venice and elsewhere across Northern Italy, I can think of no better place to want to be next year. I will write more about the Expo in an upcoming article.