Venice: The First Capital of Opera

Monday, October 10, 2016 - 12:00 AM

Venice at Sunrise (Pedro Szekely/flickr)

VENICE—In most of the nearly five hundred articles I have done for WQXR, I have seldom dwelt much on Venice and its absolutely crucial role in opera. This is not for lack of caring but just because I have had a lot else to cover and knew that Venice would still be here despite persistent rumors of its vanishing forever beneath an acqua alta.

The concerns about its survival are real. Even if Venice manages to stay above the waves, it has in many ways been denatured by the crassest form of mass tourism in which day-trippers come into town, eat fast food, traipse through the major sites and then go away. In recent years, the city has allowed massive cruise ships to sail close to the most historic parts of the city, displacing water onto piazzas and into precious buildings. None of this benefits the city in sustainable ways and it is difficult to make a life here. The population was 175,000 in 1951 and is now about 50,000.

The city has dealt with flooding almost since it was created in the 6th century A.D. when Attila the Hun invaded the glorious city of Aquileia and its residents fled to islands in the lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic and built a new city that rose like a phoenix. Verdi addressed this in his opera Attila, in which a Roman sings my favorite line in all of opera: Avrai tu l’universo, ma resti l’Italia a me! (“You can have the universe, but let Italy be mine!”).

The problem with flooding and environmental damage in the last century or so has been caused almost entirely by humans. It was the subject of my college thesis and is discussed in a compelling new book, “If Venice Dies,” by Salvatore Settis. The metaphor of death and Venice is hardly new, having been explored in “Death and Venice,” Thomas Mann’s novella that became Benjamin Britten’s last opera.

Venice has been special to me for my whole life. I first was captivated by photographs of the city as a five year-old, with its beautiful palaces, churches and theaters and countless views of sunlight glinting on canals or casting shadows on the campi (piazzas) that suddenly appear at the end of calli (lanes) of Venice’s labyrinthine urban grid. Here, if you walk to a dead end, you still will have seen beauty even if you must turn back to find your way to where you meant to go. Or you can idle and meander, engaging in the Italian practice of dolce far niente (sweetly doing nothing).

As an undergraduate in college, both in Italy and the States, I was a major in Venetian history with a minor in theater and opera production. This was not only because of my love of all things Venetian, but because opera lirica, though invented in Florence in 1597 by a group of academics called the Camerata Fiorentina, took root and flight in Venice and became the extraordinary art form that conquered Europe and much of the rest of the world. To really know opera I had to know Venice.

The first genius of opera was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), born in Cremona (famous as the city that created the best violins), in Lombardy. Monteverdi innately understood that opera became drama when a composer wrote music that not only expressed the meaning of the words in a libretto but that was cognizant of the sound of the words. He gave singers the opportunity not only to make beautiful music but also to shape language in a way that was unique to each performer. It allowed for personal interpretation of notes, words and character and opera became profoundly theatrical.

Only three of Monteverdi’s 18 operas survived. L’Orfeo, composed in 1607, is the oldest opera still performed on a regular basis. Then there are the magnificent Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (1641) and L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642) that represent great strides in vocal and orchestral writing, dramaturgy and the judicious use of comedy.

As the conductor of the Basilica of San Marco, he wrote all kinds of glorious sacred music , especially the Vespro della Beata Vergine:

Next year will be the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth and numerous celebrations are planned in Venice, Britain, New York and elsewhere. Some of these will involve Jordi Savall. Another protagonist will be John Eliot Gardiner, a passionate interpreter of Monteverdi for more than half a century, having created the Monteverdi Choir in 1964 along with the English Baroque Soloists. According to Gardiner, “the full unchanging gamut of human emotions - bewildering, passionate, uncomfortable and sometimes uncontrollable - form the subtext of all of Monteverdi's surviving musical dramas. More often than not he shows a deep empathy for his characters - including the less salubrious ones - just as his contemporary Shakespeare does.”

In New York next February there will be La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic, a festival organized by Carnegie Hall that will take place there, Juilliard, the Frick Museum and elsewhere. All sorts of Venetian music will be performed. I will do the pre-concert lecture at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 7 before the oratorio Juditha Triumphans by Antonio Vivaldi.

Opera in Venice was not of the academy or for nobility. The public bought tickets for a night’s entertainment. In the 17th century, there were 17 different theaters in Venice that presented 388 new operas. Because of fires and other ravages, most of these theaters no longer stand. The most famous Venetian opera house, Teatro La Fenice, dates from 1792 and rose like the mythical bird (fenice means phoenix) on the ashes of a previous theater.

Musicians and composers arrived from all over to learn about composing for the stage and developing character through music. 

One of the most important was Georg Frideric Handel, who came in the first decade of the 18th century. He took what he learned to London, writing brilliant operas in Italian and making that city a place where, like Venice, the public could buy tickets for a night at the opera.

The most evocatively Venetian scene in opera is in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which includes the beloved Barcarolle that suggests a gondola gliding along a canal at night. Probably the most famous opera set in Venice, if not the best one, is Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.  

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Comments [10]

Fred Plotkin from Cloud Nine

Thank you Jane Scovell (Biographer of Marilyn Horne, Ginger Rogers, Maureen Stapleton, Elizabeth Taylor). Coming from you, that is a big compliment.

Nov. 07 2016 03:21 PM
Jane Scovell

Absolutely engrossing. and....beautifully crafted.

Oct. 13 2016 04:33 PM
Eva Kohutova from Šumperk, Czech Rep.

Thank you for the interesting article. I would appreciate it to be longer, I would like to get a deeper insight into this topic.

Oct. 13 2016 12:27 PM
John Christiano from Franklin NJ

I remember many years ago seeing an open-air opera done in the Piazza San Marco. The music and voices bouncing off the surrounding buildings was overwhelming, no matter where you turned or stood. The music poured out of the piazza and into the Grand Canal. Tourists in their $50 gondola rides were begging the gondoliers to stop so they could hear! The first traffic jam I ever saw on water!

Oct. 13 2016 09:54 AM
Carol from NYC

Thank you so much for the article. And thank you so much for that wonderful performance of the Vespers. I have 3 CD versions of it....all different interpretations, including one of John Elliot's, and this, by far, is the best. This Vespers and the Bach B mi. Mass I believe are the best pieces ever written for choral music. Please let us know when the Monteverdi "festival" will begin in New York. Thanks.

Oct. 11 2016 03:39 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Fine article. Thanks. It distressed me to read what has happened to Venice. Being trashed and so many have left it. More and more of the world's beautiful sites are being ruined.

Oct. 10 2016 10:05 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Se dovessi cercare una parola che sostituisce “musica” potrei pensare soltanto a Venezia.
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

Oct. 10 2016 09:33 AM
Nick Graham from Philadelphia, PA

Beautiful, Fred! I'm so glad I am following you for many reasons, but particularly because I am here to read this lovely essay.

Oct. 10 2016 09:24 AM
OperaGene from Vienna, VA

This is a lovely, romantic article about Venice. Really enjoyed it. I find it remarkable that it contains embedded videos of two complete operas and one complete Vespers. If you decide to revise your book Opera 101, an online version could include all the recommended operas that you provide instruction for. I'd buy it.

Oct. 10 2016 08:51 AM
Heath from NYC

Hope this article is to be continued Fred. Always wonderful. With my love of opera, the Italian language, and Italian culture, in general, I ran off to Venice in 2001. A number of years later I wanted to bring some back to New York, and started Venice Murano Designs, a small company that imports Murano glass. www.venicemurano.com
Hope to read more hear on Venice.

Oct. 10 2016 12:46 AM

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