They Sang, They Cheered, They Bravo’ed: Italy Is Hailed as Home of Opera

If there was ever any question of what a Three Tenors concert on steroids might look like, the hundreds of performers belting out operatic greatest hits at the Arena of Verona on Friday night could offer a good answer.

Under a starry sky, there were sweeping overtures, including crowd-pleasers like the “William Tell Overture,” heart-wrenching arias, and an oversize orchestra and choir backing A-list soloists in what was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime concert to mark the addition last December of “the practice of opera singing in Italy” to the United Nations cultural organization’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The concert was a public acknowledgment of opera’s cultural impact around the world, broadcast worldwide from the ancient Roman amphitheater that draws tens of thousands of opera lovers each summer.

Opera’s “great masterpieces are our heritage, and we Italians have given them to the world,” the conductor, Riccardo Muti, said on Italy’s main national TV channel minutes before the event began.

Sitting in a raised balcony facing the stage, President Sergio Mattarella of Italy and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni were flanked by high-ranking officials while the audience was filled with fashionable glitterati, opera fans and dozens of ambassadors “from countries where opera is loved,” said Gianmarco Mazzi, the under secretary of state to the Ministry of Culture.

Though most of the campaign for recognition took place under a previous, center-left government, the addition to the list by the U.N. agency, UNESCO, was a coup of sorts for Italy’s conservative government, whose culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, has made it his mission to exalt Italianness.

One of his projects is a museum of Italian culture, to highlight the “contribution Italy has given to humanity,” and his directorial appointments at the most important museums have favored homegrown choices where the previous government sought international talent. His selection in April of a leader for La Scala, Milan’s great opera house, came with a statement trumpeting that the new boss, Fortunato Ortombina, was Italian, “after three foreign general directors.”

At Friday’s concert, however, while Italy’s 12 opera theaters and some conservatories supplied the orchestra and choir, many of the soloists were not Italian — a sign of opera’s global attraction.

“The universality of this patrimony is shown by the fact that there are Russians, there are Americans, there are French — there’s everything here and they are all singing in Italian,” said Cecilia Gasdia, the general manager of the Arena of Verona Foundation and a soprano who had her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1986. (She said she still sings, for herself, every morning before work.)

“Opera is our national theater, like Shakespeare is for the British,” said Roberto Abbondanza, a baritone and the president of Assolirica, an association of opera professionals that was central to the campaign for recognition.

Stefano Trespidi, the deputy artistic director of the Arena of Verona Foundation, said Italy’s opera theaters and conservatories had never before joined forces for such an event.

“All of Italian opera is here together,” he said. “It’s the opera world celebrating itself and celebrating Italian opera.”

Operatic theater began in Italy around 1600. Starting in Florence and developing in Venice, it became an “extraordinarily expansive” arrangement, quickly spreading throughout Italy, Europe and the rest of the world, said Lorenzo Bianconi, a musicologist and professor emeritus at the University of Bologna.

Though the drama took place inside theaters that catered to the wealthy, the music trickled out onto the streets. Traveling musicians would perform arias in far-flung village squares or on church organs after Mass, and there are even accounts of gondoliers singing the latest hits for their clients “to show they were in the know,” said Roberta Pedrotti, a music critic who has written several books about opera. Italian is speckled with phrases of operatic origin, she said.

Marco Tutino, an opera composer, said he became aware of the Italian language’s importance to opera when he began to be commissioned to write operas in other languages. “It was the litmus test,” he said.

Opera is “an art, a culture that’s founded on a vocal technique and on the Italian language, and that’s why we have to protect this mark of origin,” Mr. Tutino said.

The gala concert “shows a clear political will” from the government to safeguard and promote opera, said Rosanna Savoia, a soprano who helped spearhead the recognition campaign.

That marks a change, Mr. Abbondanza said, from a previous failed attempt to secure U.N. honors for Italian opera about a decade ago. Then, the government focused instead on seeking a listing for the “art of Neapolitan pizza makers.” China, he added, managed to register four operatic traditions before Italy made a serious pitch for its own.

The UNESCO “recognition is not a point of arrival but a point of departure” to build on, Maestro Muti told the audience, to loud applause.

As the night progressed, “Bravos” ebbed and flowed. Ballets gave way to short scenes from beloved operas like Rossini’s Barber of Seville, or Puccini’s La Bohème, delighting the audience. An over-the-top staging of an aria from “Tosca” included incense, exploding cannons, dozens of children as altar boys, and an army of golden-robed clerics. The crowd cheered. People in the rafters began clapping to the Triumphal March from Verdi’s “Aida.” Opera snobs shushed them.

“If you get close to opera, you touch the depths of the soul. You are swept away by emotions,” Laura Costa, who clapped loudly and was liberal with bravos, said during an interval. Ms. Costa is no stranger to opera — she works as a wedding singer — but the evening was even better than she could have imagined, she said. “It’s explosive.” The evening ended with a rousing duet from La Traviata, encouraging the drinking of wine. Champagne bottles popped. A speaker noted that Italy next wanted to get Italian cuisine on the UNESCO list.

Ms. Pedrotti noted that the first Three Tenors concert in 1990, featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras and broadcast live to millions internationally as part of Italy’s celebrations for its hosting of the soccer World Cup, had been met with disdain from some opera enthusiasts. But it gave the genre a huge lift in popularity.

Mr. Mazzi, the under secretary, said he hoped Friday’s concert would also be repeated internationally, becoming “a representation of Italian opera that tours the world.”

There were international film festivals and sporting events, he said. “Opera should be treated the same way.”

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