The only place around the world where you can hear Italian practically everyday isn’t the university or your local cultural center, like the one I direct, but the opera house. From European cities to the capitals of countries in every continent, our language continues to resonate on the notes of our most beloved composers. The opera is perhaps—and we Italians may not realize it, due to the fact that music education is seldom and poorly taught in our schools— one of the greatest gifts that Italy has given the world.
During winter, I enjoy the wealth that the New York opera scene has to offer, from unparalleled productions of the Metropolitan, starring the most famous singers, conductors, and directors; to other performances that might be less “rich” than the ones at the Met, but no less interesting. In fact, there are about 30 opera companies recorded in New York. Some of them have only one show per year, while others may specialize in a more specific repertoire or take the opera to places where it has never been heard.
But during summer, when I return to Italy with the students who take part in New York University’s summer study abroad program, I have the chance to listen to opera in its birthplace and, above all, to share with American students a spectacle that is unknown to most of them. By no means do all of them end up becoming opera lovers, but they do end up appreciating the “integral” show that encompasses so many different forms of artistic expression.
Last summer, I saw two performances. Although they were very different from one another, they made me think that despite the constant economic crises and insufficient budgets of the opera companies, an aging audience, and the miserable state of music education in our schools, opera is more alive than ever. The productions in question were a new adaptation of Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, held at the Arena in Verona; and the world premiere of Furiosus by Roberto Scarcella Perino, held at the Avvaloranti Theater of the Città della Pieve (PG) in Umbria. I realize they might seem like an unusual pairing; the first show is a revival of one of the most famous operas by the most important opera composer of all time, while the second is a newly composed opera by a composer in his early 40s, with a libretto by Flora Gagliardi that is faithfully based on the Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. The Verona Arena is considered the biggest opera theater in the world, while the theater of the Città della Pieve is, I believe, one of the smallest.
The new and impressive Nabucco production for the Arena, signed by director Arnaud Bernard, sets the story not in ancient Babylon, but in 1800s Milan during the Five Days, dressing the Babylonian with the Hapsburg uniform and transforming the ancient Jews into modern Italian patriots. The result is compelling because the historical and political allegory that was always the basis of the opera –Verdi’s intentions notwithstanding – and that made it one of the manifestos of the Renaissance – as someone said ex post – is made clear. The production is not only compelling but also very beautiful, with clear and explicit references to the movie Senso by Luchino Visconti, another great and critical Renaissance epic set in Venice.
The Furiosus was composed by Scarcella and produced by the International Opera Theater of Philadelphia. Under the artistic direction of Karen Lauria Saillant, the Furiosus is a courageous and successful attempt to make an opera out of one of the most important (and long) chivalric poems of Italian literature. In the past, different composers experimented with operatic adaptations of various episodes, but no one ever dared adapt this opera in its entirety. The collaboration between Scarcella – music – and Gagliardi – libretto – produced a new opera that also truly deserves to be performed in different contexts. The music has strong unifying elements of continuity with the Italian operatic tradition, but contains a variety of references to nontraditional sounds as well, including bossa nova and Sicilian traditional music. Even though the libretto doesn’t imitate Ariosto’s text, it evokes its elegance and lightness.
Last August, however, not only was there the premiere of a new, precious opera on the stage of the small theater of the Città della Pieve, but also the dress rehearsal of how music—and opera specifically—can contribute to further comprehension and dialogue. The involved artists included musicians conducted by Concetta Anastasi, singers, chorus members, and set and costume designers, all of whom came from 21 countries. They all talked to and understood each other—often in Italian—and had the satisfaction of seeing a new opera come to life to which their names will always be tied. Opera is alive, speaks Italian, and only needs a little more room to grow.
Translation by Giulia Casati