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verdi
Giovanni Boldini: Verdi

Culture Wars in Italy Over the Anno Verdi

By Norman Lebrecht


MILAN, 14 December 2000 - It was Milan that set the ball rolling, kicking off the Anno Verdi with an all-Italian Il Trovatore, which is several times rarer than an all-Italian Serie A football team. It is commonly bewailed that Italy has lost the art of breeding big voices. At the most symbolic national moment since the last World Cup, La Scala struck a swaggering chord of self-belief.

The symbolism cannot be overstated. It will be 100 years ago next month that Giuseppe Verdi breathed his last, and Italy has been yearning ever since for his unifying genius. Milan, the city that brought forth his greatest triumphs, from Nabucco in 1842 to Falstaff 51 years later, is leading the homage with a lavish iconographic exhibition and a long-overdue facelift for the Casa di Riposa that Verdi generously endowed for indigent musicians.

Worldwide, Vienna will stage 13 Verdi operas next month, Munich has an all-Verdi fortnight and BBC Radio 3 has cleared its decks for the anniversary day, January 27. Covent Garden, which was to have completed its 10-year Verdi cycle, limps along with two revivals; meanwhile, its incoming music director Antonio Pappano conducts three new productions in Brussels (make of that what you will).

But it is in Italy that the Anno Verdi assumes a significance that is greater than centenary coincidence. "We are not here to perform Verdi," said Riccardo Muti in a curtain-raising interview, "we are here to rethink him." For Italians, the top-hatted icon of Verdi with a wintry scarf around his throat is as familiar as spaghetti and as challenging as it was when they claimed Va, pensiero as a crypto-national anthem and the letters of his name as a revolutionary acronymn: "viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia".

The very meaning of modern Italy is vested in Verdi. In a culture mired in trash television, multicultural discontent and instant gratifications, the centennial figure of Verdi rises from the perpetual mists of his native Po valley as a spectre of forlorn ideals and unfulfilled potentialities.

Typically, the locals are squabbling over his legacy - the regional capital, Parma, having beaten Verdi's home town, Busseto, to the lion's share of state benefice for the coming year. Verdi nursed grudges against both towns. Busseto refused him a job as church organist and Parma declined his early operas. Nevertheless, his attachment to the region was fierce; he wrote Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata in Busseto and bought the nearby Sant' Agata estate with the profits. He also helped to build Busseto's 300-seat theatre (though condemning it as "costly and useless"), and he left bequests to almost every family in the town.

The Teatro Verdi, centrepiece of Arturo Toscanini's festival for the 1913 centenary of Verdi's birth, was damaged by an earthquake in May 1976 and has only recently been restored. Next month, this bijou, box-lined chamber will attempt to stage Aida, the grandest of Verdi operas, in a production by Franco Zeffirelli, a director not renowned for minimalist intimacy.

The project sounds as tacky as the beat-tracked smoochings of Verdi arias by the chart-topping Filippa Giordano, but box-office phones were ringing madly when I passed by and there is evidently a market for Verdian extravagance, no matter how anomalous. Busseto's saving grace is the local hotelier, a certain Carlo Bergonzi who, in tenorial retirement, has agreed to coach the young singers and generally cast an avuncular eye over the festivities. At his hotel, I Due Foscari, Bergonzi strives to instil Verdian style in singers who come from all over the world to sit at his feet.

Ham-rich Parma to steal the Anno Verdi

Three miles across the plain, the composer's birthplace at Le Roncole has been smartened up for centennial pilgrims. The bare brick farmhouse has been coated in orange stucco and its front door re-sited apparently for visitor convenience. Inside, the vacant relic has been stocked with brand-new, Ikea-style rustic furniture. The stated intention is to encourage cultural tourism - but this is cultural vandalism on a Visigothic scale.

Elsewhere in Busseto, important Verdi sites are sealed up and decaying. Only the living-room of his patron, Barezzi, is preserved intact. Bergonzi rightly fears that ham-rich Parma is about to steal the Anno Verdi birthright. "Parma is Parma," he concedes, "but Busseto is Verdi."

Sentiments, however, run just as high in Parma, where a group of leading citizens have formed an exclusive dining "Club di 27" in which each member takes the name of a Verdi opera and is so addressed by the others. Public investment runs into billions of lire. The Teatro Regio has been gutted and rebuilt to resemble an arena of Verdi's era, in which the orchestra sat at the same level as the audience. The artistic director, Bruno Cagli, who formerly cleaned up Rossini's style at Pesaro, aims to produce Verdi in the original - starting with Un Ballo in Maschera, which has been stripped of censors' alterations and restored to its inflammatory ur-text.

The festival will be opened on January 27 by the indefatigable Valery Gergiev, importing his Kirov chorus and orchestra. Renata Scotto has been recruited to train young Italian soloists and Cagli predicts that by 2013, the bicentennial, Parma will serve as the nursery of Verdian renewal. Unusually (and not just for Italy), all theatres in the Emilia-Romagna region have united in one website (www.cartellone.emr.it) where tickets can be booked for any of their competing attractions.

The notable nay-sayer among its participants is the largest local opera house, which has studiously chosen to open the Verdi year with an opera by Wagner. The Teatro Communale in Bologna was Wagner's first foothold in Italy, and Verdi himself went there in 1871 to see Lohengrin. On the day of my visit, the philharmonic academy of Bologna made a decorous presentation to Eva Wagner, one of the disputant descendants, and in the evening Daniele Gatti conducted a lyrical account of The Flying Dutchman, his first Wagnerian venture in a projected five-year cycle.

To hear an Italian chorus sing Wagner is a wondrous thing. They do it caressingly rather than pneumatically, recalling the composer's woodland origins more than his geopolitical delusions. Gatti spoke of a Schubertian Heimatabend (domestic evening) when rehearsing Senta and her maidens. The director Yannis Kokkos promoted human tragedy over cosmic struggle. It was a point well driven, perhaps uninentionally, at the heart of the Verdian confusion.

An anxious citizenry and a flood of Balkan and Maghreb refugees

For while Italy is playing up the Verdi year for all it is worth in tourist dollars and Rome-promoted national cohesion, the uncomfortable questions are not being asked. Verdi represents an end, not a renewal. "After Falstaff, there was nothing like it again," reflects Gatti. Where Wagner looked ahead to cultural modernism and continental turmoil, Verdi's opus is childless and isolated from our time, his successors (Puccini excepted) marginal and ephemeral.

Italy's failure to produce another Verdi is mirrored by its failure to advance as a nation-state beyond the fudges of the Risorgimento. The nation is once again divided between rich north and poor south, an anxious citizenry and a flood of Balkan and Maghreb refugees. No composer, living or dead, can unify its dissents.

Theatres that Verdi cherished in Venice and Bari have been allowed to burn down and have yet to be rebuilt. Verdian singers come mostly from abroad. Any Italian with half a voice rushes into pop music for easy pickings, shirking the strenuous perfection of art and national aspiration. The unifying icons of modern Italy are footballers and fashion designers. Muti was right. The Anno Verdi is no time for celebration - rather a moment for reflection on unattained summits and compromised ideals.


Related: Verdiana!


Norman Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was published by Simon & Schuster.

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