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.
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.
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".
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
where tickets can be booked for any of their competing
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.
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.
anxious citizenry and a flood of Balkan and Maghreb refugees
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.
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.
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.