Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The End of a Musical Era in Florence

Tonight's production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Florence's Teatro Comunale was one of the more magical interpretations of this opera that I've experienced. Strong on Rossinian sparkle, it was a delicious rendition that evoked thunderous applause from the Florentine audience.

I could have listened to this opera until the cows came home, relishing every split second, knowing with a broken heart that this would be one of the last operas ever staged in the historic Teatro Comunale,  the heart of Florence's great musical tradition.  A tradition that is very sadly coming to an end.

While it doesn't stand in the ranks of world class opera houses, Florence's Teatro Comunale has gratified the Florentine community for 150 years with quality productions, having played host to some of the world's greatest musical geniuses the likes of Callas, Abbado, Strauss, Muti and Mascagni.  A Florentine landmark, it is rich in history, having been originally built as an open-air amphitheater in 1862, since then having been thrice reinvented after surviving devastating fires, WWII bombings and the great flood of 1966.

I've dearly loved this theater since moving to Florence in 2008. It feels like another room in my home. I love it because it is a part of the community fabric and serves its faithful Florentine audience like a church serves its congregation, connecting us through a powerful social, spiritual, musical experience.

I love it because it is not an impersonal multiplex performing arts center, but a local musical piazza steeped in tradition, where the real people gather to adore their music, their history and their city.

I love Teatro Comunale for all the opposite reasons why for 30 years I've loved the Met and my old neighborhood Lincoln Center. But New York City needs a piazza.  I love it because bigger and avant-garde isn't always better.  It is one of the few venues in centro where you can really feel the people who live here.  A five minute stroll from Ponte Vecchio along the Arno, it is romantically connected with, but peacefully removed from the masses.

It is not exactly the epitome of high-tech elegance and is perhaps even borderline blah but the productions are fine, affordable, the acoustics while not supersonic are decent enough, and nobody is complaining about the lack of designer lighting or space-age staging.  Handsome on the outside, glitterless on the inside, it is tastefully Florentine with a stately stage curtain marked only by the Florentine Giglio.  It applauds the character of this great city. 

It beats many a Met in the comfort factor, with wide cozy seats, tons of legroom and no distracting digital subtitle machines protruding from the facing seat.  I've never seen a supersilious snob in the audience, which comprises everyday erudite Florentines who damned-well know their opera, right down to the kids.

But all of this is coming to an end.

I don’t want to embark upon describing the, “Teatro dell'Opera di Firenze”, which is soon to oust our beloved Teatro Comunale, since there is already plenty written on the subject.  Suffice to say that it is the brainchild of certain individuals who envisioned an avant-garde high tech, one-stop musical shopping center with supersonic acoustics and state-of- the art staging that would allow it to increase its repertoire by 40%. Further, it could accomodate the masses....5,000 people all at the same time within its multiplex theater configuration. It could conceivably host an opera, a rock concert and a jazz-fest all at the same time, beckoning all of Florence to take a passeggiata or a jog in its new mega-piazza, which is being called its new ‘polis”.

Originally it was expected to cost €105 million, with a good chunk of that coming from the Comune di Firenze in the hopes of reimbursing itself with the proceeds from junking our precious Teatro Comunale.  The first auction failed for lack of interested buyers.  How ambitious for a country that has been brought down to its economic knees. According to this recent article, the project has cost €160 million, with another €80 million to go.  According to Mayor Renzi, it is soon to be saved by a corporate sponsor who would pay mega-Euro in exchange for advertising its name. Could this be the new "Bank of China Performing Arts Center"?

The theater, unfinished, will inaugurate itself with a series of pre-Christmas concerts without a single parking space to boot. Cars will have to park at Piazza Leopoldo, just a dreamy hop, skip, and a tram ride away along one of Florence's most trafficked viales.

I had to see this for myself.  From Ponte Vecchio, I walked along the Arno and as I turned right at Parco delle Cascine, it appeared in front of me, the architectural antithesis of Florence. It looked like a shoe box suspended inside a cheese grater. 

It just seemed so out-of-place.

This“fabbrica di spettacolo e di musica”, (music and performance factory) does looks like a factory. A rectangular structure suspended high above the already unattractive surroundings, this marble-armored fire and bomb-proof box is perfectly positioned to survive another Arno act of Mother Nature.  Its bold lines and heavy mettalic-looking marble, incongruent with the feel of Florence, reminded me of 1970’s Los Angeles.  Even The Sydney Opera House, while avant-garde for its time, incorporates some sexy, curvy musical movement in its design and fits beautifully in its environment. I can feel Brunelleschi's ghost crying from the pits of his cupola.

Florence has indeed lost a treasure.