Sunday, January 26, 2014

Opera in Florence

When I read that Leo Nucci was playing the role of Nabucco in this season's performance at Teatro Comunale, I beelined to the box office and landed the perfect pair of seats. It was a special treat to see Leo Nucci perform in Florence.  I had twice seen him at the Met in the roles of Rigoletto and Falstaff. Given he is past the prime of his career, I knew this would probably be the last I would see him and thus was excited.

I've always been very fond of Teatro Comunale.  It is a humble neighborhood opera house and epitomizes the Florentine culture in many ways, which I described a few years ago in my post:  The End of a Musical Era.  When I entered the opera house for today's matinee,  I noticed the 80 year-old poster (see above) advertising the first time that Nabucco was performed here in 1933.  This opera house is a landmark of Florentine musical history. 

The performance was much to my liking, the new production pure and realistic, the conductor spirited and precise, and the singers quite good.  Nucci carried himself strongly but without the same presence and force that he used to command. I was hoping the performance to be emotionally riveting, but it lacked the drama of La Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, but nevertheless I fully enjoyed it. This, the third opera of Verdi is one which Italians even today identify with through the familiar choral piece Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate / believed by some critics to have been the anthem for Italian patriots during the Risorgimento.

Teatro Comunale is home to Zubin Mehta's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which produces excellent opera...thanks to its maestro who stands among the best of recent decades. Teatro Comunale isn't the Met. Its humble walls are not worthy of Zubin's grandeur.  Despite these issues, there is something I appreciate so much more about this small homespun opera house in spite of its acoustical defects and production limitations. The theater is perfect for the Florentines and Florence, the match is perfectly in-tuned with their habits and tastes.  It doesn't, however, suit the great Zubin, who should probably be conducting in a more prestigiously recognized opera hub.  Lucky that we still have him, he's excelled and brought us great opera when he could have chosen a city and opera house much more fitting for his status.  But he loves Florence, and I do not complain.  Having seen him countless times over the years in countless cities, it sure feels good to know that he hangs here in Florence like I do. After all, he can be wherever he wants.

The audience tonight was pure unsophisticated down-to-earth Florentine, not a single tourist at this time of year, and the theater felt as always, more like a piazza, a local gathering, an extension of my home. 

Teatro Comunale has gratified the Florentine community for 150 years, having played host to some of the world's greatest musical geniuses including 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.

Rumor has it that Teatro Comunale has found a buyer to help it fund the unfathomed expenses required to complete the Teatro Nuovo, which has so far been an economic and cultural failure of poor planning, designed by over-zealous politicians and architects. Sadly, Teatro Nuovo will be the new home of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which other than being a tribute and gift to Zubin himself,  means we pay more to travel further to an ugly, cold modern building that lacks history and parking spaces.  But its protagonists insist that it will allow the opera house to offer world-class opera and expand its repetoire by 40%.  Somehow I just do not see it.  If I were Zubin and if I loved my homeland, I would build the Taj Mahal Opera House in India and conduct my guts out among my people.  I remain content with what we have now and don't forsee Florence as a destination for world-class opera from both economic, demographic and market demand perspectives.

So, every time I go, I go with a bittersweet feeling of appreciation, knowing that this might be my last time, before the opera house becomes victim to the political dreamers who insist upon something more grand, at any cost.  The rest of the 2014 opera repertoire will continue to be performed here, but this is likely to be the last season.  Tickets are still available for subsequent performances of Nabucco.  Stand-by for Madame Butterfly next month.