OPERA NEWS - A Renaissance in Opera's Birthplace
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A Renaissance in Opera's Birthplace

STEPHEN HASTINGS visits Florence, which has been energized by a new theater complex and new artistic leadership.

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Florence's new Teatro dell'Opera complex, inaugurated in 2011 as part of the celebrations surrounding the 150th anniversary of Italian unification
© Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – Foto Gianluca Moggi/New Press Photo Firenze 2012
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Mehta, chief conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino since 1985, and sovrintendente Colombo in the new auditorium, designed by Paolo Desideri
© Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – Foto Gianluca Moggi/New Press Photo Firenze 2012
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A scene from La Fura dels Baus staging of Götterdämmerung, presented at Florence's Teatro Comunale in 2009
Courtesy Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Opera in Florence has often functioned most successfully when pursuing the intellectual curiosity of a cultivated elite rather than the lowest common denominator of popular taste. In 1933, when conductor Vittorio Gui initiated Italy's first large-scale festival, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, he conceived it in terms of a cultural mission: reviving forgotten masterworks (such as Spontini's La Vestale, starring Rosa Ponselle in her only Italian performances) and revisiting the standard repertory with a teasing touch of sophistication (De Chirico's provocatively modernistic sets for Bellini's I Puritani).

Two years later, Rossini's Mosè and Rameau's Castor et Pollux were staged, and for three decades Florence became one of the few places in the world where Baroque opera and rare works by Rossini got a hearing with any regularity. It was in this city that Renata Tebaldi had a chance to sing Rossini's Assedio di Corinto (1949) and Spontini's Olimpia (1950), and it was here alone that Maria Callas could be heard as Haydn's Euridice (1951) and Rossini's Armida (1952). From that same period, Bruno Bartoletti — who has himself enjoyed an incomparably long and decidedly fruitful association with the festival — recalls the revelatory musical cogency of Dimitri Mitropoulos's conducting in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (1954). And Bartoletti himself was protagonist — as conductor of Berg's Wozzeck and Shostakovich's The Nose — of the innovative 1964 Maggio Musicale, devoted to Expressionism.

Since then, Florence has continued to attract some of the world's greatest musicians. Riccardo Muti was principal conductor here from 1968 to 1980, and since taking over in 1985, Zubin Mehta has upheld the highest standards of orchestral playing; but the festival has undeniably lost its cutting edge. One of the reasons is that Gui's highly individual mission has by now become standard strategy for many music festivals worldwide, making it difficult for the Maggio Musicale to stand out amid the competition. Another reason is that increasingly cumbersome productions have made it arduous to stage two or more operas simultaneously. In spite of intermittent use of the intimate seventeenth-century Teatro della Pergola, as well as the much larger Teatro Comunale (an acoustically problematic venue, first opened in 1862), it has seldom been possible in recent decades to see at least two operas on consecutive nights — for most visitors, the principal appeal of any festival experience. 

And while there has been no lack of orchestral and chamber music on other nights, these are usually guest performances of touring ensembles that can be heard playing the same repertoire elsewhere in Italy and the rest of Europe. The Ring cycle (a coproduction with Valencia) staged here by La Fura dels Baus proved to be one of the more exciting theatrical events of the new millennium, but the Maggio Musicale has not yet been able to stage the entire cycle in one season, because such a feat would have stretched the technical resources of the Teatro Comunale well beyond its limits. It was thus the futuristic Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia that won most of the kudos for the production and was used for the making of the critically-acclaimed DVDs. 

Another problem is that Mehta, who has been principal conductor for twenty-seven years, arouses admiration more for the souplesse and polish of his accompaniments than for the adventurousness of his repertory choices, and none of the artistic directors who have worked alongside him have come close to equaling the imaginative flair of Francesco Siciliani in the 1940s and '50s. For at least a decade, moreover, the Fondazione Maggio Musicale Fiorentino — the name now used to describe the institution that organizes the year-round programming (including further operatic seasons, of varying length, in the summer, autumn and winter) — has been beset with financial problems caused by swingeing cuts in government funding and a superabundance of full-time employees. In 2006, the festival was able to stage only one opera — a fine Falstaff with Mehta at the helm and Ruggero Raimondi in the leading role — because the rest of the money available was needed simply to pay the salaries of the permanent staff. If one compares this crisis with the programming in 1944, the darkest period of World War II — when they managed to mount five operas during the festival (although one performance of Così Fan Tutte was canceled because of a bomb attack) — it becomes clear that something had gone awry. 

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Florence's new Teatro dell'Opera complex
© Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – Foto Gianluca Moggi/New Press Photo Firenze 2012

In more recent years, however, productivity has picked up, and two events in particular seem to augur well for the future. In 2010, a new Sovrintendente was appointed — the thirty-seven-year-old Francesca Colombo, a dynamic engineer (and pianist) from Lombardy who had already made her mark organizing the MITO festival in Milan and Turin. And in 2011, the long-delayed project of building a new opera house, the Teatro dell'Opera, was finally brought to completion, thanks to extra funds made available for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification. This new theatrical complex is situated not far from the Teatro Comunale on the western outskirts of the city center, but transport connections are better, and unlike the old theater — which is irritatingly out of the way for visitors to the city's main historic attractions — it is easy to get to by public transport and promises to become a real pole of attraction in itself, with something going on all day every day. Last year's inauguration (Dec. 21) was a temporary one, with a series of concerts (including two with Mehta and one with Claudio Abbado) in the large auditorium. The first opera — Puccini's Turandot — will open there on November 24 this year. 

Colombo feels that she has already achieved quite a lot in artistic terms (she points to the resounding success of the company's foreign tours in 2011) and underlines that although she wasn't always sure she would "have enough money to pay the salaries at the end of the month," the excitement generated by the opening of the new opera house encouraged sponsors to cover entirely the costs of the inaugural concerts. "When I started, there were losses of about ten million euros every season, but I hope to break even by the end of this year," she says. She has already regained the trust of disillusioned local sponsors and is in the process of setting up an International Friends organization, which will facilitate tax-deductible donations from abroad. 

The most difficult part of her job, she admits, has been dealing with the "woefully inadequate" organizational structure of the house. "I have had to revolutionize everything and have encountered quite a lot of resistance and hostility in the process. There was no one working to improve relations with the city of Florence itself. The opera house wasn't even featured on the city maps handed out to tourists!"

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An exterior view of the opera house
© Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – Foto Gianluca Moggi/New Press Photo Firenze 2012

She arrived too late to exert any significant influence on the structure of the new Teatro dell'Opera (which includes two indoor theaters and an outdoor amphitheater for summer performances). She has succeeded, however, in increasing the seating space available in the main theater, and judging by the inaugural concerts, most critics agree that the acoustics are infinitely better than in the Teatro Comunale, and that the streamlined auditorium is undeniably handsome. Yet those seated in lateral boxes have little or no eye-contact with the rest of the audience, as if the architect, Paolo Desideri, had wished to suppress the conviviality of the traditional Italian opera house, in which spectators interact with each other while responding to what is happening onstage. Colombo didn't mention this problem during our conversation in Milan last February, but she did voice regret that she won't be able to turn the smaller auditorium into a salle modulable, where various performing arts could be presented in a manner that involves the audience more dynamically. 

Colombo believes, however, that the building has "enormous potential, enabling us to alternate operas in rapid succession and involve even casual passersby with video projections of rehearsals in the outdoor amphitheater. I feel the house could well become the focal point of a new Florentine Renaissance in the twenty-first century." In Florence, there is indeed a feeling that anything can happen, and the great Renaissance of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries still envelops even the most distracted of visitors. If one prowls the narrower streets late at night or crosses the Piazza della Signoria as morning rises, one has a real feeling of history still interacting mysteriously with the present. This was certainly the case for Franco Zeffirelli, who attributes much of the underlying inspiration for his work in the opera house to his upbringing and training in this city haunted by ghosts of the distant past. And inevitably the future of the Maggio Musicale will continue to depend not only on its receptiveness to novelty — this month will see the premiere of Silvia Colasanti's opera inspired by Kafka's Metamorphosis — but on its ability to relate to the past. The Verdi and Wagner celebrations next year promise at least to be on an imposing scale: in January, Mehta will finally conduct the entire Ring in the new opera house, and the festival will feature a new Parsifal and Verdi's original version of Macbeth, performed at the Teatro della Pergola, where it was first staged in 1847. 

There is surely also much scope, now that Italian performers have become experts in this field, for further exploration of the Baroque repertoire, not to mention the grandsopéras of Meyerbeer, which were staged for the first time in Italy at the Pergola in the mid-nineteenth century and have been absent from the Maggio Musicale since the 1971 production of L'Africaine with Jessye Norman. The neglect of the French repertoire in general has been one of the weaknesses of operatic programming in Florence. It is hoped that the galvanizing presence of the new general manager will succeed in breaking down this barrier, too. spacer 

STEPHEN HASTINGS is the Milan correspondent for OPERA NEWS and editor in chief of the Italian monthly Musica. 

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