Open House in Parma

AUGUST VENTURA raises the curtain on Parma's Teatro Farnese, a Baroque-era jewel that is returning to life as a venue.

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The interior of Parma's long-neglected Teatro Farnese
© Domenico Tondini/Alamy 2012
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© Kim Petersen/Alamy 2012
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Parma's Romanesque cathedral (Duomo), with the cathedral's octagonal twelfth-century Baptistry at right
© Luca Da Ros/SOPA/Corbis 2012

Opera-lovers tend to equate the Italian city of Parma with its Teatro Regio, that neoclassical temple of Verdian tradition and excitable audiences. Two hundred yards away from the Regio — and predating it by as many years — lies the Teatro Farnese, unique in its own way to the history of opera and one of the most suggestively beautiful theaters to be found anywhere. 

This venerable relic of the Baroque era dates from 1618, and, like many an operatic heroine, it has experienced brilliant flashes of fleeting rapture, only to languish in abandonment. Astonishingly, this splendid theater played host to a total of just nine performances until 1732, when a prolonged period of neglect was ushered in. For nearly two centuries it lay shuttered and dank, an intriguing if melancholy stop along the Grand Tour. Charles Dickens, writing in 1846, penned these impressions: "A hundred and ten years have passed, since any play was acted here.... The desolation and decay impress themselves on all the senses.... If ever Ghosts act plays, they act them on this ghostly stage." 

Such torpor is a remarkable contrast to the Risorgimento fires that were being stoked at this time by Verdi's music only steps away at the newly inaugurated Teatro Regio. Ironically, it was Verdi's centennial, in 1913, that prompted the first major reconstruction of the Teatro Farnese's interior — a happy, if short-lived, reversal of fortune. In 1944, the Farnese became an unwitting protagonist in a theater of war when extensive damage was caused by Allied bombers conducting an air raid. The stage where allegorical battles were once enacted beneath a painted sky to strains of Monteverdi was now a pile of rubble exposed to the elements.

Apart from this fascinating if checkered past, the Farnese has an incomparable pedigree as a vital link between the few earlier surviving indoor theaters and later homes to the neonate form of music-driven drama that we now call "opera." It can rightfully boast a noteworthy list of "firsts" — the first proscenium stage with movable scenic "wings" for instant scene changes, the first orchestra pit in the form of a partitioned area for musicians, and the first royal box. That majestic proscenium looms over a second performing area, the platea, a curiously elongated U-shaped arena reminiscent of a hippodrome. Spectators, as many as three thousand of them, all local and visiting aristocracy, watched from the steep seating area girding this "U," not unlike the bleachers of a racetrack or a modern theater-in-the-round. Though much of what the visitor sees today is in some way a reconstruction, it remains remarkably faithful in shape and spirit to the original built by Duke Ranuccio I, scion of the important Farnese family. A magnificent new theater was needed to house an elaborate court spectacle combining music, ballet and tournaments for an impending visit by the Archduke Cosimo II de' Medici. A vast armory space was pressed into service, and Giovanni Battista Aleotti, an architect from Ferrara with impressive credentials as a designer of theaters, was commissioned. Time was of the essence, so the elaborate interior was constructed in wood and plaster decoratively painted in a riot of polychrome to simulate the grandeur and permanence of marble. 

When Cosimo II's much-anticipated visit was called off, the theater lay silent for ten years, until the 1628 nuptials of Odoardo Farnese and Margherita de' Medici, son and daughter of Ranuccio and Cosimo. The lavish spectacle created for this inaugural occasion was a new opera called Mercurio e Marte, now lost, by Claudio Monteverdi, who personally supervised musical aspects of the production. 

Court spectacles were designed to dazzle and amuse, but they also served a political agenda as displays of might or affirmations of the gloriousness of the local or visiting dynasties. Mercurio e Marte, an allegory drawn from mythological subjects, was no exception; the eponymous gods battle for the favor of the bridegroom, Odoardo himself, who must decide between the opposing pursuits of learning and warfare. Before the outcome, in which Odoardo reconciles himself to both, the action shifted to such fantastic locales as a cavern, a marshland, the foot of an angry Mount Etna and inside the belly of a sea-monster. This finale remains the stuff of local legend, as it set the stage for a naumachia — a simulated sea-battle for which the entire platea area was filled with water to accommodate warships. Some modern-day scholars have cast doubt on this last colpo di scena, but even the disputers allow that some spectacular scenic intervention involving a virtuoso display of dancing waters was indeed deployed.

Later spectacles presented at the Farnese were similar court entertainments, to coincide with royal weddings or important visitors. Parma's superb Casa della Musica museum displays an astonishing array of scenic designs and detailed sketches of the elaborate and quite ingenious stage machines devised to create a phantasmagoria of dazzling effects.

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The exterior of Parma's Teatro Farnese
© WoodyStock/Alamy 2012

Following the World War II bombardment, preservationist forces prevailed, and the theater was once again meticulously rebuilt according to the time-honored principle "as it was, where it was." Twice-restored, the Teatro Farnese has since enjoyed a half century of relative calm as an object of veneration. Visitors marvel at its monumental scale and invariably fall into a respectful hush. Amber light bounces off the wood-grained interior appointments and permeates the entire space, pierced by a shaft of sunlight streaming in from the enormous oculus on the lateral wall. 

Last summer, this long, accustomed silence at the Farnese was finally broken when the Teatro Regio management presented a concert of Mozart and Beethoven here, conducted by Claudio Abbado. No one at the Regio expected the approval process to be an easy one; after a three-year tug-of-war with various bureaucracies, permission was finally, if cautiously, granted. The Regio could proceed to present opera here — or could they? Drastic cuts in arts funding annulled the intended first production, Verdi's La Battaglia di Legnano, but a simpler production of Verdi's Falstaff did make it as part of the 2011 Festival Verdi — perhaps fittingly so. Stephen Medcalf's frisky production drew stylishly from Elizabethan imagery and staging techniques and melded beautifully with the surrounding architecture, a knowing nod to the fact that the Farnese is very nearly a contemporary of Shakespeare.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. This being Parma, however, where there is la lirica there is bound to be la polemica. Few would take issue with the vigorous conducting of twenty-four-year-old Andrea Battistoni, a Parma favorite, but nearly everyone found both the acoustics and the sight lines of the Farnese to be wanting, with the best sound wafting up to those willing to brave the vertiginous climb up the steep seating. Carla Moreni, one of Italy's leading music critics, acknowledged these shortcomings but also expressed abundant enthusiasm at seeing the theater return to life as a venue.

The dissenters number among their ranks esteemed historians and intellectuals such as Marzio Dall'Acqua, who argue that nineteenth-century opera is an uneasy fit for a seventeenth-century theater. They arrive at their opinions by way of their unassailable knowledge of the Farnese's history. For Dall'Acqua, merely using the platea as a seating area is enough of an infraction. Lest anyone condemn such an admonitory stance as elitism, cautionary examples abound of how Italy's incomparable artistic patrimony can risk becoming reduced to an object of middlebrow touristic consumption. One can understand how putting on a show here, however prudently, could represent the first step in such a downward spiral.

For some of Parma's legendary loggionisti, the very idea of performing Verdi anywhere outside the walls of the Regio — and in a theater with no loggione — is asking far too much. As one of them muttered despairingly after a performance of Falstaff, "They've taken away our church!" In Parma, you might just have an easier time trying to reconcile Mercury with Mars.

The Teatro Regio has every intention of pressing forward with presenting more opera at the Farnese while remaining respectful of its essence. Giancarlo Liuzzi, the Regio's dynamic head of communications, offers an intriguing glimpse of what may lie ahead. "We are looking again at La Battaglia di Legnano, possibly I Masnadieri, and maybe finding a way to bring these performances back onto the platea in such a way as to evoke the tournaments, pageantry and battles once staged there in the past. After which, we would like very much to present the music of the Farnese within the Farnese. Wouldn't it be marvelous to hear Baroque instruments vibrating off these wooden walls?" spacer 

AUGUST VENTURA, an architect and writer based in New York City, is currently producing a documentary film for the Verdi bicentennial on Parma and its relationship to the composer's twenty-seven operas. 

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