On a visit to Venice last year, several performances gave new meaning (for me) to the common perception of Venice as an important musical destination. There seemed to be performances of classical music all over the place, in both secular venues and at the many churches that have been given over to musical events. It would be hard to come to Venice without having some list or selection of musical performances worth attending.
Of course Vivaldi is given much attention, both in choral concerts and in orchestral programs. He was, after all, born in Venice in 1678, and there are many who think of Vivaldi as the greatest of all the many Baroque composers. Whether that opinion is universal or not doesn’t matter, for the vivid presence of Vivaldi’s music in performances and in museum collections is clearly one of the attractions of Venice and certainly he and his music would be expected to be featured in such a musical city.
As it turned out, I was able to enjoy Vivaldi in Venice on a very special level. On my last night in Venice (so I suppose this story is sort of being told in reverse order), I was delightfully pleased and, well, even a little bit thrilled, to experience one of the almost nightly performances of Interpreti Veneziana. The ensemble, formed in 1987, was noted in one review for “the exuberance and all-Italian brio characterizing their performances.” The group lived up to that reputation when I heard them in concert at the Chiesa San Vidal, the splendid church (now decommissioned) whose foundations date from 1084. The space is richly decorated, as shown in the overview picture above. Some fifteen splendid paintings, including Vittore Carpaccio’s “Gloria di San Vidal” at the center of the high altar (pictured below), surround listeners at the concerts.
As I say, I chose to attend the concert for my last evening in Venice, for one reason: I wanted to hear what is probably Vivaldi’s most famous work. I wanted to hear it again, and I wanted to hear it in this setting. I’ve heard “Le Quattro Stagioni” all my life, and I thought this performance might be special. Indeed. I can’t remember when I’ve ever heard it played better, and it was a listening experience I probably will never forget. “The Four Seasons” was followed up after intermission (when, for another delightful experience, visitors were free to wander among the several glass display cases with their antique musical instruments – sadly no Stradivarius here but there are several in other locations in Venice) by a lovely Vivaldi concerto (RV. 151 “Alla Rustica”) and another, by Leonardo Leo (new to me), Concerto per violoncello (L. 10) with soloist Davide Amadio giving new meaning to that “exuberance” referred to in the description noted earlier. It was a wonderful performance.
When the concert ended, I strolled out feeling enormously light-hearted after such a good experience, and – taking advantage of the neighborhood –I decided to cross over the Accademia Bridge to head for one of the more remote vaporetto stops, since I had discovered in one of my earlier “single-guy’s-holidays” that getting on and off the water buses and riding back and forth late at night has to be one of Mr. Guy’s favorite pleasures. My long ride didn’t make me more receptive to the idea of getting on an airplane the next morning, but it certainly kept my mind busy on the flight home, re-visiting all the beautiful sites I had seen, all lit up in the darkness surrounding the Grand Canal.
But that’s the end of the story of my musical experiences in Venice, not the beginning. My Venetian musical adventures began much earlier in the visit. As often happens when I travel, since a major focus in my life tends to be opera, I was truly amazed at what I was able to enjoy at La Teatro La Fenice. I was surprised and delighted with the coincidence of being able to experience three exceptional evenings at that glorious place.
Not surprising to anyone who knows me and has heard about or experienced my love of opera, each of these performances has its own “Guy-St. Clair-connection.” So I’m very pleased to share with friends and colleagues a few thoughts about three memorable visits to La Fenice.
I almost titled these posts “Three Never-to-be-Forgotten Evenings at the Opera in Venice,” but I was afraid that that might get readers’ hopes higher than I can match! The three programs were: a delightfully funny performance of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” with libretto by Felice Romani, a modern-dress and perfectly appropriate version of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” (Francesco Maria Piave libretto), and an overwhelming and positively “historic” (as one friend referred to it) version of Bellini’s “Norma,” also with a Romani libretto. I’ll give attention to “L’Elisir d’Amore” here, and my next two posts will be given over to the Verdi and the Bellini. I think readers will agree that it’s best to divide up my descriptions of these super performances.
A dear friend came for a few of my first days in Venice, and she and I decided before we left New York to purchase our tickets in advance for “L’Elisir d’Amore.” We were happy we did, for La Fenice, being one of the most famous opera houses in the world, usually experiences sold-out performances and once we entered La Teatro La Fenice we could tell by looking around that this was going to be one of those. Our seats were in the third row, just off the aisle and practically inside the orchestra, but that did not distract us at all. It’s a splendid opera, and our production at the Met is always full of fun (I had seen it in rehearsal just before I came to Venice), and of course the silly story of the “elixir” (nothing more than a bottle of wine – “e bordò, non elisir” the cunning con-artist calls it) ensures that all things come out happily.
But the opera isn’t just about silliness, either, as Giovanni Montanaro describes in his essay in the La Fenice program. His title for the essay is “A Furtive Note,” a sweet pun on one of the loveliest arias in the opera, “Una furtiva lagrima” sung by the hero Nemorino. It translates as “A furtive tear” and it’s an aria that always brings down the house, as it did this evening! So Montanaro’s title for his essay indicates that he must be a great lover of this particular opera for he caught the spirit of the evening in his essay, noting that when asked to write about “L’Elisir d’Amore,” he “had to write like this”:
No solemnity or reflections outside my remit as a writer: I wanted to write with a smile, with a light touch. And I believe that Donizetti and Felice Romani want you to enjoy yourself this evening. They want each of us to be accompanied by a love – lost or longed for; seated alongside or betrayed. And you may well think about what you don’t have in life, but only for the duration of a “furtive tear” – not a moment longer.
The performance was charming, excellently sung, and because we were sitting so close to the stage, it was easy to see just how much fun the entire cast was having. The chorus – big, it seemed to me for the rather limited stage of La Fenice – was absolutely unconstrained and sang with such robust enthusiasm that we thought they would bring down the theatre’s beautiful ceiling. And, surprising to me, as I’ve not often experienced this in European opera houses, the entire audience was on its feet when the curtain calls began. With the main curtain full open, we saw not only the leading artists but the chorus itself, all joining hands and rushing to the front of the stage over and over and over (in fact we were a little worried – not really – because if the members of the chorus could have leapt over the several open orchestra rows between them and us, they would have ended up in our laps). Everyone was laughing and cheering and having such a good time that it was clear to anyone in the house – opera fan or not – that everyone in the cast was thrilled to have performed for us and extremely satisfied – as were we – that they had performed so well.