James Imam

Live opera returns to Italy this summer

12:20, 1st July 2020
Riccardo Mutti: Putting live performances back on track in Italy

In the shadow of Ravenna’s Rocca Brancaleone on 21 June, Riccardo launched this year’s edition of the Ravenna Festival to a masked audience of 250. It was on this spot that he inaugurated the festival 30 years ago, and now the maestro was back with the 62-strong Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra. But June’s concert was not about the past. Attended by the Culture Minister and broadcast on live state television, it was a nationwide celebration of a music tradition that, following the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, is now being reborn.

Ravenna is just the start. This summer, the entire peninsula will resound not just with live concerts, but also full-fat opera: The Puccini Festival (continuing until 21 August), Festival delle Valle d’Itria (14 July to 2 August), Macerata Festival (18 July to 9 August) and Rossini Opera Festival (8 to 20 August) will all stage productions, while the Verona Arena Opera Festival (25 July to 29 August) will give concerts featuring Sonya Yoncheva, Lisette Oropesa, Plácido Domingo, Ambrogio Maestri, Marcelo Álvarez and many more.

Evergreen opera companies will decamp from theatres to more expansive open spaces. In Naples’s Piazza del Plebiscito, concert performances of Tosca from the Teatro San Carlo (23 and 26 July) will be conducted by Juraj Valchua and will star Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyazov and Ludovic Tézier. In a concert-format Aida (28 and 31 July), Michele Mariotti will lead a cast featuring Jonas Kaufmann, Anita Rachvelishivili and Anna Pirozzi. Rome Opera’s outdoors series opens on 16 July at the Circo Massimo, with a new Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto conducted by Daniele Gatti. Vittorio Grigolo, Luca Salsi and Rosa Feola will head the cast.

Such luxury entertainment would have been unimaginable three months ago, when Italy was gripped in the clutches of the pandemic. As the health crisis spiralled out of control, Youtube videos of residents defiantly singing from their balconies soon gave way to images of overburdened hospitals and army trucks filled with coffins. Italy’s theatres, which were unilaterally closed on 23 February, looked set to be Europe’s last to reopen. They have taken a sizeable financial blow. By 15 June, the country’s live classical and pop music, theatre and dance companies had haemorrhaged €171m since the start of the lockdown, the Corriere della Sera reports.

But restrictions were tentatively eased from 18 May, and have since been slackened further. Italians can now freely roam their regions, country and – from last month – a growing list of international destinations. It has been possible to give live performances from 15th June (to 200 people for indoor spaces and 1,000 for outdoors, audiences, players and staff included). First off the mark was Milan’s Orchestra I Pomeriggi Musicali, with a concert at the Teatro Dal Verme on 15 June at half past midnight.

It took tenacity and enterprise to get to this point. In April, Ravenna sent a 10-page document to the government indicating how it would reopen in conformity with health restrictions. Ferrari’s ‘Back on Track’ report, previously written to convince policy makers to reopen production plants, provided the inspiration. Ravenna’s mission was to unblock the entire industry. ‘The idea is to move the whole production chain of music. Our plan study could be adopted by others,’ general director Antonio De Rosa told Il Giornale.

‘Hope is the last thing to die’

Cranking up the pressure further, a coalition of classical music magazines spearheaded by Classic Voice created a petition declaring ‘Live performances must restart’. Signed by figures including Cecilia Bartoli, Riccardo Chailly, Ennio Morricone, Antonio Pappano, Maurizio Pollini and Riccardo Muti – a seasoned rabble rouser who, in 2011, famously raged against arts cuts during a Rome performance of Nabucco – it was sent to both the culture minister and the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.

The government yielded, announcing in May that theatres would be allowed to reopen. The relief was palpable. ‘Hope is the last thing to die,’ said Franco Punzi, President of the Festival delle Valle d’Itria, to Nuovo Quotidiano di Puglia. It provided ‘a real injection of hope among the tourism professionals and the public. A gust of optimism,’ said Ernesto Palacio, general director  of the Rossini Opera Festival. ‘sixty per cent of our audiences come from abroad,’ he told L’Opera. ‘Their presence will help boost the city’s economy.’
But the hard work was just about to begin. Navigating a web of health restrictions has required planning, investment and boots on the ground. Both artists and audience members must be kept one metre apart, the consumption of food and drinks is forbidden, tickets must be sold online and venues must be cleaned after each performance. For performances in the Teatro Rossini, the ROF has blocked access to bathrooms, scrapped intervals to limit crowding and will place the orchestra in the stalls with the audience in boxes. Ravenna has issued audience members specific entry times. On the opening night, the Cherubini Orchestra’s strings sat in a semicircle one metre apart, while the winds were placed 1.5m apart and separated by plexiglass.

Repertoire has been overhauled in efforts to minimise costs and technical staff. ‘In the isolation in the Apennines I binned everything that we had planned and rethought the entire programme,’ Alberto Triola, artistic director of Valle d’Itria, told Il Corriere del Mezzogiorno. Mercadante’s La rappresaglia, Wolf-Ferrari’s Gli amanti sposi and Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora have been replaced with Strauss/Hofmannsthal’s Il borghese gentiluomo and their chamber opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Of the ROF’s three planned new productions – Moise et PharaonElisabetta regina d’Inghilterra and La cambiale di matrimonio – only the latter will be presented (the former two have been shifted to next year).

The Rossini Academy, a boot camp for the up-and-coming Rossini stars of tomorrow, could not complete auditions this year, so the annual production of Il viaggio a Reims, the usual catwalk for Academy students, will be staged in the Piazza del Popolo with already well-established alumni.

Directors have embraced the logistical challenges as creative opportunities. At the Puccini Festival, Manu Lalli will use Butterfly’s physical isolation to underline her emotional turmoil, while in Valentina Carrasco’s new Gianni Schicchi, the late Buoso Donati’s mourning family will wear face masks, gloves and continuously disinfect (thus ‘playing on the fear of the illness that is in all of us,’ the director told La Repubblica). In Macerata’s new Don Giovanni, Davide Livermore’s new production will be built around video animations to be projected onto the Sferisterio Arena’s huge back wall (measuring 18 x 90 metres). Apart from minimising staging, that will also help fill the enormous space.

The moment for new solutions

Festivals are not going to get rich this summer. Rome Opera is hoping ‘to fully or partially cover costs’, superintendent Carlo Fuortes told the Corriere della Sera. Ravenna is maintaining accessible ticket prices ranging from €5 to €40, despite audience caps. ‘To be frank, in this situation the box office is the least of our problems,’ Palacio told the Corriere dell’Adriatico. Even so, delivering performances this year will potentially be crucial for long term financial prospects, since the ‘Fondo unico per lo spettacolo’ (FUS), the points-based state mechanism through which arts finances are awarded in three-year cycles, rewards companies according to criteria including production and the size of audiences.

Luciano Messi: ‘If we don’t take risks now we lose the battle in the winter’

Italy’s opera world is already looking beyond the summer to its next big mission: reopening theatres from as early as September. ‘If we don’t take risks in the summer, we will lose the battle in the winter,’ said Luciano Messi (left), Macerata’s superintendent, to Chi magazine. ‘This is the moment to invent new solutions and dream big, to prepare us for the autumn when we will have to challenge the virus in closed spaces,’ Antonio De Rosa told the same magazine. ‘That is where imagination and creativity will really be needed,’ he said.


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