Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Italian Passages II: Veni, Verdi, Violini

[The second in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio’s  Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

The commune of Busseto in the province of Parma, in Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, appears to have two principal exports: tomatoes and the noted composer Giuseppe Verdi.  Since this tour focuses on music rather than agriculture, it was the latter that provided one of our two principal activities on the road from Milan to Venice.

Unloading from our buses in the village of Roncale, we got a brief tour of the church where Verdi was the resident organist (at the ripe old age of eight) and an even more brief look at the outside of the home where he was born, followed by a private concert of Italian opera arias (wth the emphasis, of course, on Verdi) at Teatro  Verdi by soprano Renata Campanella and pianist M. Fabrizio Cassi.

One of my fellow cruisers asked me at dinner the following night what I thought of the recital and what, as a critic, I look for in an operatic performance.  I replied that what I looked for what essentially what we got from Ms. Campanella: a singer/actor with a solid, well-placed voice of uniform strength throughout its range and the ability to fully inhabit a character and convey the emotions behind an aria believably, without exaggeration.

I found Ms. Campanella to be a totally compelling singer and actress, always entirely “in the moment” from before the first note was struck until she broke character to accept our applause.  Whether she was swooning with love in “Tacea la notte placida” from Il Trovatore or contemplating the cruelty of fate in “Pace, pace mio Dio”  from La Forza del Destino, she was always completely credible and musically impeccable.  Add in the jewel-like perfection of the tiny (100-seat) theatre, and the result was a unique experience I won’t soon forget.

The theatre has an interesting history of its own.  Constructed inside a former palazzo that now houses local government offices, it was named after Verdi over his strenuous objections.  He much preferred the town’s older existing opera house and regarded the construction of the new one as a waste of money.  As a result, he refused to set foot in the theatre that bears his name.

Another unforgettable experience was the classically northern Italian lunch we were served afterwards next door at the restaurant I Due Foscari. The late Luciano Pavarotti was an old friend of the family and the restaurant was his personal favorite.  The creamy risotto and baked chicken were reminiscent of my Italian grandmother’s cooking and the locally-made sparkling wines were a perfect complement.

Then it was back to the bus for a short drive to the Violin Museum in Cremona, where we were treated to yet another fine concert, this time by Aurelia Macovei on an authentic 1727 Stradivarius violin. The recital was brief, but provided and excellent showcase for both Ms. Macovei’s skill and the robust sound of her instrument.  

For me, the highlight was a transcription of Asturias (Leyenda) by Albeniz,  Originally composed for piano, this dramatic piece is often heard in a guitar transcription. The violin arrangement is an ingenious piece of work—every bit as flashy as both the piano and guitar versions but exploiting the violin’s capabilities so effectively that someone encountering it for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it was written for that instrument in the first place.

The intimate performance space at the museum (pictured above) is a thing of both visual and auditory beauty all by itself, with comfortable seats and auburn wood everywhere, curved in homage to the instrument to which the museum is dedicated, and excellent acoustics.

The tour of the museum that followed was informative but when it began to feel rather like a pitch by the Cremona Chamber of Commerce, I made a discreet exit to wait for the rest of our group at the museum entrance.  I was rewarded by the sight of a group of mummers and dancers in Renaissance costume.  The later gave those of us hanging around the shaded courtyard in front of the museum a delightful demonstration of period social dancing, accompanied by recorded music.  You never know when serendipity is going to make itself felt.

And then it was time to board the bus for Venice.  Of which, more anon.

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