Italy Wrap-up (with pictures)
It's Better in Bologna

Venice Is For (Music) Lovers

Dsc02606Ah, Venice: city of lovers, pigeons, and $19 cocktails. It is a mysterious, frustrating, beguiling place, where there are no cars and the only mode of public transportation is the Vaporetto: a kind of rusty old ferry that buses passengers up and down the Grand Canal. Most visitors stick to the area around St. Mark's Square, but for those of a more musical bent, a venture outside the center reveals a city rich in musical history - and at least one musical institution that is still very much alive.

If opera was born in Florence, it grew up in Venice. Claudio Monteverdi took Peri's Florentine invention and expanded upon it, premiering his first opera, l'Orfeo, in Venice in 1609. l'Orfeo brought in a number of important musical innovations, including the first time orchestral music was written for specific instruments. In the end, he composed no fewer than eighteen operas, and nine books of madrigals,  introducing techniques such as tremolo, ritornello, and pizzicato and greatly expanding the use of counterpoint. Monteverdi was also an influential teacher, and his students - most notably Heinrich Schutz, who wrote the first German opera - helped disseminate the music of the Venetian School throughout Europe, giving rise to the Baroque era.

Dsc04150The living institution I referred to earlier is the Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice's main opera house that opened in 1792 and host of the premieres of works by Bellini, Rossini and - most famously - Verdi, including his La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. After being completely destroyed by arson in 1996, La Fenice (translation: "The Phoenix") reopened in 2003, built to the same design and specifications as before. Last Friday night, I had the chance to attend a performance there, and it was worth the 47 Euro just to be inside this remarkable theater, dripping in Venetian gold, blue and red.

Dsc04137The concert was given by the orchestra of the theater, under visiting Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant. After beginning with Schubert's "Overture in the Italian Style", they performed Luciano Berio's Rendering: a reconstruction of the fragments of Schubert's unfinished 10th Symphony. As Soudant described it in remarks to the audience, Berio was inspired by the 1997 earthquakes in Assisi, which had destroyed whole sections of the frescoes at the Basilica of St. Francis but with many beautiful images still remaining.

"Berio decided that he wanted to fill the holes that Schubert had left behind," Soudant said. "But, not by emulating his style, but rather with music that evoked a sense of decay and loss."

Dsc04141The juxtaposition of Schubert's tonal, often triumphant music with Berio's astringent sounds was both disturbing and deeply affecting: Rendering would make a perfect primer for anyone as-yet unacclimated to the world of new music. Having spent the day walking the narrow streets and canals, the music for me also evoked Venice's own slow crumbling, with the salty air having taken it's toll over the past 800 years on numerous old palazzos and bridges.

After intermission, the orchestra Dsc04145was joined by a full chorus for Berlioz' rarely heard Tristia ("Sad Things"), and concluded with the same composer's overture to Benvenuto Cellini. The combined sound in the relatively compact hall was big and powerful, with Soudant seeming to encourage the performers to play even louder. The not-quite-full house responded warmly, though I couldn't help but wonder how they would have responded to more typical operatic fare.



The following morning, I caught the Vaporetto to the Palazzo Loredan- Vendarmin-Corleggi in Canareggio near the train station - better known today as the municipal casino. In the winter of 1882-83, however, it was the home of Richard Wagner, who went there immediately after the closing of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where his final opera, Parsifal, had just received its premiere. On the morning of February 13, 1883, while sitting on a couch under a window facing the Grand Canal, Wagner suffered a heart attack and was later found dead by his wife, Cosima. She emptied the house of all their belongings and had them shipped back to Bayreuth, where they are now in the museum there.

Dsc02865The large and opulent rooms, which are on the mezzanine level of the palazzo, are today maintained as a shrine to the composer by the Richard Wagner Association of Venice, part of the worldwide network of Wagner societies. The rooms are only open to the public on Saturday mornings, and I was one of only six (mostly American) people who'd signed up for the tour.

With the addition of the private Dsc02867collection of Josef Leinhardt in 2003, the palazzo became the largest Wagner museum outside of Bayreuth, filled with portraits and lined with cases containing numerous letters, scores and programs. But, with silk roses scattered everywhere and scenes from The Ring and Parsifal playing in each room, the museum came across as a bit creepy: the cultishness cultivated while Wagner was still alive long ago lost its tastefulness, especially after Hitler's appropriation of his Aryan mythology and anti-Semitic beliefs. 


In the final room hung an original poster for the Italian premiere of The Ring at La Fenice from April 14-18, 1883. Wagner had once complained that, "Italians are not ready for my music," but obviously relented, and no doubt would have played a role in the production when it arrived in his temporary home.

Today, there are monuments to Wagner all around Venice, including a bust in the public garden (near the Biennale pavilions) and a plaque to his memory in the Cafe Lavena in the Piazza San Marco, where Wagner would walk from his apartment and while away the afternoon before walking back.


Of course, Wagner wasn't the only musician to have spent time in Venice (Vivaldi, Gabrielli, Britten, to name a few), and there are monuments to composers all around La Serenissima:Dsc02787_2

Claudio Monteverdi's Grave, Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari


Bust of Giuseppe Verdi, Public Garden

Dsc02908_2Grave of Igor Stravinsky, Cemetery Island of San Michele

I'll check back in with some final thoughts about Italy sometime later today or tomorrow.