I’ve only ever been to a handful operas over the course of my life and I have to say, I’m not mad keen. I’ve tried to understand why so many people are moved to tears by the great tragedies but, opera philistine that I am, I just don’t get it.
I couldn’t wait for Mimi to hurry up and die at the end of La Bohème just so it could be over. I nearly walked out of The Marriage of Figaro in the interval due to the cringe factor of this ‘comic’ opera, highlights of which included some crossdressing and lots of hiding in cupboards. Maybe it was funny in 1786. I almost enjoyed Verdi’s Nabucco and an opera adaptation of Il Postino, but the extended periods of ‘recitative style’ (singing with the rhythms of ordinary speech) made me want to claw my own ears off. I’m all for the arias, the duets and the big choruses, but speech which is sung instead of spoken cuts right through me. I’m not into it. Take me to the ballet over the opera any day. Or so I thought.
I have since found possibly the best way to do opera. It’s called Musica a Palazzo, it’s in Venice, and they have it down.
Situated down a little alleyway near the Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop you’ll find the Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto. It has stood here in some form, overlooking the Grand Canal from the left bank just opposite what is now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, since the 1400’s. Nowadays, soprano and tenor solos can be heard wafting across the water here every night of the week.
As you cross the small bridge heading towards the palazzo you’ll notice a small herd of well-heeled people congregating around a stone staircase lined with tea lights and flowers. Once inside, you either hand in or fill out the short form necessary to become a member (Musica a Palazzo calls itself a ‘cultural association’) and pay the 75 euro joining fee. This makes you a member for life. I recommend buying a programme, which contains a handy English translation of the libretto, a summary of each act and a history of the palazzo. Doors open at 8pm for an 8.30pm start, after which the doorbell is switched off until the interval. Getting there early ensures a seat close to the action, although with an audience of only seventy it’s impossible to be very far away from it.
This is opera pared back to its most essential components but made all the more stunning for it. There are four talented musicians to bring the score to life: a pianist, a violinist, a cellist and a viola player. In the performance of Verdi’s La Traviata which I saw there were three opera singers: a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. Given that we were essentially watching an opera in someone’s extremely lavish front room, none of the performers were amplified. I can safely say, having been seated a mere two rows away from the soprano, that no microphone was necessary.
The opera is cleverly abridged down to around an hour and a half in length but does not feel at all rushed or reduced. The audience follows the performance around the palazzo, taking in each act in a different room. You move from grand, candlelit entrance hall to Tiepolo plastered salon to ornate bedchamber, with a short break for Prosecco overlooking the canal inbetween.
Musica a Palazzo offers a repertoire of three classic Italian operas and a selection of ‘Duetti D’Amore’. Verdi’s Rigoletto and Rossini’s Barber of Seville make up the other two. La Traviata’s links with Venice make it an appropriate choice for the troupe. It premiered here in 1853 in La Fenice, the rather fancy opera house, where it unfortunately flopped spectacularly. The audience were apparently unhappy with the casting of Violetta, a woman who is supposed to dying of consumption but who was played by a rather more portly lady than was credible.
Violetta, played by Antonella Meridda, was in this instance the standout performance of the night. She weaved amongst the crowd in the party scene in Act I greeting audience members as guests, raising a toast with us and singing with passion and precision. As tends to be the way in opera, Violetta falls in love and it doesn’t end well. From her sensational rendering of the rousing ‘Libiamo! Libiamo!’ to her moving performance of the haunting ‘E Strano’, Meridda was captivating throughout.
This is the only opera which has won me over on all counts. The music, the plot, the voices and the performances all combined to create an experience it is virtually impossible to find fault with. The candlelit Venetian palazzo setting and Prosecco interval may also have had something to do with it. As a result of the fact it is abridged, much of the recitative style- a genuine turn off for me- is omitted in favour of the well-known songs and scenes. The intimate environment highlighted the skill of the musicians and opera singers, and served to make me more aware than ever before of the beauty of the music itself and the genius of the composer. I’m converted.
If you’re going to Venice, even for a very short break, I can’t recommend Musica a Palazzo highly enough.
The Musica a Palazzo website: http://www.musicapalazzo.com/language/en/
*I had never come across this word before today. If you’re a vocabulary nerd then read on, if not, I salute you for following the asterisk this far. ‘Sprezzatura’ is an Italian word meaning ‘studied carelessness’. It first appeared in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, a manual for good courtly behaviour published 1528 in Venice. He defined it as ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.’ As this lengthy and wholly unnecessary footnote demonstrates, I can only dream of attaining Italian levels of sprezzatura.
[Feature Image: Musica a Palazzo programme, cover design by Simona Meterazzini & Roberto Picerno]