Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi - Busseto and Piacenza

After our special night with the “Club of the 27” everyone was tired but in a very Verdi mood. So it was exciting that the next day would take the group to the land where the composer was born and lived all of his life.

The morning bus ride passed through the small town of Le Roncole (now called Le Roncole Verdi), where Giuseppe Verdi was born and spent his first years. Following this we made our way to the town of Busseto.

When the composer was 11, he moved to Busseto to attend school. There he became close to the family of Giovanni Barezzi, whose daughter would become his first wife. He later received financial support from the town (and especially from Barezzi) for his musical studies in Milan. However, his relationship with the community soured when following his first wife’s death, he returned to Busseto and lived openly with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, who would later become his wife. The populace shunned Strepponi and felt  that Verdi was ungrateful for their earlier support. When he heard him claim that they “made” him, he declared that they should then “make another one.”
Inside the Teatro Verdi
Welcoming the group to Busseto were four members of the Club of the 27, who accompanied us on our day’s excursions. First stop on the day’s itinerary was the Teatro Verdi. The small (300 seat), beautiful, theater was named in the composer’s honor, despite his opposition to its construction. He felt the town was too small to support the venue, and made sure he was out of town on the day it was inaugurated. Nevertheless, it is elegantly decorated, with a box that was initially reserved for Verdi (but was never used by him.)

Crossing the square past a large statue of the composer, the next stop was the Casa Barezzi, home of the composer’s patron Giovanni Barezzi. It was as a lodger in this house, that the composer met his first wife Margherita, who, along with their two young children, died tragically only a few years after their marriage. The house was a center of musical life in the village and is now restored to display artifacts about the composer and his relationship to the Barezzi family.

After a quick stop for coffee at the Café Centrale and time to pose for a picture in front of the statue of Verdi, next on the itinerary was the Antica Corte Pallavicina, where “Culatello di Zibello” is made. This is a delicious type of Parma ham made from the butt of the pig. Verdi was one of  the past patrons of this delicacy. Among the current clients of the Antica Corte Pallavicina are Prince Charles and Prince Albert of Monaco (whose allocation could be found among the hanging meat).
Prince Charles stash of culatello
The Sarasotans were treated to a testing of cullatello, along with other types of prosciutto and salame, washed down with some local wine. This was the appetizer for a wonderful lunch next door at “Il Cavallino Bianco (The White Pony)” a Michelin-starred restaurant on the property.

Although after lunch everyone could have used a nice nap, the travelers moved on to one of the most honored places by Verdi lovers, the Villa Verdi at Sant’Agata. Following his unpleasant experience living in Busseto and being a farmer at heart, the composer purchased a farm in 1848 and immediately began extensive alterations and additions. He expanded the house and the grounds so that within in few years it was the biggest employer in the area encompassing many acres. The composer and his wife lived there from 1851 through their deaths.
Outside the Casa Verdi in Sant'Agata
Several of the 100 rooms of the house are now maintained as a museum but the rest is still used as a home by Verdi’s descendants. The rooms of the museum are maintained as they were in Verdi’s time. However, the Sarasota visitors got a special treat, when the guide took them to rooms not generally open to the public including the salon, foyer, dining room,  and billiard room, where they were  joined by Angiolo Carrara-Verdi, the great-great-great grandson of Verdi’s heir Filomena Maria Carrara-Verdi and his wife.

After a quick stop at the Church in Le Roncole, where Verdi first played the organ, the group headed back to the hotel after a tiring, but enlightening day.

The following day included a short tour of conductor Arturo Toscanini’s birthplace and the beautiful Teatro Farnese. The travelers then had some time to wander the streets of Parma on their own before meeting for a trip to Piacenza for a concert performance of Verdi’s I due Foscari at the Teatro Municipale.
Teatro Municipale before the performance of Verdi's I due Foscari
The audiences in region of Parma are known as some of the most discerning and judgmental in the world. Singers who don’t make the grade have been literally run out of town. But when they are enthusiastic, they are indescribably appreciative and demonstrative. That was certainly the case this evening.

I due Foscari was performed without sets or costumes, but was sung complete with orchestra and chorus. The cast included world renowned baritone Leo Nucci, tenor Fabio Sartori, and soprano Kristin Lewis, who was known by the the Sarasota audience from her performance of Musetta in La bohème there in 2006.  Since then she has made a successful career in Europe and is now based in Vienna. The conductor was Donato Renzetti.

The theater was pulsing with excitement for the performance. All the principals were exciting and easily thrilled the audience. But the palm for this performance had to go to veteran baritone Nucci, who at the age of 73 still has the goods to deliver. After his final aria the audience could not contain themselves and lept to their feet in appreciation.
Baritone Leo Nucci takes a bow alongside conductor Donato Renzetti. Photo courtesy of
Adjourning around the corner to the  Antica Osteria del Teatro for cocktails and another sumptuous dinner, the group was joined by the stars of the performance, Leo Nucci and Kristin Lewis. One of the group Terry Osborne, received an extra special thrill as the singers serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.”
Renowned baritone Leo Nucci (left) with Terry and Valerie Osborne
Few will forget this exciting day and a performance that was a special highlight of the trip.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi (Day 3 and 4)

The Duomo in Milan

Despite rain, the Sarasota Verdi lovers spent the morning touring two of the major sites of Milan, the Duomo and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. The painting, housed in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, is one of the glories of western art despite its severely deteriorated condition. The Sarasotans were struck by its beauty in, what was for some, a very moving visit.

The following day, the group decamped from Milan to the city of Parma, the area that was the birthplace and home of composer Giuseppe Verdi. First order of business was a tour of the Teatro Regio, a beautiful theater, similar in size to the Sarasota Opera House, where a Verdi Festival is held each October.
Sarasotans enjoying a tour of the Teatro Regio di Parma
This was followed by a visit to the Corale Verdi, home of the Verdi Choral Society (begun in 1905) and also a wonderful restaurant. The promised light lunch, was instead a simple, but sumptuous meal of Parmesan delicacies including tortelloni, stuffed veal, and roast Prosciutto (Parma Ham). The meal was accompanied by a sparkling white wine and Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine that is a speciality of the region.

Sarasotans enjoying lunch at the Corale Verdi
The evening that followed will no doubt for many, be the highlight of the tour. In March 2013, Sarasota Opera had a visit from four members of the “Club of the 27”.  Each of these devoted enthusiasts of the music of Giuseppe Verdi are named after one of the composer’s operas. They meet once a week to discuss music and have developed ongoing education programs in the schools about music and Verdi.

This year, the Sarasota Opera group visited “the 27” in their clubhouse, a small cove underneath Parma’s musical school “Casa della Musica.” The visitors entered a dark room the only illumination highlighting a bust of Verdi.
The Sarasotans in front of a statue of Verdi in his hometown of Busseto
The members of the 27 were lined up against the wall and began singing “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, which is a second national anthem for Italians. Following this ritual, the president Enzo Petrolini (Un giorno di regno) presented the Sarasotans with gifts and medals in the image of Verdi. There was then some social time with the two groups over prosecco and local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Next was a concert in honor of the Sarasota guests, in the Casa della Musica. Five accomplished young Italian singers, soprano Renata Campanella, soprano Scilla Cristiano, mezzo-soprano Leonora Sofia, tenor Antonio Corianò, and bass Davide Ruberti, were accompanied by Simone Savina, in arias from operas by Verdi and others. All of these singers are working in Italy and at the beginning of promising careers.

Everyone (including the artists) then moved to a restaurant just outside of Parma, Il granaio. The Sarasota travelers were the guests of the Club of the 27 for another typical and generous Parmesan meal: Tortelloni in brodo, ravioli alla erba, and a selection of delicious Parmesan meats including coppa, salami, and of course Prosciutto di Parma. Despite the pleas of the guests that they were stuffed, their hosts continued to bring out more food including wonderful desserts of fruit, various tortes, a delicious treat of apples baked in wine and gelato.

One more presentation ended the evening: a plaque that commemorates the friendship between the Club of the 27 and Sarasota Opera.  Members of the club promised that many of them would join their new friends in Sarasota for the Grand Finale of the Verdi Cycle in March 2016.

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi (Day 2)

The entrance to the Sala Verdi
The Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi began the evening of the second night with a reception in the “Sala Verdi”, the suite that was the composer’s home in Milan for 30 years and where he died in 1901. When Verdi wasn’t using it, his presumptive heirs like Pietro Mascagni could gain access, but when Verdi wanted it, the current occupant was asked to leave so the composer could have its use. In recent years luminaries like Oprah Winfrey have occupied the prized room in the hotel.

The reception was a precursor to attending a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot at La Scala. Unfortunately Sarasota Opera Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Executive Director Richard Russell had to leave the gathering early to meet La Scala’s sovrintendente Alexander Pereira and Director of External Affairs Dr. Donatella Brunezzi. Mr. Pereira welcomed the Sarasotans to La Scala. Mr. Pereira and Dr. Brunezzi already knew about Sarasota Opera and the company and listened with interest as Mo. DeRenzi and Mr. Russell talked about the end of their Verdi Cycle and plans for the future.

Puccini’s opera Turandot received its world premiere at La Scala in 1926, a year and a half following the composer’s death. Left unfinished at the time of Puccini’s demise, it was completed by composer Franco Alfano for the first performance. More recently composer Luciano Berio took another stab at the ending and it was in this version that the Sarasota Opera group saw it on Wednesday night.
Promotional poster for Turandot at La Scala
The performance starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, with Aleksandr Antonenko as Calaf and rising young Italian soprano Maria Agresta as Liù.  Music director designate Ricardo Chailly conducted. The production, much more conceptual than the traditional production seen in Sarasota in 2013, was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The audience was extremely enthusiastic about the singers but the visitors from Sarasota were surprised to hear booing as the conductor took his bow. It’s not something we are used to in Sarasota, but a staffer at La Scala warned everyone that it happens often in Italy.
Puccini's Turandot at La Scala

Click HERE to continue onto day 3 and 4 of Sarasota Opera's adventures in Italy...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sarasota Opera Visits Verdi

At the end of March 2016, Sarasota Opera will complete its Verdi Cycle, a 28-season effort to perform all of the works of Italy’s greatest composer Giuseppe Verdi. This will be a landmark season for the company, with national and international attention focused on Sarasota Opera.
To kick-off the celebratory season, Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Executive Director Richard Russell are accompanying a group of 27 Sarasota Opera patrons to Italy as “Sarasota Visits Verdi.”  The 9-night tour includes a sample of audience members who live in Sarasota full-time, are snow-birds and some who come from as far as California and London to join this pilgrimage to visit places where the composer lived and worked.
The trip kicked off on Tuesday night (5/19) with a welcome dinner at the Grand Hotel et de Milan.  This 5-star hotel was the composer’s residence in Milan during the last 30 years of his life and it was in a suite on the first floor that he passed away at the age of 87 on January 27, 1901.
Members of Sarasota Opera's pilgrimage to the sites of Giuseppe Verdi join in the
Grand Hotel et de Milan for a welcome dinner
From the Royal Box at Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala,
a member of the staff  explaines the workings of  Italy's most
venerated Opera House 
The next morning everyone made the short walk to Milan’s famous “Teatro alla Scala,” probably the most venerated opera house in the world. Nevertheless, even this theater, which opened in 1778, and was the site of the premieres of Verdi’s Oberto, Un giorno di regno, Nabucco, I lombardi alla prima crociata, Otello, and Falstaff has not performed all of the composer’s operas, as Sarasota Opera will have by next year.

La Scala has an interesting museum attached to the opera house which charts its history and has a room devoted exclusively to Verdi. The visit also included a guided tour of the auditorium and backstage from one of the theater’s music staff.  The plush historical interior of the theater is in stark contrast to the updated technology visited backstage (result of a 3-year renovation from 2001-2004).
Entrance to the Casa di Riposo in Milan
Following the theater visit, a bus took the group to the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti (Rest Home for Musicians) which is more commonly known as the Casa Verdi. In a letter to a friend the composer wrote: “Among my works, the one I like best is the Home that I have had built in Milan for accommodating old singers not favored by fortune, or who, when they were young, did not possess the virtue of saving. The poor, dear companions of my lifetime! Believe me, my friend, that Home is truly my most beautiful work (la mia opera più bella.”)
Sarasota Opera Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi contemplates a bust of Giuseppe Verdi in the sitting room of the Casa Verdi, the retirement home for poor musicians the composer built in Milan  
It was a novel idea to build and equip a rest home for the disadvantaged when Verdi proposed this idea in in the last years of his life.  It was not the first example of this type of philanthropy. A few years earlier he had built a hospital for the residents of Villanova, a town near his country estate at Sant’Agata. He acquired land on the outskirts of Milan in 1889 for the retirement home and oversaw the design and construction of the building, attending to every detail. He endowed it  with the royalties from his operas (which expired in  1962; it is now funded by a private foundation and the state.)
Under a portrait of the composer Giuseppe Verdi, members of Sarasota Opera's Verdi trip 
hear about his life at the Casa Verdi  
The Sarasotans were  met by the Director of Communications for the Casa Verdi, who highlighted Verdi’s place not only as a great composer of opera, but as a national hero whose music inspired Italians in their quest for unification in the mid 1800s. The house is full of artifacts from Verdi’s collection (including a small piano that he was given as a boy and kept all of his life) and it is in a crypt off the courtyard of the house that is his final resting place, along with his second wife Giuseppina Strepponi.
The crypt at the Casa Verdi where the composer and his wife are buried.
The evening will take the Sarasota contingent back to La Scala for a performance of Turandot by Verdi’s heir, Giacomo Puccini.

Stay tuned for more updates as Sarasota Opera continues its travels through Italy and the life of Giuseppe Verdi.