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Bel canto: a glorious night at the opera

I'm an opera fan for many reasons, some of them less than noble. I love the music, the voices, the costumes, the marvellous and mostly unrealistic plots and overall, the onstage spectacle. But I admit that I'm also drawn to the spectacle of the audience -- again, the costume, the plots, and the general drama.

So I had several reasons to be excited about attending a performance of Tosca Wednesday night at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, 100 years and two days after the debut of Puccini's opera in the very same venue. My wonderful landlady Natalia had been able to snag me a very good ticket for half-price (still 70 euros, but no matter); the place was sold out and I'm sure many opera lovers were turned away.

And i certainly felt that I got my money's worth, from the drama both on and off stage. I have attended just one other opera in Italy, last June, also at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera. But that was a performance of Manon Lescault, likely not a hometown favourite because the house was certainly less than packed, the attire very casual, and I got a very cheap ticket quite easily.

However, Wednesday night was certainly different from that, and for good reason, I think. I certainly don't pretend to be a music critic, but I found the performances were extremely good. And I was utterly gob-smacked by the sets, designed by Franco Zeffirelli, who also directed the opera and may be best known for his work as a film director. The sets for the three acts were brilliant -- likely, a bit gimmicky, to a cynical eye -- but I was was prepared to be thrilled, and thrilled I was. The costumes by Anna Biagiotti were equally fantastic, really rich and textured for the beautiful, tragic Tosca and the evil, evil Baron Scarpia. Poor artist Cavaradossi looked appropriately bedraggled, especially after being tortured in the cellars of Scarpia's digs at the Palazzo Farnese (I suspect that Zeffirelli's set is as close as I'll ever get to seeing the inside of this palazzo which is, of course, now the French embassy.)

To be sure, Zeffirelli allowed his imagination to run a bit wild, but it really was to great effect. The opening scene in Sant' Andrea della Valle (which is very near my apartment here in Rome) was stunning to see. This was especially so because the set designer borrowed quite liberally from Bernini's Throne of St. Peter in Glory, with its great sunburst in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, to jazz up the altar at Sant' Andrea. And when the first scene closes with the singing of Te Deum, the stage became crowded with at least 100 extras in fantastic costume, representing various levels of the church hierarchy, from altar boys to choir singers to monks and priests, all the way up to a very papal-looking Pope. At least, I think it was the Pope -- the effect of the elaborate robes gave that impression!

After a 40-minute break between acts (more time for me to people-watch,) Act Two began in Scarpia's den. This was very authentic in its wealth, with beautiful chairs and leather-bound books, as opposed to a painted set that represents books and bookcases, as I've seen in other versions of Tosca. And in Act Three, Zeffirelli really took to the ramparts, so to speak, with a split-level set. As the scene opened, the set showed soldiers on the terrace and ramparts near the top of the Castel Sant'Angelo, with a huge statue of an angel looking on. But after a few minutes setting the scene, the ramparts and terrace were raised up by about 10 feet to reveal the cellar jail of the fortress where luckless Cavaradossi is being held. There, he reconciles with Tosca as soldiers pace above on the terrace. The cellar disappears again in the final few minutes of the opera, as the terrace and ramparts are lowered back to stage level and the concluding action shifts there.

A really spectacular performance, in all details. And the audience was very diverting as well. I hadn't before seen how Rome would turn out for what was a significant cultural event, at least for some elements of society. Monday night had actually been the premiere of this production and the centenary of Tosca's original opening. So, Wednesday night certainly wasn't the biggest event of the opera season. But, there were plenty of women dressed to the teeth and some fine-looking men. A few fashion disasters as well, I have to say. I didn't exactly shine; my deep blue velvet blazer and straight black skirt didn't set the place on fire. But I felt I had a bit more dignity than the young women who seemed to be dressed for the prom: teetering on spike heels built into their cruel shoes and dresses that seemed more designed for clubbing than the opera. A few women wore large hats (this isn't Ascot, ladies) There were lots of furs and piled-up hair (again, this isn't the prom!) One older woman was truly frightening: too much plastic surgery gave her the same face as Jack Nicholson wore as The Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie.

So there was much to see and much to reflect on, as I walked home. The opera let out about midnight and it had stopped raining at last, so I hoofed it down Via Nazionale, about a 45 minute walk back to the very tip of Campo dei Fiori and my apartment. I'm actually only about 5 minutes away from the Ponte Sant Angelo and seriously thought about carrying on, at least to the bridge to look across to the Castel Sant' Angelo and imagine Tosca's tragic end. I sympathized with her, but my feet were really starting to hurt and as it was almost 1 a.m. in January, even the Campo area was a bit too quiet for this lone woman's comfort. So, I decided to pack it in.

Good thing I slept in this morning, because the electricity was out in the apartment when I woke up. I poked my head into the hallway and tried the lights out there. Nothing. So at least I knew it was the building and not just my place. Since it was pouring rain, I didn't rush out but crashed around for a while, showering in a dark bathroom and slapping on a little makeup by the light of the kitchen windows (I suspect I also looked like Jack Nicholson as The Joker when I headed out for much-needed coffee.)

I also called Natalia, who recalled a notice that the power was going to be out for a few hours because of renovations somewhere. The power was back on by late afternoon, time enough for me to get fixed up for a big dinner out at Da Giggetto. I could almost taste those artichokes as I was getting ready. But after schlepping all the way over to the Ghetto, the place was full. So I tramped back to that old standby, La Sagrestia, near the Pantheon. It was also pretty packed, but they squeezed me in. I ordered a great pasta dish, penne tossed with a bit of fried pancettta, pepper and parmesan cheese. Followed by a small wedge of pecorino and (after some pestering) a tangy marmelade. I love pecorino and honey, or pecorino and perserves.

I ended the evening with a glass of wine at one of the restaurants that overlook the Pantheon. Now, THIS is the life -- but in two days, it ends. I won't think about that, and what awaits me in snowy Ottawa.....

Comments (2)


You might enjoy a production of Tosca made for TV in 1992 with Catherine Malfitano and Placido Domingo, conducted by Zubin Mehta. It was filmed in the actual locations and, if I recall correctly, at the actual times of day indicated in the libretto.

As far as I can tell, it's only available in VHS, but if you still have an old VCR kicking around...


Hey Zerlina, thanks for the tip -- I'll check it out. It's also easy now to convert VHS tapes into DVD format, and this sounds like a worthy candidate.

BTW, I've long admired your screen name! I take it you're an opera fan? Mozart a favourite? I saw Don Giovanni at the NAC last fall and it really was fantastic!

Anne, I think the film version Zerlina mentions might warm you up to opera a bit more -- the scenery alone would be fantastic.

Nirmala, it really is time you came with me to Italy...maybe Venice? (We'll do our own Brunetti walk!)


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