Thursday, December 30, 2010

Italy Day 8: Venice and Opera

We woke up in Venice! We could see a tiny bit of the grand canal from one of our windows in our hotel. However, it was ever so slightly smelly when we opened the window as there was a fish market outside, with lots of dying sea life, which made me sad but which Lisa and Ma enjoyed photographing. I should really be a vegetarian again.

While Ma and Lisa went off to go to old churches and palaces that I was uninterested in, I stayed in the hotel to hone my grad school application essays, with nominal success. Then I realized I was supposed to rendezvous with them in like ten minutes at a place quite a ways across the city, prompting an amazing feat of speed map-reading-while-walking. I made it just a few minutes late having gotten only slightly lost. This is really quite impressive, as Venice is quite hazardous to walk through, what with sudden drops into pits of oily water and sharp turns in the 3 ft. wide streets and walls that rise up from nowhere and forehead-bashing arches and unexpected steps and rollercoaster multitudinous bridges, plus all the tourists clogging the walkways. And have you ever seen a map of Venice? It’s like a meth-hopped ant farm got together with a fragmented early DOS maze program. Getting lost is practically a sport there.

We lunched at the Osteria Cravat on a sumptuous spread of Venetian specialties, including a platter of local seafoods, cuttlefish served in its ink over polenta, and fresh spaghetti with a sauce of mashed anchovies and caramelized onions, all with a light and lemony local white wine. Then at a café next to Il Frari (a famous church) we had amazingly delicious coffee, the best yet on the trip by far.

The afternoon was spent gazing at art in churches and the Gallerie de Academia, Venice’s main art museum. The Gallerie boasts a large collection of medieval and renaissance art, which Lisa and my mom appreciated for their art-historical significance and I appreciated for their proliferation of funny grumpy-looking dudes and skeletons and historical scenes of the city and pretty ladies and sparkly bits. Not that I’m unerudite myself, but I can appreciate the art on multiple levels, the simplistic and crass being one of them and that which is most accessible when cold and tired and speed-walking through the cavernous museum. The pieces I most appreciated on a sophisticated level were the architectural renderings of Venetian buildings in the huge paintings by one particular artist (whom Lisa will hopefully remember the name) who not only actually understood perspective but also really gave a good sense of the unique spaces made by the combination of walkways, piazzas, and canals.

As dusk faded, after fortifying ourselves with fresh strudels and pudding-like hot chocolate, we ventured on to what was one of the real highlights of the trip. Thanks to some excellent research and ticket-finding on the part of my sister, we were able to attend a concert at the opera house Teatro La Fenice, one of the most famous theaters in Europe. The current structure is a completely new reproduction of the 18th-C theater, the original having burned to the ground in 1996. The combination of modern acoustical sense with the faithfully-traditional design and décor made for a visually and aurally sumptuous, grand, and intimate performance space, perfect for the musical selections of the evening. It’s a relatively small theater, with only 900 seats, which meant that there was no need for amplification, greatly improving the experience.

Our seats were “listening-only”, i.e. we couldn’t see the stage, seated in the back of an upper box. However, as I quickly learned, despite its grandeur the theater has a very long history of casual audiences, with people standing and leaning out and chatting throughout the performance, which meant we could stand at will and peer down onto the stage.

The concert, directed by Daniel Harding and purposefully devoted to melodrama, bravely began with what is usually reserved for a finale, Dvořák’s 9th symphony in its entirety. I am deeply familiar with the piece, having not only listened to it endlessly, but having performed it more than once (I play French horn). I was prepared to be complacent and dully appreciative, having previously heard it performed by some of the world’s greatest symphonies, anticipating reserving my enthusiasm for the operatic second half. But... but it was magnificent.

A warmth crept up the back of my neck, like fear, as I heard the absolute perfection of their performance. My sister, mother, and I glanced at each other in escalating shock and glee, confirming with one another that we were really hearing the glory we felt we were hearing. The horns were particularly exquisite, and actually made me weep a little with their perfect balance of bombast and yearning and the effortlessness with which they soared the heralding phrases. The Largo section actually broke a woman’s heart (she had a heart attack, and had to be removed from the theater: we were told she was likely going to be fine). I can say without reservation that it was not only the best performance of the piece I have ever heard, it is the best performance I will EVER hear, as it would not be possible to improve upon it.

You’d think that anything following that act would be a disappointment, but of course Venice is the capital city of opera, and Teatro La Fenice its palace, and this concert the annual highlight, so the singing was as good as it gets. Many of the selections were from operas originally written specifically for performance in La Fenice, which didn’t hurt, and all three of the performers (soprano, tenor, and baritone, whose names I will have to add later) were the best of what Italy had to offer. The baritone was a natural comedian as well as a superb vocalist, while the tenor was earnest and romantic. The soprano, of course, stole the show, as she is meant to: her wide dynamic range, pure tone, and nuanced vibrato reminded me of the heights vocal training combined with extreme talent can achieve. Her rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro brought the over-played selection back to relevance, and the toast from La Traviatta had the audience twitching to dance. She was also perfectly Italian, with big hair and dark eyes, natural assets that were fittingly distracting in her strapless gown, and a stage presence that made the deep stage look small and her fellow performers insignificant. There’s a reason “diva” is so closely related to the word for a divine being.

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