Sunday, November 15, 2009

Going to the Teatro

Such a small world. Earlier in the week we went to a performance by the Spaghetti Western Orchestra. Just think about all the connections for a minute. The band performed music by Enrico Morricone, an Italian composer of film scores that were set in the American West but filmed in Italy. The members of the Spaghetti Western Orchestra who sang the songs about the American West that were filmed in Italy and composed by an Italian are from… Australia. At certain points one of the performers spoke in a Clint Eastwood voice. This was especially humorous when he was speaking Italian. “Sto cercando un uomo. Il nome e’ Bob Robertson.”

Bologna is actually not a very large city. In fact it seems smaller the more we’ve lived here. I think one could cover the entire historical area in less than a day on foot, as long as you didn’t stop in the museums. And yet for a city of rather small size, it has a lot of performance venues. Just ten minutes from our house is the Villa Mazzacorati, a grand Palladian style home made only slightly less imposing by the crumbling stucco and faded paint. It is now owned by the comune of Bologna and serves as a social center, clinic and also houses a historic collection of toy soldiers.
A few weeks back I visited the Villa for a concert by a soprano who sang selections from Italian opera and some American favorites. The poster said she was going to sing songs from Liza Minelli’s repertoire, so Bill really wanted to go. I told him he couldn’t show up just for the express purpose of laughing at the singer. As it turned out he and Boris made other plans so I went by myself.

I did not have high hopes. The performance was held, not in the gorgeous theatre which I’ll discuss momentarily , but in a utilitarian multi-purpose room filled with folding chairs. Just about every seat was taken for this free event. By my estimate I was the youngest person in the room. And I’m not that young. It became clear that the Villa Mazacorati functions as a social center for the retirees of the neighborhood, and looking around the room, I found little to distinguish the people from those that would have frequented the “Ethel Merman Sing-a-long” at my grandmother’s condominium. I guess what I mean by that is they were well dressed in elaborately textured sweaters with shiny jewelry and there was lots of burgundy-dyed hair. Not a blue jeans crowd and not a "Gray is Beautiful" crowd either.

The singer was wonderful, I thought. She performed sections of various operas, prefacing each with a synopsis, and even talking a bit about the style of the composition. When she sang certain arias it was obvious that everyone in the room knew them and she encouraged them to sing along, which they did, although nobody took her up on her invitation to get up and dance. Since the weather was nice, the back door was open. A handsome old gentleman was watching from outside, holding a poodle in his arms. He had probably noticed the sign prohibiting dogs. The singer invited him to find a seat inside, but he demurred. Instead he stood out there holding his dog and dancing with it in time to the music. Sometimes I think the main reason for writing this blog is just so I will always remember moments like that.

The real stunner of the Villa Mazzacorati is the Teatro 1763, a theatre designed by the family for their personal use. There are very few such private theatres still in existence anywhere in the world and this one has been immaculately restored. It is highly, (perhaps frantically would be the better word), ornamented with landscapes, decorative motifs and 24 nude plaster figures arrayed around the room. Altough they look like supports for the two levels of balconies, the figures are actually decorative in function, giving this highly Baroque interior an Old West bordello look.
We had been trying to make it over to the theatre on a Thursday for the free weekly guided tour and I finally did. I was hoping to meet Bill and Boris there, but they were no-shows so I had the tour all to myself. The woman who spoke with me was a volunteer and quite expert; like her counterparts at Monticello and historical sites everywhere that depend on the unpaid worker, she appeared to be a mainstay of the Villa Mazzacorati organization. Although she had a book full of notes I don’t think she consulted it once. She explained that the home had been used only in the summer and that other wealthy families were invited to see and participate in theatrical productions. It sounded very Jane Austin-like to me as I imagined the family rummaging through table-cloths and bits of brocade to create costumes for their latest melodrama. How many romances began as the amateur actors emoted to one another, I wondered. “My Heart Was Racine.” Such a good Harlequin Romance title, don’t you think ?

My tour-guide was just hitting her stride, explaining that the classical figure/brackets were often decorated with flowers and garland, when a group of young people, well-dressed and earnest, entered the theatre. It seemed that they were preparing for that evening’s concert featuring a soprano opera singer from Japan. She was there as well, looking the space over, casing the joint, if that’s not too crude a way to describe the way this graceful woman practiced her scales in various locations in the room. Of course it’s very important for an opera singer to have sufficient time to prepare for a concert. I, however, couldn’t help but feel sympathy for my tour guide. After all, she had set aside an afternoon to enlighten visitors and now all this hustle and bustle was intruding. So, when a series of soprano trills broke into her description of the theatre’s restoration, no one was sorrier than I. Oh, my worthy guide valiantly tried to hide her irritation by saying, “Now you can see how perfect the accoustics are !” but I could tell she was not entirely pleased. And so it went. She would launch into a description of the family’s background and the singer would interrupt with an arpeggio. Soon people began running back and forth with lights, sheet music, stools and delicious-looking hors d’oeuvres. I suggested that maybe we should end our tour but she wouldn’t hear of it. Her Show Must Go On ! So, we went outside and looked at the columns and the gracefully curving wings of the building. When we went back inside the pianist had joined the singer and it became pretty tricky to insert little snippets of information between his bass notes and the singer’s high notes. “Well, if it’s too difficult, maybe we should stop now…”I offered. But no. The tour-guide was not to be turned back. A tour I wanted; a tour I would have. She took me through the side entrance and showed me how the family would have entered the stage, going directly from their private living quarters to the balcony. This was very interesting. Finally, the guide must have felt secure in the fact that she had given me a comprehensive tour and we wrapped things up.

Last night we went to the theatre for a concert of Emilian music by a quartet of accomplished musicians. I was disappointed that my tour guide wasn’t among the audience members. I think she would have liked to know I brought the whole family back to the theatre. The program was made up of folk songs celebrating the fall season. Not surprisingly there were several songs celebrating the grape harvest and the ensuing enjoyment of the product. It’s amazing how an accomplished musician can actually hiccup in perfect harmony. While we enjoyed the concert, it must be said that the surroundings were a bit formal for the music which would have been heard centuries ago in taverns or under a tree. The well-dressed audience was very quiet except for applauding at the end of each song. What was really needed for the raucous music was a lot of foot-stomping and hand-clapping. But maybe that would have caused the plaster figures to come tumbling down upon us.

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