VOG Northern Italy Opera Tour
October 3 – 14, 2016
As dawn broke and light began to appear through the shutters, the sounds of water and boats announced that we were in Venice and at the start of the Opera Tour. The Hotel Bonvecchiati is located on a busy canal close to St Mark’s Square and as I opened the shutters I could see boats loading and unloading clean linen and other hotel supplies, not only for our hotel but for all those nearby. There are no cars and no roads in Venice so everything comes and goes by water including the hotel guests! When we arrived in Venice the previous day we dragged our suitcases to the airport dock and approached the city by water taxi which crossed the lagoon and entered the Grand Canal. After navigating numerous small canals we arrived at the hotel dock. A” Welcome Reception” at 5pm helped to introduce everyone and to introduce us to our Italian guide, Sergio, who would travel with us.
The Bonvecchiati Hotel was well located and we could walk anywhere from here including to La Fenice where we saw two lovely, and fairly traditional, opera performances – La Traviata and L’Elisir d’amore. La Fenice reopened, after a devastating fire (arson), in 2003 and was reconstructed in the old style. We also went to an evening performance in a palazzo on the Grand Canal to see the Barber of Saville with each of the three acts set in a different room. The cast of this performance were local young singers and everyone enjoyed the opportunity to see opera in this way.
During the days we spent in Venice we were spoilt for choice of activities: walk; take a boat along the canals; art galleries; museums; shopping! There was something for all. Many of the famous areas such as St Mark’s Square and the Cathedral were crowded with other tourists however many of the other galleries and museums were easily accessible. Outside the tourist areas the streets were quiet and many of us spend quite a lot of time exploring the city on foot crossing the many canals by small bridges. We even found a gondola workshop on one of the side streets for gondolas are still a very popular means of seeing the city and were used by some in our group.
After four days we left Venice the same way as we arrived – by boats from the hotel to the bus station – a feat of logistical challenges as the luggage had to go along too. From Venice we drove to Verona where we had a guide who walked us through the narrow streets and piazzas to the Roman Arena in the centre of the city. After lunch, we boarded the bus again for the short drive to Parma where we were to stay for the next five nights to attend the Verdi Festival and to visit the surrounding towns of Busetto and Cremona short distances away from Parma.
Parma is quite different from Venice. There were fewer tourists and it had a small town feel. It is a place famous for food especially cheese and ham! We stayed at the Starhotel Du Park, a short walk through the park from the town centre. We had a guided tour of Parma which introduced us to the history of the town, the museums and art galleries, the Cathedral, Baptistry and general layout. We had free time here to wander around the streets and try the restaurants. The shops were mostly local with few large chains. Almost every restaurant seemed to be also a deli with hams hanging from the ceiling and huge rounds of cheese. On the same side of the river as the hotel there was a vibrant university district with bars, wine bars and restaurants all busy as evening fell.
Our first performance was a concert at noon in the Teatro Farnese which is located in the Palazzo della Pilotta now used as the National Gallery. This is one of the oldest historical theatres. The noon concert was given by a young tenor who sang Italian songs and a young mezzo who sang opera areas. The tenor also appeared in a small role in Giovanna D’Arco the opera we saw the following evening in the Teatre Farnese. This performance was amazing in the use of modern techniques (video) that complemented the old theatre. The direction was simple and the singers young and very good. The third performance in Parma was at the Teatro Regio and was Don Carlo. This performance was dramatic! A short way into the first act, in the middle of the duet between Rodrigo and Don Carlo, Rodrigo stopped singing, then the orchestra stopped and everyone was still. Quietly Don Carlo took the arm of Rodrigo and led him off the stage to applause from the audience. About 5 minutes later both singers returned and the performance continued. At Intermission, it was explained that Rodrigo was ill and had been replaced and that Don Carlo was not well either but had agreed to continue and finish the opera. While there was some discussion about the scenery and costumes (dark) I thought that the performance was well done and think it amazing that a small town would even contemplate putting on a grand opera such as Don Carlo ( one of my favourites I must admit).
In Busetto, where Verdi lived, the guide explained that as the Verdi Festival cannot afford to pay high fees to the performers, a competition is held each year for young singers and the winners are chosen to perform in the Festival. Certainly all the singers appeared to be young and all were good. I have not named them for they were for the most part, Italian and unknown and only large festival programmes were available. We had to find their names on posters in the theatres. We did visit the smallest theatre (300) Teatro Verdi, in Busetto as well as the Verdi Museum at Casa Barezzi. We visited, by bus, the villa where Verdi lived outside the town. We were in Busetto the day of Verdi’s birthday so we could not go into the house but saw it from the gate. We did visit Verdi’s home where he was born – which was where the group picture was taken. While we were in the area we also visited the Renata Tebaldi Museum and many of us were impressed by the display of some of her costumes.
Cremona is a town famous for violin making and we all enjoyed the tour of the violin workshop and the talk given by the (French) violin maker before walking to the very modern Violin Museum with its collection of Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati violins.
After Parma we drove to Milan a short ride away and started our walking tour looking at La Scala where some were to see a magical performance of Giselle with Roberto Bolle that evening and we were to attend the opera “Turn of the Screw” with Ian Bostridge and Miah Persson the following evening. Milan is both an old and a modern city; the financial and fashion capital of Italy. The first afternoon we concentrated on the old Milan: the Cathedral, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and the Castello Sforzesco. The next day we looked at a more modern Milan in Porta Nuova with its modernist buildings and we visited Verdi’s tomb in Casa Riposa, the retirement home for musicians he founded. In the afternoon we were taken in three small groups to see Leonardo’s “Last Supper “in the convent of Santa Maria del Grazie. Considering that the last restoration of this work of art is controversial, I found it to be deeply moving.
As I was in the last group to see the painting it was a rush back to the hotel, Bianca Maria Palace, on the outskirts of the centre of the city, to get changed for the opera. The opera does have a dark story, and difficult music, but we all agreed that the performance was of a high standard and the singing magnificent. The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach and in taking his bow, the curtain opened to show all the members of the orchestra lined up on the stage with the singers – it was a worthy performance from everyone.
While some members of the tour returned to Canada, 12 of us went on to Turin. We travelled to Turin by fast train and in the hour it took we were served complimentary refreshments. We managed to find two large taxis which transferred us to the Hotel Victoria in the older part of the city. We loved the hotel Victoria! The public rooms were beautifully decorated with light chintz and we had heat as the weather had become chilly. We also arrived on the day of the weekly Reception for Guests and were offered lovely food and cocktails. We had come to Turin to see a performance of a new production of La Boheme which had originally premiered in this city. The opera house is modern but within the historic part of the city. We had good seats and saw a very good and interesting production. It was in modern dress (jeans) and a modern set that represented tenements in the Paris Suburbs today. The movement between Act1 in the garret and Act 2 Café Momus was skillfully done. Mimi was Erika Garibaldi and Rudolfo was Ivan Ayon Rivas. Both artists received acclaim, as did the whole cast. I think I noted that this production, with singers, will be seen in San Francisco next year.
Turin is an interesting city. There is much to see and do here as it was a royal capital and the royal collections and palaces contain renowned art collections. It has the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo and London. It is also a walkable city with broad colonnaded streets leading to large squares and down to the river Po. It is also a city where food is important and as it was truffle season, people in the restaurants were ordering pasta and the waiters would arrive with the truffles to slice on top. The waiter showed us the “truffle box” containing both white and black truffles.
We were very fortunate to have Sergio our Italian guide to travel with us from Venice to Milan. He certainly smoothed our path and attended to our problems. His company invited us to a reception at the Bianca Maria Palace in Milan and are anxious to help us organise another tour to Italy, perhaps to the South (Rome. Naples, Bari) if this is possible. My thanks also go to Genny MacLean for all the hard work she did before and during the tour.