Last weekend was spent amidst the overwhelmingly abundant delights of Rome. Quite why I’m now, on my return, a bit worn out may be explained by the amount that we packed in to four days: Pantheon, Colosseum, Forum, Palatine, Castel Sant’Angelo, St Peter’s, Vatican Museum, Galleria Borghese, San Clemente, numerous smaller churches and a good deal of wandering around the streets of this fascinating city. Unsurprisingly, I’m still digesting it.
Sadly, there was nothing on at the Teatro dell’Opera to coincide with our visit, but we did get along to two musical events: one planned, the other impromptu. We had prebooked a concert by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in their newer home at the Parco della Musica at the north side of central Rome. And then, in our hotel, we picked up a leaflet for a ‘dinner-and-show’ package featuring La Traviata. Being at an otherwise loose end, we thought ‘why not?’ and booked it; it turned out to be surprisingly good.
Turning to that first, it was billed as I Virtuosi Dell’Opera di Roma and took place in a relaxed venue of modest size and attractive Beaux Arts décor, the Teatro Salone Margherita. We didn’t go for a dinner package, but mid-price tickets (€35 each) which were unallocated, so getting there promptly bagged us a good pair of seats. A small orchestra of around 20 musicians performed the score with a vivid sense of detail, very creditable in their ability to convey the score’s overall tinta. The performance was led with good pace and agility by Adriano Melchiorre. In the small venue, voices came over well, with the Violetta in particular, Carmela Maffongelli, standing out for a beautiful tone used with variety and colour. I have certainly heard more awkward performances of Sempre libera at far more prestigious venues: Ms Maffongelli was a joy throughout. Corrado Mieli was a little more wooden as Alfredo, and had the odd intonation problem, but was also effective in the more ardent passages. A very resonant and fulsome Giorgio Germont from Giancarlo Pera completed the main trio. Smaller roles were creditably dispatched, and the chorus sounded effective, but were given relatively little to do other than smile and negotiate the furniture in big frocks. Setting was minimal, which added to the sense of simple stylishness. There were some cuts: given the choral inactivity, unfortunately not Flora’s gypsies-and-toreadors sequence. Some were slightly jarring, especially in parts of act 2, such as Giorgio leaving at the end of Dite alla giovine before hearing what Violetta plans to do and before she could implore him to ’embrace her as a daughter’ to give her strength. That might be for the best given the restlessness of the tourist audience. In particular it’s worth singling out two young women who talked pretty much constantly in the middle-stalls, and if they never return to an opera performance in their lives then the loss to the size of the artform’s audience will be amply compensated by its rise in quality.
The Santa Cecilia performance was of two works: Mozart’s Prague Symphony (no. 38) and the Rossini Stabat Mater. It was a first encounter with a slightly unusual concert venue as well. The Sala Santa Cecilia holds 2,700+ people, in relatively spacious comfort, with a number of levels and seat groupings, so that, although the seating numbers are more or less the same as the Royal Festival Hall, the space overall seems vast. We sat in a part of the Galleria, labelled Galleria 4, which (thanks to an informative if baffingly technical analysis of the hall’s acoustics) appears to be the worst place. The reverberation and bass-heavy resonance of the hall all but swallowed up the Mozart symphony. Clearly, as the acoustic was designed for symphony concerts, it has escaped the acousticians’ notice that not all symphonies are alike: I’m sure it would respond relatively well to the thunderous passages of Mahler 2, but Mozart 38 fared rather less well. We moved at the interval, finding some seats in the small block directly in front of the stage and things were very much improved.
Nicola Luisotti was leading the Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus. The soloists were soprano Erika Grimaldi (who had replaced Maria Agresta), mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan, tenor Antonino Siragusa, and baritone Ildebrando d’Arcangelo. It wasn’t a work I particularly knew, but certainly made an impression: much like the criticisms levelled at Verdi’s Requiem, Rossini’s treatment of the grief of Mary has an operatic sweep to it. Amidst great singing by soloists and chorus, Grimaldi’s clear, commanding tone was a great foil for Abrahamyan’s full-bodied contralto. Luisotti conducted with passion, maintaining a buoyant, spirited reading of the score, which added contrast and poignancy to the passages of lament.
Around our new seats the audience were more restless and disregarding of their fellow audience members than in the acoustically problematic seats we had had for the first half. Is this perhaps the great Italian joke: invent an artform requiring stillness and concentration in order to appreciate its delights, export it to the rest of the world, and then drive the rest of the world to distraction as, throughout the performance, you talk, shuffle or – in one case here – loudly flick the pages of the score as you melodramatically and camply conduct along? Bless ’em.