This year marks the 200th birth year of two titans of the opera world: Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing work of art) v the commedia umana (human comedy). There are celebrations the world over, but for the biggest and best festivities, eyes turn inevitably to the composers’ home nations, Germany and Italy.
Dresden and Leipzig are going crazy with Wagner-themed exhibitions and events
Germany has come into 2013 with guns blazing for its Romantic hero. Dresden and Leipzig in particular are going crazy with Wagner-themed exhibitions and events. With bragging rights as the city where Wagner lived the longest, celebrated his first big successes and wrote his later works, Dresden has inaugurated a new museum, the Richard-Wagner-Stätten, in an old hunting lodge down the street from the Lohengrinhaus where he sketched Lohengrin in 1846. The Stadtmuseum Dresden will unveil a Wagner exhibition in April. As Wagner’s birth city, Leipzig’s 2013 slogan is ‘Richard ist Leipziger’. The city will witness a new Wagner museum in May at the Old St Nicholas School, a memorial, a Richard Wagner Festival (16-26 May) and a Wagner-heavy rotation at the Leipzig Opera.
In Italy, however, the picture is very different. La Scala's 2012-13 season opened with Lohengrin, prompting an outcry from politicians and journalists, who criticised the Milanese opera house for marginalising its native son for Wagner. As Lohengrin bowed under Barenboim’s 7 December baton, La Scala intendant Stéphane Lissner, soon to take charge of Paris Opera and already on his way out of Milan, defended his decision in the papers – La Scala would open 2013-14 with La traviata and the current season stages a total of 65 Verdi nights versus 26 of Wagner. Besides, La Scala wasn’t alone: Florence's Teatro Comunale did Die Walküre, Torino's Teatro Regio did Der fliegende Holländer and Palermo’s Teatro Massimo opens with Das Rheingold to launch its first complete Ring cycle.
Verdi's legacy: up for sale?
Outside the opera houses, the lack of Italian Verdi festivities is also very noticeable. Northern Italy’s Verdi landmarks scattered across Milan, Parma, Roncole Verdi and Busseto are plagued with closed monuments, esoteric exhibitions, up-for-sale landmarks and yet-unplanned festivals. In Busseto, the Palazzo Orlandi, the neoclassical home bought in 1845 by Verdi as a love nest for soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (later his second wife), and where he wrote Luisa Miller, Stiffelio, Rigoletto and Il trovatore, was put up for public sale in November 2012 after Verdi’s last heir passed away.
Italy’s cultural legacy – art, architecture and music – is floundering under the weight of a nasty recession
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2001, the centenary of Verdi’s death, La Scala went crazy for its greatest opera protagonist and staged 11 Verdi titles during its 2000-01 season, conducted by its then music director, the Verdi-loving Riccardo Muti. At the same time, Milan’s Palazzo Reale organised a ‘Giuseppe Verdi: The Man, the Opera and The Myth’ exhibition and Verdi's historic publisher Rizzoli launched a 600-page behemoth ‘Verdi and La Scala’ full of photos and essays that touted Verdi as ‘the figure of our most grand operas, linked to Milan's La Scala with an enduring rapport, complex, but at times difficult and contradictory.’
So, 12 years on, why is Italy finding it so difficult to rally in celebration of its native hero? Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the country’s cultural scene without mentioning the devastating budget cuts and austerity measures that have catalysed a general collapse of culture. Italy’s cultural legacy – art, architecture and music – is floundering under the weight of a nasty recession. Italians are losing their sense of cultural heritage – Italian schools haven't seriously taught music for decades. Opera houses, once mighty and autonomous, are now saddled by almost two decades of contradictory laws that failed to bring private funds as public giveaways dwindled. They have declawed artistic directors and have turned interests inward.
A few, rare philanthopists
Italian culture does have its rare, deep-pocketed, ‘Made in Italy’ cheerleaders, however. In 2011, Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, the chairman and CEO of Italian luxury house Tod’s, donated 25 million euros towards the restoration of Rome's Coliseum. In 2011, Della Valle donated 5.2 million euros (to be paid over four years), to the Teatro alla Scala Foundation. And early in February 2013, in an unprecedented donation, Italian jeweller Bulgari threw 1.2 million euros at Antonio Pappano's Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. It's a nice chunk of change, although, in comparison, the luxury firm donated $20 million (about 15 million euros) to Save the Children last year.
Yet it’s not enough – and the country’s response to Verdi’s 200th anniversary highlights the country’s general cultural malaise. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Milan, Verdi’s adopted city, the place where the composer had his greatest victories. It’s where the Emilia-Romagna born composer lived, worked and died in his ornate, via Manzoni Grand Hotel et de Milan suite in the shadow of Teatro alla Scala. He is entombed, alongside Giuseppina Strepponi, at the neo-gothic Casa di Riposo per Musicisti Fondazione G. Verdi, founded by the composer in 1896 as a rest home for retired opera singers and musicians; but since 4 December, the crypt has been closed for renovations with no re-launch date announced.
Even Dresden’s restaurants are championing their native hero and have created Wagner-inspired menus
In Parma, despite dwindling funds, the Teatro Regio faithfully organises an annual Verdi Festival in October full of Verdi gems and a concert that falls on the maestro's birthday, 10 October. But with the 2013 season announcement usually embargoed until the summer, they risk deterring Verdi fans from abroad.
An Italian-language-only aloofness haunts Verdi organisations such as the Villa Verdi Sant'Agata (where he lived after 1851), Verdi's birth house in Roncole Verdi, Busseto's Teatro Verdi, Amici di Verdi (devoted to the composer's legacy) and Busseto's Casa Barezzi (where he studied).
In Germany, money is no object
It's all very different with Wagner: a thousand kilometres to the north, even Dresden’s restaurants are championing their native hero and have created Wagner-inspired menus – Hotel Bülow Palais’ Caroussel, Swissôtel and Alte Meister are all slinging gourmet plates of Wagnerian fare. Music festivals (Dresdner Musikfestspiele) and conferences culminate in May to commemorate the composer's birthday. The Semperoper – where Wagner premiered Rienzi, Fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser and was the Kapellmeister to the Court Opera – stages a new Fliegende Holländer.
So Germany’s Wagner fanfare blares over Italy’s soggy Verdi celebrations. Verdi, one of the most globally recognised symbols of Italian culture, is only two months into his bicentennial birth year. Let’s hope that the native prophet can still be profited.
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