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Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.

Italy

Hot Opera Part 3

13 April 2012

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

 

 

The opening of the first act of Aida was majestic:  the Pharaoh’s palace at Memphis, rows of priests and court officials, scores of sentries lining the terraces behind the stage, and an impressive set.  Soon Radames, the captain of the guard, was intoning “Celeste Aida”:  Se quell guerrier io fossi! . . . Ergerti un trono vicino al sol [If only I were that warrior! . . . To raise you a throne next to the sun], an aria in which he reveals that he is hoping to score points in the imminent battle with Ethiopians at Thebes and simultaneously score points with Aida.

Suddenly, from behind us, came an urgent cry, “Medico!  Medico!”  Everyone in our section turned around to see the commotion about four rows behind us:  a woman was slumped over and several people around her were frantically fanning her with their program booklets.  No, it wasn’t Rademes’ stirring aria that made her swoon; it was the fact that we were all sitting, in effect, in a ‘throne next to the sun’, as the aria put it, during one of Italy’s most severe heat waves.  In spite of the occasional, slight breeze, the massive stones over the broad expanse of the arena — stones that had been absorbing the heat of the sun all day — were now giving off their stored energy.  This being Italy, the picture of bricks in a pizza oven kept coming to my mind.

The paramedics, in orange nylon suits with yellow reflective bands on their cuffs, came bolting up the terraces with aplomb and attended to the woman in distress.  She convinced them that she didn’t need a stretcher, and soon she was being led, shakily, out through an exit.  So that’s what those croce verde vehicles are for, I thought, reflecting for a moment on the ambulances that we had seen earlier.  Our section was eventually able to concentrate on the action on stage once more.

 

 

By this time, Amneris, Aida, and Radames were singing a trio, “Vièni, O diletta, appressanti [Come, O delight, come closer]," sort of triangulating all of the love possibilities amongst them.  Forse... l'arcano amore Scoprì che m'arde in core... [Perhaps... she has discovered the hidden love that burns in my heart...] Radames vocalized, unfortunately employing the word ‘burns’.

Now the lady immediately in front of us was gasping for breath.  She began to sway while her husband looked on anxiously.  Then, making choking sounds, she passed out and again came the cries of, “Medico!  Medico!”  Her husband laid her across the stone seat and soon he and another man were lifting her feet high in the air.  (I suspect that this procedure was the result of a first aid manual being inaccurately translated into Italian.)

Unfortunately, the hapless, middle-aged woman was wearing a dress.  For the sake of propriety, I turned around to face backward, only to encounter an immense sea of wide eyes taking in this ancillary performance in the midst of the audience.  Colleen related to me later that when the woman finally returned to consciousness, she frantically attempted to collect her dress about her knees while the men continued to invert her, her legs straight up in the air.

The lesson here, it appears, is to dress appropriately if one plans to faint from heat exhaustion at the opera.  By now the orange paramedics had arrived and, since she was not able to stand to be assisted out of the arena (or, perhaps she just didn’t want to show her face since every other part of her had been seen), they placed the woman on a stretcher and deftly moved through the crowd, disappearing within seconds.

I had no idea operas could be so dramatic.

Gradually, we were able to re-focus our attention on the stage.  Colleen noticed that the man who held his wife up by the ankles had never left to be by her side and comfort her, but rather continued to sit there enjoying the opera.  This made Colleen even more indignant than the gelato terminology incident.  I posited that the cost of the opera tickets may have been a factor in the husband’s assessment of the situation, which apparently wasn’t the right answer.

Oblivious to the competing spectacles being presented by fainting audience members throughout the arena, the singers continued to perform on stage; all the while, the heat surged unabated from the brick pizza oven.

There was a lengthy break between Acts I and II, during which, the program booklet instructed us, the long-threatened battle between Egypt and Ethiopia takes place — of course, this spared the audience from having to watch the carnage, but just the same, battle durations are evidently difficult to predict and this one must have been a particularly drawn out battle, judging from the intermission. When Act II began at long last, the palace at Thebes received news that the Egyptians were victorious.  Then Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter, while getting ready for the celebration of Egyptian victory, grew apprehensive about Aida, her main competition for Radames’ attention.  She sang suspiciously of l'arcana febbre d'amor — the hidden fever of love, ‘fever’ in this case being another regrettable term.

For just then, in a section to our right, another hyperthermia victim collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.  However, as this did not take place directly between us and the stage, most of those in our vicinity were able to ignore yet another casualty and watch the really cool dance by Moorish slaves at the Egyptian victory celebration.

 

 

Then came the triumphal march of the troops to the tune of “Gloria All’Egitto [Glory to Egypt]."  This is the number that is extremely challenging not to hum or whistle along with, as it evokes such grandeur. Colleen kept thumping my leg as I, emboldened by the outdoor arena setting, whistled irrepressibly.

For heightened effect, two brass sections performed antiphonally in the stands behind and above the stage.  It was a very impressive conclusion to the second act, and I understand the Verdi tune also works well throughout Europe in soccer matches, where it is often played through stadium PA systems.

The intermission between the second and third acts was even longer than the previous one, since they had to nail a lot of palm trees to the stage for the Nile River scene.  We felt like calzone baking on the stones.  I was wondering when the part would come that, like the Roman gladiators, we would get to cry, “Ave Caesar; morituri te salutamus” — Hail, Caesar!  We who are about to die salute you!

When Act III began, Colleen remarked that she had the distinct impression that Aida had gone through a dramatic weight-loss program during the intermission.  I enlightened her that during the last intermission an announcement had been made that Michaela Corosi, the soprano who sang Aida in the first two acts, had become ill from the heat and was being replaced by her understudy, Amarilli Nizza.

This was hot opera — even Aida was numbered among the casualties on that evening.

Back to the story.  Even though Radames had to marry the pharaoh’s daughter, he arranged to meet Aida secretly by the banks of the Nile.  There was an evocative scene in which a boat moved through the reeds and mist on stage.  Radames  sang Mortal giammai né Dio, Arse d'amor al par del mio possente [Never did mortal, no, nor god burn with so great a love as mine], the inopportune word ‘burn’ seeming to ignite more fainting incidents in the audience.  But then, sadly, Radames was caught fraternizing with the enemy — Aida — and now he was in deep trouble.

The break between Acts III and IV was the longest of all, heightening our suspense over Radames’ fate.  At this point the German audience members on our right, stalwart though they had been, finally gave up and left.  The Austrians on our left departed as well.  It was already after midnight, and without this Teutonic alliance we would have to continue fighting — fighting sleep, that is — by ourselves.  And yes, we continued to bake, although the sun had set a long time ago.  While lingering through this last intermission, I started thinking (which is dangerous for me) about opera in general and how it is a uniquely Italian invention.  Maybe a (non-traditional) disquisition on this topic will appear in a future blog entry.

Now to the fourth act of Aida.  After all the fun with horses, chariots, soldiers with torches, and the misty Nile, Radames found himself imprisoned in a vault under the Temple of Vulcan.  Unknown to him, Aida was hiding there as she wanted to die with him — it being the operatic thing to do.  Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter, was above in the temple, taking it easy. 

As all opera tends to be basically about people messing up one another’s lives and then singing about it, it was now time for the schiava and her Egyptian master to say ‘ciao’. So, Aida and Radames sadly intoned o terra, addio during the final moments of the opera, which I initially misunderstood as o, terra cotta, taking it to be a signal to move the audience out and begin a new shift in the arena wherein those lovely roof tiles that one can see all over Verona could bake overnight.  Then I realized that they were, in fact, singing addio — goodbye — and that it was time for us all to return to our beds and dream in hieroglyphics of the searing sun over the Nile.

The next day, with a different opera scheduled to take place at the arena and scorching weather being no longer required to evoke an Egyptian setting, the heat wave passed and a gentle rain cooled things off for everyone.  Verdi, a master of blending music with intense drama, would have appreciated the perfect timing.

 

A statue of composer Giuseppe Verdi stands in front of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti in Milan, Italy, where many opera singers go to retire, some perhaps having sung in the Verona Arena during a heat wave.

 


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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