Wednesday, 2 January 2013

New Year's Day

We live about five minutes walk from La Fenice. I've always wanted to live within walking distance of an opera house. It seems so wonderfully civilised. Even more so on New Year's Day, when you can stumble out of bed at 10am, shower, shave, make coffee, have breakfast, fret about what to wear, and still be at the theatre in time for curtain up at 11.15.

The very first public opera house in the world was in Venice. At one time it had ten of them. La Fenice itself was built in 1792 on the site of the Teatro San Benedetto which had burned to the ground, a fate which then befell Fenice itself in 1836.

It is, without a doubt, one of the world's great lyric theatres. Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti all had premieres there. In the 20th century, Britten, Stravinsky, Berio and Nono all wrote works for it. But the composer most associated with the theatre is Giuseppe Verdi, whose Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra all premiered here.

So when the theatre burned down again in 1996 (when a pair of electricians, involved in a contractual dispute, deliberately set fire to it) there was never any doubt that it would be rebuilt. In 1836, it took just twelve months. It took nearly eight years this time around. There's progress for you.

The entire philosophy behind the reconstruction was com'era, dov'era ("as it was, where it was"). And so it pretty much is. It's quite an achievement, but whether it was the correct decision is another matter. Opinion on the reconstruction is mixed. Yes, it's all very pretty, but there's no getting away from the fact that this is a brilliantly realised fake and that perhaps an opportunity was missed to move away from the "museum city" image. In addition, if you were to design an opera house from scratch today, you probably wouldn't start with the traditional horseshoe-shaped system of boxes that leaves half the audience sitting at 90 degrees to the action on stage. La Repubblica commented that "...the city should have had the nerve to build a completely new theatre; Venice has betrayed its innovative past by ignoring it".

A festive-looking Fenice
Enough carping. It is still a lovely place to see a concert. The tradition of a New Year's Day concert only dates back to the reconstruction, but the rationale behind it is a good one : given the viewing figures for the New Year concert in Vienna, why shouldn't Venice have its own? And given the spiky historical relationship between Venice and Austria, why wouldn't a programme of Verdi go down rather better than a programme of miscellaneous Strausses?

This year, Venice has pulled off a bit of a coup. The Vienna concert is under the direction of Franz Welser-Most (still trying to shake off the harsh-but-funny nickname of "Frankly Worse than Most"), but Venice has a genuine star in uber-serious Baroque specialist John Eliot Gardiner. A surprising choice, perhaps, as one tends to associate JEG with reverential treatments of Monteverdi and Bach. He didn't seem the type for the rather more frivolous demands of a New Year's Day concert. Everyone's been up late. Strong drink might have been taken. We could, I suppose, listen to two hours of Bach and examine our relationship with God and the hereafter; but what we really want at 11am on January 1st is a couple of hours of the best bits of Verdi and some good stomping choruses to set us up for the year ahead. And, after a just-serious-enough first half (the Aida Sinfonia, and Tchaikovsky's second symphony), that's pretty much what we get - a selection of Verdi's Greatest Hits.

There's an explosion of glitter at the end and a clap-along to the final Brindisi. JEG isn't normally one to tolerate this sort of frivolity but he gets into the spirit of the occasion, and even asks the soprano to join him for a quick waltz on the podium. Everyone leaves in good spirits, out into a cold and foggy Venetian afternoon. I'm normally one for the suitably reverential and purist approach, but I have to admit this has been a lot of fun.

Glitter! Lots of it!
 Oh, and a word on "restricted view" tickets at La Fenice. These seem to give you a 75% chance of a view of most the stage without too much craning about, and a 25% chance of being behind a pillar. On this occasion, Caroline got the pillar. I did offer to change seats, although I confess I used my "I really, really don't mind changing seats; although, of course, you know that I really do" voice. Still, my work in the kitchen over Christmas had built me up some Hubby Points. I figured it was time to cash them in.