Who believes in miracles? Teatro Regio di Parma. You see, this year's Festival Verdi signifies more than just a proper bicentennial birth-year bash for Emilia-Romagna’s scribe, Giuseppe Verdi. It's an auspice – Homer/Virgil bird signs in the empty sky – against all odds, despite years of dire budget woes and reshuffling of the theater's leadership in the aftermath of a mindboggling government corruption scandal that left the city 800 million euros in debt, this year’s Festival Verdi bowed, miraculously, on September 30 with rare symphonic treats under Riccardo Chailly and Filarmonica della Scala.
Stage decked in white rose topiary bundles, the scruffy-bearded Milanese conductor, (who's about to drop a new recording of Brahms symphonies with his Gewandhausorchester Leipzig) carved clean phrases from creamy cellos and scalding strings, treating Vespri’s Four Seasons like an undercut, century-old precious gem (a lost artform, now that bling dictates a diamond's currency), in an understated approach coveted by Parma’s Verdi-worshipping public.
OC’s got a seven-year litmus of Italy’s most historic houses and has heard the domestic audience at its best and worst behavior: cheers, whistles, slurs and insults for opera legends and conducting giants by adoring/murderous ticketholders. On Monday night a heartfelt "Viva Verdi" punctured the silence as Chailly steadied the Filarmonia for the first “La Forza” overture, followed by a collective sigh of disappointment when scores were gathered by an exiting Filarmonia without granting a second bis.
(19th century costume during the time of Maria Luisa of Parma, foyer of Teatro Regio di Parma)
That palpable passion is why Parma's Teatro Regio enchants despite its second-tier rank. What’s it mean? Between 13-15 Italian opera houses (the numbers fluctuate) are classified as ‘enti lirici’ -- government-financed, heavily-unionized, opera house foundations, like mighty La Scala, historic San Carlo di Napoli and proud Teatro dell'Opera di Roma that enjoy financial and legal benefits under the protective enti lirici umbrella.
But Teatro Regio di Parma is a ‘teatro di tradizione’, so while its enti lirici opera buddies (like Torino, Bologna and Venice) receive between 13-18 million earmarked euros annually, it only gets 1.5 million euros -- and still manages to maintain a stellar artistic reputation, a high media profile and loggione cults.
Would the theater benefit from ‘ento lirico’ status? Maybe. But in these lean, problematic years, it’s been abandoned as they must have an in-house orchestra and a stable chorus to qualify, now impossible, as they use a flexible, debut-caressing freelance structure with Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini.
On occasion of Verdi’s bicentennial birth year anniversary, a funding uptick helped organize a Festival Verdi of +50 events: interviews with Verdi protagonists such as Freni & Kabaivanska, two gala concerts and three operas (including a new I masnadieri). Yet one year ago, not a single bullet-point of this year’s festival had been conceptualized, the city reeling from a massive corruption scandal and a loss of 800 million euro by its then-mayor and dozens of officemates that left the theater abandoned and neglected by the city’s economic powers. (FYI, the 2014 season of three operas and one concert will be announced on October 31.)
Things are slowly improving: Parma’s new mayor, Federico Pizzarotti, brought in a new Teatro Regio intendant, Carlo Fontana, and AD Paolo Arca’ (both who've held positions at La Scala), and artists who collaborate understand that (often last-minute) contracts are signed under new economic conditions.
On Oct. 1, Festival Verdi bowed its first opera title, Simon Boccanegra in Hugo de Ana's 2004 Festival Verdi production, grandly attended by Parmigiani and Parnese VIPs. In an age where gimmick and controversy have become directorial selling points, de Ana’s cool-touch direction was off-trend -- subservient and respectful to the libretto/score -- bound by floor-to-ceiling proto-Renaissance panels carved in Old Testament friezes that rearranged to evoke the prologue's Genova square, Act I's Grimaldi Palace seaside garden and the Doge's chambers.
On the podium, Jader Bignamini led the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini through smooth water, clean in gesture and color wash. Teatro Regio di Parma chorus, costumed in de Ana’s rich, dark leathers, chainmails and velvets embroidered in jewels and studs, simply charmed. A well-matched cast (Marco Caria as a charismatic Paolo) was anchored by an austere Fiesco (Giacomo Prestia) and a dignified Doge (Roberto Frontali) for a heartbreaking "Piango perchè mi parla..." Diego Torre’s Adorno mastered striking acuti between some uneveness, and despite bullet-proof technique and sweet color, Carmela Remigio’s Amelia lacked Verdian heft.
Past the theater’s 19th century neoclassical colonnade aerated by ionic columns, over cobblestone streets, Parma’s shop windows have been decorated with chocolate Verdi busts and top hats, and bar menus feature commemorative cocktails, but unlike Vienna/Mozart and Bayreuth/Wagner, it’s powered by passion, not commerce -- Made in Italy, for Italy (and us Verdi lovers).
(Teatro Regio di Parma, day and night)