The stars sing under the stars: a global gala celebrates opera

If ever there was any question about what a Three Tenors concert might be like on steroids, the hundreds of performers belting out opera's greatest hits at the Verona Arena on Friday night might offer a good answer.

Under a starry sky, there were rousing overtures, including crowd-pleasing “William Tell Overture,” heart-rending arias, and a large-scale orchestra and choir accompanying first-rate soloists in that which was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event. lifetime concert on the occasion of the inclusion, last December, of the “practice of opera singing in Italy” in the Representative List of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity drawn up by the United Nations. The concert was a public recognition of opera's cultural impact around the world, broadcast across the globe from the ancient Roman amphitheater that attracts tens of thousands of opera lovers every summer.

“The great masterpieces of opera are our heritage and we Italians have given them to the world,” conductor Riccardo Muti told the main national television a few minutes before the start of the event.

Seated on a raised balcony in front of the stage, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni were flanked by high-ranking officials while the audience was filled with fashionable celebrities, opera fans and dozens of ambassadors “from countries in who the work is loved”, said Gianmarco Mazzi, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Culture.

Although much of the campaign for recognition occurred under a previous center-left government, the addition to the list by the United Nations agency, UNESCO, was something of a coup for Italy's conservative government, the whose Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, has made it his mission to exalt Italianness.

One of his projects is a museum of Italian culture, to highlight the “contribution that Italy has made to humanity”, and his roles at the direction of the most important museums have favored local choices where the previous government was looking for international talent. His choice in April of a director for La Scala, Milan's grand opera house, came with a statement trumpeting that the new boss, Fortunato Ortombina, was Italian, “after three foreign general directors.”

At Friday's concert, however, while Italy's 12 opera houses and some conservatories provided the orchestra and choir, many of the soloists were not Italian – a sign of the opera's global appeal.

«The universality of this heritage is demonstrated by the fact that there are Russians, there are Americans, there are French: here there is everything and they all sing in Italian», said Cecilia Gasdia, general director of the Arena di Verona Foundation and a soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1986. (She said she still sings, to herself, every morning before work.)

“Opera is our national theater, as Shakespeare is for the English,” said Roberto Abbondanza, baritone and president of Assolirica, an association of opera professionals that was central to the campaign for recognition.

Stefano Trespidi, deputy artistic director of the Verona Arena Foundation, said that Italian opera houses and conservatories had never joined forces for such an event.

“All Italian opera is here together,” he said. “It is the world of opera that celebrates itself and celebrates Italian opera.”

The opera theater was born in Italy around 1600. Starting in Florence and developing in Venice, it became an “extraordinarily expansive” production, quickly spreading throughout Italy, Europe and the rest of the world, said Lorenzo Bianconi, musicologist and professor emeritus at the University . from Bologna.

Even as the drama took place inside theaters intended for the wealthy, the music spilled out into the streets. Itinerant musicians performed arias in remote village squares or on church organs after mass, and there are even accounts of gondoliers singing the latest hits for their clients “to show that they were knowledgeable,” said Roberta Pedrotti, a critic musician who has written several books on opera. Italian is dotted with phrases of operatic origin, she said.

Marco Tutino, an opera composer, said he realized the importance of the Italian language for opera when he began receiving commissions to write operas in other languages. “It was the litmus test,” he said.

Opera is “an art, a culture that is based on vocal technique and the Italian language, and this is why we must protect this mark of origin,” said Tutino.

The gala concert “shows a clear political will” on the part of the government to safeguard and promote the opera, said Rosanna Savoia, a soprano who helped lead the recognition campaign.

This marks a change, Abbondanza said, from a previous failed attempt to grant United Nations honors to the Italian work about a decade ago. So the government instead focused on listing the “art of Neapolitan pizza makers”. China, he added, managed to register four operatic traditions before Italy launched its own serious proposal.

The “UNESCO recognition is not a point of arrival but a starting point” on which to build, Maestro Muti told the audience to great applause.

As the night wore on, the “Bravos” ebbed and flowed. Ballets gave way to short scenes from beloved operas such as Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia or Puccini's La Bohème, delighting audiences. An over-the-top staging of an aria from “Tosca” featured incense, dozens of children as altar boys and an army of gold-robed clerics. The crowd cheered.

Pedrotti noted that the first Three Tenors concert in 1990, featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras and broadcast live to millions internationally as part of Italy's celebrations of hosting the soccer World Cup, was was greeted with contempt by some operas. passionate. But it gave the genre a huge boost in popularity.

Undersecretary Mazzi hoped that Friday's concert will also be repeated on an international level, becoming “a representation of Italian opera on tour around the world”.

There were international film festivals and sporting events, he said. “The work should be treated equally.”

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