I hadn’t meant to go, initially. But then I thought, Why not? The Teatro Antico at Taormina. A performance of La Boheme. A warm summer’s night. What else have you got to that’s half as interesting? Don’t be so stupid. So I told Mariano Brischetto I would accept his kind invitation. Mariano is a tenor on the chorus of the Teatro Massimi Bellini of Catania, and had befriended by on Pantelleria. We bonded over two-wheel transport, although he rode a mighty Kawasaki Versys of incalculable power, and I only a modest Vespa of 125cc.
The Teatro Antico at Taormina was spectacular in the evening light, a happy synthesis of Greek aesthetics and mastery of acoustics and Roman engineering, of stone and brick, of time and place. Curved banks of stone seats lined the hillside. In a gap in the middle of the wall of Roman brick behind the scena the lights of Giardini Naxos and Calatabiano glittered beneath Etna. A plume of gas streamed from its summit. There was a tiny slice of moon just beginning to show in the darkening, velvet sky. It was a dreamscape of immeasurable beauty.
All, however, was not quite so harmonious down at the performance area.
‘I’ve only just been told I’m singing Marcello,’ said one tenor.
‘But you’ve sung it before.’
‘Yes. But I haven’t been told who’s singing Mimi.’
A woman came up looking cross. ‘There aren’t any costumes for the band.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Ross, the Welsh chorus master of the Teatro Massimo Bellini, and the man apparently in charge of the Catania contingent.
‘We were promised costumes and there aren’t any.’
‘Oh God. Perhaps you can play off stage,’ said Ross.
‘This is meta-theatre,’ Mariano said cheerfully.’Theatre within theatre’.
There was a tremendous crash followed by a tinkling sound. The frame holding the tubular bells had fallen over. For a moment everyone looked rather embarrassed, and then the hubbub rose up again.
The production was part of Taormina Lirica festival, a co-operation between the Taormina Musical Festival organisation and the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania. In theory the Teatro Massimo Bellini would provide the chorus and orchestra and the Taormina Musical Festival organisation would provide everything else – conductor, soloists, costumes, scenery, changing rooms, the lot. Not the scenery and costumes, it transpired. Those were being provided by the Festival Puccini di Torre del Lago in Viareggio.
‘There aren’t any changing rooms for the chorus,’ reported Mariano to Ross. he was no longer so cheerful.
“No changing rooms for the chorus? There must be. That was expressly specified in the letter we sent them. Ross, the Welsh chorus master of the Teatro Massimo Bellini.
‘I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m not religious, but, do you know, I’ve only been in this job for seven months, and they’ve got me believing in Fate, Destiny, the whole shooting match. I’ll go and talk to the director.’
It was about 7pm and the performance was due to start at 9.15pm. As the two opera forces had never met each other, this seemed to be leaving such essentials as rehearsals and staging until the last minute to me. Still, they knew what they were doing. Didn’t they?
Ross came back. It became clear that, while the two organisations might have known what they were doing, they necessarily know the same thing. The professional warmth was curdling to professional animosity. Mariano was being increasingly pessimistic.
‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘If we don’t feel that they respect us, look after us properly, why should we care about the performance.
Ross’s early cheeriness had turned to outrage.
‘I asked him why he had ignored everything we had specified in the letter. He said ‘And why have you ignored all the things we requested? I have never come across such an unprofessional company as the Teatro Massimo Bellini’. Yes, he actually said that. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘When I asked about changing rooms for the chorus,’ said Mariano, ‘they just said there weren’t any. The conductor said ‘The Berlin Philharmonic don’t ask for changing rooms.’
‘The conductor is an idiot. They don’t wear costumes.’
They went back to their respective battles. I retreated to the higher reaches of the seats high above the fray. There was a tremendous amount of banging going on the stage as the carpenters erected the scenery kindly provided by the Festival Puccini di Torre del Lago in Viareggio. The lights over the music stands began to shine brightly. There was the genial sounds of the orchestra coming to life. A man walked past me and waved in a familiar, friendly manner. I’d never seen him before. I was just part of the great enterprise. I wondered if Aeschylus or Sophocles might have recognised the scene below me. I didn’t suppose the tropes, dramas and artistic tensions had changed much in a couple of thousand years.
Lighting tests began to be carried out. I wondered if there was going to be enough willing suspension of disbelief to carry us through ‘La manina gelida.’ It wasn’t exactly a gelida night.
A short, plump man on a chair was trying to adjust a light at the top of a high stand. He was standing on tip toes. His fingers just kept brushing the lower rim of the shade. The French horns running through their warm up routine. Parp, parp-parp, parp-parp-parp.Then the trumpets and the strings. What a splendid, civilised cacophony.
At 7.45 the conductor appeared. He was slender, 50-ish, with fashionably long hair curling over the collar of his open-necked shirt. He appeared crisp and autocratic. He took the orchestra through various parts of the overture. The soloists appeared. They looked nonchalant. Act One: key arias and stage work. Everyone slipped into their role as if they were slipping into old slippers. They must have done this hundreds of times. Not with this conductor, perhaps. It took a little time before the maestro was happy. Act Two: ditto. There was just time for Act Three, but not, sadly for Act Four.
By this time it was 8.40. I saw Ross and Mariano for the last time before the performance. They weren’t in the best of moods. Still no changing rooms for the chorus.
How did the rehearsal go?
‘Not so good,’ said Mariano.
‘He (the conductor) didn’t even notice the set for Act Two wasn’t the right one,’ hissed Ross.
When someone asked George V which was his favourite opera, he replied ‘La Boheme.’ ‘And why is that, Your Majesty?’ ‘Because it’s the shortest.’ He would have been disappointed in the Lyrica production. It began at 9.40. I realised we were in for the long haul when the carpenters reappeared after Act Two and spent the best part of 40 minutes constructing the set for Act Three, at the barrier of the Barriere d’Enfer,in front of our eyes. They got a round of applause when they finished. Eventually Mimi expired around 12.25 am, Rodolpho was grief-stricken and that was that. The rather diminished audience gave enthusiastic, if rather relieved, applause
It would be unfair, given the circumstances, to pass critical comment on the singers. The chorus was magnificent and the children particularly impressive. And of course I enjoyed it all immensely, the theatre and the meta-theatre. Who wouldn’t? It’s not often you get to see behind the scenes of any production, and to witness the battles for artistic integrity at first hand. It was all pure delight, stretched out over six hours. Forget Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Give me the dual drama of a production of La Boheme involving two opera companies any time.
Although, as I said to Mariano as he drove me back to Bronte, I was surprised that Mimi hadn’t died of old age long before consumption took her.