An article by Alex Ross in the July 25 New Yorker alerted me to an extraordinary event in Italian opera. In “At the Brink,” Ross describes what happened during a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Rome Opera in March. The conductor was the renowned Riccardo Muti. First, a bit of background information is necessary.
Written in 1842, the opera Nabucco contains the Chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va pensiero.” In it, the Hebrews lament their captivity and give expression to their longing for their homeland: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! / Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!” At the time, Italy was chafing under the yoke of its Austrian occupiers. “Va pensiero” became, in the words of Alex Ross, “an unofficial national anthem,” expressing as it did the desire of a nation to seize control of its own destiny. For Italy, this goal was finally achieved in 1861, the year of Risorgimento. (This is a tremendously complicated story. I was having a great deal of trouble pinning down the date of unification. but since Italians are celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, let’s just accept that date as a given and leave it at that, for the time being. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive entry on the subject.)
No doubt you have read of Italy’s ongoing financial crisis. One of the line items to get its budget slashed was arts funding. Finance minister Giulio Tremonti was quoted as saying, “You can’t eat culture.”
I’ll let Alex Ross take it from here:
On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva L’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Si, I am in accord with that “Viva L’Italia!’ he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria si bella e perduta!'” – Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! – “I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.
Ross observes that “Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike.” There were reverberations from this extraordinary event. The aforesaid Signor Tremonti rolled back the funding cuts. Ross concludes: “Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to a more decisive effect.”
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Muti expresses his own frank amazement at the events of that evening:
“At the end of Va’ pensiero, I heard shouts of “Viva l’Italia” and turned instinctively towards the audience. I could see groups of people getting to their feet here and there. In the end, everyone was standing, including the chorus, and singing an encore at my request. It was a steadily rising tide of participation and intensity…. It was a call for a united fatherland, in Verdi’s name. I thought I was dreaming. I’ve never experienced a thrill like that before”.
Muti goes on to assure the interviewer that the outburst of patriotic fervor was completely unscripted: “I spoke to remind everyone that the arts guide our society. Then the whole theatre sang Va’ pensiero. Some members of the chorus were in tears. A moment of outstanding Italianness.”
Riccardo Muti has had his share of health problems in recent months. He recently had a pacemaker put in. Reports claim that he returned to his conducting duties sooner than his doctors had advised. Maestro Muti turned seventy last month. Happy Birthday, Maestro – and may you celebrate many more!
A view words about the video: First, I was not able to find a word for word translation of Muti’s impromptu speech, but I think you can get the gist of it from what I’ve written and quoted above. With regard to the leaflets cascading to the floor: Muti explains what they were in the newspaper interview I linked to above.
At any rate, may blessings continue to rain down on music-loving Italians; they know what makes life worth living.