23 May 2010

First impressions of Venice, and magic at La Fenice

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dear Diary,

Venice is the world’s most beautiful half-dead city. Venice is Disneyland before there was Walt Disney. Venice no longer smells bad. Venice is beautiful in the early morning light, before the groups of name-necklaced tourists start their marches through the narrow alleys.

It is next to impossible to have a truly bad meal in most of Italy; very easy here in Venice. Everywhere, all the time, travel writers, visitors connected to TripAdvisor and similar web locations, journalists, even some guides, all of these are searching for the next great discovery. When an interesting or overlooked restaurant is located it is immediately swamped by those in the know. Whatever initially made it different or special disappears. The servers move with greater velocity; the kitchen cooks with less accuracy. The prices go up, everyone is fatigued, and there’s a line out the door and down the canal.

We had dinner in one of these places last night: La Zucca (the pumpkin), a small place in a lovely location at the foot of a small bridge, where a canal turns the corner around its building. It was packed the day before, when we made reservations, and packed most of Tuesday night. Joselyn and I and four fellow students from Venice Italian School sat and ordered. The words were hardly out of our mouths before the food was on the table. Later, we were asked to vacate the table for another group waiting outside. This was certainly fair, as we had paused to talk after dessert, but for several of us this was the first time we’d been kicked out of a restaurant for enjoying ourselves.

When  the weather is perfect (sunny days not yet hot; a cooling breeze along the canals) and one has time, and a romantic imagination, Venice will seduce you.

In our case this is our third or fourth visit, and we are working – school each morning, and some homework to fit in each afternoon. We have noticed detritus floating in the canals, beggars on many bridges, gratuitous musicians, loud bars, graffiti on sacred walls and ordinary houses. It is not as magical as it might be.

Yet there is some magic. We are in a lovely apartment, with sounds of life all around us. Laundry stays outside until ten at night, and early in the morning baskets are let down on strings from high windows for others to fill with bread and milk. Recycling is efficient and frequent, the locals are not unanimously sour, and life goes on as Venice actually were Italy. It is not, but it’s located right next to it.

We stumbled into an extraordinary event on Tuesday, the second of two days of a strike that closed Opera La Fenice. We had tickets to Don Giovanni and because of the strike we went to the box office to obtain a refund. This kind of thing can be a horror in Italy – however, it went smoothly, surprise, surprise. On the square in front of La Fenice musicians were putting on an impromptu concert. An older gentleman appeared on the Opera steps to beckon everyone – this was several hundred people – inside. “Venga, Venga... siamo aperto oggi...” and sure enough what ordinarily requires an expensive tour ticket or an expensive opera ticket suddenly was free as air.

People poured into the Sala Grande and everywhere were craning their necks in astonishment at the beautifully restored gilded plaster work, the ceiling clock, the huge chandeliers, the uncountable rows of stacked box seats, the stage itself with the silver phoenix above it all... and the flashes went off in every direction. As the day wore on the ushers gave up trying to enforce their strict no camera rule. Eventually cameras were tolerated. Some flashers were chastised, others not.

The musicians, technicians and administration staff created an amazing day for themselves and everyone else, in protest to the strike (a minor guild had decided to strike) and to a forthcoming law that in effect will drastically cut funds for performing arts in Italy.

There were concerts for five solid hours: a wind quintet, bassoon quartet, a choir concert, brass ensemble, opera excerpts, string quartet, string quartet with clarinet, baroque music, and a final jazz concert in the early evening.

All free, all delivered by musicians in tennis shoes, Levis and t-shirts, playing music of the first quality, more or less without rehearsal. Wow.

In the Sala Apollinee we heard the entire opera chorus, fifty strong, singing from the surrounding balcony, angels on high. In front of us the Maestro conducting his singers far above, pointing now at the sopranos to his left, now the basses on the right, and two pianists playing opera excerpts four-hands. Again, wow.

We fell like idiots into a crazy moment that cannot be repeated. We had to leave after the string quartet played movements from Mozart’s “Dissonant” in C major; the Dvorak “American” and part of the Mozart clarinet quintet.

The protesters have a web site: http://www.firmiamo.it/decreto-legge-riforma-enti-lirici-d-italia-del-ministro-sandr/ and if the hyphens should be underlines, or I’ve mistyped, try googling them: “protest at La Fenice” should do it...

From their flyer: “... a protest against a new law, the Decreto Fondazioni Lirico-Sinfoniche... approved in the first week of May.

“The law, without any form of discussion with representatives of the sector... intends... to reform the structure of all theaters in Italy.... in a few years, and for certain orchestras in a few months, there will be no possibility of covering the costs for concerts and opera productions while keeping the artistic quality intact... this law... doesn’t reflect the need of reforms... instead it constitutes a dangerous attack to (sic) one of the main Italian cultural traditions.”

If you’d like to express your personal opinion on all this, send an email to MIBAC (www.beniculturali.it) and leave a message in the contact form.

MIBAC = Ministero dei Beni Culturali = Ministry of Cultural Benefits

It’s now 7:30. Joselyn is almost finished with her homework (verbi irregolari) and we’re about to walk down the street? fondamento? calle? rio? to a nearby restaurant we discovered yesterday. Few know about this place. Let’s keep it a secret between us and the Sunday Times, the NY Times, Rick Steves and the lonely ones at Lonely Planet, the fuddy ones at Fodors, the go go go ones at Let’s Go, the spaced out ones at TimeOut, and those inquisitive tour guides.

Do you have room for a hundred? Great! See you at seven.

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