Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Opera. The drama doesn't end with curtain call.

In Venice, our opera experience was a small and fairly intimate event held in a 15th century church.

This church is part of a school founded in 1261, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. It was renovated in the 1600s, and has been an art museum since (I believe.) It's chock full of incredible works of art, even by Venetian standards: statues, tapestries and paintings created by the likes of Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and other giants. (More images of the Scuola's treasures here.)

This was the ceiling.

The performance was by Musica in Maschera, a fine 8-piece chamber ensemble with a soprano and tenor, and a ballet dancer, performing in authentic 17th century Venetian costumes and masks. All were fine performers, but honestly, the dancer had so little room to maneuver at the front of the church that she ended up looking ridiculous. The musicians were great, helped out by the fabulous acoustics of the building.

So it was a concert performance. Where's the drama?


The singers, for the most part, took turns to sing at the front of the church. When he was not "on," the tenor, a thirty-something in fine voice, was carrying on with his much-younger girlfriend seated in the audience. My friends told me they were actually making out between arias!! And this was a church, mind you.

Now the drama begins.

After the enjoyable evening, our group walked through the little alleys towards the Rialto. Suddenly, we we heard an approaching commotion and saw the tenor, now out of costume, running towards us as fast as his legs would carry him, casting glances backwards as he pushed past us.

A few seconds later we saw what he was running from - his girlfriend, with a look on her face that would turn Medusa's blood cold. Just as she passed us her beau went over a bridge and out of sight. With a heartfelt snort and a look of absolute fury, she abandoned the chase, threw up her hands in disgust and stomped her way toward the canal.

I'd pay good money to find out what happened when she caught up with the tenor.

Is he singing castrato now?

This is the audio spot I sent from Venice on this incident.

Gillian Coldsnow

Lupo, the great Genovese Trattoria.

Remember this picture of my Ligurian seafood platter that made so many readers gasp, salivate and then curse me?

I was just reading over the earlier posts and saw that I'd promised more information on the wonderful restaurant, Lupo Antica Trattoria.

Even though it was barely 25 meters from my hotel, I would have missed it save the recommendation of Signora Arianna. As I've told you, Genoa is a maze of narrow little alleys called caruggi, some of which disappear steeply downward from main streets to goodness knows where.

Now I know some of them disappear into heaven.

Such was Vico Monachette, a stone's throw from the Ramada on Via Balbi, in the heart of medieval Genoa. Lupo's is a warm and cozy little inn, which opened a little early for us, thanks to the sainted Arianna's advance calls. The restaurant prides itself on serving the best Liguria has to offer, prepared creatively. The chef adjusts the menu weekly to accomodate the freshest catch or produce. The bilingual menu's English section was charmingly awkward, a word-for-word translation from Italian.

Liz, Cherri, Arianna and I began our meal with an antipasto of grilled radicchio in a roquefort-pine nut sauce. The bitterness of the vegetable was perfect with the creamy cheese and nuts. There was still a little crispness to the radicchio, which contrasted nicely with the velvety smoothness of the sauce.

Our primo piatto was a fresh herb-filled pasta called pansotti, which could be described as triangular ravioli. These little "potbellies" (for that is what the word means, I'm told) came dressed in a creamy walnut sauce (salsa di noci) that screamed, surrender to me!

You've seen the picture of our grilled seafood entree - scampi, prawns, salmon, octopus, and little white fish. It was just barely seasoned. I really appreciated the restraint. The chef was obviously skilled and could have done a million things to the dish, yet chose to respect the quality and freshness of the ingredients and let the food speak for itself. You know, this takes a generosity of spirit - to take oneself out of the equation and let the seafood be its own star. Bravissima.

Our other entree was a typical Ligurian dish - fish and potatoes in basil pesto. So simple, so delicate, so fresh, and oh, so delectable.

The house red wine was an excellent dolcetto, the charms of which I've already sung loud and long in several previous posts. It's most definitely my favorite red now.

We finished up with the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. If you've ever tasted the "faboo" tiramisu made by my dear friend Tina, you'll know this praise is not easily earned. Lupo's version was whipped up to an ethereal airiness, yet the tremendous chocolate, coffee and grappa flavors stood confidently through those creamy layers. But just as I was about to swoon from this, Arianna gave me a taste of her tarte tatin, as warm upside-down apple tart. (Yes, it's a French dessert. Let's not quibble about that while I'm having a moment here.) O Puccini! O Rossini! O Verdi!!! See why I love Genoa so?

As we were leaving I spied The Quartet and wandered over. They were in the middle of rolling their eyes over risotto dell'arancie, Orange Risotto. I wished it was time for dinner to start all over again.

Lupo. Just one more reason I have to get back to Liguria.

Gillian Coldsnow

The devil made him do it. (It could have been the great Genovese olive oil too.)

Genoa’s best-known musical export could well be the violinist Niccolo Paganini, still acclaimed by some as the greatest violin virtuoso of all time. Born in the port city in 1782, he was a performer of such brilliance and drama that women would faint at concerts. Even some men would weep. How to explain such incredible virtuosity? Oh, of course it had to be......could it be......SATAN? (reverberate! reverberate!)

Gosh, if I was Genovese I would really insulted. What do you mean, you don’t think one of our boys could be this good unless he consorted with the devil?

In any case, Paganini’s favorite instrument was a Guarneri, nicknamed Il Cannone (“The Cannon”) because of its soaring resonance – some even say it’s an aggressive sound. The violin is considered Guarneri’s finest creation; the last of the great violins made in Cremona. At Paganini’s death, he gave Il Cannone was given to his beloved city of Genoa.

And that’s where we saw it, in a glass case in a dimly-lit room in the Palazzo Tursi Museum. I don’t know all that much about violins, but I could tell there was something different about this particular instrument. I later read that the neck is short and flat – and obsolete. There are dark spots in places – greasy fingers? did Niccolo forget to wash his fingers after indulging in Genovese farinata? Just imagining Paganini’s very hands on that violin before me generated a frisson.

Also in that room is the only copy every made of Il Cannone. The virtuoso gave that to his favorite student. It’s possible that’s the only reason we remember the student’s name, as this instrument is known as the “Sivori.” Tsk. He played second fiddle to...his violin?

(Sorry, it was too good to resist.)

Il Cannone is not confined to life in a vacuum. Every year the winner of Genoa’s "Paganini Competition" (open to anyone under age 34) earns the right to play the hallowed instrument on October 12, Columbus Day. Great way to tie it in to Genoa's other favorite son, Christopher Columbus. But the person who created the most controversy with Il Cannone is an African-American musician, Regina Carter. In 2001 the City of Genoa invited her to play jazz on Paganini’s Guarneri. (There's that whole devil thing again!) It was scandalous, but ultimately, Miss Carter charmed all the skeptics, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Incidentally, pictures are not allowed at the museum. The images above are from the City of Genoa website.

And here's an in-depth article (bilingual) on the technical aspects of Il Cannone.

I leave you with a Paganini quote:

"I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet."

Gillian Coldsnow