Thursday, June 11, 2009

Travel Journal: Palermo

[Another in an ongoing series of travel essays about our recent Mediterranean Music cruise; pictures are available on our website]

Following our excursion to Dubrovnik, we spent the only "day at sea" this eventful 9-day itinerary offered. James Hepokoski, music historian at Yale, and the author of the Cambridge opera handbooks on Otello and Falstaff (and therefore the source of much of my own research for performing roles in those operas in Roanoke this season) was onboard. Jim offered insightful, witty, and engaging talks on Mediterranean-tinged music. On this particular day he talked about the Tarantella, the famed Italian dance, and made associations from the "dance of death" to the tarantula to the psycho-stress disorder of tarantism, eventually wending his away around the heel of Italy's boot to the great tradition of Neapolitan songs.

Also on board was the director of the Aspen music festival, the composer, Alan Fletcher. Alan gave a series of engaging talks on how we listen, what we hear, and why we respond the ways we do. On this particular day he adroitly demonstrated the unique balance and symmetry of the major scale, and then proceeded to use the score of Carmen to illustrate how tonal music depicts character, emotion, and psychology.

We experienced our first "rough" night at sea--we were enjoying a lovely dinner with our new friends, the authors Joe Page and Martha Gil-Montero. Joe had served in the Coast Guard and thus enjoyed the weather, and his equanimity helped me maintain mine--the 5'-7' waves were just enough to challenge your balance but not enough to make you "lose your legs."

After passing through the famed mythical strait of the Scylla, we arrived in Palermo, Sicily. I decided to forgo the morning excursion to the famed cathedral of Monreale. Based on the pictures Amy took, its clear I missed a stunning example of ancient mosaics, murals, and architecture.

That afternoon brought the first of back-to-back full-bodied Italian programs (in Palermo and Naples, respectively) for us. The Palermo program consisted primarily of Verdi--the gran duetto from Un Ballo en Maschera, arias from Rigoletto & Don Carlo, and the Act I duet and scena from Traviata. The concert was held in the Palazzo Raffadali, an 18th century Palace still presided over by a bona fide Principessa. The ballroom held a beautiful Pleyel piano, a restored 19th century instrument that did not sound nearly as pristine as it looked. Regardless, this program was a thrill to sing, and was very well received (we felt incredibly grateful to be so congratulated by the locals in our audiences). It was followed by a fantastic reception, where the hit of the glamorous spread were trays of what appeared to be petit fours but were scrumptious squares of gelato.

Following a too-soon departure from a port whetting one's appetite for more, we were afforded another series of breathtaking vistas of the Mediterranean. The Sicilian archipelago was just such a one.

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