Sunday, June 20, 2010

Travel Journal: Salute per aqua

Spa derives from the Italian salute per aqua (health through water). Anyone who has traveled in the Mediterranean region knows why. Though Rome is an hour or so away from the port at Civitavecchia, the Tiber river and the plentiful fountains of the Eternal City both reinforce the association.

We spent a day in Rome before embarking on a journey which took us south to Naples & Sicily, up the Italian Riviera to Lucca (in Tuscany), across to the French Riviera in Nice, then to Marseille (with an excursion to Aix-en-Provence) and ending in Barcelona.

We performed concerts programmed around the cities we visited. We sang Neapolitan songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, and opera excerpts that originated in the famed Teatro San Carlo in Naples. In Palermo we offered a recital devoted to the Bel Canto repertoire, beginning with the Sicilian master Vincenzo Bellini and ending with Verdi. In Lucca we performed Puccini, even more inspired after a lunch featuring the pasta, vegetables and pungent olive oil he loved so much. In Nice we offered a program of French mélodies and opera, from Fauré and Gounod to Duparc and G. Charpentier. Finally, our Barcelona program, in an intimate 18th century Palau (Palazzo or Palace), ranged from Spanish-inspired opera (Carmen) to Spanish song (Rodrigo), and Picasso-influenced Poulenc to Sondheim's droll duet, "Barcelona."

With the exception of the venue in Nice (a beautiful recital hall with a huge fresco of the Mediterranean shadowing the stage we'd visited last year), each of the venues was an awe-inspiring surprise.

The Museo Deocesano in Naples is in a restored church and like many of the sites in Naples, a fascinating repository of history. The presbytery is adorned with an early Solimena fresco, and it is flanked by the last works of Giordano. "Backstage" is an artistic and archeological history of the city (Naples is next to Vesuvius and the famed ruins of Pompeii).

I just finished a year-end letter to friends of the Chorale. In it I talk about dissonance, a driving force in all art, and one I happen to love. Though the immediate associations it conjures are negative, like Schoenberg, I am obsessed with the liberation of dissonance. Unlike Schoenberg, I think music with some grounding in tonality is still the way forward. Call me old-fashioned.

Anyway, dissonance--discord, tension, conflict--drives drama. The TV shows, films, operas and plays we love would be flat without it. Painting would be reduced to monochromatic wall-paper and even minimalist music (from Glass to Pärt) would have to simplify its vocabulary.

In architecture, nearly every cathedral, chapel or church one visits in Europe is full of stylistic dissonances. The Deocesano in Naples was one of many. Baroque art in a Romanesque sanctuary with a classical facade housing ancient ruins. Talk about identity issues, madonna!

The churches in Rome we visited all featured these fascinating and stimulating juxtapositions. The off-the-main path Chiesa di Santi Apostoli featured a fascinating frescoed dome with disciples literally falling down into the church. The flat facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva belies the riches inside: Fra Angelico is buried there, Michelangelo's bold sculpture of "Christ Bearing the Cross" flanks the altar, all under an electric blue ceiling that looks like it was painted in the 80's. The strange boldness of Minerva (the largest or oldest Gothic church in Rome?) is reinforced by Bernini's amusing little elephant statue in the piazza outside (from which you can see the ancient coptic dome of the Pantheon, which needs no additional art to embody the thesis of architectural discord. The structure itself is an example of tension in harmony).

From the Egyptian obelisks to the Greco-Roman pillars, St Peter's (AKA: the Vatican) is the lodestar. And it is worth the trip. From the bullet-proof-glass-protected Pieta (Michelangelo's masterpiece sculpture that blurs the line between humanism and religion) to the radiant golden stained-glass dove above the altar, this is the mother of all churches. It is no surprise lapsed Catholics from around the globe renew their faith with a mere drop of its holy water. Salute per aqua comes in many forms indeed.

Crossing the legendary--if not holy--river Tiber one encounters the imposing Castel Sant'Angelo. If the name rings a bell, the ancient Papal fortress (with a secret underground passage to the Vatican) is where the final act of Puccini's Tosca takes place. It is the setting where Cavaradossi sings the elegiac "E lucevan le stelle." This favorite among tenor arias is both a heart-rending farewell to life and a foreboding introduction to one of the swiftest acts in all of opera. Tosca ends just a few minutes later when the diva hurls herself from the castle's parapets. And she thought she was headed to Civitavecchia for some spa time.

Via per mar (Away by the sea)
Liberi! (Free)
Va, Tosca (Go, Tosca).

These waters rejuvenate. Stimulate.
Sing again of a life of art and love.

No comments: