Saturday, January 7, 2012

Giuseppi Verdi and the Fall of Silvio Berlusconi

This past summer saw the fall of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government in Italy. He lasted into the second week of November, but the handwriting was on the wall from midsummer on. The 2011 austerity measures, which he backed, coincided with further scandals surrounding the billionaire politician's personal life. Perhaps more importantly on some levels, all of these coincided with public celebrations throughout Italy, of the 150th anniversary of the Italian Republic, which - the country being Italy - had scheduled hundreds of musical events throughout the nation, which now had to be scaled back.
Berlusconi himself is a musician of sorts:
During his university studies he was a upright bass player in a group formed with the now Mediaset Chairman and amateur pianist Fedele Confalonieri and occasionally performed as a cruise ship crooner. In later life he wrote AC Milan's anthem with the Italian music producer and pop singer Tony Renis and Forza Italia's anthem with the opera director Renato Serio. With the Neapolitan singer Mariano Apicella he wrote two Neapolitan song albums: Meglio 'na canzone in 2003 and L'ultimo amore in 2006.
In early 2011, his government announced austerity measures that attacked the Italian Unified Fund for the Performing Arts:
[T]he government of Silvio Berlusconi has shown startling indifference, if not outright contempt, toward opera and other traditional genres. Last year, it was announced that the Unified Fund for the Performing Arts, which covers opera, theatre, dance, and film, would be slashed by thirty-seven per cent. At least a few of Italy’s storied companies seemed doomed to extinction, and others faced a threadbare existence.
Italian conductor Ricardo Muti, currently the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was in Italy last Spring to conduct a series of staged presentations of Giuseppi Verdi's patriotic masterpiece, Nabucco, with Rome's Teatro dell' Opera.

The opera contains a chorus, Va Pensioro.  Verdi based it on Psalm 137, "By the Waters of Babylon."  Nabucco was Verdi's first huge success as a composer.  And, as time went by, Va Pensioro became a precursor of a true Italian national anthem, during the struggles for independence from foreign, mostly Austrian, domination:
In that historical moment, Verdi played a significant symbolic role: “Va, pensiero,” the lofty chorus of the Hebrew slaves in “Nabucco,” became an unofficial national anthem, its Biblical lament alluding to the long struggle under Austrian rule.
La Pensiero has taken on a life of its own outside Italy.  The Italian-American conductor, Arturo Toscanini, turned it into an anti-Fascist anthem in the late 1930s, and conducted it at the reopening of the partially destroyed La Scala Opera House in Milan, in May, 1946.

Israeli cultural authorities have used La Pensiero in various guises, even staging the entire opera Nabucco at Masada.  The 2008 Oslo Winter Olympics' opening ceremony featured an over-the-top rendition of the chorus as its centerpiece:

This past Spring, when Muti had finished leading the scene in which La Pensiero occurs, he stopped the opera's progress after applause for the chorus died away.  After a short pause, he addressed the audience.  Here's New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who was there, describing the scene:
In March, one man made a notable protest. Riccardo Muti, who long directed La Scala, in Milan, and who now leads the Chicago Symphony, was conducting Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Rome Opera. The production arrived in the midst of elaborate nationwide observances of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the unification of Italy.


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. “Sì, 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 sì 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.

Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike. He succeeded in casting doubt on the patriotic credentials of a regime that came to power through chauvinistic spectacles; indeed, he seemed almost to be comparing Berlusconi and his American-style media operatives to the old Austrian occupiers. Such tactics elicited an immediate response. The finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, who had earlier said, “You can’t eat culture,” met with Muti and agreed to roll back the cuts. Berlusconi came to a later “Nabucco” performance, amid loud boos and heckling from the public, and made a show of going backstage to greet Muti. Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to more decisive effect.
Here's the Ricardo Muti episode.  It is quite moving, especially watching the reaction of the chorus, as more and more members of the audience join in the singing:

Muti's decisive statement did not bring down Berlusconi.  However, one can't help but wonder why more classical musicians, especially important ones, aren't emulating Muti's incisive, well-timed action.  Let's hope that as the Occupy Movement comes back in the Spring, bigger than ever, more world renowned cultural figures join us in our struggles against the nihilism of corporate greed and government accommodation of the one percent.

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