Venice Ends On (Literally) A High Note

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Veneto,
Thursday, December 3, 2009

12.3.09                  Venice Ends On (Literally) A High Note

We are enjoying Venice so much that this morning, we decided to extend our stay here one more night, leaving tomorrow instead for Assisi (we are "behind" at least one day due to me getting sick in Florence, but I guess that's the beauty of creating our own itinerary).  Murray went to tour the Museo Storico Navale, since it was closed (early!) by the time we got there the other day, and I was happy to let the Navy man go it alone there.  (Murray also found a barber shop to trim his beard – he had been complaining for about a week how long it had gotten!)  In the meantime, I stayed back in our hotel room, enjoying a lazy morning of CNN –watching, journal writing, and maybe even a little cat-napping.

Around midday, Murray returned and we headed out (via two different vaparettos) to the Island/Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, just across the water from Piazza San Marco.  Our intent was to tour the recommended and impressive-looking Chiesa di San Giorgio in Isola, but when we got there, the church – and literally everything else on this tiny end of the island – was completely shut down.  So, we cut our losses and had a quiet wander instead!

Jumping back on the vaparetto, we again toured the “backside” of Venice and got off at the train station, again walking back along the Cannaregio but this time turning onto the Sotoportego del Ghetto and stopping to explore the Jewish Ghetto.  The Jewish Ghetto in Venice is one of the oldest ghettos in Europe, and Venice has the unique distinction of literally terming the word “ghetto.”  However, as many Jews know, unfortunately the practice of ordering the Jews to live in one place, locking them in at night, and forcing them to follow a certain set of rules, was not a new one.

At the entrance to the ghetto, we found an awesome little restaurant where we had a late lunch.  (Today was freezing cold in Venice, and I was craving a nice, hot soup of some sort, but – even though it may be hard to believe, given minestrone, Italian wedding soup, etc. – it has been VERY hard to find soup in Italy!)  This place, called the Gam Gam Kosher Bar & Restaurant Ebraico, served MATZO BALL SOUP, which I have been particularly craving recently, for some reason – so I was in HEAVEN!  I had the “Israeli vegetarian appetizer plate” (thick, warm pita bread with nine different and beautiful mezze salads!) while Murray had a huge stack of cold, marinated sardines with caramelized onions – and we followed these first dishes by the delicious matzo ball soup for me and a lentil soup for Murray.  So nice!

After lunch, we wandered through the ghetto – stopping at the Campo di Ghetto Nuevo and viewing the surrounding synagogues and shops.  It was a very tranquil, peaceful part of Venice.  Finally crossing the bridge out of the ghetto, we walked along the Fondamento, a long and quiet canal lined by understated shops and restaurants.     

We got back to our hotel room around 6pm, and I took a little snooze while Murray went out to get some more cash and do some more exploring on his own.  Around 7:30pm, we left the room (grabbing a snack along the way) and headed out for our final night in Venice – a viewing of “La Traviata” at Musica a Palazzo!

[WARNING: The rest of this journal entry is all about the opera, and how moved I was by this particular performance we saw on our last night in Venice…]

I am an opera lover from way back, and although I don’t always know all the history behind the music or the lyrics, I enjoy it just the same.  To me, it is passionate, dramatic theater – telling a fervent story through music, which can move you in a way that a music-less story cannot.  I also hate that opera is seen as so high-brow, when the stories told through opera contain such timeless, everyday themes. 

I will admit that I thought it would be especially “romantic” (in all senses of that word) to see an opera while in Italy – and in terms of where to put our money, a much more enjoyable experience than taking an overpriced gondola ride for two.  So, I specifically chose Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” for us to see, as it is one of the classics (e.g., an “opera lite” favorite; it’s the opera that Richard Gere and Julia Roberts attend in the movie “Pretty Woman”) and its staging has strong ties to Venice, because it was performed for the first time at the Gran Teatro La Fenice on March 6, 1853.  (I also specifically chose to see it through this particular company, as it came highly recommended to us as providing an “intimate opera experience”). 

Anyway.  It took us a while to find the “opera house” – winding our way through the countless back streets of San Marco, Venice – but once we did, we were pleasantly surprised to find not your typical theatre or opera house, but instead a 18th century palace – the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto.  Climbing two flights of rustic stone staircases lined with glowing tea lights, we arrived at the central hall of this palace, where we were directed by our “opera hostess” to take a seat anywhere within the room (audience seats with red velvet cushions were scattered throughout the whole room).  This great hall contained cathedral-high ornate ceilings.  A piano/ensemble staging area was at one end of the room, with a formal living area in front of it, while a large table flanked the center of the room.  Towering, bronze candelabras provided the only (soft) light for the whole room.  Murray and I took a seat and I anxiously awaited the start of the opera!

Promptly at 8:30pm, the musicians entered the great hall – a pianist, a cellist, a violist, and a violinist.  After our applause, they started their introductory music, and from that first note, I was hooked.  This old palace central hall had brilliant acoustics, and the music just jumped out at you.  Each member of the ensemble was talented, and the violinist, especially, played some sweet strings.

This opera company, “Musica a Palazzo”, follows the “directions for contemporaneity” requested by Verdi at the first performance of La Traviata (which caused a scandal at the time by its brazen realism).  The first act begins in the Portego (central/great hall, where we all were sitting), where we, the audience members, quickly realized that we were playing the role of the party guests as Violetta Valery (La Traviata – poetically, “the lost one”) swept in from a door behind us and stopped along the aisle to personally greet several of us (myself included – I got a kiss on each cheek from the soprano herself!).  Violetta then drank to our health, even passing out a few glasses of champagne to us audience members, and together, we all saw Alfredo Germont enter the “party” for the first time.

It is in this first act that Violetta, a famed courtesan, throws a lavish party at her Parisian abode to celebrate her recovery from an illness.  Alfredo, a young nobleman, is brought along to the party by a friend; he has wanted to meet Violetta for more than a year.  Alfredo, upon his introduction to her, expresses concern for her fragile health – and soon, of course, he is declaring his love for her.  Violetta initially rejects Alfredo.  Later, she contemplates the possibility of loving Alfredo, but ultimately she rejects the idea of true love, also.

From Alfredo’s opening notes, to Violetta joining him in a duet (in the “brandisi,” or drinking song – quite recognizable), the opera soared above all of us in the room and I felt like I couldn’t even breathe – it was that powerful.  The harmonies were incredible – the tone of these voices, so rich and pure.  The music filled every inch of that great hall, and there we were, right in the middle of it.

For the second act, all of us audience members literally moved to a second room – the Sala Tiepolo, which had a beauty and intimacy that turned out to be the perfect setting in which to appreciate the subtlety of the “interior dialogue” of Violetta during this next part of the story – and to be moved by her conflicts.  The room was smaller than the great hall, and aside from the audience and musician seats, contained a formal seating/living area as well as a beautiful fresco on the ceiling.  Again, we were sitting in candlelight.

In this second act, Violetta and Alfredo lead an idyllic life together in a country house outside of Paris (Violetta has changed from a striking red evening gown to an elegant black chiffon pantsuit; Alfredo, from a classic tuxedo to an open blazer and button-down shirt).  Violetta now has fallen in love with Alfredo (this is how it works in opera) and has completely abandoned her previous life in Paris. 

When Alfredo discovers that Violetta has sold all of her belongings in Paris to support life in the country for both of them, he rushes back to Paris to rectify this situation.  In his absence, Alfredo’s father (the third singer of the evening) visits Violetta and tells her that their relationship has destroyed Alfredo’s future, as well as the fortunes of Alfredo’s sister (in other words, Violetta’s reputation as a courtesan has compromised the Germont family name).  Because of the father’s influence, Violetta leaves Alfredo, telling him only that she desires to be single and live the courtesan life once again.

However, Violetta is wracked with grief by this decision– she loves Alfredo and wants to be with him, but she does not want to hurt him or compromise his family name.  Some time later, Alfredo – still heartbroken over their break-up – encounters Violetta at a party and disgraces her before the other guests by throwing money at her.  (Obviously, he does not know of his father’s visit and believes that Violetta has left him for another man.)  As a result, she plunges more deeply than ever into depression – and ultimately, again into ill health.

Finally, in acts three and four, we all moved to the third and final room within this gorgeous palace – the Camera da letto (bedroom with alcove), which was a spacious room with a bedroom set, large four-poster canopy bed, another gorgeous ceiling, and extraordinary 18th century stuccos.  It is here that we witnessed the drama of Violetta’s illness and her death.

In these final acts (condensed in a libretto version of the original opera), tuberculosis has once again confined Violetta to her bed.  She receives a letter from Alfredo’s father, telling her that he has informed Alfredo of her sacrifice.  Before long, Alfredo himself appears back in Paris and hastens to Violetta’s bedside, understanding at last that Violetta has sacrificed herself for his sake and the sake of his family.  As Alfredo begs Violetta for her forgiveness, and the two reconcile once again, Violetta finally succumbs to her illness and dies in his arms.  Classic.

At the risk of sounding clichéd and/or insincere… the emotional intensity of this music moved me beyond words!  The voices of the singers, in close intimacy, resonated in my heart and my soul!  As Violetta sang her final notes, I cried as much from the story as from the intensity of it all.  It was an UNFORGETTABLE experience to have in Italy, and an incredible experience to have, period.  I don’t know what more I can say about it than: what a high note we ended on in Venice.  WOW!

[End note: And now, I am done with writing about the opera (and my apologies for any inaccuracies contained in my overly short summary of the storyline).  If you have read this far, thanks!  I may be pregnant and hormonal (yes, I just admitted to it), and a bit of a romanticist to begin with, but seeing this particular opera of love and loss, in this particularly intimate manner, really affected me, and was a complete highlight for me of our entire trip so far (yes, Murray enjoyed it, too – but perhaps wasn’t quite as moved by it as I was…!).  After the opera, it was back to walking on regular ground again… and drinking some beer!  Murray and I walked back to our hotel, on the way stopping at a random English pub for some brew (beer for him, tea for me) and sandwiches for a very late dinner.  It was well after midnight before we went to bed, as we had to book a hotel room for tomorrow night – we leave Venice tomorrow and head to Assisi.  So – ciao, wonderful Venice!  Thanks for the very special memories.]
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