Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ultimate Patriotism

For quite some time, many eyes have been on Italy who is one of the key dominoes at risk in current Europe’s debt crisis. Like many other European countries where public funding for arts is the primary source of income for organizations and facilities devoted to arts, the ever increasing pressure on reducing government spending/debts and the implementations of austerity measures have inflicted severe damages on the development and sustaining of Italian’s culture programs, opera included.

Opera was born in Italy around 1600 and its popularity has quickly spread to Europe and eventually the world. It remains to be a dominant form of performance arts in Italy with more than 40 opera houses throughout that country. It is not an exaggeration if one wants to consider opera a symbol of Italian culture.

Indeed the public sentiment and concern had reached the boiling point earlier this year when the world-renowned Italian conductor Riccrado Muti conducted the performance of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco in Rome on March 12th, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Muti interrupted the performance after the chorus of Va' pensiero and turned to the audience to express his concern that Italy would be lost with the continuing onslaughts of cuts in arts funding. He then asked the audience to sing along with the chorus to perform the most unusual encore of Va’ pensiero as demonstration of their patriotism. Below is a video recording of the event.

For those who are familiar with Italian opera, the political symbol of the song Va’ pensiero is unmistaken. Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th century transformational figure of Italian opera, wrote Nabucco which was first performed in 1842, contributing to the Italy unification movement. It tells the story of the Jews' struggle for freedom after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. by Nebucco, the King of Babylon. The best-known song from the opera is Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate (in English: Fly, thought, on golden wings), aka "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” that many had wanted it to be the Italy’s national anthem.

Often we associate patriotism with actions/reactions of people in response to threats on their country’s physical, social or economic existence or well-beings. However when one’s cultural roots are in danger, the outpouring of spontaneous support and emotion by average citizens as demonstrated by the audience that evening is more than remarkable. Any country whose people care so much about their cultural identity is enough to convince me that they will be able to pull through difficult times. Viva Italia!

Before I go, I would like to leave you a few Youtube videos of beautiful arias of Italian opera with English subtitle. What I have chosen for you are from the opera Turandot which is the last opera of Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924), one of the most popular 20th century opera composers. The particular production is the legendary 1987 production of Franco Zeffirelli at the New York Metropolitan Opera with Placido Domingo (tenor) and Leona Mitchell (soprano) and Choreographer Ching Chiang 江青.

It was based on a Persian story, set in China (of Yuan Dynasty), about the pursuit of the ice cold Mongol Princess Turandot by the exiled Prince Calàf. The most Chinese part of the opera, apart from the adaptation of the Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower 茉莉花, is the rule for the suitors of the Princess: a suitor must answer three riddles correctly or be executed.

The first 8+ minutes of the video below is the exchange in Act I between Prince Calàf and the slave servant Liù who secretly loves him and desperately wants to convince him not to enter the contest which in all likelihood would result in his death. As one might expect, the Prince, blinded by his ambition, ignores her plea and asks her to take care of his frail father should he fail. The exchanges are Signore, ascolta! "My lord, hear me!" and Non piangere, Liù "Don't cry, Liù" with the scene ended as Prince Calàf enters the contest sounding the gong.

When Prince Calàf answers all three riddles correctly, Princess Turandot is still resisting and does not want to honor the agreement. To win over her heart, Prince Calàf offers her a way out if she can tell his real name. The result was an all night frenzy of the capital city in search of his name as Prince Prince Calàf sings arguably the most popular opera aria of all time - Nessun dorma! (None shall sleep!), with the confidence that he will win the wager. See the three minutes segment (from minute 3:30 till 6:30) of the video below. By the way, the three riddles are: 1) 'Straniero, ascolta!' - What is born each night and dies each dawn?, 2)'Guizza al pari di fiamma' - What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?, 3) 'Gelo che ti da foco' - What is like ice, but burns like fire? Want to give them a shot?

As Princess Turandot tries to extract Prince Calàf’s name by torture from his slave servant Liù, Liù taught Princess Turandot the true meaning of love before she kills herself to protect the secret. See the first 8+ minutes of the video below.

Enjoy and talk to you soon!

No comments: