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It’s been the best part of a year since yours truly discovered his hidden culture vulture during a Boxing Night performance of Tchaikovsky‘s The Nutcracker at the Hungarian Opera House. With Napoli firmly in my sights, what better country than Italy to take things a step further with a night at the opera? Now it was Puccini’s turn to dazzle with Madame Butterfly, and I could hardly wait.
“When in Rome” is such a well-worn phrase that surely it applies to Italy’s third-largest city and not just it’s capital. With eating pizza and paying homage to Maradona safely ticked off the checklist, it was time to indulge in another popular Neapolitan pastime.
Napoli’s San Carlo Teatro may not be as world-famous as Milan’s La Scala (where Madame Butterfly premiered back in 1904), but frankly who cares. I was still in Italy, opera’s spiritual home, and on opening night, no less. Plus this theatre happens to be the country’s oldest, having been built in 1737. Let’s not forget the small matter of world-class performers doing their thing over the course of three hours, either. History was waiting to be made on so many levels.
This being Italy, fashion-consciousness is just around the corner. This also being the opera, suits by Versace and Armani are as commonplace as Burberry in Liverpool. It turns out thirty-degree heat is sufferable in a three-piece when appearances are everything. Me? Let’s just say I went for substance over style, but as I’d swapped shorts for a pair of casual summer slacks, I was confident I wouldn’t stick out like pineapple on a pizza.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the San Carlo is actually younger than its Budapest counterpart, but it is nearly 150 years it’s senior. Whether this is to do with the stark difference in architectural style or the way the interior was rehashed rather than left alone completely, who knows? For better or worse is entirely down to personal opinion, but I’d have to say that Budapest just gets my vote; however, that’s not taking away from San Carlo’s breathtaking beauty.
Once in the theatre itself, it was no exaggeration to say that the atmosphere was gradually building itself up to high voltage. Italians naturally take their opera very seriously, and this would surely be three acts over as many hours that no one was likely to forget in a hurry. Now, I’m not going to sit here and try to critique the show. Sure, I’m not a total ignoramus when it comes to opera – I’m a huge fan of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, as well as Robert DeNiro sat in the balcony as Al Capone in a scene from The Untouchables – but the performance itself? I’m going to limit myself to simply saying that it was a privilege to watch and listen to masters of their craft doing what they do best. My ticket was 35 euros, and would you get the equivalent performance out of a Premier League match for that price? Burnley if you’re lucky (no offence, Vincent Company).
As with The Nutcracker, there were tunes I recognised from growing up without knowing what they were actually called, but they were familiar nonetheless. The standout is the flagship tune, Un Bel di Vedremo (“One fine day we’ll see”‘), five minutes of pure vocal brilliance that really does captivate and take you to another world. As for Butterfly herself, she takes her own life in the end. Not exactly a happy conclusion to the tale, but I guess opera wouldn’t be opera without a little tragedy.
If you can’t quite separate your arias from your altos, or your condenzas from your contraltos, the San Carlo Teatro is probably the best place to start. Sure, the majority of opera-goers here love to dress to impress, but it’s no great shame if you don’t. Besides, this adds to an overall more relaxed feel of the whole occasion – an experience you might struggle to replicate in Milan. Bravo, Napoli!