Milan & Music

Monday, 7 August 2023

I started in Madrid and Barcelona, celebrating Lonely Planet’s 50th birthday for GeoPlaneta who publish LP guides in Spanish. Then it was Gent in Belgium for a bookshop talk with Atlas & Zanzibar. A canoe trip on the Tarn River in the south of France was followed by visits to Cassis and the calanques, Monaco after some serious train delays, Genoa and finally there I was in Milan, meeting Maureen for an opera spell.

The train ride from Genoa to Milan is very straightforward although I’m watching Maureen’s flight from London, which leaves a bit late, but manages to arrive in Milan right on time. Remarkably my train, despite leaving 15 minutes late, also manages to get to Milan right on time, which is half an hour later than Maureen’s flight. So I do the quick march straight down Via Vittor Pisani to the very flash Hotel Principe de Savoia and check in. I’d emailed Maureen confessing that her flight had arrived, while I was still on my delayed train. ‘Why am I not surprised?’ she replies. In fact I’m in the room and unpacked well before her taxi arrives – at a cost of over €100. No surprise, Milan Malpensa Airport is 50km from the city.

This trip is organized by Marylyn Abbot as a fundraiser for her English West Green Opera productions. West Green is at Hartley Wintney, 70km west of London. We start our trip with a visit to Villa Medici Giulini 32km north of Milan in Briosco on the banks of the River Labro in Briosco. We’re hosted by Signora Fernanda Guilini who is indeed a Medici, although the big Medici family is in Florence not Milan. Christopher Thomas is the guy who seems to run everything at the place, which despite its size is a summer escape from Milan, rather than the main family home. We’re given a quick walk around the garden – a couple of important oak trees have fallen over recently – and then it’s a series of short piano recitals on an amazingly varied historic collection of pianos, and the keyboard instruments which came before the modern piano. Culminating in a Steinway. Now what is it about 400Hz being the standard frequency to tune a piano?

▲ Andrea Tamburelli plays historic keyboard instruments – Andrea Tamburelli is the master of the keyboard and moves effortlessly from one instrument to another, often playing the numbers without any music notes, purely from memory. Each time he’s finished with the instruments in one room we up and move to another room where there are another three, four or five pianos waiting for his fingers. En route to all the pianos we also stop by a two-storey building housing the signora’s collection of first night outfits from a panoply of classy fashion designers. First night at La Scala that is.

▲ Santa Maria del Monte overlooks the villa lawn in Varese – then we drive to the villa of Vittorio Giulini, the brother of the Medici Guilini signora. He’s her brother and the villa in Varese sits below the church-tower-topped village of Santa Maria del Monte which is clearly Japanese-style ‘borrowed scenery’ for the villa. Again there’s a magnificent garden, basically one huge sweep of lawn sloping uphill to a ‘fake forest’ intended to screen off the ‘borrowed’ village, until you emerge from it for the view. Here a huge art collection, much of it medieval including in the main living room many many putti, the room is absolutely dense with naked little cherubim. Room by room by room there is more and more art, the walls are crowded with art, but all of it old. Nothing remotely modern or contemporary. One room features a big collection of Imari (Japanese and replica Chinese) porcelain. And there’s lots of marble statuary.

No it is not catalogued Vittorio insists, although it is all photographed and he could clearly recite the description of every picture, porcelain, sculpture. And the garden? Just one gardener, on a lawnmower presumably, although Vittorio insists he clips the hedges and bushes himself. There is another art collection in his home in Milan and that has been catalogued because it was on exhibit once. Having visited the two villas north of Milan we also drop in on a waterfront home at Lierna on Lake Como.

▲historic keyboard instrument – we also visit the signora’s apartment in Milan, with more historic musical instruments

▲Franz Silvestri is the maestro who plays the apartment instruments, they often required a quite different technique to a modern piano.

▲ La Scala – historic keyboard instruments are one thing but operas at La Scala (correctly Teatro Alla Scala, theatre at the stairway) are the major attraction. We start with a very interesting tour front and back stage. Opened in 1778, in a very different context to today’s classic opera theatre, it went through varied changes over the years, but was devastated by Allied bombing in 1943. After the war the city of Milan decided that rebuilding and reopening La Scala should be their number one priority.

◄ Bust of Toscanini, La Scala – The war ends in 1945 and the theatre reopened on 11 May 1946 with the much-loved Arturo Toscanini wielding the baton, he’d stood up against Fascism and Mussolini and as a result had to flee to the USA. The reopening featured L’Europacognita by Antonio Salieri, composed for the theatre’s original opening in 1788.

Our first opera was Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth which featured amazing sets, modern dress, Macbeth and Banco arrive, after some medieval sword fighting battle, through Birnham Wood and into the very modern city – all back projections – in a car. Then the scary witches’ chorus has turned into a huge chorus of men and women all generally in shades of pink. Not evil enough for Maureen’s tastes.

The last act goes on rather too long for my taste as well, but hey, it’s all good fun. Afterwards I read a review of Macbeth by Marina Boagno which absolutely backs up Maureen’s view of the opera and tears into it in a total destruction reviewing mode.

▲Rusalka – the second opera is Dvorak’s Rusalka, which is not Disney’s Little Mermaid. In fact it’s quickly pretty clear that Rusalka isn’t really a mermaid at all, more of an octomaid – I’d never thought of mermaids as other than half women, half fish whereas tonight Rusalka is clearly half women, half octopus. Her tentacles get chopped off early in the opera, but later there’s a happy band having an octopus tentacle feast. Before she concludes an act by blasting off from the stage like a Portuguese-man-of-War-maid.

Let’s be honest, this is opera at its silliest, the costuming with all those tentacles barely stands up against the idiocy of the story. Throughout which poor Rusalka reels around like a comedy drunk because she’s not used to standing up on her own two legs, as opposed to swimming around with her tentacles. That’s ‘wan Rusalka’ in the subtitles or ‘pallida Rusalka’ in the Italian version which I read over the shoulder of the woman in front of me. The baseline is if she damn well wants to leave her watery abode, despite the pleas of her protective Water Sprite dad (sung by Youngmin Park, the Korean who was Banco in Macbeth) and the pleas of her fun-loving watery-nymph-sisters, it’s clearly going to end up as a disaster. Which is to say it’s going to kill her, kill the handsome prince and undermine the whole damned earthly kingdom. She’d have been better staying underwater.

Fortunately villas and lakeside retreats north of Milan are not the only story. We also look around Milan a bit including a wander through the Corso Como and Corso Garibaldi area. Then, after assorted diversions we stroll the central La Scala, Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II area.

▲ I explore the luxury/design centre of Milan, the Golden Quadrilateral – Il Quadrilatero d’Oro – area which features any flash Italian brand you care to name and plenty of Ferraris, including three parked nose to tail.