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Rome Opera Struggles to Be Reborn, But Old Ways Die Hard

January 13, 1995

ROME (AP) _ The Rome Opera is ready to soar like an aria from the Queen of the Night. But the usual villains have not left the scene: balking unions, political intrigue and disarray on the stage.

After a history of debt and artistic ill-repute, the house opens its belated season Saturday night with high hopes. It has a new superintendant, a balanced budget and a daring first production, ``Benvenuto Cellini,″ directed by a Grammy-winning American conductor John Nelson.

But old ways die hard.

A union threat to strike only ended Thursday with the intervention of Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli.

The same day, superintendent Giorgio Vidusso repeated his threat to quit. Insiders said he was angry about the government appointment of a special administrator considered close to the governing right-wing National Alliance. Vidusso was hired by a leftist predecessor.

Wednesday’s rehearsal was marred by ``catastrophic″ problems, Nelson said in an interview, refusing to go into details. Sources at the house said there were major difficulties changing sets and that the staging was incomplete.

Company members are ``putting their best foot forward,″ Nelson said. But he warned that the usual squabbles had to stop: ``This kind of resistance is not compatible with my professional world.″

Hoping for an international splash, the house has programmed Hector Berlioz’s extraordinarily difficult and rarely performed ``Cellini,″ a first in Rome.

The choice was a daring one by Vidusso, brought in from Trieste’s opera in June. In six months he put together an ambitious season and earned the respect of critics.

His widely scorned predecessor, politically connected Giampaolo Cresci, resigned amid a criminal investigation of cost overruns and allegations of patronage.

Critics lamented Cresci’s reliance on warhorses like ``La Boheme″ to draw audiences and ridiculed the rented oriental carpets in the lobby and expensive English lessons for opera house personnel, including firefighters.

After its glory years in the 1960s, with Carlo Maria Giulini on the podium and Maria Callas on the stage, ``the Rome Opera has always been a disgraced opera, and an ungovernable one,″ said Arrigo Quattrocchi, critic for the leftist daily Il Manifesto. Great conductors haven’t wanted to set foot there, he said.

Without a fixed conductor, the orchestra’s quality declined, as did the opera hall. Renovations delayed the usual fall opening, the opera said.

But Vidusso managed to snag Nelson, whose recording of Handel’s ``Semele″ won a Grammy last year. He is considered the formest conductor of Berlioz operas.

The conductor himself was inadvertently responsible for another flap.

He told Italian newspapers that the chorus sang French with a Roman accent. Chorus members threatened to walk off stage until the maestro sang their praises and clarified that it was a joke.