Arena di Verona: The healthy opposition between Patriotism and civilizational continuity on the one hand and Political correctness, Russophobia on the other
I am on my way home from a week-long cultural vacation in Northern Italy which included three evenings of opera at the Arena di Verona. My comments here on the state of civilization in Italy are drawn from what I saw at the opera: this was a world of mostly traditional cultural values on stage, of courting heterosexual couples and mature heterosexual couples in the audience, of packed eateries that surround the Arena, and of open patriotic fervor when the unofficial national anthem, “Va, pensiero’ from Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” was performed with the customary reprise following prolonged applause from the audience and amidst fluttering 4 meter high Italian flags on stage.
My point is simple and direct: notwithstanding the mindless political correctness that Northern and Eastern Europe have been projecting from even before the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine on 24 February, the policy makers in Verona have kept cool heads and resisted any deviation from sophisticated multiculturalism and respect for artistic accomplishment wherever it comes from. As a token of this policy from the top, I note that the spring performances by the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in “Aida” and “Traviata” took place as scheduled. Unlike in Germany or New York’s Metropolitan, the Verona administrators stood by the artist and did not play to cheap populism under a banner of “cancel Russia.” Still more remarkable is the fact that the choreography commissioned from Russia’s Alexander Vasiliev for the Zeffirelli staging of Aida was offered last night without apologies or cuts. This runs directly in the face of the primitive anti-culture policy decisions of the opera houses in Paris and in Germany which, even before the Russian-Ukraine war, threw out Russian choreography over its alleged racial slurs and stereotypic ethnic dances.
It bears mention that Vasiliev’s choreography for the main dance scenes in “Aida” drew directly on the tradition of the late 19th century-early 20th century Mariinsky theater choreographer Fokin, whose works were also carried to Europe by the Ballets Russes of the impresario Diaghilev. Here the oriental melodies are danced by black-face African slave boys using pseudo-African steps. Similar ethnic platitudes were widely used in Silver Age Russian choreography, for example, in Tchaikowsky’s ballets. What we are witnessing on stage is artistic masterpieces which happen also to carry the naïve and benign prejudices of theater-goers from the mostly wealthy and aristocratic layers of society who frequented the ballet and opera houses.
The implausible argument that these ballet pieces support a less benign prejudice today conceals something far more dangerous for society at large, namely the aggressive intolerance of politicians and administrators who impose censorship, who want to wipe out the past so as to better enhance their control over society today. A society without a past, however flawed it may be in various respects, is a society living under totalitarian conditions.
In my first paragraph above, I alluded to patriotism. Allow me to explain that the single driver of popularity of Verdi’s otherwise complicated opera “Nabucco” is the five minutes in the next to the last act when the Hebrew captives (the Babylonian captivity) who are about to be slaughtered by order of the Assyrian king Nabucco sing a fascinating melody recalling their native land. It is an open appeal to national patriotism. See this Fenice Opera recording of several years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiSSz0snWzA
I have heard “Nabucco” performed in Belgium, and the song in question does not evoke any special enthusiasm, familiar as it is to all music lovers everywhere. However, in an open sky arena, in the company of an audience numbering perhaps 15,000, nearly all of them Italians who know very well why they are there, the high emotional level is extraordinary. Why is this important? Because it is the policy of the Brussels’ based European Commission and of select leaders of the Member States like Emanuel Macron, to wipe out all traces of “nationalism,” previously known as “patriotism” on the argument that nationalism was responsible for Europe’s endless wars including the global civil wars we know as World Wars I and II. Here again, the policy coming from Brussels aims to destroy identities of masses of people who organize for their own protection from Big Government, meaning against those same unelected officials, mostly failed national politicians, who sit in Brussels and issue their diktats.
Finally, in closing, I wish to share another impression from the last week, one formed last night in our hotel room when I watched on the Russian internet broadcaster smotrim.ru the News of the Week program hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov. This was an unusually serious program which directed a good half hour to remembering Gorbachev, who died in the past week and was just buried in Novodevichii cemetery with state honors. Kiselyov emphasized that among the less attractive Soviet government traditions which Gorbachev broke was to leave in peace and not discredit previous leaders. He pointed to the solemn respect for Gorbachev which Vladimir Putin displayed in his visit to the bier when it was on public display. And Kiselyov presented a very balanced coverage of Gorbachev’s achievements and failures as state leader. This is a kind of maturity in politics and general civility which has eluded American leaders in the past several decades right up to the present day.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
8 thoughts on “Arena di Verona and patriotism,civilizational continuity”
I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Verona, which is very close to my hometown in Northern Italy. Obviously, as an Italian, I’m drawn to comment on what you have just posted, hopefully without running the risk of being censored. First of all, I have often wanted to comment that the so-called “cancel Russia” movement is less widespread than what one may think. Italy, for once, has since 1948 hosted the largest Communist party in Europe and filo-Russian sentiments inspire some of the political figures looking to replace Draghi. For the same reasons, if you are to look at social media, anti-NATO comments are far more common in Italy than in the UK, for instance. Lastly, I think people in Italy resist cancel culture in any form, perhaps due to a widespread humanistic education which instills a devotional love for classical literature, music, and art.
It is interesting that the name of the party bound to win the elections is called “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy” – but there isn’t any non-gendered word for “siblings” in Italian so it is supposed to include everyone), which is a line from the national anthem written more or less at the time of Verdi. Its leader, Mrs Giorgia Meloni, is both anti-EU and a friend of Orban, has sought to re-use the word”nation” instead of “country”, and “put Italy first”. Her allies have already suggested rethinking the sanctions to Russia. They used to admire Russia as an example of a strongly identitarian nation. Yet, patriotism reeks of Fascism in Italy. It resurfaces in times of economic woe, like this one, when the populist leaders seek to turn discontent to their advantage. Also, the European Bank is both our saviour and our executioner, so to speak, so a mixed attitude is to be expected. But younger people are pro-Europe and in favour of multiculturalism, mostly.
My point is that the enthusiasm for Aida and the flags can be interpreted both as a sign of love for everything traditional and classic ( I doubt there were many people under 30 at the opera) and an expression of the political forces currently gaining traction.
You claim that it is EU policy to “wipe out all traces of “nationalism,” previously known as “patriotism””. This echoes what the Brexiteers used to claim. Not only is this false (there is not such policy) it is contrary to what everyone can see on the ground. I am personally very familiar with a number of European countries, including Belgium (where I spent virtually half my life), Poland (most of the other half), France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the UK. What is remarkable is how different these countries remain, despite the homogenising influence of global trade, culture and migration. It is national overnments that have been responsible for destroying most of local culture (Alsatian, which was near universal only a couple of generations ago, has been reduced to small, elderly minority in Elsass, for example). The cultural impact of the EU has been virtually zero. This is groundless fear-mongering.
I have to underline my passion as well for Verdi’s Nabucco – along with most of his other works, and especially this piece – when performed and directed correctly, it produces a full-body ecstatic experience. I have both performed this with an orchestra myself as a trumpet player and also have been in the audience, and I can say that in particular the correct differences between the choir’s – and the orchestra’s – attention to crescendo differences make the particular impact between an average and heart-rending performance.
I agree with your distaste for the ‘cancel Russia’ movement, as I disagree totally with the way Europe has looked and deliberately misjudged this conflict. I would agree, however, with the previous commenter that the concurrent cancellation of nationalism you infer from some of the top politicians is mostly an undercurrent, and not the true issue.
Music is your profession. Political analysis is mine. Aside from splendid melodies and compositional brilliance, Nabucc o was written against a political context in Italy that all of Verdi’s contemporaries understood perfectly: Italian freedom fighters, good; Austrian occupiers, bad. That point is somewhat remote today, and the management commissioned a new staging from a French theater director some five years ago which drives the point home directly. In the current staging of Nabucco, the action is moved to the Five Days In Milano insurrection against the Austrians duirng the 1848-9 revolutionary years. As to ‘cancel nationalism’, well the biggest mouth has been Macron’s, from the first days in office. And, like it or not, France is not just any EU State, but one of the two locomotive states in the Union.
Couple of questions….
“Gorbachev, who died in the past week and was just buried in Novodevichii cemetery with state honors.”
Is this the same as or different from “a state funeral”? Because repeatedly I read in western news accounts that there was no “state funeral.” (Yes, I know that our news outlets are bad, just checking.)
Is Verona the same place that the black American singer quit in a huff?
In answer to your questions: 1. the burial of Gorbachev was something less than a full state funeral with government officials present, but nonetheless he was accorded the honor of men at arms for the procession to his final resting place. Putin saw him off, but not at the graveside, instead it was the day before; Putin came alone to where Gorbachev lay in state, paying tribute in a minute of silence at the bier, touching the coffin in Orthodox tradition. 2. yes, it is the same Verona. As I write in my essay, the pseudo-African dances in Aida were done in black face – precisely in keeping with the historical tradition of the late 19th century. Meanwhile, the article you cite speaks of the make-up applied to Anna Netrebko as Aida; this was to give her a dark complexion, not true blackface. The administration in Verona appears to value historical authenticity over contemporary political correctness, to which I say “bravo.”
It’s relief to read that Italy has not gone in for the puerile western cancelling out of Russian music, musicians, singers and artists because of the Ukraine conflict. The famous chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco is marvellous music. Bravo Italy! and thanks Gilbert Doctorow for letting us know this,
You are the first person after Putin – at least the first one I have come across – who apparently still knows the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
(Putin: see here from minute 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFOcqzno5jc
This difference has of course been purposefully liquidated in public thinking, because patriotism runs counter to this so-called “European integration”.
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