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