March 2009 
(no) Faust in 
Palermo Italy
The Damnation of One Faust
Naturally, it was a shock. If only Renate hadn’t been so efficient in her attempt to inform us by e-mail or we hadn’t made that last check before shutting down the computer and leaving for the airport, we might have flown to Rome in blissful ignorance that the first of Andrea’s planned performances of Faust at Teatro Massimo in Palermo had been cancelled. Of course, there was nothing to be done about it. Our two-week stay was planned, reservations made, the suitcases packed, our hopes high for another rendezvous with our tenor. We tried to be philosophical. After all, we would still have Sunday’s performance, and 12 beautiful days in la bella Italia! Magari.
The weeks preceding our departure had been intensely busy. I had only had time for one preview of Gounod’s Faust, an opera that was new territory for me, Andrea again broadening my opera horizons. As I listened in the car on the way to work to my newly purchased version featuring a young Placido Domingo in the starring role and the legendary Mirella Freni as Marguerite, my eyes grew wide. The opera was full of beautiful melodies and one that was easy to love from the first hearing, but this was truly a tour de force for a tenor, a formidable challenge, technically complex and requiring almost constant effort throughout the five acts. I hoped Andrea had been doing his homework!
Of course he had, as was apparent in a rare inside glimpse of his rehearsals "a casa" through a unique two-part video on his Official Site. Andrea seemed intensely excited about the role, pleased to be sharing it with his fans, energized and enthusiastic about discussing it and singing previews of its highlights for us.
Il Teatro Massimo
Il Teatro Massimo, situated in the palm-studded setting of the Piazza Verdi, is the biggest opera theater in Italy, with a neoclassical exterior incorporating elements of the Greek ruins we had been captivated by in the nearby towns of Agrigento and Segesta. Two imposing bronze lions, each mastered by one of two female figures representing comedy and tragedy, stand guard at either side of the grand entryway. For trivia buffs, one of the final scenes of The Godfather, Part III, was filmed there. The theater opened in 1897 and seats 1,350 in seven tiers of boxes arranged in the classic horseshoe. Entering the world of these Italian theater gems such as this one, all gold and crimson with the elaborately painted ceilings and crystal chandeliers, is always an enchantment. I noticed in particular rather unusual and delightfully captivating delicate paintings of flowers, baskets of fruits, and theatrical masks on the wooden facing of the different tiers. Over all was the impressive domed ceiling with the painting portraying The Triumph of Music. Had Andrea’s voice graced the grand old theater, he would (triumphantly to be sure) have joined a long history of famous voices that had preceded him such as Beniamino Gigli and a 24-year-old Enrico Caruso, who sang there in the first year the theater opened.
The strike
Sciopero. In Italian, the word sounds sweetly innocent—like some softly whispered endearment. In reality, its effects in Palermo were enough to make a grown man cry, and, according to reliable sources, it did—at least for one of the key men involved in the effort that had gone into making the concert opera of Faust a reality.
The local newspaper, Il Giornale di Sicilia, summed it up well: "Faust is cursed by definition. But in Palermo, he was even more so" (my translation). At its core, the reason for the Friday strike seemed worthy enough. The protest against the major cuts in fiscal support from the government was nationwide. Even La Scala had scheduled a date for the cancellation of a performance March 31. For Palermo alone, the cuts amounted to 40 million euros. But information in the newspaper also hinted at a long history of contention among the parties involved at Teatro Massimo—the administrators of the Fondazione of the theater and the multiple local musicians unions—that was too complicated for my basic Italian vocabulary to decipher. Whatever.
The rehearsal
In a gesture to compensate for the loss of Friday’s performance, a 4:00 Thursday rehearsal was made available to those lucky enough to hear of it and make their way to the theater. Jack and I had landed in Rome from our transatlantic flight at 8:30, flew into Palermo at 1:00, checked into our hotel at 3:00, found a note indicating the rehearsal opportunity, threw our bags into the room and ourselves into a taxi, and were shortly after entering the grand Teatro Massimo. Inside, the singers were hard at work. Because the sessions were being recorded, we were told to be on our best behavior, maintaining absolute silence. No problem there; the singing was mesmerizing, and we settled into the luxurious red velvet seats and strained to savor every note of the various segments from the three final acts that they were working on.
Andrea was in his "comfy clothes"—dark jeans and a raggedy, misshapen sweater that was certainly worn out of loyalty rather than any sense of style. The interaction of all onstage revealed that Andrea was clearly well-loved by his colleagues. Even the first violinist enjoyed kibitzing with him. The soprano, Alexia Voulgaridou, was playful and affectionate, joking, sharing whispered comments with Andrea, using her hands to physically shape his mouth in a light-hearted moment of impromptu "instruction" on handling a certain tricky passage. At one point during a particularly dramatic moment of the recording session, with facial and hand gestures she silently expressed to a colleague at the back of the theater her admiration for Andrea’s vocal ability. Roberto Scandiuzzi, the bass, was easy-going, with a bold, rich vocal tone and a most effective and appropriately "diabolical" laugh that seemed steeped in evil. He was relaxed and exuded a certain "devil may care" attitude, if you will. He too clearly enjoyed working with Andrea but occasionally seemed a bit unnecessarily vigilant about the possibility of our tenor teetering over the edge of the stage…solicitously holding him by the arm more than once when it seemed that Andrea’s overly energetic reach for his water bottle that lay at his feet might cause an unwanted precipitous plummet from the stage. Andrea seemed puzzled by his concern—"What, me fall?"
Maestro Plasson, the conductor, was focused and driven in his dedication to shaping and shepherding this work to a perfect conclusion. Throughout the long session, he ignored multiple pleas from a few less hardy musicians in the orchestra for "una pausa." He was clearly a perfectionist, knowing what was right and locked unswervingly onto making it happen—even if it meant repeated stops and starts that threatened, at one point, to drive the cast into physical collapse. Andrea showed him a respectful deference, consulting quietly from time to time (mostly in very capable French, but occasionally in Italian), yet offering his own considered input when he saw an opportunity.
Carlo Bernini was there, of course, as he had been for all the long months of the arduous formation of this challenging role. Balancing on his knees the thick binder that held the massive vocal score of the work, he sat toward the back of the theater and carefully noted small adjustments indicated by Maestro Plasson that he would go over later with Andrea. Andrea called him urgently down to the stage at one point for the reassurance of his physical touch to guide him through the complex rhythm of a particularly challenging passage. As always, the collaboration reveals the strong and mutually respectful bond between the two, both personally and professionally.
One thing was clear, this cast was ready. Andrea was confident and engaged, in fine voice that filled the theater—firm, resonant, and clear. We had every reason to believe the performance on Sunday would be filled with compelling melody, dramatically charged, and energetic.
After the session that lasted more than three hours, Andrea remained to listen to the playback of what had been recorded for the future CD. While we waited for an opportunity to speak with him, Lorenzo Mariani, the artistic director for Teatro Massimo, stopped to chat and learn a bit about us. His English was excellent, and he explained that although his parents were Italian, he had been born while they were living in Brooklyn. When he heard that Jack and I were from Virginia, he mentioned his previous professional connection with the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, an outdoor theater near us in Vienna, Virginia, that offers popular opera productions in the summer. That alone would have been an interesting coincidence, but the biggest surprise was learning that Lorenzo had directed Andrea in his very first starring operatic role as Rodolfo in La Bohème in 1998 in Cagliari. The artistic world is indeed a small one. I’m sure Maestro Mariani might have had stories to share, but the evening was already late, and he took his leave.
Although millions of Andrea’s fans will now identify it only as the city that silenced Andrea’s voice, Palermo is not without its charms. Despite the disappointment of the cancellation, we had Friday and Saturday to fill. Among the city’s treasures is the richly decorated Capella Palatina that is nestled within the walls of the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of the Kings of Sicily from the 9th century onward. The chapel’s newly restored mosaics dating from the 12th century cover every square inch of this small architectural gem with its fascinating mix of Arab-Norman-Byzantine styles. Scenes on the walls, window arches, and ceiling depict nearly the entire range of Old and New Testament stories in richly colorful and imaginative representations fascinating in their nearly impossible variety of pattern and styles.
Friday evening, to distract us from our woes, we decided to experience a theatrical performance of a different sort. The Opera dei Pupi, the puppet theater in Sicily, has been proudly passed down from generation to generation since the early 1800s. The puppets, i pupi, are the French Paladini, or knights-errant, who are characters in old tales that memorialize the struggles of Christianity to drive out the Arab invaders in the 11th century. The performances were also important to Sicilians as a means of making political commentary without fear of persecution. These little marionettes, who turned out to be decidedly less pacifist distant cousins of sweet little Pinocchio, committed puppet mayhem of a very non-PC caliber that included some literally and figuratively smashing swordfights (to the accompaniment of cheerily jaunty organ grinder tunes from an antique player) and left piles of beheaded puppet corpses littering the stage at the dénouement. As charming and diverting as "La Morte d’Agramante" was, not surprisingly, it somehow did not quite fill the void of Friday’s cancelled performance of Andrea’s Faust, although we joked about its being a consolation prize. We were glad that the promise of Sunday’s performance lay ahead to bolster our spirits. Saturday night’s dinner with our little international group of amici was lighthearted and festive, buoyed by anticipation. We enjoyed some of the typical Sicilian cuisine—arancini, panelle, pasta Norma with melanzana and ricotta, and some very capable pizzas—and drank more than one enthusiastic toast to our tenor.
Un shock
Then toward 11:00 pm, just as we were about to pay the bill for our dinner and make our way back to our respective hotels, the message came to Renate. Sunday’s performance was cancelled. We sat momentarily in stunned silence, finally broken by the unanimous decision to order another round of Nero d’Avola, the typical dark, fruity Sicilian vino rosso in an attempt to drown our sorrow.
Sunday morning, in the elegantly appointed breakfast salon of our hotel (a restored palace of the 1700s), a sotto voce comment about the second cancellation to a couple we had previously met, and who we knew also had tickets for the opera, soon gathered at least ten other couples who had also journeyed from the U.S. and Europe for the event, including a heartbroken pair from England who said they had been trying to see Andrea for three years but had never been successful until now in procuring tickets. The dismal morning downpour visible through our hotel windows reflected our collective disappointment.
All day Sunday, a sad procession of fans made their way to the Teatro Massimo to receive their refund for the cancelled performance. Paolo, the ticket manager, remained amiable and sympathetic even in the face of what was an enormous loss for the theater both financially and in terms of public relations, a reality that was underscored in their press statement noting that such "extreme protests" can have only negative consequences. When we talked with Paolo, he commented that before the ticket holders could bring themselves to part with their tickets many had been requesting a Xerox copy of them as a souvenir of what might have been, a request he patiently granted. Their transaction completed, many patrons lingered in forlorn clusters in the theater lobby to commiserate over the loss—instant camaraderie born of the shared disillusionment. One bright spot was a large display board that was showing a continuous video of highlights of the previous days’ rehearsals of Faust, but even that only deepened the regret over what might have been.
As the time that would have marked the now-cancelled performance drew near, a small group of representatives from the theater kept vigil at the formidable iron gate that now sealed off the entry to the grand staircase. Standing on pavement still wet from the most recent of the chilling showers that had stubbornly persisted during our four-day stay in Palermo, their sad task was to inform any blissfully unaware theatergoers who might not have heard the news of the cancellation. Among those huddled in Piazza Verdi in disillusioned clusters were a few of the singers from the chorus who wished to communicate their frustration to the deprived opera patrons—so many of whom had come long distances at some personal sacrifice—and repeated over and over how they had wanted so much to sing for us. It was clear that there was by no means unified consensus about this decision to extend the protest to this second cancellation. It was obviously important to these artists that they offer us some small gesture of consolation. We took a picture together to somehow preserve the solidarity of our loss for posterity.
Una piccola riunione
In the meanwhile, Andrea and Veronica had focused their energies to devise a way to provide some small recompense to the people who had traveled so far for this event. They hastily arranged a meeting and photo opportunity with Andrea at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes (where they had been staying) for fans who had traveled from overseas. The des Palmes is one of Palermo’s oldest hotels (since 1874), and has welcomed illustrious guests over the years, including Wagner and the writer Maupassant. When you enter the grandly decorated belle époque interior of the hotel lobby, you are presented with the sight of a venerable old grand piano cordoned off by red velvet cords—the very instrument that had been used by Wagner during a much earlier epoch to compose portions of his masterpiece Parsifal. This piano is not visible in other pictures of the lobby that can be found on various Web sites, and I wondered if it had been placed there specifically to please and honor Andrea during his stay.
Considering the numbers that would have attended the two sold-out performances in a theater that held 1,350, there were not many in the lobby, perhaps only 30 to 40 or so. Renate had certainly done her best to quickly post online the news of the special gathering, but most travelers do not have easy access to the Internet and, even if they do, check it only sporadically while on the road. Nevertheless, judging by their beaming smiles, those who were there were thrilled and grateful for this thoughtful and unexpected effort on their behalf.
All at once, Andrea appeared, descending the grand staircase arm-in-arm with Veronica to the warm applause of those gathered below. He greeted the small group with the self-effacing comment that at least this time no one could find fault with his singing. He was in good humor. At one point, he introduced a dark-haired young woman standing nearby as his cousin Laura, noting that she was a professor at the University in Palermo and jokingly describing her as "the smart one in the family." Veronica invited everyone to come forward for a few private moments with Andrea. One by one, he spoke to each of the waiting fans, patiently taking the time needed for a souvenir photo and a few words of commiseration.
There are many sayings in any language that communicate various philosophies about life: "Life is beautiful" "Life is what you make it" Life is like that" "Life is full of surprises" Life is never dull" (certainly not where Andrea is concerned), "Life is not always fair" "Life goes on." Andrea offered a new one in the few moments I shared with him. "Life is not only to sing" he said. "If somebody thinks that life is only to sing, I think finally he will sing badly. Because life is life—there are many, many things important. Only if you are able to live your life in a full way, probably you can have something to say in singing also." He concluded that he did try very hard to put all of his life into his singing, "I try to sing my life." I responded that we could, indeed, hear all that he put there, and that is why we had come so far to hear him once again.
As we all stood basking in the afterglow of our individual moments with Andrea, somewhat uncertain about what would happen next, he suddenly turned and, with cousin Laura, climbed a short flight of steps that led away from the lobby down a hallway. Well, that was that, I thought. But then Veronica began to wave to the group, all of whom nevertheless stood momentarily motionless until we realized that she was beckoning us to follow Andrea. So we did, to a small room elegantly appointed in a lovely shade of royal blue—and graced with the presence of a baby grand piano!! YES. Almost instantly Andrea was seated and launched into the reverent strains of the Schubert Ave Maria, the Italian version he favors. The warm, rich tone of his voice resonated within the intimate space with such immediacy. It was a transcendent moment, a rare gift. When he finished, he stood swiftly and it seemed that the gathering was over. But the group began to murmur requests. I heard a woman to my right ask for "something from Faust." Andrea protested gently and rather apologetically that he was not able to play any of that music and the moment of opportunity to keep him there with us a bit longer might have passed in a fatal flash….then my brain instantly kicked into unaccustomed high gear, furiously scanning its memory banks for a little song that I KNEW Andrea could play and sing easily. It came to me—"A Vucchella"! It has long been a sentimental favorite for me and a perfect fit for Andrea’s voice. As if it came from another being, I heard my voice plead "Would you sing ‘A Vucchella,’ Andrea? Per favore?" He hesitated only the slightest moment, then turned and sat once again at the piano. A silent internal victory whoop gleefully resounded in my consciousness!!!! Andrea inhabited the sweet, familiar melody as only he can do. He was so close, his voice all-embracing in the intimate space. As I listened spellbound, tears welled unbidden at the beauty of it, and one final pang of regret for what might have been at the Teatro Massimo flickered in my thoughts.
Andrea’s operas are a rare gift, few and far between. So it was all the more painful to be deprived of one. Jack and I had, of course, made other plans for our time in Italy, but the trip had been built around the shining highlight of Andrea’s concert opera, and somehow the void of its loss at the very beginning coupled with the persistent rain and gloom and the colder-than-usual spring weather imposed a kind of melancholy on our subsequent travels. Nevertheless, we explored the Basilicata coastline of the southern arch of the "boot"; saw the mysterious and ancient sassi (cave dwellings) of Matera, where Mel Gibson had filmed his movie The Passion of the Christ; and were charmed by the fairytale countryside setting of the odd little dwellings in Puglia called trulli. And even persistent, chilling rains cannot dim the incandescent beauty of Andrea’s beloved Tuscany, where we took refuge for the final few days of the trip and spent comforting time with good friends. We reminded ourselves how blessed we were to be in this country so rich with history, art, and the irrepressibly warm hospitality of its people.
I cannot begin to imagine the profound letdown that Andrea must have experienced in the initial realization that the work of months and months could not be communicated in the final gesture of creative collaboration of a performance with his colleagues that every performer needs to justify the sacrifice invested in their art. Yet, disappointing as it must have been to be deprived of this opportunity after so much effort, the tide of Andrea’s professional life continued its inevitable ebb and flow. After barely enough time at home in Forte to change clothes and repack, he was on the road again for the concert in Abu Dhabi, quickly followed by an appearance with Fiorello a week later. The commitments of summer and fall tours are growing by the minute. No time for regrets over this lost opportunity. In any case, there would at least be a CD, perhaps even a future live presentation of Faust in another time and place. We hope it.
Characteristically, Andrea has found the way to put the most positive face on this experience, to draw what is good even from what seems most daunting. Taking his cue from the frontispiece of the Teatro Massimo— "Art renews the people, and reveals life to them"—he acknowledged this important force that had allowed him to find within this seemingly disappointing professional experience reason for renewal. First, he thanked his colleagues, with whom he had forged close relationships, particularly Maestro Plasson: "As long as there will be men like him, and people like those who did their utmost in this particular circumstance, the opera and its fans will have nothing to fear." Graciously he also focused on his fans and their disappointment rather than his own when he made the statement on the Official Site that acknowledged the renewed energy and optimism their presence had given to him and the renewed sense of responsibility: "…I realized more clearly than ever, their affection, their esteem, that I can repay only partially with the daily commitment I make to my rapport with music."
So, each of us will take from this experience what we can. Nothing in life is certain. But Andrea’s gift of his art and our joy in receiving it whenever and wherever possible is surely as definite as anything can be. He will sing again, and we hope to be there to listen. Things happen that cannot be changed. But we can, as did Andrea, renew and define ourselves by our choice of reaction to circumstances beyond our control. We can focus not on what we couldn’t hear, but on what we have yet to hear. Alla prossima volta, Andrea.
by Cami McNamee


meeting with Andrea instead of the cancelled performance of Faust
Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo thanks to Anne!

Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo thanks to Anne!

Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo thanks to Anne! Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo
Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo
Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo thanks to Karen! Palermo, 22.3.09, meeting with fans, photo

March 25, 09:
Andrea's message to his fans after the cancellations of Faust because of strike
(Italian Original and translations)
Andrea presenting his preparations for Faust by two online videos
(incl. transcript and translations)
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