Going to Naples and Sorrento – on an Italian opera trail.

In September 2017, when I was looking at Mount Vesuvius from Sorrento, across the Bay of Naples, I thought of Pliny the Younger (born 61 AD), as you do, who wrote a detailed description of the catastrophic eruption of the volcano (79 AD) that killed his uncle, the great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who sailed into the disaster because he was interested in the science of volcanoes. Pliny the younger watched the destruction of Pompeii from across the water, at Miseno, on the other side of the bay of Naples from Sorrento, where I was visiting. We both had panoramic views of famous volcanic mountain, Vesuvius. From Miseno, Pliny Junior was able to write the only detailed first-hand witness’ account of the eruption and subsequent destruction of the surrounding land. He was close enough too to hear the shouts and screams of the citizens of Pompeii as they were dying over there across the water.

‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.’ (Letters of Pliny the Younger).

There was no sign of an eruption on the day I came to Sorrento, but the famous ruins of Pompeii remain to intrigue us and to encourage us empathise with the many people who were killed that day. I, of course, found nothing more dramatic on my search for this vista than a well-positioned swing with its own ring-side view of the famous volcano.

I was here on a different mission, but I promised myself that I would go to Pompeii next time I was in these parts (I ended up going there in January 2020, just as the world was on the verge of another disaster). I came here as part of an on-going, if low-key, pilgrimage, and it started today, not with Vesuvius but a street called Viale Enrico Caruso.

Enrico Caruso at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria a few months before his death in 1921

Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921), the Neapolitan operatic tenor, and possibly, the first star of the recording industry, was one of the first opera singers that I ever listened to when I was a child. His old records, some recorded at the end of the 19th Century, not only fascinated me but also went straight to my heart – where they have remained. I owe a lot of my passion for opera to this man. The opera geek in me is often up front in my brain when I visit Italy, and there is usually some new opera-based information, no matter how inconsequential, to find wherever I go.

Stories about Caruso are high on my list even now, one hundred years after his death. So it was a thrill to find his name all over town. Caruso came to Sorrento for pleasure, just down the road from his birth place in Naples, but his connection to this lovely town isn’t that significant apart from the fact that he liked the place and, when he was terminally ill, he stayed here at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, for a short time before his final unsuccessful surgery and subsequent death in Naples.

I wasn’t expecting to discover the great singer here, but I was intrigued to hear about a ‘restaurant museum’ dedicated to his memory that had opened in the town centre in 1987 and which was also, so I heard, an excellent restaurant.

It was my birthday, and lunch at the Ristorante Museo Caruso was a birthday treat. I was surrounded by an impressive photographic and documentary record of the man. The music, of course, wasn’t mandolin muzak, it was wall-to-wall Caruso. Paradiso! Wonderful food and wine too – good enough for the enthusiastic gourmet that Caruso was.

After a splendid lunch, I was walking round Sorrento when I noticed this statue, honouring Giambattista De Curtis, the Neapolitan poet and lyricist who wrote, in Neapolitan Italian, the song Torna a Surriento, its well-known melody was written by his brother Ernesto. Torna a Surriento (Come back to Sorrento), is the other Neapolitan song, along with O Sole Mio, that everybody knows. I first heard both songs when I was but a lad in old recordings by, yes, you got it, Enrico Caruso. I don’t think anyone has ever sung them better.

Ma nun me lassà, nun darme ‘stu turmiento! Torna a Surriento, Famme campà!

But do not leave me, do not give me this torment. Come back to Surriento, make me live!

Sorrento is town of statues, I discovered, like Italy is generally. Italians like their history stand on plinths in town squares. Not far from the Torna a Surriento statue, I came across this one of Torquato Tasso (1544 – 1595), the Italian poet, born in Sorrento, best known for his epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), a tale about how the knights of the now infamous First Crusade (1096 – 1099) recovered Jerusalem from the Turks. Tasso’s epic, has always fascinated me even though I had never read the 16th century original – I loved the heroic works of Ludovico Ariosto (1474 – 1533) too, especially his Orlando Furioso, (1516) with its stories of knights, male and female, and their passions, victories and tragedies. I came cross the main characters in both Ariosto and Tasso from their many appearances in Italian operas from the 17th and 18th centuries. Me and baroque opera go back a long way – and from my side, it was love at first sight.

So, knowing his Sorrento connection, I decided to make Gerusalemme liberata my holiday read while I was staying down the road at Marina di Cantone (see previous blog). I had a bilingual copy of the work on my Kindle and whiled away many indulgent hours on the beach by the sea, as it was in Tasso’s day, and let my imagination conjure up the operatic adventures of this very readable masterpiece.

I knew the story of the hero, Rinaldo, and his love for a Saracen girl, Armida (both became opera stars a century later) and I knew too all about the other crusader knight, Tancredi. and his Saracen love, Clorinda. These Tasso stories were to become operas by such famous composers as Handel, Gluck, Lully, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak. It was pure pleasure discovering them again in the Tasso original.

Tasso’s Rinaldo and Armida by Antoine Ansiaux (1764 – 1840)

Probably the most famous of all these Tasso operas, and possibly the greatest, is Rinaldo, by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). The opera tells the story of Rinaldo’s love for Almirena, daughter of the commander of the Crusader army. Their romance is endangered by Armida, the Saracen woman who is also a powerful sorceress and who falls in love with Rinaldo herself. Almirena is given a rough time and imprisoned by the love-lorn sorceress and, at her lowest point in the opera, Almirena sings about her cruel fate, losing her freedom as well as her love. The aria, Lascia ch’io pianga, became the hit song of the opera and remains one of Handel’s greatest hits. Tasso, I like to think, would have approved.

Let me weep
My cruel fate,
And that I
should have freedom.

The duel infringes
within these twisted places,
in my sufferings
I pray for mercy.

Lascia ch’io pianga
Mia cruda sorte,
E che sospiri
La libertà.

Il duolo infranga
Queste ritorte,
De’ miei martiri
Sol per pietà.

Here is a short arty film of the leading American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato pouring out her grief as the unlucky Almirena.

I said arrivederci to Sorrento and moved on to Naples for the other half of my birthday celebration – another operatic treat. I had tickets for the San Carlo Opera House, one of the most important theatres in the history of opera. It opened in 1737 and is the oldest. continuously running opera venue in the world. Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra and Mosè in Egitto, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria Stuarda had their first nights here . There have been many glitzy performances here by the very greatest singers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Most of of Caruso’s predecessors as superstar male singers sang here over the centuries, including the castrato soprano, Farinelli, and the tenor star of Bellini and Donizetti’s opera, Giovanni Battista Rubini…

The castrato soprano, Farinelli (1705 – 1782)

19th century tenor GiovannI Battista Rubini (1794 – 1854),

…and, in the early 20th century, a young Enrico Caruso, sometimes regarded as the greatest singer in history, but who went down badly with the critics in his debut at San Carlo in 1901 (as Nemorino in. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore), and he vowed never to sing here again. It was a promise he kept – his career was made and maintained, mostly, in the United States and the other great opera houses of the world.

Caruso as Turiddu in Mascagni’d Cavalleria Rusticana in Caserta, 1901

The greatest Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, didn’t rate the Teatro San Carlo either, and none of his many operas were premiered here but, since then, the theatre regularly stages his work and he is now honoured in the theatre with a very large bust, where he looks slightly apologetic for his rude words about this place.

I was coming to the opera house for a concert performance, no costumes, no sets, of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, given by the San Carlo Orchestra conducted by the great veteran Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, honorary conductor of the Teatro San Carlo. The concert was held to mark his eightieth birthday. The photograph below was taken that day at the theatre. I, like many other classical music enthusiasts, will always associate his name with what might well have been classical music’s first sensational super audio disk – it’s still a sensation today – his version of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I’d often listened to Zubin Mehta’s recordings, but I had never seen him ‘live’ and I was amazed to learn that he was now eighty years old.

Fidelio was given without its German dialogue, but with a descriptive narrative written and performed in Italian by the actress Sonia Bergamasco, known to me for playing Livia in the Italian television series Il Commissario Montalbano. It worked remarkably well with a strong cast of big-voiced singers led by soprano Anja Kampe (Leonora) and Peter Sieffert (Florestan).

I had an ideal seat in a box facing straight to the stage and here the clean acoustics of the theatre were heard at their best. The golden foot, in the photograph below, was directly over my head and belonged to one of two flying angels, part of the elaborate ornamentation of the royal box to my right.

It was all very elegant and plush, there were no empty seats, and the audience dressed to compliment the golden Rocco décor in true Italian style.

Afterwards, moved by Beethoven’s plea for freedom and humanity, there was still time to leave the theatre and cross the piazza to the legendary 19th century coffee house, the Gran Caffè Gambrinus, where, luckily, there was even a table available.

I had little difficulty deciding what to drink, prominently there on the list of cocktails, was a Cocktail Caruso, delicious, potent and magnificently green.

Near to Gambrinus, and across the road from the San Carlo, is the Galleria Umberto I, with its high end shops and cafés, where I had a room for the night in the newly opened, and, maybe, cut-priced, Hotel Art Resort Galleria Umberto. It was elegant enough to feel like an annexe to the San Carlo’s grandeur.

There were great aerial views of the Galleria Umberto I beneath, ideal for appreciating the design and engineering of its impressive glass dome and iron-work in the style known as Stile Umbertino. It was built between 1887 and 1890 and named after the then king of Italy, Umberto I (1844 – 19000. Work began on it ten years after the completion of its more famous counterpart, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

I had an inspiring time in Naples, my second visit there, I had just enough time here to realise that I had only touched the surface and that a longer third visit should be high on my wish list. (I returned early in 2020, just before the world was locked down by the Covid pandemic).

I’ll leave you with the music and words that were still ringing in my ears after that performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. The Prisoners’ Chorus, where abused political prisoners sing about repression and liberty, in a brief but profound moment when they can see that joy out there somewhere if they could only have their freedom. No need for me to tell you how many prisoners in the world are still suffering in just the way that Beethoven expressed. Great opera still speaks of important things today – we should listen.

Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!
Up here alone is life!
The dungeon is a grave.

We shall with all our faith
Trust in the help of God!
Hope whispers softly in my ears!
We shall be free, we shall find peace.

Oh Heaven! Salvation! Happiness!
Oh Freedom! Will you be given us?

Speak softly! Be on your guard!
We are watched with eye and ear.

Speak softly! Be on your guard!
We are watched with eye and ear.
Oh what joy, in the open air
Freely to breathe again!
Up here alone is life.
Speak softly! Be on your guard!
We are watched with eye and ear.

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