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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

A Terror in Tuscany

So many travellers have extolled the joys of Tuscany that I need not swell the chorus. I will only say that flinging a stick-shift diesel coupe through the region’s steep hills, hairpin turns, and blacktop straights is one of life’s great joys, diminished only by the avocado-coloured face of one’s wife in the passenger seat. My purpose however is not to document such pleasures, but to reveal a profound horror that lurks behind Tuscany’s sublime façade. Having seen it, I am convinced that the entire region rests on one of Stephen King’s cursed burial grounds: down every charming laneway lurches and slavers the Ultimate Evil.

Our first clue was the number of torture museums in the province. Firenze, Sienna, San Gimignano: every city, it seemed, had an exhibit where for fifteen euros one could savour the delights of flayed skin, gouged eyes, and the ingenious technologies behind it all. We never explored this turismo gore-nography, but a guest-book comment from a visitor who did, seemed to sum it up: “Great. Now I feel sick.”

If this was a foretaste of the grief to come, we had been set up for it. The week before, we had gone to a concert in a small San Polo church: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, transposed for string quartet. Ho hum, I’d thought, another roasting of an ancient chestnut. But the acoustics were perfect, the playing skilled and passionate, and the lucidity of the reading – its absolute clarity, its elimination of every corner where slovenly chords or slurred arpeggii could hide – made me feel I was hearing the work for the first time. In Sven Birkirts’s wonderful image, for a moment the windows of the senses had been buffed back to transparency. Here was the country we had long imagined, the fountainhead of music.

So when we drove to San Jimmy and saw a poster advertising a production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the town’s main theatre, we thought: Great! The poster itself was impressive, text reversed out over a drypoint etching of the mythic protagonists. Credits were given for stage direction, music direction, and choreography, as well as the usual citations for soloists and chorus. Italia la Matre dell’Opera! What could be better?

In short, any torture museum. There one merely gazed at others’ torment; here we were the victims. The performance – no, that is too dignified a word; enormity, outrage, desecration – began soon after we had settled into our seats. Instead of a printed program, a woman up in the gods bellowed out a plot synopsis in Italian. No problem; I knew the narrative. Aeneas Prince of Troy, fleeing his city’s fall, lands at Carthage and canoodles with its queen, at last deserting her for his Olympian destiny of founding Rome.

Curtain time arrived, passed. Fifteen minutes later, five musicians straggled in stage left, somewhat the worse for wear. Continuo – playing an electronic keyboard – gave what Sir Thomas Beecham once called “the local A”, and the strings attacked the overture. Ouch! The bows were as unsynchronized as my car pistons; Continuo floundered in a tide of musical incompetence. The curtain rose on the Prelude, whose soloists and chorus had apparently been dressed by a grade-six home economics class recently taught basting stitch. Strange creatures wandered the stage, including a whore with a huge lollipop and a tenor who sang exclusively to a small stuffed horse he carried. Not a word was comprehensible. It took us fifteen minutes to realize it was English.

Did I say, ‘wandered’? Not a chance. To call the soloists’ movements wooden would insult a fine construction material; stage carpenters had nailed the chorus’s feet to the boards. Did I say, ‘sang’? No no: howled, gargled, croaked. The horse-tenor sounded as if someone were throttling him with a necktie. A dance interlude followed, in the course of which two ballerinas neatly performed a high-speed head-on collision.

The prelude ended – if you recall the faces of the audience during Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler, you will know our reaction – and the opera per se began, still in English as she is spoke. The prima donna had had some training and was not altogether execrable, though she had a habit of conveying emotion with a series of dry heaves, as if a recent meal were about to re-emerge. Cue Aeneas, accompanied by two male dancers with no idea of where they were, what they were doing, or why they were doing it. Curtain on Act One, and the flight of two stupefied Canadians into the Tuscan night like wild, hunted things. Evidently most of the production’s budget had gone to its poster.

Really, who needs torture museums? I have seen the true face of horror, and it eclipses every historical technique and instrument, however Satanic. Be afraid, be very afraid: somewhere out there is a Tuscan opera company with your name on it. Though you may not recognize your own name, the first few times you hear it gargled.

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