Sicily was beautiful in September when Joan and I joined a tour group run by Grand Circle. Only a few days were too hot for comfort, and rain fell only a few times. While our bus was crossing the rugged landscape of central Sicily, our guide casually mentioned having tickets for a performance of The Barber of Seville on the coming weekend in Palermo. I went on full alert and notified everyone else in the bus.
As soon as we had checked into our hotel, four of us walked the few blocks to the opera house and saw the audience arriving for a 630pm performance. We climbed the imposing (meaning “inconvenient”) stone staircase to the main doors. In the grandiose, high-ceilinged lobby we learned that the ticket window would remain open for a half hour after the curtain time, and decided to return then. That was a good move, as we had the full attention of a cooperative agent, who could show us a computer screen with the available seats for Friday evening.
Parenthetically: Palermo has a season of 11 months, with one production every month except August. Barbiere was running for only one week, so it was pure luck that put us in Palermo that week. The theater has a traditional horseshoe form, which means that boxes on the side have a poor view of the stage. Above the five levels of boxes is the gallery with seats in rows, also stretching around the sides of the theater with a poor view, or no stage view at all. There are reputedly 3200 seats, but many of them are undesirable.
Orchestra level seats, as well as seats at the front of boxes, are naturally taken by season subscribers. I chose two seats in the second row of a box a little to the right of center on the first level, which gave a good view of the stage. The price was reasonable compared to Los Angeles Opera, only $100 per ticket. Fortunately, I was able to pay cash because none of our credit cards passed muster. European cards now have a holographic security chip that ours don’t have.
In Palermo, even the most casual tourist has to notice Teatro Massimo, with its bulk of yellow limestone sitting in an open square in the middle of the city. Our tour guide called it the “third largest opera house in Europe”, but not all of his facts were reliable. He said that Palermo had no opera house prior to TM, but Grove’s says otherwise, and he gave us a wrong date for the opening of TM, which Grove’s says was in 1897, with Verdi’s Falstaff. But more important than flubbed facts was the opportunity to see an opera house where many famous stars have sung, notably Joan Sutherland in Lucia.
The following evening our party of eight set out through the rain for a festive evening. Joan and I found our box, and we were pleased that our chairs were about 8 inches taller than the chairs in the front row, so we could see the stage very well without imposing on the ladies in front of us.
The overture showed immediately that the orchestra played crisply with beautiful tone. When the curtain rose, we saw bright reds, oranges and yellows, and a huge graphic in the style of Miro. Three towers moved about the stage, sometimes showing the big graphic and sometimes other surfaces. There was never any lack of personnel to move and rotate the towers. Throughout the whole opera there were never fewer than 10 persons, usually chorus singers and/or pantomimes clad head-to-foot in bright yellow. The crowd was always there, even for scenes like Rosina’s first aria, when she is talking to herself.
We hear about Eurotrash– this was not that, but it was a case of the director thinking that the stage has to be busy to keep us in the audience entertained. Result: constant distraction. With gorgeous singing from all the principals, the opera worked best when we didn’t watch the stage.
Except for the lovely experience of the century-old opera house, the evening was by and large disappointing.