La Serenissima II: Il Mio Febbraio Wagneriano

Elatia Harris

In February, 1983, the Venetians threw a festival to celebrate the centenary of Richard Wagner’s death on the Grand Canal, in the splendid Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi. A well-appointed flat, to be sure, but it was not the piano nobile. Any low-ceilinged resentment the genius might then have felt would, after a mere century, be countered by the longest and most intense Wagnerama in history.  

Like every serious Wagnerite in Europe, my companion and I were there. Did we qualify? Perhaps not, if you compared us to the cultists thronging San Marco in lamb chop berets, opera capes, and 16-foot cerise satin sashes. We might have looked ordinary, but we were under thirty and on our third Ring.

I began to ache, morally, after only a few hours of no costuming. Detouring to Baronceli in Frezzaria – the Doge’s hatter, long gone – I bought a gorgeous hat. I still have the label. Every girl should have such a hat. It endowed me with second sight enough to know there was no time to lose, if we meant to cop tickets to the gala performance of Parsifal at the Teatro La Fenice. We ran like hell to the box office, which had been open for less than an hour. The last and worst seats in the house were ours for 6000 Lire. This happens only to the young, I would learn.

In that era, there were steps to take before one could feel truly installed in Venice. Drinking a Campari at Harry’s Bar was convincing, especially when followed by lunch at La Madonna. We performed those rituals of deep entry, and hove into the Caffe Lavena, a poor third at San Marco but Wagner’s favorite. In sight of the Piazzetta and the wide Bacino, diamond-bright in the winter sun, we examined handbills of all the Wagnerian attractions, slitting our eyes at each other like mated hares in a satin box. 

To any festival in Italy, there is a didactic side – lectures, panels, book presentations, films. We weren’t having any of that. Wherever we were, we were there to eat, and, this time, to worship The Master in the city where he chose to die. Although the Fondazione Giorgio Cini offered up extreme erudition of that special, Italian kind – Boris Porena, for instance, would speak on transculturality in the case of Wagner, and Claudio Gorlier would animadvert on imperfect Wagnerians – we thought that sounded more like good programming in Reykjavik.

All over town, there were pop-up concert venues, the ballrooms of a few still-private palazzi whose owners cannot have been averse to making a buck for one night’s use. Every theater and chamber music hall in Venice participated. Every afternoon, every evening. The gala at the Fenice was days away, and we did not want to climb to our doubtless impossible seats, carrying surfeit to the rafters, just when appetite should be sharpest.

To debrief a little, we rose pre-dawn to walk in the dark to the Pescheria. It was the least Wagnerian thing one could do. A black and white spaniel seemed to want to lead us there, via an inky ramo that made a good shortcut. We saw what we expected to see, in the almost Piranesian dark -- the wealth of the northern Adriatic flapping under lanterns. A wall of baccala got watered by a saintly boy. It started to look Wagnerian in there. As everything soon would. It could not be helped. 

We learned that not only Wagner but his father-in-law, Franz Liszt, spent January of 1883 in Venice. With one month to live, Wagner had to hear Liszt, three years his senior, complaining of the sight of funeral gondolas out the window, the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi being angled to provide just that view.

The gala night came. We started off at Harry’s Bar. I could not wear my wonderful hat, for it had a brim. So I felt in a less-enchanted but somehow fresher state. Ours were the seats you needed a Sherpa for. Once there, I could see the habitues of that rung, season ticket holders of slender means. Three German youths next to me managed an impossible feat; throughout the performance, they remained reverential while ceaselessly and noiselessly consuming ham sandwiches.

We rose pre-dawn to walk in the dark to the Pescheria .....

The orchestra started up, and a deep vein of undistorted sound opened into our ears. Inside the Teatro La Fenice, famed for its exquisite beauty and its acoustics, it felt like being inside a cello. There were no bad seats, only seats that had a lesser view. Everyone who attends Parsifal gets pounded, but in a good way. We opened ourselves, were overtaken and transported as surely as if the tall horses of dreams had thundered by and nudged us astride. That’s the Wagnerian contract with an audience, and it was performed to its limit this night. 

Was any of this particularly Venetian? Quite a bit, actually. Kundry, the greatest temptress in German opera, tries hard to seduce Parsifal away from his sacred mission. Her bower, to the design of Pier Luigi Pizzi, is built of hydraulic pumps, aluminum foil, and silk flowers, for a gala in Europe, in those days, could be mounted for about $5000. The showmanship, the doing of big things on the cheap, is very Venetian. And it contained a coup de theatre. When at last Parsifal breaks free of Kundry, she doesn’t take it well. Writhing, she squeezes her hand pumps, releasing every satin petal in her bower to the floor of the darkening stage, her lush lair a bramble. There may be no esthetic emotion more Venetian than to see a powerful artifice dispersed with the wave of a hand.

The writer's sketch of Kundry in her bower.


Name Role
Elatia Harris Illustrations
Penny Averill Photographs