Opera Inside A Private Venetian Palazzo
I crossed the Grand Canal on the No. 1 vaporetto, alighting at Santa Maria del Giglio. Despite the long name it was little more than a wooden jetty in a quite culdesac. It is a small, relatively overlooked stop, overshadowed by the more flamboyant San Marco. It seemed a place where only locals went.
In true Venetian style, Musica a Palazzo is separated from the stop by a canal. With the Grand Canal behind me to act as a bearing, I passed along the Calle Gritti and into the Piazza Santa Maria del Giglio. At this time of day the piazza was empty, and I followed a network of twisting stairs and streets bearing no resemblance to my map. An arrow on a tiny handwritten sign led me down a dark alley, away from the blazing midday sun and into those days of Venetian glory and intrigue. I could hear water lapping at the buildings, and anything – or anyone – could be hiding in those damp shadows.
I passed an impeccably dressed Venetian. Sporting designer stubble and with his hair elegantly oiled, he sat smoking on a wall beside the canal. “Opera?” he asked, tossing his cigarette nonchalantly into the water.
“Si,” I replied. “Opera.” He grandly gestured me to a doorway.
Here stood the entrance to the Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto. Overlooking the Grand Canal, the palace consists of two separate palazzos that were merged in the 17th C. I entered through the older Palazzo Minotto, which dates from the 14th C and boasts 12th C Byzantine friezes. A true Venetian gothic building, it forms the backdrop for the Musica a Palazzo performances.
I entered through Louis XIV doors, banded in walnut and sporting brass handles shaped
as vine leaves. Before me stretched a marble staircase, strewn with flowers (the opera was, afterall, La Traviata), and leading up to a grand receiving room. After being joined with the neighbouring Palazzo Barbarigo, the Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto was subsequently decorated by the leading artists of the day – including Gianbattista Tiepolo, (then at the height of his artistic maturity), Francesco Fontebasso, Mengozzi Colonna, Carpoforo Mazetti and Gerolamo Mengozzi. The Central Hall overflowed with an exuberance of frescos, panelling, teraazzo pavings, wooden marquetry gilt mirrors, curtains and period furniture.
The Barbarigo were an influential patrician family. In 800 AD the founder of the dynasty, Arrigo, successfully defeated marauding Saracen pirates – with its dependance upon shipping, Venice was particularly vulnerable to the scourge of piracy, especially along the Dalmation coast. Returning home in triumph, Arrigo brought with him the Saracen beards – barba in Italian – thus giving birth to both the family name and her coat of arms, which proudly displays 6 beards.
In 955 the family founded the nearby Chiesa Santa Maria del Giglio, then in the following centuries produced bishops, cardinals, two doges and even a saint: San Gregorio Barbarigo, who was born in the palace in 1625, beatified in 1761, then sanctified in 1960 by John XXIII. Doge Marco Barbarigo ruled the Republic from 1484 -86, and was the first doge to be crowned on the Giant’s Staircase of the Palazzo Ducale, establishing a custom which was to last as long as the Republic herself. A gentle, if indecisive man, he was replaced by his brother Agnostino, (who was, in contrast, pathologically cruel), who ruled from 1486-1501. He introduced the custom of kissing the Doge’s hand, and during his time in office Caterina Corner, queen of Cyprus, was forced into donating her kingdom to Venice. (The Kingdom of Cyprus had originally been bestowed by Richard, Coeur-de-Lion, to the Knights Templar.) The Barbarigo family died out in 1804, and the palazzo is now owned by the Franchin family.
Musica a Palazzo restores a tradition popular in the 1800s, of opera performed for a small audience. The audience consisted of about 50 patrons; the liberetto was pared back to a soprano, tenor and baritone, accompanied by the ensemble Musica a Palazzo (comprised of a violin, viola, cello and piano). Each act took place in a different room; Act I in the Central Hall, the second in Tiepolo’s room (so called because it was decorated by the famous artist Gianbattista Tiepolo. His “Triumph of Virtue and Nobility Over Ignorance” is now in the Ca Rezzonico collection, with a copy hanging in the room.)
At Intermission I sipped prosecco on a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. A wedding party went by in a series of decorated gondolas. Then came the final Act, performed in a sumptuous but dimly lit bedroom, with the walls and ceiling covered with intricate rocaille-style stuccos around the prerequsite frescoes.
Yet the performance itself is even more stunning than the setting. The singers were, quite
simply, amazing – my eardrums were still ringing the next day from the power of their voices. I sat so close I could see every expression, could laugh as Alfredo pulled faces when the feather in Violetta’s headpiece tickled his nose. They were also consummate performers, making full use of the rooms as a stage of 360 degrees. I became a part of the opera as the singers interacted with their ‘living’ stage – during the famous toast Libiamo ne’lieti calici, I shared a glass of prosecco with the soprano. I quickly drank it lest the glass shatter as she took all high notes in her stride.
Fine music and singing, a glass or two of local wine, and a chance to see inside a private Venetian Palazzo, which boasts a few doges and a saint; I can think of no more perfect way to pass an afternoon or evening in Venice.