A survey in 1868 listed one hundred and thirteen of them in Le Marche, of which more than one hundred are still in regular use today. One for almost every other ‘comune’ in the region. And roughly four times as many per head of population as in the UK*. I’m talking about theatres. Yes, that’s right: theatres. Remarkable, isn’t it. Of course, I’m not talking about theatres on the scale of The London Palladium or as distinguished as Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre. No, the theatres of Le Marche are much more modest affairs. These tiny auditoria can usually be found tucked in between (or even within) other civic buildings that are often barely noticeable from the outside: Montelupone’s Teatro degli Angeli, for instance, forms part of the Palazzo Comunale (town hall). But their ambitions were far from modest: mostly built in the late 18th or early 19th centuries during a period of vigorous urbanisation, these delightful confections were conceived as symbols of civic pride and aspiration and very much designed as places for ‘the great and the good’ in the town to see and be seen. As a consequence, they typically feature several tiers of boxes and galleries that are richly decorated in masses of gilded plasterwork and velvet swags, with only a small number of seats in the stalls. In fact, all this embellishment, coupled with the lofty proportions, rather gives the impression of being inside a giant wedding cake. Although many fell into disrepair during the first half of the last century or were badly converted into cinemas, an extensive programme of works has seen nearly all of these tiny jewels restored to their former glory over the last thirty years or so.
With just ninety-nine seats, the Teatro Flora in Penna San Giovanni – a village of barely a thousand souls perched on a hill at the edge of the Sibillini Mountains – holds the record as the smallest of all. Others (such as Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Recanati, Teatro Feronia in San Severino Marche, Teatro La Rondinella in Montefano, Teatro Filippo Marchetti in Camerino or Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Pollenza) seat a couple of hundred, but it is only those in the bigger towns such as Jesi, Ascoli Piceno or Fermo that seat six hundred or more. And it was at Il Teatro dell’Aquila in the last of these that Mr Blue-Shirt and I recently attended a performance of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, Così Fan Tutte.
We first went to see this work so early on in our Italy travels that not only were we still camping in our faithful green ridge tent, but we had only just graduated from blue roll-up Karrimats to the luxury of an airbed. And it was thanks to the few centimetres of extra elevation that our brand-new airbed gave us that we avoided getting all our bedding soaked when a violent thunderstorm ripped through San Gimignano, flooding the campsite we were staying in and raining off the outdoor performance of Così Fan Tutte we had gone to before the end of the first act. So, some twenty-five years later, we thought it really was high time we saw the whole thing.
Fermo is a gracefully proportioned town with far-reaching views from its elevated position down to the Adriatic coast some three hundred metres below. Although we had been there a several times before – in summer it holds a weekly night market that sells all sorts of crafts and collectables – we had no idea where the theatre was. Despite being one of the region’s larger theatres, it nonetheless turned out to be one of the ‘tucked in’ ones: squidged down a narrow side street on the edge of the ramparts with its only entrance almost hidden down an alley to the side. But as it was also just a couple of hundred metres from the town centre and the colonnaded Piazza del Popolo, we decided to enjoy a quick aperitivo in one of the many lively bars that line its elegant colonnades before curtain-up at nine o’clock. Well, that’s what it said on the tickets, but this being Italy, such timings are effectively ‘for guidance purposes only’: when we peered down into the auditorium from our cosy little box on the third floor at ten to nine (having been unable to drop our Anglo-Saxon approach to time-keeping in favour of something more Mediterranean), the place was still almost empty. At least it gave us the chance to drink in our lavish surroundings: the five-tiers of boxes hugging the stage, the enormous brass chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling with its exotic frescoes, the deep red velvet upholstery trimmed with gold braid and fringes set off by the rich cream paintwork. And, looking at the occupants of the other boxes as they gradually filled up (just as the original architect, Cosimo Morelli, had intended), it also allowed us to confirm that putting on our glad rags had been the right call. Sitting in the bar earlier we had felt distinctly over-dressed, but in these surrounding my LBD and heels were spot on. In fact, during the interval, Mr Blue-Shirt (in jacket and tie as well as blue shirt) said he’d even seen a few couples in black tie and evening gowns. And best of all, this fabulous setting provided the perfect backdrop to a top-notch performance that glittered and sparkled from start to finish. So although we waited over twenty five years to see the second act of Così Fan Tutte, it was undoubtedly worth the wait. And we didn’t have to crawl into a soggy tent afterwards, either. Even if it did have an airbed.
* According to my research, Le Marche has about 113 theatres and a population of roughly 1.5 million, which means 1 theatre for every 13,200 people. By contrast, the UK has a population of 66.57 million and ‘only’ 1,300 theatres – ie 1 for every 51,000 people.