A survey in 1868 listed 113 of them in Le Marche, of which more than 100 are still in regular use today. One for almost every second 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 inside – other civic buildings, meaning that they are often barely noticeable from the outside. Montelupone’s Teatro degli Angeli, for instance, forms part of the Palazzo Comunale (town hall) and its entrance is squeezed in between the café and the pizzeria. But their ambitions were far from modest: mostly built in the neo-classical style 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 lavishly decorated in masses of gilded plasterwork and rich upholstery and look down over just a few rows 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 in the second half, 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. At the other end of the spectrum, the biggest seat six hundred or more and can be found in more important towns such as Jesi, Ascoli Piceno or Fermo. The majority, however, such as Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Recanati, Teatro Feronia in San Severino Marche, Teatro La Rondinella in Montefano, Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Pollenza or Teatro Alaleona in Montegiorgio, seat two or three hundred. And it was at the last of these that Mr Blue-Shirt and I recently attended a rare performance of Donizetti’s one-act opera buffa (comic opera), Il Campanello (the doorbell).
Montegiorgio is located on a hill, as its name suggests, 411 meters above sea level and looks out towards the Adriatic coast about 25km to the east. Although it is only about 35km south of our place, it is a bit of a trek to get there as it involves wiggling up to the crest of the steep ridge that separates the Chienti and Tenna river valleys which both run from the Sibillini Mountains down to the sea. Despite being one of the region’s smaller theatres, the Teatro Alaleona nonetheless turned out to be one of the less ‘tucked in’ ones, built in the heart of the historical centre on the site of former town hall, but it still took some finding among the tight maze of narrow winding streets lined with tall townhouses. However, despite living here for over four years now, we have never shaken off our Anglo-Saxon approach to time-keeping in favour of something more Mediterranean, so we still managed to be in our seats just before curtain-up at nine fifteen. Well, that’s what it said on the tickets, but this being Italy, such timings are largely for guidance purposes only: when we peered down into the auditorium from our cosy little box on the first floor at ten past nine, the place was still almost empty. So the 20 minutes or so until the overture started gave us plenty of time to indulge in a little people-watching (just as the original architect, Giuseppe Sabbatini, had intended) and also to drink in our lavish surroundings. These featured a pretty, frescoed ceiling, a pair of opulent ruby-red velvet curtains trimmed with gold braid and heavy fringes that contrasted with the rich cream paintwork, a few rows of velvet-covered tip-up seats in the stalls, then three tiers of boxes hugging the stage, each of them framed by almost life size nude statues, which I imagine were representations of the muses. And the whole space softened to mellow gold as the house lights were finally dimmed and the huge curtains swept open.
The setting for this operatic farce is the wedding reception of Annibale Pistacchio, a pharmacist, and his young bride, Serafina. Among the guests is Serafina’s former lover, the philandering Enrico who is determined to prevent the newly-weds consummating their marriage in a bid to win Serafina back. With this end in mind, Enrico exploits a local Neapolitan bye-law whereby at night pharmacists are obliged to dispense medicines in person and so throughout the night he keeps ringing the doorbell (hence the title of the piece) to appear in a series of ever more preposterous disguises, each time pretending to be another patient in urgent need of medicine to treat ever more lurid symptoms. By the time dawn breaks, it is too late: poor Annibale still hasn’t made it to his nuptial bedchamber, but must now depart for Rome to oversee his aunt’s will. So the piece ends with Enrico, Serafina and the wedding guests waving him goodbye, and with what happens between the two former lovers left to the audience’s imagination. It is all completely daft and utterly implausible, of course, but very entertaining – which is the whole point of the piece.
And the reason we made the cross-country trek to watch such a little-known work in such an out-of-the-way place? Well, it was a kind of recce, I suppose. You see, the wedding guests that formed the chorus were all members of an amateur choral society that I have just come across, something that I have been looking for ever since we moved here as singing is one of the few things I really miss from our old life in the UK. And just when I was beginning to think I would never find an opportunity to sing again, I find a choir which even turns out to be based about 5km away in the next village. So having established that they are probably not completely out of my league, I just need to find out whether Voci Libere could do with an additional soprano…