Night at the opera, a year on the rocks

Sour words, sweet music in Rome
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TO READ the reviews, you would never guess there was anything wrong with the Rome Opera House as it begins its 1995 season. Its inaugural production of Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz, one of the most difficult works in the repertoire, was hailed as a triumph at its premiere last week. The Corriere della Sera newspaper called it a "miracle".

A miracle it was, and not just an artistic one. The Rome Opera is struggling with a 50 billion lire (£20m) deficit and has only avoided outright closure thanks to an emergency infusion of public funds. Its unions are at war with the management, and the management is at war with itself. In the last six months the Opera has lost its artistic director, Gian Carlo Menotti, as well as a special commissioner called in to clear up its finances, Vittorio Ripa di Meana - victims of the peculiarly acrimonious atm osphere of political and personal backbiting at what is supposed to be one of Italy's prime cultural venues.

Two days before the premiere of Cellini, the unions threatened to scupper the production with strikes. In response general manager Giorgio Vidusso, himself drafted in 10 months ago to set the house in order, handed in his resignation saying he refused towork in such a "nest of vermin" a moment longer.

The Opera House is left with no effective leadership, no certainty about its financial or artistic future, and no solutions to its intractable problems of labour unrest and political interference. Benvenuto Cellini looks like going down in the history books as the single shining moment when everything went right at the Teatro dell'Opera. Like Italy, the Opera House had hoped to make a clean sweep after years of mismanagement, overspending and corruption. Now it is back to square one.

"I am tired, very tired," a pale-faced Mr Vidusso said in an interview. "I've had a killer year. I'm going to take at least 12 months off to recover."

For too long the Opera - no more than a shadow of its illustrious Milanese rival, La Scala - has resembled an Italian ministry, a place of grim Mussolini-era backroom offices behind the Belle Epoque grandeur of its auditorium, where absenteeism, outrage o us perks and favours abound. Mr Vidusso defines it as "one giant pork barrel that occasionally puts on operas".

The real problems go back to the early 1990s, when a man of prodigious extravagance, Gian Paolo Cresci, was general manager. Mr Cresci had few credentials for the job other than a Christian Democrat party card and a long-standing allegiance to the then prime minister, Giulio Andreotti. He doubled the labour costs of the Opera House in one year. He spent £50,000 to compensate the Spanish tenor Jose Carreras for a concert that never took place. He hired Persian carpets for the foyer and threw lavish parties. "It's true Cresci doesn't know anything about music, but he is an opera all by himself," quipped one of his Christian Democrat mentors, Amintore Fanfani.

Mr Cresci was forced out a year ago when the courts were about to declare the Opera bankrupt. He was replaced by the Rome Opera's own "clean hands" anti-corruption team. Mr Vidusso was one of the most respected arts administrators in the country. His su p erior, Mr Ripa di Meana, was a successful corporate lawyer with connections to the city's new left-wing mayor, Francesco Rutelli.

Mr Vidusso set himself the seemingly impossible task of mounting a season in eight months - one quarter of the time it usually takes. Mr Ripa di Meana, meanwhile, secured emergency funding from the city and cut the budget.

Almost immediately they ran into problems. The first was Gian Carlo Menotti, the distinguished composer who was artistic director but spent nearly all his time in Scotland. "You can't run an opera house if you aren't in the right country, so I fired him," Mr Vidusso explained.

The unions, encouraged by the new right-wing parties voted in last March under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, were outraged. Their anger grew even more when Mr Ripa di Meana rescinded the promotions Mr Cresci had promised to 300 of the Opera's 750 pe r manent staff.

The final straw was the cancellation of the Opera House's summer season at the Roman Baths of Caracalla after an archaeological report showed the outside stands were gravely damaging the site.

Mr Ripa di Meana quickly came up with an alternative site next to the baths for next year, but unions close to the re-formed neo-Fascist National Alliance accused him of sabotage and demanded his removal.

They got their way, thanks to the intervention of Mr Berlusconi's cabinet secretary Gianni Letta, who replaced him with a harmless 74-year-old administrator called Nino Bonavolonta.

Mr Vidusso began to feel terribly alone, especially in union meetings. "There would be 40 of them in a room all talking at once, all trying to blackmail me and threatening to denounce me to the press or their political masters," he said.

Somehow, in this atmosphere, Benvenuto Cellini took shape. ("I chose the Berlioz because the best way to stop the staff squabbling was to give them plenty of work," Mr Vidusso said.) The unions were furious about the production's big budget - more than 2bn lire - at a time when their members were taking pay cuts. But in the end they pulled together and produced the best production in Rome for years.

But it has been only a Pyrrhic victory and the future is once again grim. "I think they'll have to look outside of Italy for a new general manager," Mr Ripa di Meana said. "Only a foreigner is going to command any respect."

The problem is, what foreigner is going to want to do battle in the snakepit of the Rome Opera House?