Opera in Florence has often functioned most successfully when pursuing the intellectual curiosity of a cultivated elite rather than the lowest common denominator of popular taste.
In 1933, when conductor Vittorio Gui initiated Italy’s first large-scale festival, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, he conceived it in terms of a cultural mission: reviving forgotten masterworks (such as Spontini’s La Vestale, starring Rosa Ponselle in her only Italian performances) and revisiting the standard repertory with a teasing touch of sophistication (De Chirico’s provocatively modernistic sets for Bellini’s I Puritani).
Two years later, Rossini’s Mosè and Rameau’s Castor et Pollux were staged, and for three decades Florence became one of the few places in the world where Baroque opera and rare works by Rossini got a hearing with any regularity.
It was in this city that Renata Tebaldi had a chance to sing Rossini’s Assedio di Corinto (1949) and Spontini’s Olimpia (1950), and it was here alone that Maria Callas could be heard as Haydn’s Euridice (1951) and Rossini’s Armida (1952).
From that same period, Bruno Bartoletti — who has himself enjoyed an incomparably long and decidedly fruitful association with the festival — recalls the revelatory musical cogency of Dimitri Mitropoulos’s conducting in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (1954). And Bartoletti himself was protagonist — as conductor of Berg’s Wozzeckand Shostakovich’s The Nose — of the innovative 1964 Maggio Musicale, devoted to Expressionism.
Since then, Florence has continued to attract some of the world’s greatest musicians. Riccardo Muti was principal conductor here from 1968 to 1980, and since taking over in 1985, Zubin Mehta has upheld the highest standards of orchestral playing; but the festival has undeniably lost its cutting edge.
One of the reasons is that Gui’s highly individual mission has by now become standard strategy for many music festivals worldwide, making it difficult for the Maggio Musicale to stand out amid the competition. Another reason is that increasingly cumbersome productions have made it arduous to stage two or more operas simultaneously.
In spite of intermittent use of the intimate seventeenth-century Teatro della Pergola, as well as the much larger Teatro Comunale (an acoustically problematic venue, first opened in 1862), it has seldom been possible in recent decades to see at least two operas on consecutive nights — for most visitors, the principal appeal of any festival experience.