It was the spring of 1990, and I was working on a profile of Riccardo Muti when he suggested I visit the new festival in Ravenna, the former hub of the Western Roman Empire and his adopted hometown. On July 1, I dropped off my luggage near the station and sauntered over to the basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, where the maestro was rehearsing Mozart's crystalline Linz Symphony and his soul-shattering Requiem. The portal stood open to the cooling breezes, allowing discreet passersby to listen in.
That first day was unforgettable. Of the town's many cultural treasures, none surpasses the numinous ensemble of early Christian monuments adorned with the finest Byzantine mosaics anywhere in the world. Among the most impressive are the richly robed ascetics and queens of heaven who face each other across the nave of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, martyrs' crowns in hand. But the concert that night was to be outdoors at a nearby fortress, the forbidding Rocca Brancaleone, a legacy of the Venetians. At a last-minute sound-check under the stars, Muti requested more voice from the singers, "because out here some sound goes directly to God."
Since then, every time the new Ravenna Festival announcement lands in my mailbox, I study it cover to cover, wishing I could drop everything for the duration (from four to six weeks in early summer) to swallow the program whole. Every year, itinerant podium royalty, ballet caravans, troubadours and entertainers of the most varied stripes pass through, convened by a mistress of the revels whose roots are local, whose connections are global and whose horizons are as eclectic as they are inclusive. She is Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, the festival's founding artistic director and wife of the conductor. Under her aegis, homegrown talent gets its shot, too; once the picturesque Piazza del Popolo — a ready-made Renaissance stage on a human scale, made to order for Romeo and Juliet — even resounded with a battle of the bandas.
This year's marquee attractions are The Rocky Horror Show, Matthew Bourne's Car Man (after Bizet — way after) and the inaugural Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy, culminating in model performances of Verdi's Falstaff. Mazzavillani Muti, who on the quiet has developed impressive credentials as a stage director, will direct the production. As its theme (there is always a theme), the festival has chosen "That love which moves the sun and other stars," the closing verse of the Divine Comedy of the incomparable Dante Alighieri, who died in Ravenna in exile from his native Florence. His honored bones lie in a tempietto outside the walls of Ravenna's basilica of San Francesco.
In early festival seasons, attractions at the sober Risorgimento-era Teatro Alighieri, named in the poet's honor, tended toward long-neglected operatic landmarks by the likes of Antonio Salieri and Luigi Cherubini. Later seasons brought more in this line — but also Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci,warhorses routinely paired but here mounted separately, in vivid contemporary stagings by Liliana Cavani and conducted by Muti. The Cavalleria of 1996 in particular sticks in my mind for the piteous, unsparing ferocity of Waltraud Meier's Santuzza; the mingled self-doubt and animal magnetism of the Turridu, a newcomer named José Cura; and the sunny glow in the sound of the chorus.
With the opening of the 3,800-seat Palazzo Mauro de André in October 1990, the festival acquired an arena adaptable to extravaganzas and spectaculars of all kinds — not to mention, in 1996, an odyssey in mixed acoustic-and-electronic sound, courtesy of Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain. The curtain-raiser — Dialogue de l'Ombre Double, for a single clarinet live and on tape, performed by the transcendent André Trouttet, perched alone in the crosshairs of the spotlights — still haunts me nearly two decades on.
But my all-time favorite Ravenna memory takes me back to the night of the final Pagliacci of 1998. Minutes after the diabolical punch line "La commedia è finita," the Mutis whisked me away to a late show of sacred choral music at the other Sant'Apollinare — the holy hangar Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna's ancient, now landlocked, port. Taking our seats, we gazed up to the apse, where God's hand reaches through the sky, blessing the good shepherd Apollinaris in a pasture much like Eden, surrounded by his allegorical flock — imagery seen for centuries only by candlelight or torchlight or in disjointed sections in shafts of slashing sunshine through arched windows, between bands of deep shadow.
"To think the artists never saw the place this way," I remarked, spellbound by a panorama of emeralds and jades and gold and midnight blue blazing in the even floodlights.
"No," Muti said. "But they conceived it this way."