Italian maestro fired for conducting blindfolded, in protest against opera’s ‘political’ staging

24 July 2023, 18:51

The conductor of the Puccini Festival’s opening night performance appeared on the podium blindfolded.
The conductor of the Puccini Festival’s opening night performance appeared on the podium blindfolded. Picture: NoiTv Lucca

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The Italian conductor, who disagreed with the imagery used in the production at Italy’s Puccini Festival, led a performance of ‘La bohème’ while blindfolded.

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Controversy surrounded the opening night of Italy’s Puccini Festival when a conductor due to lead a performance of La bohème appeared on the podium wearing a blindfold.

Maestro Alberto Veronesi, an Italian musician and director, proceeded to conduct the opening night performance blindfolded in protest against the Tuscan festival’s staging decisions.

Puccini’s opera follows a group of four struggling bohemians living in Paris in the 1830s.

But for this year’s Puccini Festival, the setting of the production was changed to Paris in 1968. In May 1968, Paris was awash with far-left student protests, which would lead to political unrest in the capital city.

To demonstrate the atmosphere of the time, the set design for this production of La bohème included imagery such as the raised fist, which has had long-held links to socialism, communism, and anti-fascism. Veronesi reportedly disagreed with this imagery being used in the production and demonstrated this by conducting the show blindfolded.

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La Bohème “sessantottina” apre il Festival Puccini: protesta-show di Veronesi

Reviews from the opening night on 14 July in the Italian town of Torre del Lago say the audience was not happy with the music director’s decision to conduct blind, and proceeded to shout out, calling the conductor a ‘clown’ (‘buffone’) and an ‘imbecile’ (‘scemo’). Veronesi, who was able to successfully conduct while blindfolded due to his familiarity with the opera, reportedly retorted that he did not want to watch these scenes.

Following this demonstration, Veronesi was replaced by a new conductor Manlio Benzi who is scheduled to step up to the podium for the rest of the production run.

Veronesi however, did have support from political figures in Italy prior to his blindfolded appearance on the podium and was even asked by a member of government not to conduct the show.

Vittorio Sgarbi, the Italian Secretary of State for Culture, wrote to Veronesi ahead of his performance and asked him not to conduct the orchestra in protest.

An official press release from Sgarbi’s office saw the government official complaining that the scenes created for the festival’s Boheme production had “nothing to do with Puccini” and was a betrayal of the 19th-century composer’s “vision and spirit.”

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Bohème/ Il licenziamento di Veronesi. Sgarbi: “Il dissenso è garantito dalla Costituzione”. E a Ficacci: “La musica,...

Posted by Ufficio Stampa Vittorio Sgarbi on Monday, July 17, 2023

Following the opening night, Sgarbi wrote this time on his personal Facebook page that the production was in fact, “not art, but a political rally to criticise the government.”

Since the 2022 election, Italy currently has its most right-wing government since World War Two, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy party.

Responding to the politicised opera allegations, the production’s stage director, Christopher Gayral released a press statement defending the production, writing, “My intention was never to refer to any political framework in place today in Italy.

“The staging, based on in-depth dramaturgy, has always been based on the work of Puccini, respecting to the letter all the meanings of the work, without any cut or re-writing of the lyrics of the libretto or diversion of the plot.”

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Alberto Veronesi had previously been scheduled to conduct every performance of La bohème at the festival
Alberto Veronesi had previously been scheduled to conduct every performance of La bohème at the festival. Picture: Alamy

The Puccini Festival announced the dismissal of Veronesi following his blindfolding stunt a few days after the performance.

Sgarbi once again released a statement via his office disagreeing with the replacement of the conductor.

Manlio Benzi is instead due to conduct the remaining dates of La bohème, from 29 July to 10 August, and one more date on 25 August.

Veronesi, who believes he was unfairly dismissed, has said that he will still turn up at these performances, and if he is not allowed to perform, he will take legal action.