People constantly ask travel writers: where are you going next? They hope to hear about a camel-party in Mongolia. But last week I had to answer blandly: Italy. I travelled with my wife to a friend’s wedding on Lake Orta among the Italian lakes, where the bride arrived by boat at the garlanded jetty of the town hall. There she and her fiancé vowed, according to the quaint-sounding Italian law, to establish their family residence (this sent a shimmer of laughter through the guests — the couple had been cohabiting for years) and educate their offspring. Afterwards I hoped to show my wife the Italian gardens I had loved 40 years ago, but to drive through Lombardy and the Veneto now is to traverse an industrial wilderness. The gardens were hurricane-hit around Como, disintegrating beyond Garda, resplendent at last around Petrarch’s home in the Euganean Hills.
Then there was La Bohème at La Scala: a warhorse of a Zeffirelli production, still magnificent, with Angela Gheorghiu as an ageing Mimi (in a frightful wig). The auditorium, with its scarp of gilded boxes, remains majestic, but the audience was no longer the elegant Milanese haute monde that I remembered from years before. Then, when singers excelled, you could hear the gallery purring like a stroked cat during the arias. Now there was respectful silence. Most striking was the tenor: the hyperactive Vittorio Grigolo — an Italian idol — who bounded onstage for his curtain call, tore open his shirt, plucked out his imaginary heart and tossed it to the audience. His is a sunny, beautifully flexible voice, but I am always, unconsciously, awaiting the next Placido Domingo. Years ago I remember asking the great tenor (I barely met him) whether he had ever sung an evening’s opera to his satisfaction. Never, he replied.