In 1959 Luchino Visconti was directing an extremely obscure Donizetti opera, Il Duca d’Alba, for the Spoleto Festival, and he decided it might be charming, not to say economical, to stage the production using old warehouse scenery, rather than any design in the modern idiom. So he went to the established firm Parravicini, in Rome, and asked the old man behind the counter for his help.
He wanted, Visconti said, something that would be approximately right for the following odd collection of scenes: The Town Hall and main square of Brussels at the time of the Spanish occupation of the Low Countries; the interior of a brewery; a room in the Town Hall; a lady’s apartment of the same period; and, finally, the Port of Antwerp.
What opera is this? asked the old man from Parravicini. It sounds very familiar.
Oh you won’t have heard of it, said Visconti. It’s hardly ever been performed.
Nevertheless, said the old man, do tell me the title.
It’s Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba, said Visconti.
Of course, cried the old man, how foolish of me. We have it. We have Il Duca d’Alba.
And it turned out that Parravicini still possessed the original scenery, which Visconti was able to dust down and use in good effect.
If the story has charm, it is as a tale of the unexpected. Visconti had wanted to spring a surprise on his audience, and he ended up being utterly surprised himself. But that charm would disappear rather fast if we were told that Visconti had tracked down the original scenery because he hoped thereby to make his production authentic. The authenticity of the sets, such as it was, came as a decorative extra, a further twist to what had begun as a joke.
Now we go back to Parravicini in a different spirit, because we believe that by walking backward we can achieve authenticity, and we find the same old man sitting at his ledger, just as he had done in 1950, and we explain that we, too, have a production in hand, and we list the scenery required.
What opera is this? inquires the old man. It sounds very familiar.
Oh, we say airily, it’s hardly ever done—you probably won’t have heard of it…
Nevertheless, replies the old man…
It’s a very rare Donizetti, we say; it’s called Cunegunde di Duisburg.
The old man claps his hands together in delight. Cunegunde di Duisburg! he exclaims, Of course I should have guessed. Let’s see now (leafing through his ledger), act one, the marketplace in Düsseldorf, followed by the chapel in the forest, the banqueting hall of the Bremerhaven Chamber of Commerce—yes, it all looks complete and in good shape. And the costumes of course are magnificent.
The costumes! We gasp: surely they must be falling to pieces by now.
The old man darts us a disapproving look. There have never, he insists, been …