Evocation of Soft Power from Riccardo Muti to Valery Gergiev
Summer, out of confinement, is marked in Europe by music festivals: the great tradition of Salzburg and Bayreuth; Glyndebourne, a green and elegant setting in Sussex; the piano at La Roque d’Antheron, Aix-en-Provence, another posthumous homeland of Mozart, jazz in Nice or the impressive wall of the Théâtre antique d’Orange, which has become somewhat the home of Roberto Alagna and perfectly serves the grandiose dimension of the opera, often Italian in these places.
Riccardo Muti, who was born in Naples in 1941 and therefore turned 80 on 28 July last, is a figure of these summer celebrations and he will still be in Salzburg this year. But it is not certain that he really celebrated his last birthday and we must do so for him. His last statements, at the approach of this date, indeed showed a restless man, of a somewhat dark mood, far removed from the temperament of fire that we know him and from the bursts of a sumptuous career. Declaring himself «tired of life», Riccardo Muti referred to the evidence not only to the world of music on which he now takes a rather critical look by speaking of «many conductors using the stage for excessive gesticulations» or by warning the Italian authorities about the risk of a deterioration of the lyrical heritage and by asking them for a « Risorgimento della cultura ». Riccardo Muti remains for us an incomparable conductor who has notably conducted six times, which is a record, the Vienna New Year’s Concert, the last time this year precisely.
In this glorious list, the Concert given at the Ancient Theatre of Bosra in Syria in 2004 holds a special place; the event was worth by its rarity, its particularity and it was the brilliant expression of what can be a soft power.
Long after, the echo of the performance of the Scala Orchestra of Milan conducted by the Italian maestro resonated again for the witnesses of the event. This exceptional moment was described by the media as “historical”. The concert showed both a part of the historical and cultural heritage of which Syria abounds and at the same time the difficulties of the latter to exploit its potentialities, essentially for lack of appropriate structures and a real openness to the outside world.
The concert took place as part of the Ravenna Festival, which has always striven to « build bridges » to the East, from Sarajevo to Beirut, Jerusalem, Moscow, Yerevan, Istanbul, Cairo and even New York. The choice of Syria marked a return to the roots of Mediterranean civilization. Italy’s support for the operation, whether it is a question of state institutions or private patronage, was clearly also intended to recall the age of the presence of Rome in this region and a contemporary tropism, despite the vicissitudes of the moment.
The reputation of the artists, the admirable setting of one of the most beautiful Roman theater, if not the best preserved then in the world, the rarity in Syria of such an event, have dragged towards the ancient capital of the Province of Arabia – after it was ephemerally the center of the Nabataean kingdom – many personalities as well as a large audience estimated up to fifteen or twenty thousand people. Among these, expatriates and Lebanese, few Jordanians despite the proximity of the border with their country, and especially the huge crowd that emerges from the land of the agricultural Hauran surrounding.
The programme was devoted to Italian works, « The Pines of Rome » (I Pini di Roma), a symphonic poem by Ottorino Respighi and excerpts from Norma in her concertante version. The acoustic perfection of this theatre built in the 2nd century also contributed to musical success. Transcended by the atmosphere of a warm night in this rural and basaltic region – whose theatre is for this last feature the architectural expression – Riccardo Muti has restored the splendour of ancient Rome (Muti riaccende in Siria i faste della Roma antica, headlined an Italian dithyrambic press). This result was particularly striking with the final – daring in these places – of Respighi’s symphonic poem making the footsteps of the Roman legions resonate along the Via Appia. As for Norma by Bellini, it is an opera considered as Roman par excellence, even if it was composed by an author from Catania at the foot of Etna.
This “celebration of Rome” was highlighted by the presence of a considerable and unusual Italian delegation. Besides the artists, came from the Peninsula more than 400 personalities including the very media President of Telecom Italia, Marco Tronchetti Provera, principal patron of the operation, who were also all struck in return by the shock produced by the place. Riccardo Muti told us after the concert that he had never conducted in such exceptional conditions due to the huge and popular crowd, the size of the theatre – offering twice as much space on its stands as the Verona arenas – and its verticality comparable to the height of the Colosseum. The same day, the Italian conductor had also directed classes at the new Damascus National Opera, with enthusiasm, on the music of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. It is therefore understandable that this Syrian experience inspired the master with strong feelings expressed with humour in the media of his country: « Muti struck down on the way to Damascus » (Muti folgorato).
The public relations operation was also successful for Syria. The RAI broadcast the event, known figures of major cultural events were in Bosra, such as Ms. Nora Joumblatt, President of the Beiteddine Festival in Lebanon or the President of the Baalbeck Festival. However, it was not assured that the event would have a future. The lack of organization for such demonstrations, visible on the Syrian side, has been corrected by the important means and efforts made on the Italian side. It remained to find a personality that could be the soul and the backbone of a future Festival of international renown, like Ms.Joumblatt who is of Syrian origin. The success of the Bosra Concert, however, gave ideas. One of General Tlass’s daughters-in-law, the irremovable minister of defence since Hafez el Assad, had plans for the amphitheater in Palmyra…
It was Valery Gergiev who, in 2015, in a context that was that of war, finally gave substance to this ambition. If the chief of Ossetian origin is an immense artist, at the head of the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre of St.Petersburg and is world-famous, the somewhat precipitous organization following the Russian military intervention in the country also replied, obviously, there are other considerations. There were more military uniforms than civilians in the stands, and the Russian President himself intervened by videoconference to celebrate the rebirth of culture in these places.
But is it so damaging that the images of a concert have substituted those of the destruction of the patrimony and the abominations, such as the execution at Palmyra itself of the Director of Antiquities? Should we regret that the concert was televised and seen all over the world when it is only for negative reasons that Syria is today at the center of attention? It is in fact also our responsibility that the peace of the time did not make a recipe and that the sumptuous sites that the country conceals were so little visited, including by its neighbors. Failing to have made it fruitful in times of peace, it is ultimately not scandalous to value art and music to try to erase some horrors of the conflicts.
The cultural soft power also raises the question of the choice between elitist culture and popular culture. The TNP of Jean Vilar and George Wilson at the Festival d’Avignon, in 1948, answered this question when the concept did not exist. The soft power, by its ambition to reach the masses, is connected to the latter but the elites or so-called need also what can resemble a form of pedagogy for the greatest number. There are many examples.
Rudolf Nureyev’s 50th birthday in 1988 on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York was an illustration. In homage to his dancer – who was present and performed one of his last times -, the ballet of the Paris Opera travelled in full swing to offer, for the first time outside its territory, its grand parade on the music of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. The Mayor of New York Ed Koch, with his all-French gouaille and his inimitable accent from the Bronx where he was born, happily mixed centuries in his speech, but he could not better represent New York. America was at the feet of the French culture enriched by a brilliant dancer of Russian origin.
Maya Plissetskaya, alone on a stage erected on the Red Square outside the Soviet Union to dance the death of Tchaikovsky’s swan, would have deserved a wider audience. On that day she embodied neither the end of a world nor renewal but the permanence of art and excellence to its most extreme point. The artist is not necessarily with or against the system. It is dissociated from it and it is ultimately its mission, the opposite of soft power.
The soft power now needs the media but it is not limited to culture. The great sporting events are naturally his privileged universe, from the Football World Cup and the Tour de France to the Olympic Games and it is difficult with this latest news to resist the pleasure of evoking the magnificent example given by the triumph of the Judo France team in The Mecca of this sport in Japan.
But the soft power is from time immemorial, it is one powerful tool for example of the conquests of Alexander the Great thanks to the diffusion of the Hellenistic civilization. Closer to us, it was finally the main weapon in peacetime of the Golden Age of the United States during the Eisenhower years of the immediate post-war period. A power and a civilization are really imposed in the long term only by the seduction that they exercise, is it not Riccardo Muti, eternal maestro of Bosra ?