The stage of the Belvedere of Villa Rufolo. History of an ingenious idea
No more than about one hundred seats, all arranged among the gardens and fountains of Villa Rufolo. Or just before the stage which, situated only just higher than the cobblestones, hosted the first orchestras that turned Ravello into the “City of Music”. This is just one of the faded memories of the 1950s: a black-and-white frame featuring ladies and gentlemen dressed in clothes fitting for a special occasion. This marks the starting point of the long journey that began in Ravello on summer afternoons and has culminated in the last decade or so in the highly varied festival organized by the Fondazione Ravello. The journey has lasted 65 years. It has been a journey brimful of events and changes in which only the music, performed “en plein air”, has not undergone any variations. And, of course, the evergreen location of Villa Rufolo, which has become more beautiful and enchanting than ever before. Everything else has changed. Beginning with the stage: it used to be placed within the gardens before reaching out to the outer limits of the blue suspended between the sea and sky of the Amalfi coast. It is a now a distinctive feature which, through its audacious position overhanging the gardens that slope down towards the coast, provides a captivating and atmospheric setting. It is a monumental structure which each year has undergone significant alterations and improvements to meet the needs of the audiences that flock to the Ravello Festival.
No longer as square as it once was, the stage has undergone modifications in the last few years, drawing upon Niemeyer’s original idea for Ravello. The curved line that is such a characteristic feature of the auditorium has thus also become the distinctive element of the new theatre of Villa Rufolo. It is a unique stage that enthralls both the audience and the artists who perform there. While the key link with the past consists of the melodies that by some arcane mystery continue to be performed to the present day, the break in tradition is represented by the structure that hosts the events. To think how many changes have been made to the stage, the number of atmospheric occasions that have taken place in over fifty years of history! It all began on 18 June 1953, the day of the first concert to be held in Villa Rufolo, marking the seventieth anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner. The opening concert was given by the orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo conducted by Hermann Scherchen. From this date to 1955, the musicians were arranged in the gardens of the villa, almost merging with the members of the audience. The success of the initiative, which would later become known as the “Wagnerian concerts”, forced the organisers to find a solution to the growing demand for seats. This need led to the ingenious idea of Paolo Caruso which still leaves everyone breathless to this day: to construct a cantilevered stage overhanging the sea just for the musicians and to use the gardens exclusively as a seating area for the audience. Simple yet ingenious! Since that day about 60 years ago, the stage of the Belvedere of Villa Rufolo has undergone significant improvements, becoming a work of art in its own right.
Here are a few statistics: it lies about 340 metres above sea level, it is 22 metres wide and 14 metres deep, overhanging a sheer drop of 15 metres. It is made up of over 400,000 kilos of material completely outside the parapet of the gardens of the villa. The stalls can now seat up to about 700 spectators.
History, culture, music, an ingenious idea and the magic setting of an enchanted town: this is Ravello.
The Ravello Festival
The Ravello Festival as we know it today is the outcome of a series of previous initiatives that make it one of the oldest Italian music festivals. Girolamo Bottiglieri and Paolo Caruso were the chief architects of the cultural event that led, more than any other, to Ravello becoming known as the “City of Music”. The connection between Villa Rufolo, the delightful venue made impressive and welcoming by the Scottish philanthropist Francis Neville Reid, and Richard Wagner was so alluring that it inevitably prompted the idea of staging concerts in a setting that had the personal blessing of the great composer. For this reason, during the 1930s, the San Carlo Orchestra performed there on several occasions with programmes linked to the music of Wagner. One of these concerts was attended by the Prince and Princess of Piedmont and to mark their visit the belvedere between Hotel Sasso and Hotel Palumbo hotel was named after the Princess. The idea remained in the air and twenty years later Paolo Caruso took it up again and conceived the bold idea of creating a stage overhanging a sheer drop. With the support of the Provincial Tourist Board (EPT), headed by Girolamo Bottiglieri, the idea became reality on the 70th anniversary of Wagner’s death. In the summer of 1953, the “Wagnerian concerts in the garden of Klingsor” (as they were styled in the programme) began with two evening performances of the San Carlo orchestra conducted by Hermann Scherchen and William Steinberg. For many years Wagner was the festival’s presiding genius and his music is still at the core of each year’s programme today.
Orchestras, Bands and Artists
Over the course of half a century, the majestic stage overlooking the sea has hosted excellent symphony orchestras (theO Staatskapelle Dresden, the Münchner Philharmoniker, the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestras of the Kirov Theatre, Leningrad and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestra Nazionale della Rai, the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale, the Orchestre National de France, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Youth Orchestra of Caracas); renowned chamber orchestras (the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Camerata Academica des Mozarteums, Salzburg, the Trio di Trieste, the Quartetto Italiano); famous conductors (Ashkenazy, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Chung, Davis, Frühbeck de Burgos, Gergiev, Järvi, Maazel, von Matacic, Mehta, Pappano, Penderecki, Prêtre, Semkow, Sinopoli, Spivakov, Tate, Temirkanov and Tilson-Thomas); leading soloists (Argerich, Asciolla, Canino, Cassado, Ciccolini, Glass, Kempff, Lindbergh, Lupu, Pogorelich, Rampal, Repin, Rostropovich, Ughi, Weissenberg); famous jazz musicians (Bollani, Caine, Hancock, Marsalis); prestigious opera singers (Behrens, Christoff, Cura, Domingo, Jerusalem, Meier, Raimondi, Salminen, Urmana) and pop singers (Noa, Ranieri, Toquinho); leading composers (Battistelli, Nyman, Sciarrino); successful dancers and choreographers (Bejart, Bill T. Jones, Bolle, Ferri, Martha Graham Dance Company, Petit); world famous actors and directors (John Malkovich, Margarethe von Trotta, Abbas Kiarostami, Fernando Meirelles, Dino Risi, Toni Servillo, Valeria Golino, Mario Martone, Palmer).
Music and Landscape
Year in year out music lovers quarrel over the legitimacy of open air concerts, interrupted by extraneous sounds and noises. However, for the concerts at Villa Rufolo, the overall effect marks the triumphant note, where the imperfection for the ear is more than made up for by the magnificent spectacle that meets the eye. As Gore Vidal put it so poetically, “often, when the orchestra plays Wagner, the full moon rises above the mountains in the east, their profile recalling a dragon’s head reclining gently on the beach, while the birds of Ravello, who after all these years are particularly musical birds, trill their counterpoint from high up in the dark pine trees”.