- Contributed by
- Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
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- 04 December 2003
Shortly after landing in Italy with the 21st British Army Tank Brigade, we found ourselves too close to the Army HQ at Caserta and so had to be on our best behaviour as the Army Group Commander, Gen Sir Harold Alexander, was often to be seen being driven to and from various locales. This impressed our senior officers, who were a bit paranoid in case we were spotted doing something odd which would mean trouble.
Fortunately, the lower ranks were not quite so impressed and went about their lives as usual, which meant that inasmuch as we had no idea what was in store in the near future we were determined to make the best of it while the best was still available.
My own particular best was music, of which I was an avid listener as the playing of same avoided my talents, and so being so close to Naples and the San Carlo Opera House, I made my way there at the first opportunity.
Strange as it seems now, my mother's favourite opera was playing, Cavaleria Rusticana, Mascagni's tale of love, lust, betrayal and death in Sicily. This was part of a two-opera show with the saga I Pagliacchi, and so I booked myself into a box all by myself and with feet up and completely relaxed, I enjoyed the first act of Cavaleria. The highlight then approached, the Intermezzo, and settling even further into the chair I listened as the orchestra struck up the first four notes... which were the last I heard as bedlam broke out with the audience running up and down with ice cream, juices etc, screaming and shouting to each other like long-lost brothers and sisters.
Then the story hit me... Mascagni had written this particular beautiful piece of music in order to prevent the audience from moving out of their seats... he failed miserably! Crestfallen, I wandered back to our camp without waiting for the end.
Some two weeks later, a notice appeared on squadron orders to the effect that we were all 'invited' to an operatic concert to be given by a famous Italian singer! This was not too well received by all ranks, and I found myself the only 'volunteer' other rank amongst all of the brigade officers who had been especially 'invited' by the brigade commander. I had mentally gone through all the various famous Italian singers of the day, realising that people like Schipa, Simonetta and many others were a bit past their prime and others like Gobbi were up and comers and so it left one name dangling in the air.
Sure enough, Beniamino Gigli was to sing for us for two hours, accompanied by his daughter on the piano, and we had a most fantastic evening of all the popular arias along with many of the Neapolitan songs.
Time and the war moved on and one day during a short leave in Rome, I was celebrating my 21st birthday at a café near the Pantheon when I noticed two things. One, my waiter was crying, and on the other side of the piazza was a funeral cortege. I asked the waiter what was wrong and he merely pointed to the cortege and said, 'Maestro Pietro Mascagni!' So my mother's favourite composer was buried in Rome on 22 July 1945.
It was when we were close to Rome I heard many operas via the radio, but the standards were not as high as they would have been as most of the ladies had gone to the USA prior to the war, and wisely stayed there, and most of the men were long past their prime with a few good new voices here and there. It was here that I first heard the wonderful voice of Renata Tebaldi and even today when I hear a recording of her singing Ebben from Catalini's La Wally, I still get shivers up my spine!
Again the war moved on and I happened to be in Vienna... illegally downtown looking for the Statopernhaus when I heard an orchestra obviously rehearsing, and so I slithered into the basement of the bombed-out building and saw and heard the Vienna Philharmonic of the day, conducted by Von Karajan, with a young soprano who was as thin as a rake as if she had been on a no food diet for some time... but the voice was unbelievable. At the end I must have applauded as I was 'invited' to leave by two Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alikes. It was two years later, back in the UK, that I heard that voice again... it was the great Dame Elisabeth Schwartskopf! To hear her sing the soprano for Beethoven's Ninth Choral, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler at Bayreuth is an experience ALL schoolchildren should have today.
Many times during that period I was in Milan and invariably dashing around to La Scala only to find that it closed last night... it will open next week. Eight times I have been in Milan... not once inside La Scala!
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