Berlusconi at the Opera

Olivia Giovetti

It’s rare to go to a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco where the Act 3 chorus, ‘Va pensiero,’ doesn’t stop the show with an ovation. The opera was composed during the Risorgimento, and the chorus of Hebrew slaves lamenting their homeland, ‘so beautiful and so lost,’ became the unofficial anthem for a unified Italy. When I saw Nabucco at the Metropolitan Opera in 2004, a voice from the upper rafters of the audience bellowed ‘Viva l’Italia!’ before the applause began.

The chorus of Silvio Berlusconi’s personal anthem, the preposterously fawning ‘Meno male che Silvio c’è’ (‘Thank goodness for Silvio’), begins with the words ‘Viva l’Italia’. But they come with a qualification that Verdi would never have accepted: long live the Italy that has chosen Berlusconi as its leader. But then Berlusconi, a former cruise ship crooner who pushed even television news to its pornographic limits, never had much use for opera.

During his four terms as prime minister, Berlusconi pillaged Italy’s cultural sector. When he first took office in 1994, he appointed the economist Lamberto Dini as his finance minister. Dini assumed the role of prime minister when Berlusconi’s government collapsed seven months later, and introduced legislation to privatise public arts bodies, including opera houses, orchestras, dance companies, theatres and film institutes, though they would continue to receive subsidies from a public fund, the Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo. When Berlusconi returned to the Chigi Palace in 2001, annual funding from the FUS was €530 million. By 2006, it had dropped by more than €100 million. In that year, three major opera houses – La Fenice in Venice, Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and Teatro San Carlo in Naples – had deficits ranging from €3 million to €7 million and were facing bankruptcy.

By the time Berlusconi took office for the last time, in 2008, a quarter of Italy’s opera houses were bankrupt. The next year, FUS funding reached a new low: €397 million. When, in 2011, Berlusconi’s government announced plans to cut arts spending by a further 37 per cent, the conductor Riccardo Muti made a rare show of protest. That March, he conducted a run of Nabucco at Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera. On the opening night, during the applause after ‘Va pensiero,’ an audience member once again cried out: ‘Viva l’Italia!’ Muti, a leonine figure on the podium, for whom a composer’s score was sacrosanct, interrupted the performance.

‘Yes, I agree with that “Viva l’Italia,”’ he said with quiet reflection. In an impromptu speech, he went on: ‘Tonight, as the chorus sang, “Oh, my country, so beautiful and so lost,” I thought to myself that, if we kill the culture on which Italian history is built, then truly our country will also be beautiful and lost.’ The whole thing was broadcast on public television. When Berlusconi attended a later performance in an attempt to save face, he was booed by the audience. It’s a cautionary tale for Arts Council England following last November’s funding cuts (which have already resulted in closures and the forced eviction of the English National Opera from London).

For all of his apparent animus towards opera, however, Berlusconi – whose rise to power involved sex, robbery and murder, long before the bunga bunga era – could have learned a lot from the art form. In Paolo Sorrentino’s not-quite-biopic Loro, Berlusconi’s wife tells him that he’s not as original or forward-thinking as he believes himself to be; he’s just ‘the same old … characters, pretending to be modern.’

Take Baron Scarpia, the autocratic chief of police, whose lust for Tosca makes him ‘forget God’ and who manipulates the law to coerce Puccini’s heroine into sex. After she stabs him, she murmurs in wonder over his corpse that ‘all of Rome trembled before him.’ The horror of watching Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea – particularly its ecstatic final love duet – is realising that you’re rooting for Nero. Verdi, never one to shy away from political allegory, likewise tarnishes the heroic tenor in Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantova, casting him as a tyrant who fucks and kills with impunity, the consequences of which we see play out via his complicit court jester. The unspoken tragedy of John Adams’s Nixon in China is that we know what happens to the characters after the curtain falls.

Berlusconi’s political career was never intended to serve the public, but rather himself and (to a lesser degree) those in his elite circle. Whether he could admit it to himself or not, his self-image was as an operatic hero. In Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan’s musical Berlusconi, which recently completed a run at the Southwark Playhouse, the protagonist insists on telling his life story by writing an opera. What both he and his real-life counterpart seem to have forgotten is that, in opera, most despots end up being deposed.


  • 21 June 2023 at 2:09pm
    Rory Allen says:
    I recall thinking when Berlusconi first came to power, 'Oh, those Italians! Only in Italy!'
    Now we can see that his buffoonery, utter lack of any personal morality and total dedication to cronyism and corruption merely set the pattern for multiple subsequent populist imitators.

  • 22 June 2023 at 8:29pm
    steve kay says:
    Welcome back, LRB. What is really remarkable about Va Pensiero as described by Olivia is not just the entire house at La Scala immediately on their feet, not just the address by Maestro Muti, followed by an encore. It is when Muti turns round to face the audience, and conducts an overwhelming chorus by the entire audience. Still to be found on YouTube, in varying degrees of quality.