Italian Iter | Venice

Cannaregio building

Venice has two faces. Walk one way and it’s a floating historical park, corroded by touristic cruft, cruise ship day trippers, aggressive rose peddlers, and well-marked routes that all lead to the McDonald’s on Strada Nova. Walk another way and the city is a man-made miracle, a living example of magical realism, where the sun sets in crystal skies over the lagoon, Maine coon cats lounge on a wooden bridge, pastel laundry hangs out to dry. At night, a labyrinth of empty streets, dark alleys, blind corners — the kind of places you would avoid anywhere else — usher you toward unexpected surprises, like an Italian band playing “Jailhouse Rock”.

View from our window
View from our room
Food and Drink

We loved staying in Cannaregio around the corner from Tintoretto’s workshop. We had our breakfast spot, our wine spot, and our gelato spot. Really, we needn’t have gone anywhere else, except that we were born to wander. A directory of favorites:

Vino Vero (Cannaregio) – elegant, fresh cicchetti with many vegetarian options; stellar wine list including an ambrosial Lambrusco and a sparkling pinot nero rose so delightful John had a glass two nights in a row

Il Santo Bevitore (Cannaregio) – beer

Enoteca Al Volto (San Marco) – a classic wine bar; source for the recipe below

Gam Gam (Cannaregio) – delicious Kosher restaurant on the canal near the Jewish ghetto; get the eggplant appetizer called massa’bacha

Paradiso Perduto (Cannaregio) – best cacio e pepe ever!

Suso Gelatoteca (San Marco) – creative, swanky, intensely flavored gelato

Bacaro del Gelato (Cannaregio) – the creamiest gelato; not fancy, just really good

We tried so many varieties of wine we’ve rarely seen at home: soave, arneis, malvasia, franciacorta. Heaven!

Cannaregio living
After dinner at Paradiso Perduto: finishing a bottle of Tokaj
Recipe – Artichoke Cicchetti

We loved Venice’s wine bars and cicchetti — little snacks, usually sliced bread with different toppings. We went to Enoteca Al Volto twice to eat their one vegetarian option and I have successfully recreated it at home.

Slice up a baguette. Top each disk with artichoke spread, like DeLallo Artichoke Bruschetta, and a slice of smoked cheese — provolone or mozzarella. Garnish with chopped pistachios.

Top Five Sites

We visited the Doge’s Palace with its militaristic murals, traveled to the fabled islands of lace and glass, gazed upon Carpaccio’s epic paintings in the Accademia, but my favorite things were:

Monteverdi's burial
Paying homage to the father of opera at Frari Church
San Marco
Marveling at the Basilica di San Marco with its Byzantine flourishes and thanking the heavens for no entry line
Exploring Torcello, the smallest, quietest island with its beautiful flowers and Byzantine mosaics
Castello cat
Walking through the Castello district on a quiet morning from  Arsenale to the Chiesa di Sant’Elena
Going to no place in particular. I learned to accept that we would get lost. We were always winding up at dead ends, doubling back, looking for bookstores that had disappeared years ago, but somehow we would always end up on a bridge with a glorious view.
Toilet Troubles – As Promised

Listening to a bandThursday night in Dorsoduro, we walked by the Venice Jazz Club, but it was closed. On our way back north, we came across a cover band playing at San Duich Bar. The band occupied most of the tiny interior, so we joined the audience outside and sang along since we knew every song. A glass of sangria later, I needed the restroom. I locked the door and when I was done I couldn’t get out. I jiggled the handle. Rattled the door. Turned the key this way and that. When my maneuvers became more forceful, a bartender shouted something at the door in Italian, switched to English, and then came to my rescue. “See, it’s easy,” he said while showing how smoothly the key turned in its lock. I had to disagree.

Social Encounters

Before I got locked in the bathroom, we had dinner at an unremarkable place on the Campo Santa Margherita. An older American couple — she was Jewish, he was black — sat next us and struck up conversation by first thanking us for not smoking. Later the wife invited us to share a bottle of wine with her since her husband doesn’t drink. We couldn’t say no to such an invitation! It’s the kind of thing I would like to be able to do in the future when we are too old to be mistaken for swingers. Turns out the couple are from California and work in higher education. We had a free-ranging conversation about the Donald, traveling, Jewish ancestry, wine, Italy. They warned us about Florence. “If you think this is crowded…”

Notes for Next Time

Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

Marciana Library. It was closed for some unexplained reason.

Basilica di San Marco. Again.


Continue reading: Florence


Make Your Own Season Guide

The last five months took me to a number of performances — way more than I typically see in a such a short period. I will briefly catalog them here in my external memory.

Les Miserables, Imperial Theater. My mom loves Ramin Karimloo, so we took a family field trip to see him star as Jean Valjean. I was initially more excited about the theater itself — old, cozy, dressed in red velvet, home to performances by Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger. I felt giddy about seeing my very first Broadway show. When the music started, I discovered just how deeply the sounds of Les Mis had imprinted themselves on my brain. My mom recalled that as a child I loved “Master of the House” and that’s still my favorite — so many good words from “arse” to “shit”. The visual effects and design impressed me most. The set of half-timbered houses in the Parisian slums stretched beyond the proscenium arch (an excellent use of space), while the battle around the barricades looked like a Delacroix painting. Projection and mist enhanced the scenes in the tunnels and catacombs, and projection again created a cinematic illusion as the revolutionaries walked in place and a street scene moved along behind them (sounds cheesy in writing, but it was a fabulous effect). The theater productions I grew up with took place mostly outside and involved lots of paper mache; I’m still amazed to no end what theatrical engineers and technologists can do these days.

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Historic Sixth and I Synagogue. The night after my show, I went to see one of the brightest stars in jazz today. Salvant reveals her study of the inimitable divas — Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, and Betty Carter — in her own intelligent, playful style. She is a vocal gymnast, but she won my heart with her eclectic song choices, like “The Trolley Song.” And for an encore? She showed her classical training, artistry, and wit by performing Leonard Bernstein’s “I Hate Music.”

Cosi fan tutte, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Despite having never seen this Mozart opera until last November, I have always felt a fondness for it. In high school, two classmates and I learned the trio from Act I “Soave sia il vento” and I’d always known that Cosi fan tutte features voices in all kinds of combinations from solo arias to sextets. This production starring six students of the Maryland Opera Studio was even more glorious than I’d expected and that little cast of six showed effortless endurance through the performance. It’s a goofy plot, but exquisite music.

The Merry Widow, Metropolitan Opera House. Speaking of goofy plots, this 1905 Viennese operetta echoes “Women are like that”, while looking forward to great American musical. Stanley Green’s Broadway Musicals 1891-1916 even includes music from The Merry Widow, which came to Broadway in 1907 and created such a feror it “prompted the introduction of Merry Widow hats, gowns, corsets, and cigarettes.” The reason for my seeing the opera was no history lesson; my mom loves baritone Nathan Gunn, so again we made a family field trip. It didn’t hurt that Renee Fleming, the great opera ambassador and soprano, would be co-starring with Gunn, or that we got to see luxurious Lincoln Center with its massive Chagall paintings and spangly, modern chandeliers. The performance featured gorgeous costumes, can-can girls, and wonderful Belle Epoque touches, but it was missing the pizazz a sparkling musical comedy requires. Gunn and Fleming seemed restrained and I only caught glimpses of their full power. John, mom, and I saw Gunn in recital once, a truly awesome experience, and now I feel compelled to seek out Fleming whatever the ticket price.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Kennedy Center. Since high school, I’ve wanted to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Everyone in theater and voice had to take a movement class and I remember we watched a video of “Revelations”, Alvin Ailey’s signature piece. It’s iconic movements inflected with African dance stuck with me because I had never seen anything like it. Now, more than ten years later, John and I went to see the company perform three pieces during their annual engagement in Washington, DC: “Odetta” (2014), “Bad Blood” (1984), and “Revelations” (1960). The audience went nuts for “Revelations”, but as Odetta is one of my musical idols, I particularly liked the piece that honored her activism and radiant humanism. I couldn’t help noting too its effective lighting design and set pieces (benches that could be stacked and arranged to evoke any number of items from columns to railroad ties). “Bad Blood” featured various couples dancing fiercely, tenderly, passionately; it was thrilling and so circa 1984.

Choir Boy, Studio Theater. How often do I get to see someone I know in professional theater! My fellow graduate of the class of ’03, Eric, appeared as Junior in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s musical play, which originally premiered in 2012 (I think). The intimate space of the Studio Theater suited the emotional tension of the story, which centers on an elite prep school for young black men and one student’s struggle with his sexuality, identity, and place within the world. If that isn’t already enough to unpack, the play finds its grounding in gospel music, which the characters use in different ways: to find comfort or strength, to express emotions they don’t have words for, to create bonds and friendship. The singing required tremendous versatility, power, and range from the actors. The headmaster stole the show for me with “Been in the Storm So Long”. When he sings, he is exhausted from investigating a violent act that occurred on campus, keeping peace among the students, and balancing the demands of the school’s trustees. Still, he finds strength and hope through music. Regarding the five boys at the heart of the story, I found the actors’ renditions of raw, boundary-testing teenagers pitch perfect.

Dialogues of the Carmelites, Kennedy Center. I end where I began: the French Revolution. Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera follows a group of nuns through their daily life of religious debates, work, and song until the soldiers of the Revolution storm their doors. In the most gripping climax to any play or opera I have ever seen, some 15 nuns are executed, one by one, complete with the slicing sound effect. I can’t say I identified with the nuns or understood the internal turmoil and fearful outlook of the main character, Blanche. However, Poulenc’s music gave me all the tension and emotionality I needed. Alternating between ripping trumpets and lush harps, he is a master of mood and musical foreshadowing. Except for a few hymns, the opera is sung dialogue: more melodic than recitative, but without ever solidifying into any discrete song forms. With such a female-dominated cast, I loved hearing the many textures of the female voice: women who sound like barrels and women who sound like birds. I marveled at the set — three giant versatile walls — a dynamic modern sculpture that played with shadow and light so poetically. The opera may have left me exhausted and unsettled, wondering what kind of death I will have, but I left humming one of the themes.


Continuing my great voices series (modeled after NPR’s)…Leontyne Price.

Leontyne PriceI got stuck on Leontyne Price after hearing Rediscovered. Her warm soprano astounds me every time. I don’t think I need to provide much commentary here, so I’ll just present my song selections.

  • D’amor sull’ali rosee from Verdi’s Il Trovatore (1853) A number of YouTubers listed this aria as their favorite Leontyne Price song so I had to take a listen. Superb — Ms. Price has amazing control, seemless phrasing, and divine trills.
  • Summertime from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) Perfect diction. I love how clearly her voice rings and how easily she moves throughout her range.
  • Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca (1900) So glorious it might just bring you to tears.