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Arrivederci, Franco

A long weekend in Turin was nearly spoilt when I opened my copy of La Stampa at the breakfast table and saw that the great Italian critic Franco Quadri had died in Milan aged 74.

For many years on Repubblica, the leading Italian broadsheet, Quadri had been the voice of reason and enthusiasm on all that was both innovative and exceptional in the European theatre, and his status will be acknowledged in a celebration of his life in the Piccolo Theatre in Milan tomorrow morning.

It's hard to describe exactly what sort of a beast Franco was: critic, publisher, translator, festival convenor, television pundit. He was like a smooth Italian amalgam of Michael Billington, Melvyn Bragg, Nick Hern and Michael Kustow, with added urbanity and dress sense.

He will be much missed when the critics meet in St Petersburg next month to award the Europe Theatre Prize to the German director Peter Stein; he helped organise this annual shindig which honours only the sharp end of what used to be called the avant-garde. He was quite militant about this. Indeed, he was the only critic I can think of who took his early idealism untainted into middle age and beyond with a sense of humour and undimmed passion.

He used to be amused by my dislike of such grandiose displays of cultural kow-towing and fore-lock pulling, arguing that the razzmatazz was forgiveable if executed on behalf of worthy causes.

I hadn't seen him for some time, so I felt curiously moved that I was quite near the scene of his passing. I had managed to find the last pair of tickets for Verdi's Sicilian Vespers at the Teatro Regio, brilliantly conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, chief conductor with the BBC Philharmonic.

This rare late opera is in part a patriotic hymn and in part a political rallying cry, so Davide Livermore's vital modern dress production seems doubly appropriate in the year of the 150th anniversary of "unification" - especially in Turin, where the country's first parliament sat. Where once reigned Cavour and Garibaldi, welcome to the spectacle of Berlusconi and his banga banga girls, some of whom fetched up in the chorus on the arms of ancient senators. 

Sicilian Vespers is also, coincidentally, the opera with which this magnificent new theatre re-opened on the site of the old one, which had been destroyed first by fire and then by bombing in the last war, in 1973. 

On the afternoon of the performance, the doors were thrown open to the public in a series of guided tours as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. Having just collected my tickets, I tagged happily along, stalking the auditorium, the stage, the wardrobe and rehearsal rooms with a bunch of opera enthusiasts and adolescent schoolchildren.

This was the theatre where Toscanini conducted the first performance of La boheme, so the display cabinets alongside the imposing smaller auditorium in the basement are particularly interesting, and full of vivid memorabilia.

The red auditorium is like a large sea shell, with 1500 seats rising in a single block, with a belt of red boxes dramatically ranged around the top of the seating and a forest of tall tubular lights plunging from the ceiling like stalactites.

The two huge circular bars are at the top level, too, the whole place a ziggurat of metal and glass, dramatic foyer areas and a palpable sense of occasion. One thing: the toilets are far too few, with a terrible stampede for both ladies and gents in the intervals.

Inside, the whole auditorium is plastered in beechwood, dyed deep red, yielding the most perfect acoustic imaginable. It was a privilege to sit with a Friday night audience of regulars who had paid only 80, 60 or 40 euros for their tickets.

You save on dinner in Turin: most bars serve a free "aperitivo" buffet, so the whole area before the curtain is stuffed with "tutto Torino", dressed to the nines, digging into artichoke salads and cream cakes with their glasses of prosecco and Barolo. Quite a sight.

One of the joys of the city -- apart from the colonnades, the amazing labyrinth of grand piazzas, the baroque facades and the walks along the River Po -- is the lack of British tourists. Most Brits who go to Turin go for the skiing, so they've high-tailed it to the mountains, leaving the place to us; oh, and to Nicholas Payne, former director of the ENO and now head of Opera Europa, the international co-ordinating body based in Brussels. It was jolly nice to find him in the stalls, and he was enjoying the show very much, too.  



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