One extraordinary day in Italy - Philip Murray
After several weeks spent revelling in the big-city buzz of London, Paris and Vienna, a journey into the countryside on our second day in Italy provided a welcome change of scene. Thanks to some invaluable family connections and lots of groundwork on the part of Isabella Woods, we were to perform that evening in Norma, a hilltop town southeast of Rome, and as guests of the local choral society (the Coro Polifonico “SS Annunziata”) we had been invited to enjoy a day visiting some of the attractions of the local area. Within an hour’s drive from Rome, on a sunny spring morning, we found ourselves suddenly among picturesque villages, vineyards and olive groves.
The first stop was the Giardino di Ninfa, a famous landscape garden established in the early 20th century by descendants of the noble Caetani family over the ruins of the medieval village of Ninfa. Few of us knew what to expect, but its reputation as the most beautiful and romantic garden in the world proved to be no exaggeration – what a miraculous, ravishing dream of a garden it was. Maintained entirely by hand without the use of chemicals or pesticides, it is considered one of Italy’s finest natural monuments. To stroll among the rose bushes, the hanging wisteria and beds of yellow irises, under the oak trees and cypresses and among the oranges and pomegranates (which we were told are never picked but left as food for the native birds); to stand on the old stone bridge and gaze down into pure spring water so impossibly clear that it seemed almost like some optical illusion; to walk along the former moat, now a snowy carpet of arum lilies and a playground for fireflies; to touch the crumbling stone walls of ancient houses and churches covered with climbing roses, no longer living buildings but mere shapes amongst the profusion of nature, distant echoes of lives lived long ago and testament to the endless cycle of death and new life; to see this beautiful place, and above all to be treated to a private tour by Stella, the director’s wife, was an exceptional privilege.
After losing ourselves for a couple of hours in this new Eden, it was time for lunch. We were driven to the town of Norma itself, on the mountaintop overlooking Ninfa, where we were invited to relax in a beautiful courtyard in the Mediterranean sunshine while a superb three-course meal was generously provided by our hosts. As the day unfolded, it became increasingly clear how much effort had gone into organising a special day for us. After lunch we were taken to a local chocolate factory and museum, and were given a tour of the most eclectic collection imaginable of machines and objects related to the processing, manufacturing and eating of chocolate, rather dusty and faded but clearly the work of a collector with an obsessive passion and an eye for the bizarre. One shelf alone, of various antique pots, kettles and samovars used for the serving of drinking chocolate, was staggering in its variety. As we left, in another gesture of generosity we were each presented with a small gift of chocolate sauce.By now the afternoon was drawing on, and there was some concern about finding time for a rehearsal before the concert that evening. But a further visit had been planned, to the hilltop town and fortress of neighbouring Sermoneta, which proved to be another astonishing treat. We were granted a private visit to the medieval castle at the centre of the town, also built by the Caetani family, and although having only a short while to look around, it was well worth it. This was a castle to satisfy the most fantastic imaginings of any child, with a moat, two drawbridges and a portcullis, turrets with narrow winding staircases, high crenelated battlements, a secret passageway within the walls, a courtyard with a well, large chambers and banqueting halls, and a spectacular view over the terracotta rooftops of the town and the entire surrounding region of Lazio. It was a fleeting visit but one I will not forget in a hurry.
We returned rather late to the church of Santissima Annunziata in Norma for a hasty rehearsal, but were thwarted by an unexpected service taking place in the church. Tired, thirsty and slightly frazzled after a long day, we freshened up as best we could in the church offices nearby, and were able to have few minutes’ warm-up in another church next door. There was a feeling of slight unease at not having a chance to try out the performance space, but it was too late to worry about it. Waiting in the piazza for the mass to finish, the late-afternoon sunlight became increasingly golden on the rooftops, and in the absence of traffic in this old part of town the only sounds were gentle ones: human voices echoing off the cobblestones, faint singing from the congregation at mass, the sonorous clang of an ancient bell somewhere nearby, the twitter of swallows roosting. The smells of an evening meal in preparation drifted down from an upper window. The beauty and peace of the place, and a magical feeling of being very far from home and from the cares and routines of daily life, cast a spell that swept away any anxiety.
When we at last entered the church, it was bustling with people. It was apparent by now that the concert would not be starting on time, but from the hum of expectation it clearly didn’t matter. We were ushered into the sacristy, where the windows looked over a rocky precipice and down to another stunning view of the fertile plains of Lazio far below, now hazy and golden in the evening light. Church staff and concert organisers busied themselves around us. An elderly but sprightly nun with a twinkle in her eye chatted to Warren in French, then took out her smartphone and befriended him on WhatsApp.
To begin the concert, the choir of Norma honoured us with a performance of their own, of a simple Italian piece, sung with a warmth and unity of spirit that were quite moving. Then it was our turn, and once again we had the joy of hearing our voices blend in yet another absolutely stunning acoustic. The lively and responsive crowd seemed to enjoy it too. Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” went down particularly well. We were greeted with a generous ovation and were showered with more gifts, this time of local olive oils and tapenades. Already overwhelmed by such generosity, we were then treated to a sumptuous dinner at a local restaurant - four courses this time, with freely flowing wine - in the convivial company of our new Italian chorister friends. In return we sang for our supper, performing a few of our more popular items, which were also well received by another party celebrating a 40th birthday in the same part of the restaurant.