William Hamilton – Grand Opera: A Farewell to Pordenone
July 21, 2009
Recently, in a store that sells pots and pans, my eye was drawn to a product with “Panini” printed across the box in bold letters. As someone who attended (albeit only once and poorly) a live performance of Grand Opera in Italy, I made amends by buying a Panini.
When it comes to Grand Opera, Italians are a tough crowd. So, it came as no surprise that the work of Panini has been panned. Were it not for his Uncle Giacomo, the publisher of the Panini Press, it is doubtful that we, here in America, would have ever heard of Panini. Seriously, your faithful observer actually attended a performance of Giacoma Puccini’s “Tosca” in Pordenone, Italy.
Although our airborne battalion was based in Germany, we were scheduled to parachute onto a drop zone north of Pordenone, about half way between the famous ski resort at Cortina d’Ampezzo and Venice. Once we hit the ground, we were to maneuver under live machine-gun fire toward our mountain-top objectives.
Safety requirements mandated some detailed advance planning and coordination. Our battalion operations officer, Joe Spencer, and his assistant, Roberto Miller, and I flew down to Italy to hold meetings with the Italian Alpine Brigade and the Bersaglieri, the elite Italian troops who wear a veritable volcano of black, capon feathers erupting from their hats.
Roberto, born in post-war Italy of a U.S. Counterintelligence Corps agent and an Italian beauty spoke, well, native Italian. The three of us got along famously with the Italians. In fact, our Italian counterparts liked us so much that they took us to downtown Pordenone where they hosted us to the best lunch I have ever had, anywhere, ever. I think the place was called Al fresco, or something like that. But, in any event, we can’t go back.
After a week of negotiations, we found ourselves alone in Pordenone on a Friday evening with nothing to do until Monday. Unfortunately, the resourceful Roberto produced three, front-row tickets to “Tosca.”
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Even Italians of meager means dress up for the Opera. So, we decided to wear our best American uniforms. Also, prior to “Tosca,” we decided to enjoy a large Italian dinner.
The opera was moving along just fine until we got to the part where Mario caresses the hands of Tosca, who had just committed murder for Mario. Then, as the firing squad that was “supposed” to conduct a “fake” execution of Mario marches on stage, yours truly fell into a wine- and pasta-induced sleep.
Moreover, just when Tosca learns: that she has been tricked, that the firing squad switched from the promised blanks to real bullets, that Mario is actually dead, and just as Tosca (singing, of course) is leaping to her death – I began to snore. We were lucky the firing squad did not reload and turn its guns on the three Americans in the front row.
While Italians can interrupt an Italian opera company to applaud a well-sung aria or even boo and hiss at the singers for missing notes, it is not acceptable to snore. At the desk of the Pordenone Arms the next morning, I fully expected the hotel clerk to hand me a telegram from the American Embassy in Rome telling us that we had all been declared persona non grata. Fortunately, that did not happen.
The following month, we dropped over 700 paratroopers without a hitch. With machine-gun bullets zipping overhead, our troops scaled their objectives in record time. The Bersaglieri, seeing the up-mountain charge of our superbly-conditioned airborne troops, started jumping up and down and cheering so hard that black capon feathers were flying everywhere.
Despite the all-around acclaim, we decided the better part of valor was to bid a farewell to the Pordenone. For the return flight to Germany, we had Italian Army trucks convoy us directly to the U.S. Air Force Base at nearby Aviano.
– William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, is a retired Army officer who, at one time, commanded an airborne battalion based in Germany.