A Rational Dish

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Just down the Kensal Rise from my London lodgings, I regularly haunt a Neapolitan pizzeria. Their Margherita Parmigiana – a sloppy, smoky celebration of classic ingredients, hung for fun on the house’s signature elastic dough base – is a paragon of human achievement. And so, when my phone vibrated to the offer of a quartet trip to Naples, I didn’t bother to ask the fee, nor consult my dear fellow Castalians: “Si”, I drooled in fluent Italian.

In these times of Trump and Brexit – or ‘Trumpit’ (if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry – and I fear you didn’t laugh) – I find it soothing to seek out the familiar, that which remains. Stereotypes are especially flammable of course, but on our visit to the shadows of Vesuvius, the Italians caricatured themselves to comforting levels.

We arrived to one of the great immigration queues, and two officials with time on their hands. After a stationary half-hour, an Armani-clad uomo broke rank and began to plead à la Puccini – an aria so powerful that a passing guard succumbed, opening the gates to a tremendous chorus of thankful air passengers, passports pointlessly flashed in his couldn’t-be-less-interested direction.

Next up, Giacomo, our driver, to whom nothing was barrier, from the vehicles left strewn in his wake to the speed of sound. Charlotte grasped my arm with discomforting alarm: “Are we going to die in this van?”. There was no way I could truthfully reassure her. At last we’d discovered a useful reason for musical performance directions being in Italian: “Lento, Giacomo, LENTO MOLTO per favore!”

Treating pedestrians as slalom poles, he mounted the kerb and unloaded us, nauseated ad infinitum, at the hotel, where we palely summoned directions to the nearest pizzeria. “You’re in luck”, we were told. “We’re located in the centre of the city, right next to the Royal Palace.” Things were looking up! Not only had we survived a journey in the Giacomobile but we were bang in the heart of Naples. Out we ventured, optimistically suppressing our suspicion that the city wasn’t what it once had been. Where is these days? “When in Naples”, we guffawed as succulent discs of the finest pizza you’ve ever tasted landed on our table. Then, to get our bearings, a glance at Google Maps and a discombobulating realisation: we weren’t in Naples at all.

Caserta is the Versailles of Napoli, the site of the world’s largest royal palace, and some 35km north of our supposed destination. On further inspection, it transpired to be an enticing locale, complete with crumbling walls, romantically-named piazzas and the narrow streets of a Fiat ad.

Our first of three concerts was a pot-holed sprint up to another part of the Neapolitan conurbation, where – with no exaggeration – Giacomo swerved directly into the lobby of a school for budding Carluccios. In a hall with the acoustics of a bathroom and the smell of a kitchen, we played to the most boisterous of crowds – standing, sitting, spilling out onto the street, as much part of the performance as we were. This carnival swirl of Ravel and revel shifted the focus from figuration and inflection to the lasting effect of the bigger picture. It was a riot, followed by risotto!

The next day, to Caiazzo, and our second recital, in the stunning Chiesa di San Francesco. As we stepped through the narthex, expecting an empty church in which to rehearse, we found ourselves behind the last row of a congregation. Towards the altar an elderly lady, no more than five feet tall but with the lungs of a blue whale, led the faithful in holy song as the priest undertook his ecclesiastical duties. I am not a religious person, but how moving, comforting this scene became, witnessing age-old practices still held dear in a community at this moment seemingly unaffected by the latest betrayals of the outside world.

On our return to Caserta, Antonino – the heartwarmingly generous director of Festival Autunno Musicale – guided us into the town’s favourite pizzeria, a rustic canteen crammed with locals. There, you order pies by the multi-topped metre, and we gorged on what felt like a mile of the stuff, willed on by Antonino’s balletic arm-gestures. This, one felt, was an act of worship as sacred as Mass itself.

Following the final concert in Capua (and another reliably resonant church, which I’m sure still reverberates to the audience’s snap-happy hubbub), Cyril Huvé – our esteemed partner in Fauré’s 2nd Piano Quintet – smoked out his pipe and voiced a heavenly idea: dinner in Naples! “No, too far”, claimed our host. “Giacomo could even get us to Rome and back this evening”, we challenged, with hope…….

In all its thrilling chaos, Southern Italy proved to be an unexpectedly pacifying getaway from the disquieting irrationality of the current political climate. We never did make it to Naples, but I sure am grateful to have a slice of it back home in Kensal Rise.

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