Experimental Italian theater comes to the Annenberg Center 

In ‘fedeli d’Amore,’ Italian theatre company Teatro delle Albe immerses audiences in the last visions of Dante. 

An angel reaches down behind a vocalist who performs on stage
A scene from Teatro delle Albe’s “fedeli d’amore,” staging the last visions of Dante. Visually, the show draws inspiration from 14th- and 15th-century European altarpieces consisting of several panels. (Image: Enrico Fedrigoli)

On Friday, Jan. 20, and Saturday, Jan. 21, Italian contemporary theatre company Teatro delle Albe will perform “fedeli d’Amore,” or “Love’s Faithful,” at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The company comes at the invitation of both Penn Live Arts and the Center for Italian Studies collaborating with the Italian Studies section of the Department of Francophone, Italian, & Germanic Studies.

The performance, featuring Ermanna Montanari and the music by Luigi Ceccarelli, is an extension of the 2021 anniversary of Dante’s death, and a direct result of a visit from the theater company to Penn in February 2019. Company founders Marco Martinelli and Montanari visited to conduct workshops with students and explain their three-year, three-part staging of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in Ravenna, Italy, organized in the parts of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

Ahead of the show, Mauro Calcagno, an associate professor of music with a secondary appointment in Italian Studies, discusses the boundary-pushing work of Teatro delle Albe, what he hopes audiences will take away from the experience, and how the production came to Penn for its U.S. premiere. Calcagno first experienced the Albe’s work on Dante in Ravenna alongside Eva Del Soldato, an associate professor of Italian Studies, who was, with Ann Moyer, director of the Center for Italian Studies, also instrumental in bringing the performance to Penn.

Two people dressed in white lead a procession through an Italian city street
Ermanna Montanari, left, and Marco Martinelli, right, lead a procession in Ravenna, Italy, as part of a three-part series of performances of “The Divine Comedy.” (Image: Silvia Lelli)

Marco and Ermanna have visited Penn in the past, yes? What did that involve?

Yes, they did some ‘lectures,’ but they don’t really do lectures, they do workshops in class and involve the students in something very active. They are among the founders of Teatro delle Albe, founded in 1983 in Ravenna, and Marco is a writer, director, and dramaturg, and Ermanna is an actress and costume and set designer, as well as a writer. But mainly, she’s the one on stage and she’s a famous, award-winning actress in Italy—one of the best. They came to Penn in 2019 and we were blown away; in class they did something really magical and involved the students in reading poems from the 16th century, but they came alive, these classics. It was not something we do as a professor, where we read and discuss them, and the students do an assignment. And they also did a little show at the Montgomery Theater where Ermanna performed Dante poems. She is very special. She is really a vocalist who uses her voice in an incredible way. She doesn’t sing, but everything you can do with a voice besides singing, she can do.

We also sent an undergraduate—who has since graduated and lives in New York—to Ravenna to work with them, who is going to be there on the day of the performance.

Have you seen Marco and Ermanna perform before?

Yes, so the student [Isabella Szpigiel] went there and we went to see her and brought [Executive and Artistic Director] Chris Gruits of Penn Live Arts, because he was curious to see what this company does. In summer 2019, we were all there, and we participated in Purgatorio, the second part [of a three-part series]. We participated with hundreds of people in this event, which took place on the streets of Ravenna and in the theater where the Albe operate.

Chris was blown away and decided to bring them to Penn. But then in 2020, the pandemic struck and we had to postpone and postpone. In the meantime, we started a program called Penn in Florence, and in 2022 Eva [Del Soldato] brought students to Ravenna for Paradiso [part three of the series]. The students participated in the show. So there was a presence of Penn in Ravenna but we couldn’t bring the company here because it was impossible. Now is the week in which, at last, the company can come and do a show at the Annenberg Center based on Dante: ‘fedeli d’Amore’ is based on the last days of Dante’s life in Ravenna where he died in 1321.

What is considered boundary pushing about what the company does?

In Ravenna, to stage the Divine Comedy, they did what is like a procession through the city and then they were inspired by Medieval sacred dramas and mystery plays where the participation of the people was part of the event. They went through the city, pausing at different locations. They had the city participate. That’s something that attracted us to them: They believe everybody can be an actor. And they were also inspired by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky who put community members at the center of productions to celebrate the Russian revolution. Similarly, the Albe did a ‘public call,’ summoning Ravenna’s citizens who responded in the hundreds. They brought a poem into theater, and theater into life.

What attracted us is this blurring of the boundaries of art and life. Italian has the expression ‘messa in scena’ to indicate theatrical staging, the mounting of a text in ‘scena,’ on stage. But for the Albe it isn’t enough just to put a play or a poem on stage; they put them ‘in vita’—in life—because the words of a text, written today or 20 centuries ago, are nothing until they become flesh. They can take anything—it doesn’t have to be a play—and transform it or do something different, because it becomes part of you. They embody it. That’s a powerful message for students when they are attached to their phones and everything can be mediated on a TV or computer screen, that they really believe in live performance, in embodying the art, in being there. So if you are an audience in a theater, what the Albe do on stage is something that really involves your senses: the music, the visuals, the sounds, and at the center of all this is Ermanna, her body, her voice.

What is notable about Ermanna’s performance style?

What she does is not just impersonate a character, a role; they don’t do that. On stage, she is a catalyst for what, traditionally, cannot be experienced in the theater and in life. She can be for example different ‘characters.’ You will see in this show that she is the fog, she is a devil, she is a donkey, she is Antonia the daughter of Dante, she is Dante himself. But they don’t match one to one an actor and a character. And at the same time, as they did in Ravenna, they make hundreds of people one character: Dante. So, there is this breaking down of the conventional idea we have in movies and traditional theater, that there is an actor and a character, and that’s not what they do. To do that, Ermanna uses her body and her voice. Her vocal virtuosity is very well known, and she also belongs to an Italian tradition of vocally trained actors like Carmelo Bene, Chiara Guidi, and Mariangela Gualtieri. The Albe operate in a region of Italy, the Emilia-Romagna, which was the hotbed of experimentation in the country and where the local governments invested in the arts.

They’ve been instrumental in forming new generations of theater companies in Italy and they collaborate with universities like that in nearby Bologna. So, when we sent the student there in Ravenna, we wanted the student to see that. How it is possible to make experimental arts in a region of Italy. It wasn’t another traditional trip to Rome or Venice; we wanted the student to see that side of Italy.

What do you want audiences to take away from seeing this show?

What we like to convey to students through their coming is that you can engage the humanities and the performing arts throughout your whole life. You don’t need to be a professional artist or a professor. The message we want to give is that whatever you do, the humanities and performing arts should be part of your life during and after Penn. You learn Italian, learn Dante, and bring it into your life. It’s not something you do in class and then just satisfy a requirement—that’s not what we do, not why we’re here. And so, we found a resonance with Teatro delle Albe, because they incorporate people in their shows and do a lot of educational activities in Italy. They do a lot of workshops. They really believe in bringing their art to schools, to immigrants, to the people, it’s a very progressive system.

How does this participatory style translate to the Annenberg Center?

When they do their show in a theater, as opposed to, say, Ravenna’s streets, the idea is to involve the spectator as much as possible by striking both the intellect and the senses. The visual aspect of their sets is really striking. And the vocal part comes with electronics and there is a trumpet player, so when Ermanna speaks, she interacts with them and it’s not background music. It’s really like a concert. It’s very musical and the music is not separated as an interlude and then they speak: they bring it together. It’s an immersive experience. You’re in a different world in one of their shows and they’re not just staging something or reading aloud a play you know—they do something really special.

Does someone need to be familiar with Dante to go to this show?

No. That’s not the point. There are program notes one can read before and that’s something students should also learn. Marco will talk a bit before the show starts. It’s OK to know about what they do and experimental theater, which [students] don’t see much … I would say that the intention is to make people really think about some larger topics. For example, the topic of exile. Dante is in Ravenna dying because he’s exiled from Florence. And you understand that in the show as a person who suffers. And at a certain point there’s an invective against Italy. Basically, you hear a famous line from Canto 6 of Purgatorio where Dante laments the condition of Italy: ‘Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello’ (‘Ah! servile Italy, grief’s hostelry’). The audience can read the translation in the projected supertitles. But then Ermanna goes on attacking the corruption of Italy today. That’s one way the Albe rework the classics. You have maybe one or two lines from Dante, but what she will say is something that doesn’t only have to do with Dante but with today—the corruption of politicians. It could be translating something here in the States. It’s using Dante to talk about something that is still relevant today.