Ceriale, a small town on the Ligurian coast, halfway between Genoa and Montecarlo, has often offered tepid summertime entertainment – concerts, plays, stand-up comedy – in its piazzas on the seafront. It's a place I've been coming to for more than 30 years. Our house is slightly raised, sitting at the base of a small mountain looking out on a 180° view of the sea, but the ‘entertainment' has often been acoustic torture and with the mountain behind the house acting as a sounding board, impossible to escape from.
The last town council made some dreadful choices, hosting discos aimed at teenagers next to the beach (those in their twenties would head off for more professional and ‘cool' locales in the larger cities), so in a family-orientated town the majority suffered as holidaying teens arrived from along the coast for a free disco, later expertly demonstrating to the locals how they couldn't hold their drink. Broken beer bottles in the sand among the deckchairs… not a good look as families arrived the following morning.
Now things have improved drastically, in just a few months, after local elections earlier this year changed the guard completely. Under the new mayor, Marinella Fasano, the councillor responsible for these summer events is Gianbenedetto Calcagno who, together with the promoter HPI Event, presented 12 varied, large-scale concerts with 1,200 seats filling the town square, facing the stage and the sea, as well as free standing places for another 800 people. Smaller events brought the summer total to more than 50.
Matia Bazar is an Italian pop band from Genoa. Their first concerts were in 1975, and they represented Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1979. Antonella Ruggiero was the lead singer who has an extraordinarily wide range, climbing easily into the stratosphere. After she decided to head off on a solo career in 1989, the band has had other high-flying nightingales to replace her – Silvia Mezzanotte being the most notable. 33-year-old Luna Dragonieri is the latest to ‘imitate' Ruggiero. She succeeds vocally with pitch-perfect high notes, but lacks charisma… or maybe stage experience. With sexy legs clad in thigh-length boots, this attractive woman could have had the audience in the palm of her hand, yet she opted for pacing up and down like Tim Curry's ‘sweet transvestite'. Continuously. “Keeping still can be powerful too,” I longed to yell. The overall sound though, with the band's excellent musicians, was exciting, with all their well-known numbers – but a leading lady needs to lead.
Fifty years her senior is Andrea Mingardi who arrived – after a big lead up by the 10-piece band – on crutches. The 83-year-old threw them down as he arrived centre stage and hoisted himself onto a chair… and the years slipped away. This sly old wolf has every performance trick under his belt. His easy, well-paced introductions to the songs (obviously partly improvised seeing how the band and backing group were flicking through their music as he hinted at the next number) were engrossing and often hilarious. He has sung at Italy's famous San Remo Festival five times and had songs recorded by the reclusive diva Mina, as well as singing a duet with her in 2006, yet he only sang a couple of his old hits. His playlist consisted mainly of American rock and roll, soul, and rhythm and blues that he evidently adores as well as some Italian standards such as Lucio Dalla's Caruso. The generous programme had to be physically interrupted to stop him from going past the midnight curfew – his tour bus was already turning into a pumpkin.
But for this spectator, the best of all was (despite the name) an Italian singer and pianist called Matthew Lee. He has just entered his forties yet, like Mingardi, he too was inspired by rock and roll. His father's discs of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis were his inspiration, and as an 11-year-old from Pesaro – home to the great Rossini Opera Festival – he enrolled at the conservatoire bearing Rossini's name. After nine years, he was invited to leave as his ‘exuberant' music making was not in line with the more straight-laced conservatoire syllabus. He is an improviser with jazz as well as ‘rock ‘n' roll' in his soul, and a great show-off with an expansive, slick personality. His prodigious way with the piano evokes memories of Liberace: he doesn't often look at the keyboard; he'll occasionally use theatrical hand movements as he plays which underline his dazzling technique; and has an easy (and cheeky) laid-back style that makes light of the fact that he's a virtuoso. And he sings too! He has a wonderful voice, and a good line in patter.
Lee is an absolute charmer, with a wink behind every grin – gelled blonde hair, a bright saffron-coloured suit, a cool slipping on and off of the shades, flashy rings and flashy smile, yet at his heart is the music, mainly American (his early albums were all in English) and sung without a trace of an Italian accent. But the showman is never far away and his foot will hit an upper note on the keyboard, he'll play standing up and, during the last number, he even laid on his back on the piano and played the keys over his head. Talk about making it seem easy.
Ceriale reborn? It was about time.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.