Sunday, April 14, 2013

Farewell to Caffe Venezia Opera Night

Soprano Angela Moser; photo from West Coast Opera

On Tuesday we had dinner in a lovely candlelit square in Venice, surrounded by music. Or at least that's the way it felt as we attended the final Opera Night at Caffe Venezia. Venezia has been our favorite Berkeley restaurant for more than two decades; it was the place we'd go for birthdays and anniversaries and pre-show dinners. The restaurant was designed and decorated so that it seemed as though you were sitting at an outdoor cafe in Venice, an illusion fostered by Silvio Ronzone's cleverly detailed trompe-l'oeil murals (click on the picture for a larger version):

The murals at Caffe Venezia: a cat (in the doorway of the bakery) watches over our favorite table
Photo from Berkeleyside

The whimsical verisimilitude extended to a splashing central fountain, pigeons perched on a balcony, and a laundry line that stretched high above the tables. The laundry changed seasonally (on Valentine's day, the line was hung with bright red lingerie):

Note the pigeons (on the balcony at top left) and the laundry
on the line; photo by Gourmet G.
And of course, what would Venice be without opera? Every New Year's Eve Venezia presented an Opera Night, where singers from the Berkeley/West Edge Opera and other local companies would perform while your meal was served. It felt so festive to be sipping a glass of prosecco while being serenaded with the greatest hits of 19th century opera.

But to our dismay Caffe Venezia announced earlier this year that it would be closing at the end of May, and offering a final Opera Night on Tuesday, April 9. (Opera Night had begun as Tuesday Night Opera until it gradually became an only-on-New-Year's-Eve event.) We made sure to get reservations, but were uncertain what to expect with the looming closure.

The mood of the evening was bittersweet indeed, but this was one of the best Opera Nights we'd ever attended. Perhaps recognizing that this was their last chance to show their appreciation for the restaurant and the event, the audience responded to the performers enthusiastically. And the singers seemed to be inspired by their reception. Soprano Angela Moser, in particular, playfully engaged the audience by singing "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816) and the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen (1875) while strolling among the tables and directly addressing (and sometimes caressing) the diners.

Among the many highlights of this truly delightful evening were two duets sung by Moser and soprano Jillian Khuner. The first was the Flower Duet ("Sous le dôme épais") from Leo Delibe's Lakmé (1883), one of the few operas with a South Asian setting. I wasn't able to find a version with Moser and Khuner, so Elīna Garanča and Anna Netrebko will have to do:

The second duet was the Barcarolle ("Belle nuit d'amour") from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881); the act from which this duet is taken is set (appropriately enough) in Venice. The video below again features Garanča and Netrebko:

Savoring a deliciously earthy Refosco from Friuli as the accompaniment to my favorite Venezia dish, malfatti con funghi ("badly cut" pasta with a richly flavorful mushroom sauce), in the company of my sweetheart, while listening to Moser and Khuner's gorgeous voices intertwine—it's hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to spend an evening. Perhaps we should regret the disappearance of the 18th-century tradition of having supper and drinking champagne while attending the opera.

Caffe Venezia’s warm ambiance, excellent staff (Amy was our attentive and efficient server on Tuesday), well-prepared food and affordable elegance will be sorely missed. Many thanks to everyone at Venezia who made every meal we had there over the years a special occasion. We can only hope that another restaurant in Berkeley or San Francisco will take over the tradition of Opera Night.

You can read about Venezia in longtime staffer Allison Etchison's article in Berkeleyside, from which the first photo of Venezia was taken.

And for a hint of what we heard on the final Opera Night, here is Angela Moser performing Donna Anna's aria "Non mi dir" from the August 2010 Open Opera production of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park:

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