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Dante Goes Disco

Oct
9
2007

Even after 680 years, Dante still rocks. Italians have a special rapport with the stubborn poet, considered the first to standardize the mother tongue: over the last few years, his “Divine Comedy” has been reborn — instead of just a text Italians spend years memorizing in high school — as entertainment for all ages.


Scholar Vittorio Sermonti performed readings of the entire thing — Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso — canto by canto every night for a months in churches and squares in different parts of Italy a couple of years ago. (The project was such a success with 150,000 people turning out that he’s now moved on to Virgil’s Aeneid.)
Then much-loved comedian Roberto Benigni brought his Dante show to theaters last year. Sure, he’s funny, stomach-cramping funny, but people forked over about 45 euros ($63) to spend an evening watching him recite from behind a lectern in his “Tutto Dante” show.
To date, though, the most radical re-reading has to be “Disco Inferno,” by two friends, one an actress, Lucilla Giagnoni, the other a DJ, Alessio Bertallot.
Not quite a musical or a show, think of it as a poetic mash-up, where five verses of the “Inferno” are set to modern music.
When Giagnoni appeared on stage to “Stairway to Heaven,” I wasn’t sure how it would come out in the mix, but somehow it worked.
Even a snob has to concede that Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” provides the right melancholic touch for clandestine lovers Paolo and Francesca.
Possibly, I was the only spectator who appreciated the irony of Ulysses in the eighth circle being set to Bad Company. But there was no denying Danish synth band Trentemoller hit the right chord with the crowd for the meeting between Dante and Virgil.
Bertallot, whose regular gig is a quirky evening show called “B-Side” on national pop station Radio Deejay, said the project was born as a way to use the information pounded into him during the half-decade spent on classical studies in high school. (He wasn’t a repeat student, that’s how long the ordeal lasts in Italy. They also go six days a week.)
In addition to choosing the music and spinning the discs, he did a quasi-rap intonation to some of the verse that, countered with Giagnoni’s more straightforward recital, was pretty damn catchy. The offbeat performance has toured theaters but is also often given as a free performance during larger conferences or events.
Not bad for a text penned in the 1300s.

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