When the sun is blazing and the summer heat becomes intolerable, going to the movies is always a great escape. For those with more highbrow inclinations, however, that doesn’t mean having to sit through the latest superhero blockbuster or sappy rom-com.
The Tivoli Cinemas in Westport is not only a movie theater, but also an international opera house, concert hall and world-class art museum. This week, for example, you can attend the Royal Opera House production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” or a concert by what many critics consider the greatest orchestra in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic, performing the music of Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner.
You can also view “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse,” an exhibition from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Royal Academy, London. It features works by many great artists, including Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, John Singer Sargent and Henri Matisse. The film not only provides close-up views of the paintings, but also visits the gardens that inspired them.
Presenting this cornucopia of cultural delights is a labor of love for Tivoli owner Jerry Harrington.
“Sometimes these things don’t do very well, but I feel a commitment to my hometown,” Harrington said. “There are enough people who want to see them that I’m justified in showing them. I’m never going to get rich off this stuff, but it’s satisfying to me on a different level.”
Those who are aware of what the Tivoli has to offer in the way of opera, theater and art exhibitions become passionate patrons, Harrington says.
“We have some people who come to most everything,” he said. “It’s amazing. We’ll have a week’s worth of programs, and I’ll see the same people night after night. I’ll tell them, ‘You’re here more than I am.’ ”
One of those regulars is A. Rae Price. At 88, Price doesn’t make it to as many live concerts as she once did, but she rarely misses a cultural screening at the Tivoli.
“I use a cane, so I don’t get around as well as I used to,” Price said. “But it’s so easy to go to the Tivoli. Easy to park, easy to get in, and the venue itself is so comfortable, and Jerry makes the place welcoming with his own presence. My mother used to use the term ‘clubby.’ The Tivoli has a nice little clubby atmosphere.”
Price spent the early 1950s in Paris working on the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government’s program to help Europe recover from WWII. She attended concerts there regularly and continued her avid concertgoing when she returned to the States. As a lifelong attendee of opera and theater, she knows what’s good, and, for her, the Tivoli presents the best of the best.
“I like when Jerry has opera, ballet and, of course, any of the London shows are spectacular,” she said. “I love live performances, but sometimes the live theater here is too loud. I object to people shouting at me. The sound is very balanced at the Tivoli.
“I’m awfully impressed with Kansas City’s Lyric Opera, but one of the things about opera at the Tivoli is that you have international stars.”
Diana Damrau, the German soprano who sings the title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” is a perfect example of such an international opera star. Especially well-known for her portrayal of the Queen of the Night in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” at 45, Damrau is one of the most versatile and beloved divas of her generation.
Not nearly as well known as Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” which was recently presented by the Lyric Opera, “Lucia di Lammermoor” is the sort of opera rarity that is regular fare at the Tivoli. Based on a novel by Walter Scott, “Lucia” tells the story of Lucy Ashton, an unfortunate lass who falls for Edgar Ravenswood, a sworn enemy of Ashton’s family. Donizetti wrote his tragic opera at a time when a craze for all things Scottish was sweeping Europe.
Wednesday afternoon you’ll have a chance to hear Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic led by guest conductor Andris Nelsons. The 37-year-old Latvian is music director of the Boston Symphony and music director-designate of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and one of classical music’s best younger conductors.
“According to The New York Times, he’s a wunderkind,” Harrington said. “This is something new. It’s an experiment to see if anyone wants to hear the Berlin Philharmonic in a movie theater.”
Nelsons will lead the Berlin Philharmonic in music from Wagner’s opera “Parsifal” and Bruckner’s epic Symphony No. 3, which Bruckner dedicated to Wagner “with the most profound respect.” Watching Bruckner’s massive symphony performed on the big screen should add visceral excitement to a work that at times sounds like a mighty organ in a majestic cathedral.
The Tivoli has many cultural coming attractions, as well, including a performance by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble later in July and “Werther,” starring Joyce DiDonato in August. Lots of plays by William Shakespeare are also on the docket, including his rarely performed “Cymbeline.”
“I joke that my goal is to show every play that Shakespeare ever wrote,” Harrington said. “I showed ‘Pericles’ recently and ‘King John.’ I even showed a non-Shakespearean Elizabethan work, ‘The Duchess of Malfi.’ It was all done in natural candlelight. Stupendous. And George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ with Ralph Fiennes. Oh, my, was that incredible. And nobody came. It broke my heart.”
Harrington says that he is committed to continue bringing rarefied cultural events to the Tivoli, even if the box office receipts remain less than spectacular. The Tivoli is more than just a business for Harrington, it’s a personal passion.
“I think Jerry is adventurous,” Price said. “I know he wants to make money. Of course, if you’re in business, you do like making money. But he will reach out and show things the community will enjoy, especially the more adventurous in the community. He’s willing to take risks, and I applaud him for that.”
▪ “Lucia di Lammermoor”: 1 p.m. Tuesday and July 3. $10-$15.
▪ Andris Nelsons Conducts Wagner and Bruckner: 1 p.m. Wednesday. $10-$15.
▪ “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”: 11 a.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. July 7. $10-$12.