Last updated on January 5th, 2022
The Italian Garden is an attractive site in Vancouver’s Hastings Park. The park is located in the northeastern part of the city. The garden contains some interesting features in its relatively small area. One of my favourites is the opera walk. The walk is bordered on one side by sculptures representing characters from famous Italian operas. On the other side are flower beds. In summer, these contain beautiful masses of black-eyed Susan flowers and purple and white coneflowers. The garden is a great place to take photographs. All of the photos in this post were taken by me during my walks in the Italian Garden.
Hastings Park is a large, multi-use area near residences and close to Burrard Inlet. It was willed to the province of British Columbia by its owner in 1888 with the intention of preserving the park as a wilderness area. The plan didn’t work. Today Hastings Park contains many buildings and other constructions. Some of the buildings belong to the Pacific National Exhibition, an organization that runs an annual fair in late August. The park also contains the Playland amusement park, the Hastings Racecourse, and multiple parking lots.
The process of re-greening sections of the park is in progress. Streams that have been covered for many years have been opened up, and green areas and walking trails to the inlet have been established. Today Hastings Park contains several smaller parks (defined according to the true meaning of the word) as well as gardens. The situation is much improved with respect to the existence of natural and semi-natural areas, though the buildings still exist.
The Italian Garden in Vancouver
One of the gardens in the park is the Italian Garden, or Il Giardino Italiano. It was created by the local Italian-Canadian community and contains features of a traditional Italian garden. The main entrance is located on Renfrew Street, though it can also be reached from inside Hastings Park. It’s free to enter except during the annual two-week fair at the PNE, which is a sore spot with the local residents. When the fair is in operation, a barrier exists along Renfrew Street. This means that the only way to enter the garden is to pay to enter the fairground.
Like Hastings Park as a whole, the Italian Garden contains several smaller areas. It’s sometimes referred to as the “Italian Gardens” because of its distinctive sections. These include a section containing ornamental fountains leading to water channels. The water is a popular play site for children. The garden also contains areas that are ideal for gentle walks and contemplation. One of my favourite parts of the garden is the opera walk. The sculptures on the walk and the ones that are an integral part of the fountains were created by local sculptor Ken Clarke in 2001 and 2002.
The Sculptures and the Operas
The sculptures along the opera walk represent leading characters from six famous Italian operas. More than one sculpture of a particular character can be seen along the route. It’s interesting to note that although these sculptures started their existence as identical copies, the environmental conditions in their immediate surroundings have changed their appearance in different ways. The characters and operas that are represented are briefly described below. As in many traditional Italian operas, the plots all involve love. Four of them also involve death, another common theme in classical operas.
“Pagliacci” was created by Ruggero Leoncavallo and first performed in 1892. In the opera, Canio is an actor who often plays the role of a clown in the plays performed by his troupe. The plot describes the competition for the love of an actress named Nedda (Canio’s wife) and the death of the woman and her lover Silvio at the hands of Canio. The deaths occur during a comedy performance by the troupe and create a dramatic climax to the opera.
Canio knows that Nedda has been unfaithful before the performance starts. In the last act of the performance, the distraught Canio departs from the script and expresses his anguish and anger. He demands that Nedda tells him who her lover is, but she refuses. The on-stage audience at first thinks that the argument is part of the performance and are impressed by the acting. As the argument intensifies, they realize that what they are seeing is a real-life situation.
Silvio pushes his way through the audience and moves towards Nedda to support her, but he is too late. Canio grabs a knife from a table and kills Nedda. As Silvio approaches her, Canio kills him as well. The last line in the opera is famous. Canio turns to the shocked on-stage audience (and at the same time to the real one) and says “The comedy is over.”
In Ken Clarke’s sculpture of Canio, one side of his face is smiling, which represents the clown that he often played. The other side is crying and dropping a tear, which represents the sadness of his real life and the ending of the opera.
The Barber of Seville
“The Barber of Seville” is a comic opera written by Gioachino Rossini and first performed in 1816. Figaro is the barber referred to in the title. The plot involves love, disguises, and schemes. Rosina loves Count Almaviva, who is disguised as a poor student named Lindoro. Rosina is the ward of Bartolo, who wants to marry her in order to obtain her dowry. Figaro helps Rosina and Almaviva in their efforts to become a pair. After many incidents, Rosina and Count Almaviva are married.
In the sculpture shown in the photo above, Figaro has an evil look on his face as he shaves Bartolo. The expression is probably meant to show Figaro’s satisfaction that he is secretly helping Count Almaviva and Rosina, which would annoy Bartolo.
Sir John Falstaff is a character in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “Falstaff” is a comic opera about the character written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1893. As in “the Barber of Seville”, the plot is quite involved. It involves the effort of Falstaff to attract two married women in order to gain access to each of their husband’s money. The women—Meg Page and Alice Ford—discover what Falstaff is up to and decide to teach him a lesson
Another strand in the plot involves the love of Nannetta Ford (Alice’s daughter) for a man named Fenton. Nannetta’s father disapproves of the union. After many twists and turns, the opera reaches a more-or-less happy ending for everyone.
“Rigoletto” is a tragic Giuseppe Verdi opera that was first performed in 1851. It tells the story of a hunch-backed and often scorned court jester named Rigoletto, his beloved daughter Gilda, and a very unpleasant duke who commits an atrocious act.
The opera ends with the sad death of Gilda, who sacrifices her life for the sake of the duke. Her father picks up a sack containing the dying Gilda, thinking that the duke is the person inside. He is horrified when he learns the truth. I’ve written an article describing the opera in more detail.
A Masked Ball
“A Masked Ball” is another Giuseppe Verdi opera and was first performed in 1859. The plot is set in the United States. This might seem strange for an Italian opera, but the censors of the time demanded changes in the setting and the characters. The original opera seemed too reminiscent of the death of King Gustav lll of Sweden, who died from wounds received at a masked ball.
Riccardo is the Governor of Boston and is organizing a masked ball. He is delighted to discover that Amelia will be attending the ball. She is the woman that he loves, but she’s married to his friend Renato.
After various events, including a prediction by a fortune teller, the ball is held. Renato has discovered that Amelia and Riccardo love one another and has decided to kill Riccardo at the ball. As the governor dies, he says that Amelia has never been unfaithful to Renato.
“Turandot” is an opera written by Giacomo Puccini and was first performed in 1926. He died before it was finished, but it was completed by Franco Alfano. The opera is set in China. Its leading character is the cruel Princess Turandot. The plot involves the efforts of a prince to pass the tests that she sets him so that they can marry as well as the test that he sets her. The sculpture of the princess is shown on the right in the first photo above.
Though the music in “Turandot” is often admired, the opera is controversial today. This is in part due to the cruelty in the plot and the ethnic stereotypes. Some people say that the opera should no longer be performed.
Enjoying the Sculptures
The opera sculptures in the Italian Garden can be appreciated without any knowledge of their background. It’s interesting to study the faces that are depicted and to ponder their possible meaning. The names of the relevant operas are written under the sculptures, but in many cases they are hard to read. Knowing a little about the works that are represented gives an additional meaning to the opera walk and to a visit to the Italian Garden.
The photo above shows the fountain sculptures in the garden. Additional art is on display. All of the art in the area is interesting, but my favourite examples are the depictions of the opera characters. The garden is small but worth visiting, especially in summer when the flowers are in bloom.