Travel to Tuscany during the summer months and you can enjoy thrilling operatic performances in the region’s historic towns and villages. Adrian Mourby visits Lucca as it comes alive with the music of Giacomo Puccini
Photos by Kate Tadman-Mourby
Towards the end of his life, Giacomo Puccini admitted that one day he’d like to hear his music played on the Tuscan lakeside where he had composed so many operas. Were the maestro to come back today he might ask if there is any corner of Tuscany where you can’t hear his music during the long Italian summer.
Last night our friends Denise and Colby came back late from the opera festival in Torre del Lago that Pietro Mascagni set up after Puccini’s death. It was a 40-minute taxi ride and they must have creaked open the iron gates of our villa sometime after 1am, but this morning they are full of energy and still buzzing from the experience. Having paid for good seats at the front of the massive Teatro all’Aperto they couldn’t see Lake Massaciuccoli spread out behind the theatre, but they could hear every word of the opera, and it felt as if the cast of La Bohème were singing just for them.
That’s the big choice at Torre del Lago. You either go for the spectacle or for the music. If it’s for the music, splash out on your tickets; if it’s for the spectacle, buy the cheap seats at the back – then, while you’re waiting for the big theatrical moments, you can watch planes landing at Pisa airport, towards the end of the lake.
This morning over breakfast we’re discussing where the four of us will go tonight. I suggest checking out the Serchio Valley. While the Torre del Lago lets rip every weekend in July and August there are smaller music festivals in this steep, broad valley that connects the Puccini family home in Celle with his birthplace in Lucca. We agree that Kate, my wife, will drive us first to Vetriano, where some concerts are scheduled, and then to Borgo a Mozzano, where there’s supposed to be an open-air opera tonight. And if there’s time, maybe we can call in at Celle, where Puccini’s sister’s family set up a museum in the family home.
Vetriano is one of several venues for the annual Serchio delle Muse Festival, but it must be the highest. Kate complained that getting there was like driving up an alp. At the top we found a tiny stone village and wandered down a narrow, empty lane until we encountered an old man tending his pigeons. He couldn’t follow our Italian but he pointed us to a house where he said an Englishwoman was living. She emerged from her low doorway to remark on how strange it was to hear English spoken in Vetriano. “And what a shame you weren’t here last night!” It seems we could have heard the Four Seasons being played inside the village’s 85-seat theatre if we’d arrived yesterday. Disappointed, we peered inside and saw it was so small that the white-painted boxes on either side of the auditorium virtually touched in the middle. Teatrino di Vetriano was built in 1890 but looks older. It was dedicated to Alfredo Catalani, Puccini’s contemporary in Lucca who, at the time, was the better-known composer.
Borgo a Mozzano
From Vetriano we zigzagged down to Borgo a Mozzano, where the staging for Lehár’s Vedova Allegra (Merry Widow) was being set up for a performance in Piazza Garibaldi that evening. Then it was on to Ponte della Maddalena over the River Serchio. The bridge is dramatically and absurdly high and is like climbing a section of the Great Wall of China should you want to get to the middle. Of course we did want to, particularly so I could justify the purchase of that selfie stick in Pisa two days ago. The bridge’s central arch feels tall enough to let an ocean-going liner pass underneath (were such a thing possible in the few inches of water that was all to be seen of the Serchio). No one knows why Countess Matilde di Canossa commissioned the bridge so high but, as ever, locals claim that the Devil was involved…
“Hey, let’s try Barga!” I said. There has been a music festival in this fortified medieval town since 1967, when the Hunt family from England set it up with the German conductor Peter Gellhorn. Opera Barga specialises in baroque rediscoveries presented in the town’s late-18th-century Teatro dei Differenti. Over the years the festival’s mix of informality and pizzazz has attracted an illustrious international clientele. One story sums the place up well: a note on the box office door that read “Sir Isaiah Berlin, your tickets are under the flowerpot.” Colby and Denise enjoyed the story. They were less pleased by that evening’s obscure operatic offering at the Teatro dei Differenti. It seemed to involve an unnecessary number of nymphs in love with people disguised as shepherds. One is never short of music in Tuscany during the summer, however, so Kate drove us back down the Serchio Valley with me promising everyone a great evening of music somewhere, once we’d had lunch.
I had arranged for us to call in to Villa Baldaccini, just where the Serchio Valley flattens out and the city of Lucca comes into view. Renzo Baldaccini is famous for his olive oil and he welcomes visitors by appointment. It took us a while to find the right gate into his estate. It’s a big one; the villa had once been the property of the Duchess of Lucca.
Renzo, looking distinguished and very happy in his work, led us past the swimming pool encampment, where his paying guests were enjoying themselves, and down to meet the three tiny horses that produce daily what he described as “two kilogrammes of caca each”. Not only were they cute and affectionate, it seems they are damn good at fertilising his 1,000 olive trees. We saluted their productivity before going on for a lunch of prosecco, salad, pasta and Renzo’s famous olive oil.
Later than we intended, we left Villa Baldaccini and headed for our own villa, stopping off – as one so often does in Tuscany – at a small supermarket that turned out to be a treasure trove of superb wines for one-third of the price you’d pay in the UK. Colby came into his own at this point, loading the trolley with wines he had never expected to find for so few euros. They were going home by train, so luggage weight was not an issue.
Puccini in Lucca
We arose from our siestas around 5pm, went down to our villa’s tiny pool and took a vote over prosecco on which performance to attend. We chose Lucca, where five generations of Puccinis were maestros di cappella at the cathedral before Giacomo decided he preferred opera. For seven months of the year there is always a nightly concert given by the Puccini e la sua Lucca Festival in the Chiesa dei Santi Giovanni e Reparata.
This event has been going on for years. It was set up by Andrea Colombini, who came up with a simple but winning formula: every night a soprano and tenor come together to perform crowd-pleasers to piano accompaniment. We’re talking anything from Puccini tours de forces like the Act I finale between Tosca and Scarpia to delicious low points such as O Sole Mio belted out shamelessly. Kate and I recognised Silvana Froli, our superb Tosca from a few nights ago at Torre del Lago, giving her all in the encores.
The four of us toppled out 90 minutes later. As we left, Sig. Colombini was pointing out the church’s organ: “Did you know that as a boy Puccini played this organ?” he asked. “His friends stole the lead pipes to buy cigarettes, so the maestro had to learn to improvise around the missing notes.” It’s a dubious honour claimed by several churches in Lucca. People really can’t get enough of Puccini these days.
After dinner, with wine, we returned to the car with Kate, the designated driver, less than impressed by my hearty rendition of Just One Cornetto.
“What about tomorrow?” asked Colby as he squeezed into the tiny back seat of our Fiat.
“Tomorrow: Florence,” I said. “There’s the New Generation Festival in the Corsini Gardens and there’s the Estate Fiesolana nearby, and something at Montepulciano too.”
“Great,” said Kate. “And tomorrow you’re the designated driver.”
You’ll find performances of Puccini’s music all over this region during July and August. For more on the Opera Festival at Torre del Lago: www.puccinifestival.it/en
Adrian Mourby stayed at Villa Ricetro, near Lucca, as a guest of To Tuscany (01227 646040). This two-bedroom villa is set in the hills overlooking Viareggio, with views across to Torre del Lago, location of the annual Puccini Festival. The property sleeps four and has access to a shared pool.
Prices from £455 to £1,138 for a week’s self-catering, depending on the season.
Car hire from £9 per day with www.rhinocarhire.com (0845 508 9845)
Our travel guide makes a perfect starting point if you’re planning a visit to this area.