A trip to Tuscany

Tune into a tour of Puccini’s Tuscany
A trip to Tuscany gave Michael Knipe something to sing out loud about.

The immortal Gianni Schicchi in performance at the Puccini Festival!

Few of us need a particular reason to visit Tuscany but, if you do, the Puccini Opera Festival, commemorating the 90th year since the Italian maestro died, should do the trick.

There is, certainly, nowhere better to enjoy Puccini’s soaring operatic melodies than on warm nights under a moon-lit sky at an open-air amphitheatre on the edge of Lake Massaciuccoli in Torre del Lago.

The festival runs from July 24 to August 29 next year and will feature four of the composer’s most popular works, — Tosca, Turandot, Madame Butterfly and La Rondine.

Puccini was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

The popularity of his operas spread worldwide throughout his life time. Yet, just like Lloyd Webber, his compositions were often dismissed by snobbish contemporary music critics as trite and intellectually undemanding.

In 1912 this denigration of Puccini became even worse, with one critic, Fausto Torrefranca, questioning the composer’s “Italian-ness” and associating him with dangerous “others” — traitors, homosexuals and — inevitably Jews.

According to one later music historian, these extreme views, expressed by Torrefranca in a book, were widely shared at the time.

Paradoxically, in spite of these calumnies, Mussolini’s fascists adopted Puccini as a national hero.Yet the composer expressed no political allegiance and, like many musicians, his interest in politics was close to zero.

Today the popularity of his compositions is second only to his fellow Italian Verdi and, in 2015, the Torre del Lago theatre’s 3,400 seats will be much in demand, especially as the views of the vast stage will have been enhanced by the addition of large screens for close-up views of the performers.

An enjoyable pre or post opera exercise is to tour the Puccini landmarks in Lucca, Torre del Lago and Viareggio, all within 30 minute car journeys. This will take you from the house in Lucca where he was born in 1858 to the town’s wonderfully atmospheric 19th century Giglio Theatre, where he first directed his operas, shouting instructions from his seat in the box; and on to his most-loved home in Torre del Largo on the shore of Lake Massaciuccoli, where he lived for some 20 years. All three have been beautifully restored with rooms decorated and furnished as they were in Puccini’s day and adorned with the clothes he wore, the letters he wrote and received, manuscripts of the music he created and many original costumes from his operas.

The grand villa he had built to his own specifications in Viareggio and where he spent the last four years of his life is not open to the public but it bears a Puccini plaque and at least some of the locals can direct you to the maestro’s favourite restaurant, which is now partially a bookshop but still has some vestiges of its Belle Époque ambiance.

To tour these landmarks, one of the most convenient — and fascinating — places to stay is the Villa de Lanfranchi, an 18th century mansion whose grand lounges and dining rooms have fine frescoed ceilings and furnishings that have changed so little over the decades, that you can be forgiven for imagining yourself on the stage set of a slightly crazy grand opera. This sense was enhanced for us by the music of La Bohème flowing through the villa as we arrived.

We were greeted by the charmingly eccentric proprietor, Claudio Zeppi, a former film studio technician, who is a collector of widely varied antiques, objets d’art and collectable ephemera and the disposer of very little.
The villa grounds contain a large swimming pool, a conservatory with an array of botanical and tropical plants, a parrot, a cockatoo and even a splendidly grumpy looking owl.

Entertainment ranges from billiards and table tennis to open-air film screenings from Zeppi’s library of 6,000 films, recordings and books.

With careful scheduling, Puccini enthusiasts can attend performances of all four of the festival’s productions in either an eight or 12 day visit.

The daytime will be free to enjoy other delights of this stretch of the Italian Riviera.

We spent a morning in Pisa re-visiting the marvels of the Piazza dei Miracoli — climbing the 297 spiral steps to the top of the glorious leaning tower and exploring the cathedral, the Baptistry and awesome Camposanto Monumentale.

Then, after a meditative massage and a light lunch at the Bagni di Pisa Palace spa and restaurant, the former residence of the 18th century grand duke of Tuscany, we enjoyed a leisurely wine tasting and a tour of the vineyard at the Cantine Basile.

After dining al fresco at Enoteca Marcucci in Pietrasanta, just north of Viareggio, we enjoyed another musical evening.

This time it was at the annual Laversiliana Festival where the Russian classical violinist, Ekaterina Astashova and Igor Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra joined forces to perform Nikolay Levinovskiy’s modern jazz rendering of Bizet’s Carmen.

I wonder what Puccini would have thought of that!

Getting there:

Tuscany Now (www.tuscanynow.com, 0207 684 8884) offers 7 nights in Villa De Lanfranchi (sleeps 14) http://www.tuscanynow.com/villa-de-lanfranchi-x-14-people-id-5459/ available from £264pp based on 14 sharing on a self-catering basis. Flights not included. Tuscany Now have 180 exclusive properties available to rent throughout the year.
JC Puccini | September 2014

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