In Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, there is an exchange between the courtiers Ping, Pong and Pang when, fed up with the artificial and bureaucratic court life in Peking, they nostalgically recall their little country houses by a blue lake surrounded by bamboo groves:
E potrei tornar laggiù, presso mio laghetto blu, tutto cinto di bambù!
Hearing this scene from that extraordinary opera at the open-air theatre by the banks of Lago Massaciuccoli at the Torre Del Lago festival is a quite sublime experience – the words and music paint exactly the view we have in front of us – the placid (now reed-fringed) lake, the mysterious night sky, and the faint contours of the Apennines on the horizon.
And during the day it’s possible to visit the composer’s favourite residence, and the one in which he composed the major part of his great works, that little house by the lake.
What is sometimes not realised is that other houses associated with the Maestro still exist and some of them are rather grander as well. Two of them are open to the public. Others are not.
In 2011, after some long-standing and bitter family legal wrangling over inheritance Giacomo Puccini’s birthplace was finally re-opened in Lucca. I was there at its inauguration and it was certainly worth the wait – the contents are fascinating and very well-displayed, including the stunning original costume worn by Maria Jeritza at the premiere of Turandot. In the sweet mountain village of Celle (subtitled “Di Puccini”) near Pescaglia is a rustic mansion belonging to Giacomo Puccini’s family and in which several of his progenitors were born (though not Giacomo himself). This house is very well-presented and, among other memorabilia associated with the composer, contains the bed in which he was born (the one at casa Puccini in Lucca is a recent, very-well-made copy).
Two houses not open to the public are in a very much less than satisfactory state. As Simonetta Puccini, the composer’s grand-daughter once told me: “the composer’s houses are very much a problem with us”… an understatement, if there ever was one.
Puccini, after the garret-life described so evocatively in “La Bohème”, struck it lucky with his first big hit, “Manon Lescaut” of 1893, and with the money decided to build a grand new mansion at Chiatri, a village on a hill dominating Lago Massaciuccoli. The composer was promised a road by the comune up to his new house but this never materialised, his wife didn’t fancy the place very much and, after all the effort in building, it was eventually sold.
When I last visited the Chiatri residence it was shuttered up and in a sorry state with overgrown garden, broken windows (although the magnificent terracottas illustrating his earlier operas on the façade were still in good condition). After my investigations the usual story ensued: a lawyer from Rome had bought the place, promised to restore it but done very little to do so. A similar fate appears to be that awaiting Puccini’s last house in Viareggio. Not too many know about this house or where it is. I was determined, however, to find it and clear directions from a newsagent on Viareggio’s esplanade took me there. It’s, in fact, opposite the Pineta di Ponente, a couple of blocks from the seafront.
Why did Puccini move to Viareggio when he loved his little villa at Torre Del Lago so much? For two reasons: first, a peat extraction company had moved near his villa and started digging with mechanical means, producing noise which the sensitive master (or anyone else, for that matter) couldn’t tolerate. Second, the master’s health had begun to deteriorate, largely through his eighty-a-day (and five cigars) smoking habit (he especially favoured gold-tipped Sobranie) and it was thought that somewhere nearer a big centre like Viareggio would be more convenient, especially in days when roads and communications were not what they are now. In Viareggio Puccini had a bungalow built for him by one of his favourite architects.
If you think that a seaside bungalow evokes visions of Peacehaven-on-sea then think again. The new bungalow is a marvellous thing, built in an eclectic style by architect Vincenzo Pilotti, and with ceramic decorations by Galileo Chini who went on to teach architecture and design at the court of the king of Siam (now Thailand) whose throne room he decorated. Indeed, there is an oriental perfume about this house.
I wonder, however, if, like the Chinese courtiers, Giacomo still hankered after his beloved Torre del Lago. He certainly must have missed the easy reach of the second of his three great hunting passions, shooting at water-fowl on the lake. (The other two of the composer’s hunting passions, if you didn’t know them, were good opera libretti and beautiful women).
It is impossible to get into Puccini’s last house and almost impossible, too, to view its exterior in its entirety – so overgrown is the garden around it. One can’t even read the commemorative plaque placed on its façade clearly.
All this, however, is going to change. In 2011 a court decision resolved the litigation which had been going on as to Puccini’s house at Viareggio and authors’ rights. The Fondazione Puccini gained two-thirds of the remaining rights for the operas (from Fanciulla onwards) and also received the Viareggio villa – acquisitions equivalent to a sum of well over a million euros. I hope that it’s going to open to the public in the not-too-distant future….
Anyway, I was so glad to cast my eyes upon Puccini’s last home before he died. It seemed to complete the circle of my peregrinations to houses associated with this inspiring musical magician which started with my visit to his ancestral home at Celle di Puccini.
And, to cool down, we still had time for a sunset swim at nearby Marina di Vecchiano!