Two Murders at the Lake

One of the appointments in our calendar of events that we always aim to keep is the visit to the open-air theatre by the shore of Lake Massaciuccoli near Giacomo Puccini’s favourite villa at Torre Del Lago for the summer festival season.

When taking a turn around the lake Puccini said to a friend “It would be great if one of my operas could be performed here.” Regrettably he never saw this happen during his lifetime but in 1930, six years after the maestro’s death, “La Bohème” was performed in a theatre made of wood and built on stilts on the lake itself. (The conductor was no less than Piero Mascagni of Cavalleria Rusticana fame). The event was such a success that the idea of a summer Puccini festival caught on which (apart from interruptions caused by WWII) has continued to the present time.

Until 2008, when a new permanent building was inaugurated on the occasion of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Puccini’s birth, the theatre was a temporary affair built out of scaffolding and needing a little act of faith from the audience climbing up to their seats. During the interval coffee was supplied by local volunteers of the Red Cross association.

Of course, the new theatre (which can seat over 3000 people) has much better facilities, (it also has an indoor auditorium seating 500), and is a lot safer, but we do miss the slightly eccentric atmosphere of the old theatre and the warm hospitality of that Red Cross staff.

The first time we attended a performance at the theatre was in the 1980’s when we saw my favourite of Giacomo’s operas: Turandot. I’ve already described in a previous post how magical the lake setting was for many scenes in this opera.

Since I moved here in 2005 we’ve been every year to the festival which doesn’t just concentrate on Puccini’s works. Last year, for example, we saw Verdi’s Traviata and in previous years we’ve come across some rarities including Leoncavallo’s projected trilogy on the Medici of Florence.

Of course, there is a lot more to see at Torre Del Lago than just the operas. Every year the flower petal arrangers from Camaiore (who also organize the street flower carpets for the Corpus Domini processions there) come up with a new tableau – this year illustrating the second opera in our double-bill of one-acters (no marks for guessing which one it is).

There are also designs from previous productions and some interesting photos of the master himself indulging in one of his favourite activities – travelling fast.

Of the performance we attended this year, which was a diptych consisting of Il Tabarro and Cavalleria Rusticana, there have been various criticisms. The first centred on why these two, quite musically different, works should have been thrust together. I have it on good authority that this coupling goes back some way in Tuscany: both composers were born in the region and, besides, both operas deal with love-passion murders (the only difference in the murders is that one gets stabbed and the other gets strangled). The second criticism centred on the production and performance itself. I though the soloists were OK but found one of the sopranos unbearably warbly (or wobbly?). Furthermore, I felt that the stage sets for Il Tabarro lost some of the sound – important for these unamplified music performances.

Up until now I’d preferred the new theatre’s acoustics to the old but I wished I’d been nearer stage that evening.

A couple of points about the works themselves: Mascagni is often described as a one-opera man but in his life L’Amico Fritz tended to get more performances. The dialogue between the protagonists doesn’t take up more than half the one-acter and, for me, the best parts are the wonderful choruses. Historically, the opera not only marked the official start of the verismo trend – real-life contemporary stories (although some would argue that the first verismo piece was Bizet’s Carmen) but it was also the first opera to be recorded in its entirety (in 1909) and the first opera ever to be broadcast on the radio – in 1910!

Il Tabarro would normally take its opening place in Puccini’s Trittico, first performed in New York in 1918. Puccini was dead against having the Trittico torn apart and always wanted its components performed together in one evening.

Furthermore, Il Tabarro caused a major breach between Puccini and his favourite conductor and friend, Toscanini, who declared that Il Tabarro was a ”Grand Guignol load of rubbish in the worst possible taste”. At Christmas Puccini would normally send a Panettone (or Italian fruit cake) to Toscanini. When relations soured between them Puccini forgot to cancel the order and Toscanini received his Panettone. When Puccini realised this he sent a note to his former friend stating “Panettone sent in error”. Toscanini wrote back with another note saying “Panettone eaten in error”!

I should add that relations between these two great artists were eventually patched up and, indeed, it was Toscanini who conducted the world premiere of Turandot (only finished by Alfano) after the composer’s death, laying down his baton (thus ending the performance) at the spot where the composer had written his last note and, turning to the audience, saying “at this point the Maestro died”.

Mascagni’s granddaughter, and Puccini’s granddaughter, Simonetta were also both present the evening we attended – I would have loved to hear what they had to say about their respective granpas!

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