Pisa’s Best-Kept Secret?

They’re madly in love with each other but Dad doesn’t like the idea that his high-class daughter should have anything to do with a half-caste Peruvian. The two decide to elope but just at that moment Dad steps in and goes for the daughter’s boyfriend who responds by saying that he has no wish to fight back and throws down his revolver to show that he is now completely unarmed. The trouble is the silly lad hasn’t set the safety catch on his weapon which accidentally fires and kills dad, thus putting his lover’s brother in an absolute frenzy of revenge. The plot develops and thickens, weaving its way around taverns, brothels, convents, monasteries, battlefields and hermits’ caves, finishing up with most of the protagonists dead – all dead in the original, but Verdi thought this was too much of a blood-bath and re-wrote the ending to save at least one of them.

If you hadn’t already guessed, it’s la Forza del Destino or the Force of Destiny I’m talking about –  the opera Busseto’s swan wrote for the St Petersburg opera in 1861 and which gained him 60,000 gold francs, the probable  equivalent of at least twice that sum in euros today. Based on a play by Angel de Saaveddra, Spanish duke of Rivas, and re-worked into an opera libretto by the composer’s faithful collaborator, Francesco Maria Piave, who worked on no less than ten operas with Verdi including such greats as Rigoletto, la Traviata and Simon Boccanegra, La Forza has a lot more going for it than its famous overture. Dramatic duets, moving religious choruses and rousing military ones, gipsy enticements presaging even Carmen, roguish traders, fortune-tellers, send-ups of monkish practises in the role of Trabuco and tipsy drinking songs, duels, repentances, confessions and redemptions all make for an opera which, although long – some said too long at its first performance in 1862 (Verdi’s singers couldn’t take that Russian winter; some even died from it, so the performance was delayed until the following spring) – is always on the move.

I certainly was gripped by the force of that inexorable destiny, by the kaleidoscope of musical forms which sum up all Verdi’s achievements and techniques up to that point and prophesy the developments to come in Aida and the two miraculous final Shakespeare-based works of the octogenarian composer.  I was also stunned by the theatre in which Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas fought out their fate: the Teatro Verdi which I’d never attended before, let alone seen, but which must be one of Pisa’s best–kept secrets. This building, only a quarter of an hour’s walking distance from the railway station, is not just majestically large – it has five tiers of boxes – but has golden acoustics within its traditional horseshoe shape.

The Teatro Verdi in Pisa was inaugurated in 1867, with a performance of Rossini’s William Tell. Its architect was Andrea Scala. With its seven hundred seats, its stage (26 metres X 32 metres) is one of the largest in Italy, making it highly suitable for grand operas like Aida, or Nerone which, in Lucca’s Teatro Del Giglio just couldn’t fit.

The theatre’s interior has been recently beautifully restored by Massimo Carmassi and the wonderful nineteenth-century frescoes sparkle in their renewed colours. There is also a recital and rehearsal room dedicated to the great Pisan baritone, Titta Ruffo, whose voice was described as “a miracle”.

I didn’t have time to view the theatre museum, which contains costumes and objects documenting the glorious history of this magnificent building, on whose stage the greatest singers of our time have sung, Pavarotti, Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, Raimondi, Petrella: the list is seemingly endless.

The performance I attended, one of only two, continued the great tradition of the highest quality. Only the fussiest of critics could have really faulted the singers and the production. For me, the Russian Maria Shevchenko was heart-melting as Donna Leonora with none of that irritating eastern wobble. Mastro Trabucco as the truculent monk was vastly humorous – a role which even looks forwards to Falstaff himself. Claudia Marchi as Preziosilla was charmingly vivacious and the two leading roles of Don Carlo di Vargas, sung by Luca Grassi, and Don Alvaro sung by Zoran Todorovich were more than adequate and sometimes inspiring.

There were two miracles about this production: first the youthfulness of the performers, most of whom were just thirty-something years of age, foremost of all conductor and director Valerio Galli who must have been born with Verdi blood transfused into his arteries, so idiomatic was his performance and so sensitive was he to all the subtle nuances of the Master’s unique style.

The second miracle was that this production was done on a shoestring budget of just twelve thousand euros – a pittance for operatic creations. It just shows that quantity does not always produce quality and that an inspired and gifted younger generation can contribute more than anything money can buy.

Three full, loud cheers then for Verdi, Il Teatro Verdi di Pisa and the gifted performers: a force of destiny difficult to avoid and certainly even more difficult to forget!

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