A Lily of a Theatre

Among the premières of Giacomo Puccini’s operas there was really only one unqualified success, only one work which did not suffer criticism or downright abject failure. Giacomo tried to save Edgar but the libretto truly worked against him, even in his revisions. Madame Butterfly’s première was a total flop. Il Trittico was heavily criticised by his greatest supporter, Toscanini. La Fanciulla Del West was a success d’éstime and has always been more popular across the pond than ever in Europe where it remains the least performed of his mature works. Le Villi was singled out as masterly but is still regarded as a promising youthful work. La Rondine has only recently been admired as the subtly captivating work it is. Even La Bohème and Tosca have not emerged unscathed. For a long time the latter had to endure its unappealing soubriquet of “a shabby little shocker”. And as for Turandot she continues to suffer under the heavy weight of her maestro-incomplete finale, despite valiant efforts from Alfani to Berio to provide a suitably accomplished completion.

Manon Lescaut (1893), alone among the maestro’s works remains unchallenged by paltry critics and scoffing musicians. Puccini knew that the composition of this opera would be a make-or-break situation for him. He could not face another Edgar occasion and so, having chosen his libretto very carefully, he put everything- and-more in the music, which results among his most passionate, most lyrical and most dramatic creations.


We were lucky enough to have attended a performance of this masterwork by one of its greatest interpreters, the much-missed Giuseppe Sinopoli, psychologist, writer and, last-but-not least, one of the greatest of modern Puccini conductors. (1983, Te Kanawa and Domingo in the leading roles!)  At the time I’d not even known Puccini had written Manon Lescaut and was wary of the hype the press was making about it. But, at Covent Garden, I was completely bowled over and have loved it passionately ever since. It would be difficult to single out any particular stretch of its wonderful music – the whole hangs together like a giant operatic symphony – but clearly there are some very high moments: the ending squeezes one’s heart as only La Bohème can do and the intermezzo is the best the master ever wrote.

It was, thus, a marvellous opportunity to hear Manon Lescaut (not to be confused with Massenet’s more perfumed and less earthy take on the Abbé Prevost’s story of desperate love Manon which, in fact, preceded Puccini’s version) at Lucca’s very own Teatro Del Giglio in November 2005. It was the first time I’d ventured into this gem of a theatre and was tingling with excitement at the prospect.

The Teatro Del Giglio is one of Italy’s oldest public theatres and is a member of that élite group, Teatri Della Tradizione, which include such celebrated buildings as Milan’s la Scala and Naples’ Teatro San Carlo. The original theatre was built in 1672. Previous to that theatrical performances would take placing the great hall of the palaces of Lucca’s nobility. The theatre was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1688.

The Giglio (then still known under its original title of Teatro Pubblico) flourished until the early nineteenth century when it was decided to completely rebuilt it again

The construction of the new theatre, by architect Giovanni Lazzarini and engineer Lorenzo Nottolini (he of the Ponte delle catene in Bagni di Lucca) was started in 1817 and completed in 1819. The theatre’s name Giglio (lily) was chosen by Maria Luisa of Bourbon who succeeded Elisa Baiocchi as Lucca’ ruler.

The Teatro Del Giglio’s first big success was in 1831, with a performance of Rossini’s William Tell, conducted by no less than Niccolò Paganini!

The Giglio has had its moment of supreme splendour in the mid-nineteenth century, when the most famous singers of the time sang there including tenors Nicholas Tacchinardi and Gilbert Duprez and the unforgettable Maria Malibran. Later, Giacomo Puccini personally directed some of his own works, including the unfortunate Edgar in 1891. In 1892 Catalani’s  La Wally was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. (See also my post at  https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/catalanis-calamitous-life/)

Before 1957 the theatre just had stalls and boxes. In that year part of the central upper boxes were removed to install what would be the equivalent of Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s amphitheatre. It is to this part of the seating in the Giglio where I’ll repair this Saturday for a performance of Bizet’s Carmen.

The theatre has also a good library and a complete set of recordings of all its productions from 1985 onwards. There is a charming upper foyer where receptions and recitals are held.

In the entrance are reminders of some of the greats who have had an immortal connection with this lovely place.

Outside the piazza Del Giglio adjoins onto the piazza Napoleone. During week-ends it hosts an antiques market and in the evening becomes a magical place like, indeed, the whole of walled Lucca.

How lucky we are to have such gorgeous places of entertainment within an hour’s journey from our little mountain village!

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