Proceeding from Ponte a Serraglio to Bagni di Lucca Villa the road is lined on the right –hand side, just past the art-deco styled Carabinieri headquarters (the “Casa del Fascio” under a previous regime), with a mysterious, somewhat dilapidated-looking and orange-stuccoed villa displaying signs of former architectural splendour in its ionic columns and details. This elegant building happens also to be of the greatest significance for Puccini opera lovers for reasons which will become clear…
I stopped there the other day to take the following pictures which show that what we see of the villa is just its back-end: the façade faces a beautifully extensive garden sloping down to the Lima River, now still in full flood after the recent heavy rains. Not only does the villa always seem shuttered but even its present ownership is a mystery although I gathered from my barber that it may be now in the hands of an English appassionato.
A visit to Giacomo Puccini’s beautifully arranged birth-home at no. 9 Corte di San Lorenzo in Lucca’s historic centre includes a room containing Turandot’s exquisite costume worn by Maria Jeritza for the incomplete masterpiece’s American première at the Metropolitan in November 1926.
I realized some time ago that Puccini listened with fascination to certain Chinese melodies played on a carillon (or music box) belonging to his friend, Baron Fassini Camossi, (who had pursued a diplomatic career in China, was a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellions there and probably acquired the box and other souvenirs in China at the notorious “loot auctions” that followed the Boxers’ suppression), when they met at the Baron’s summer house: that same secretive villa Gamba at Bagni di Lucca in 1920. Evidently Adami, the opera’s librettist was also present.
Opera lovers have long known that three tunes from the Fassini music box (now in a private collection in Turin) were featured in Turandot. The famous Chinese folk song, Mo Li Hua (“Jasmine Flower”), which dates from the Qing dynasty, represents the seductive and imperial aspects of the Chinese princess Turandot, another accompanies the entrance of the three ministers and a third is used as an imperial hymn. These melodies were used by Puccini to add the required atmosphere of exoticism and chinoiserie to the opera.
I also understood that, in 1965, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) had recorded the tunes from the Baron’s music box. I wrote to the BBC earlier last year in the vague hope of being able to hear that recording. After months of silence, I received an email from the director of programming , Michael Rossi, advising me to listen to a programme BBC Radio 3 would be broadcasting the following evening.
With trepidation I listened to the announcer mentioning my request. “Yes, Francis, we’ve found it!” And, through metallic chimes, came the honied pentatonic song of Mo -li- hua that appears for the first time, hymned by the children’s choir after the invocation to the moon in the first act and becomes a recurring musical theme of the opera. Then followed, on the carillon, two more tunes that Puccini used in other sections of Turandot.
Here is Mo-li-hua as treated by Puccini, followed by the original version:
In an email of thanks to the programme’s director Michael Smith I learned that his family came from the Lucchesia. In fact, Michael’s grandfather was born in Barga and emigrated to Glasgow, Scotland, at the start of the last century.
The melody Mo -li- hua is well known in China and, as a consequence of its having been used by Giacomo Puccini in Turandot, all over the world. In fact, Mo Li Hua was used for the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2004 and the inauguration of the Shanghai exhibition in 2010. It was also sung as the anthem of the Chinese Democracy protest in 2011, which, inspired by the Arab Spring, was called the Jasmine Revolution. There is even a version with Celine Dion singing it (in Chinese) as part of a gala concert given in the People’s Republic at:
Mo-li-hua’s words, however, are still far from touching the heart of the icy princess when she witnesses the beheading of those princes who had failed to guess the three riddles and gain her hand.
What a beautiful jasmine flower!
Sweetly fragrant and full of buds
Fragrant white and adored by all
Allow yourself to be picked because I want to give you to my love.
O little jasmine flower!
It’s lovely to hear these words, as I did, when our jasmine hedge casts an intoxicating scent over our house and garden.
Just as the melody of Mo -li- hua has been used in many contexts outside Turandot, it should also be remembered that the story of Turandot has inspired many other musical settings, beginning in 1729 with La Princesse de Chine by Alain-René Le Sage, incidental music to Carlo Gozzi’s original play by Carl Maria von Weber and Ferruccio Busoni’s own version, continuing to William Havergal Brian’s Turandot, written in 1951 and, also based on the fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi.
Only a great master, however, has the genius of turning a simple folk melody heard on an imperfect device into a rapturously exciting one within the context of a complex and psychologically overwhelming musical texture. This master will remain, forever, the greatest gift that the city of Lucca has given to the world of music. No other music can send such shivers down my spine as that magnificent Turandot.
So next time you pass by the villa Gamba do feel privileged to be so close to one of the inspirational fountains of the great Giacomo.