High up on the hills above Ponte a Moriano is a transcendentally white building presenting an almost a grail-like vision – indeed it is called the Academy of Montegral and was once the Convento dell’Angelo of the Passionist fathers – the ones who attracted Saint Gemma so much.
Last year we had an option on Easter day to go and attend Mass at the convento dell’Angelo but preferred to watch the then new Pope’s Mass on TV. This year we decided we must be really present at the Convento dell’Angelo!
The convent, designed by Lorenzo Nottolini (he of the Ponte delle Catene at Bagni di Lucca and so many others of the finest buildings in the Lucca countryside), and built for the Passionist fathers, still remains their property although, due to falling vocational demand, it is now leased (for 999 years!) to the Academy of Montegral as a finishing school for musicians both vocal and instrumental.
The Academy of Montegral, the brainwave of Maestro Gustav Kuhn, former musical director of Rome opera, was founded in 1992 with the aim of developing a holistic musicianship on a human scale. In 2000 it moved to the convent, reinforcing the idea of a spiritual and cultural musical community. The results show – I doubt if music making can really get much better than this in Lucca province.
We took the shuttle car (the best way to get up there since the road is so narrow) and were in time to hear the start of the Easter Mass, celebrated by a Passionist father and which had the musical contributions from the finest new singers trained at the academy.
This was the programme:
Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle (jokingly so-called, because it is conversely rather expansive) formed the bulk of the sung liturgy but there were ample contributions from Puccini in the Sanctus and Bizet in the Agnus Dei and Gounod in the ubiquitous Panis Angelicus. A rather severe but effective setting of the Credo, by “an angel of Montegral” also impressed. For me, however, the instantly touching pieces were the Alleluia from Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” just before the reading from the Gospel,:
JS Bach’s “Bist du bei mir”, sung at the Offertory by Anna Princeva,
and the same composer’s “Jesus bleibet meine Freude”, sung by all the singers at the Mass’s conclusion – absolutely sublime!
And what a wonderful moment it was to exit from the packed church into the sunny, fresh and breezy exterior and from its scenic platform almost touch the wonderful Luccan plain spread around us like a giant backcloth…
For students of architectural history here is some information about the monastery, whose full title in English is the “monastery of the Angel, or the Collegiate Church of Saint Michael the Archangel”, and which is actually located in Tramonte.
The church and the convent, were the gift of the Duke Charles of Bourbon to the Passionist Fathers, and were built by Lorenzo Nottolini between 1827 and 1830. The architect here produced what I believe to be his greatest example of a fusion of ancient classical architecture with later renaissance models together with a complete understanding of the location where his masterpiece would be sited.
The convent’s location, with its pure white classical forms and bas reliefs exalting neo-classicism and rising from the forest slopes of the Brancoleria, is a foretaste of a romanticist sensibility and points forwards to that same kind of pictorial fusion one gets in the paintings of Turner and other great mid-nineteenth century painters.
IL convento dell’Angelo is indeed a blending of the purest neo-classicism forms with the most ardent romantic setting and is one of the finest examples of architecture experienced as “frozen” music one can possibly find in the Lucchesia, (or anywhere else in the world…)
We were, thus, truly privileged to have this music unfrozen for us in the wonderful setting, and with the highly talented singers, of the Holy Grail.