The Big Belly comes to Lucca

He writes:

Amen; so be it! So let’s do it! For now, let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illnesses! I also want to keep the deepest secrecy: a word that I underline three times to you that no one must know anything about it! ….. The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket……Will I finish it? Or will I not finish it? Who knows! I am writing without any aim, without a goal, just to pass a few hours of the day.

He did finish it, of course. That big belly belonged to Falstaff and the music is the miraculous one of an eighty-year old Giuseppe Verdi who writes younger and fresher music at that age than many ever could achieve at twenty, and who remains ever young in this, the two-hundredth anniversary year of his birth.

The freshness of yesterday’s performance at Lucca’s Teatro Del Giglio was sustained by a youth orchestra that was fully up to the challenge. If they sound so well now then this is surely reassuring for the future of Italian orchestral playing which has not always been the country’s musical strong point.

For, of course, the most important character in Verdi’s opera is the orchestra – commenting sometimes sarcastically, sometimes stentorianly, sometimes sensuously on the singers. It would be quite possible to follow the story just listening to that orchestra without the singers – it’s almost as if Verdi is proving that those so-called “barrel-organ” accompaniments he is accused of by sniffy critics never really were in his line and also, that there is an alternative to Wagner….

In Falstaff the composer breaks into new ground, laying before us a blueprint for all future operatic discourse in the century to follow. At the same time, there are many points where Verdi parodies– for example in Ford’s jealousy scene – those various stylistic effects which made up the blood and thunder of the operas written, as he put it, “in the galleys”. Indeed, the best Verdi parodies are not just to be found in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas but in the man’s music itself.

As Italian verismo got its kick-off from Carmen so, listening to the orchestra, I truly believed Puccini could never have made the move from Edgar to Manon Lescaut and La Bohème without completely assimilating Verdi’s language. I cannot imagine the café Momus section in La Bohème without Falstaff’s Garter Inn scene (in this production with the ladies enticingly showing off their highly positioned stocking supports…). What utter virtuosity and brilliancy there is in Verdi’s late orchestral writing!

In that respect Puccini is truly Verdi’s successor – what a year 1893 must have been for opera lovers. For not only on the 9th February at Milan’s La Scala was Falstaff first performed but, later the same year, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut premiered at Turin’s Teatro Regio!  The following year Gustav Mahler, no less, conducted Falstaff in Hamburg, the same year of the opera’s first Covent Garden production.

To return to the Lucca performance: the singing of all the main characters was absolutely appropriate to their personalities and the singers delivered with verve in their voices and svelteness in their balletic movements. Everything, from the quickness of the ensemble patter songs to the sublimest of lyrical moments was as perfect as it can be in this imperfect world. The all-too brief love interludes between Fenton and Nanetta, which the opera’s great librettist, Boito, described as sprinkling sugar on an apple pie and scattering the whole comedy with that happy love without concentrating it at any one point brought me close to tears with their sweet intensity of emotion – surely, some of the most affective honey duets Verdi ever wrote.

Those who say they can’t find any memorable tunes in Falstaff should listen again; they just aren’t awake enough to the quickness and exhilaration of this, one of humanity’s greatest examples of its intangible heritage.

The late afternoon’s (it was a matinee – much to be preferred in Italy when evening performances start after nine) mood was infectious, with the audience truly captivated.  “Tutti gabbati” – we’re all duped – that gloriously bucolic (and, at the same time, academically correct) fugue for the finale surely signifies that not only is Falstaff game for a laugh but that the audience, too ,is conned into believing every part of the story, drawn into the illusory magic of opera. And, as Falstaff learns from his being conned, so we too – and willingly as well – are drawn into that undefinable exotic and irrational incantation, truly wishing to believe every part of the cosmic game.

And of magic there was aplenty in the Giglio’s co-production: in the costume colours, Elizabethan in inspiration but not stiff farthingales, instead, sensuous draping folds; in the scene of the oak Erne (Boito and Verdi’s English knew only double syllables for that word) which transported us into a thrashingly midwinter’s nightmare and then out again into a glorious midsummer dream with multicoloured and tasteful lighting effects.

Image projection supported this dream. How thankful we can be that digital technology can so easily help cut impossible costs in an increasingly finance-challenged art form and produce ever more startling effects. And how grateful that we have an amazing youthful talent of singers and instrumentalists in this part of the world bringing a zest for life to the truly life-enhancing creation that is Falstaff!

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!

Verdi Under the Stars

In 1996 a terrible flash-flood devastated large areas of the Apuan Alps. In particular two borghi, Fornovolasco and Cardoso (the one in Massa Rosa province, not the one in Garfagnana), were seriously damaged and, what is worst, caused fourteen deaths.

To raise funds for and to declare solidarity with the affected inhabitants Maestro Luigi Roni, a bass singer of international repute from Calomini, gave some recitals. These were the foundation of the “Serchio delle Muse” festival which, since 2002, and still under the artistic direction of Maestro Roni, has graced this valley with its programme of largely free concerts, recitals and poetry readings in its most beautiful locations: from ancient monasteries, to remote chapels and even to mountain refuges and all, generally, in the open-air.

2013 celebrates (if you didn’t know already you must be living in a remote part of Papua New Guinea) the bicentenary of the birth of those two pillars of the operatic repertoire, Verdi and Wagner. La Scala was slapped on the wrist for kicking off the festivities with Lohengrin at the end of last year but, certainly, Verdi has now come to the fore with many of his amazing works being performed this year throughout the peninsula.

The evening at Gallicano, part of the “Serchio delle muse festival”, was one of these celebrations: a concert of some of the “Swan of Busseto’s” most memorable scenas, including both familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The programme and singers were as follows:


I didn’t know any of the singers but, with its over-riding themes of passionate, unrequited love, bloodthirsty vengeance and filial affection, opera flows in the blood of Italians, and nothing but the best of voices could have pleased the audience. And the singers were stunning, all of them! The performances could not have been faulted on any account, with my personal favourites being the extracts from Don Carlo, Luisa Miller and Rigoletto.

The chorus, directed by Stefano Visconti, from the Festival Puccini of Torre del Lago was also superb and, in particular, their rendition of “patria oppressa” from that early masterpiece, Macbeth, was spellbinding.

Of course, good singers and a fine chorus are only part of the ingredients for a great evening: the pianist Roberto Baralli made us forget that, officially, these pieces should have an orchestra, by impregnating his instrument with every conceivable kind of tone-colour and indulging in a piquant interaction with his marvellous singers. But, for me, what made the evening an articulate one, uniting what could have been a disparate medley of unrelated items, was the enchanting presentation by Debora Pioli who, shamefully, was not mentioned either in the series leaflet or in the evening’s performance programme.

Debora, writer, journalist, musician, theatrical collaborator and lots more besides, has an absolute way in getting one to enter into the heart of the event: her seermingly extempore but deeply considered comments about the passions which inspired Verdi, his musical treatment of men and women, the psyches of his characters, really got us to understand more fully the language of his masterpieces.

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After Debora’s thanks to all those who contributed to a memorable evening it was, therefore, not surprising that she got the final plaudit from the Maestros themselves.

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How wonderful it is to appreciate opera in the balmy evening of an Italian square at the height of summer, with accompaniment of cicadas and reflections of moonbeam, in the company of locals, for whom opera is not some form of elitist pastime (“an exotic and irrational entertainment” as Doctor Johnson famously defined it) but a genuine embodiment of themes and passions which can stir the heart of every true-born native here, and throughout the world.

You can still enjoy these passions as the festival events continue throughout the summer. Click on to get the full programme.

Viva Verdi!

The following day, June 2nd, being Italy’s Republic day, and, therefore, a national holiday (unfortunately falling on a Sunday – but I was told by my students at Materis that they’d get double-pay) what better way to celebrate it than with a Verdi evening? Well, almost, for the name Verdi stood among patriots back in 1861 as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia, the re galant’uomo – the first King of Italy – he of the big bushy moustaches and whose statue graces many an Italian town and village centre square – who helped Italy along to its unification.

Immagine mostra. Giuseppe Verdi: un mito italiano

The battle cry “Viva Verdi”, therefore, took on a second significance for Italian patriots attending the local opera house.


(Above, the man himself at the time he composed “La Traviata”)

The name of Verdi remains indissolubly linked with the birth of the new Italian nation – and is a far less equivocal bond than that between the other great bicentenarian composer of this year Richard Wagner and Germany (particularly 20th century Germany……)

The Vicaria della Val di Lima sent two of their representatives to welcome the theatre-goers – behind you can see the mayor of our comune wearing an interesting tie.

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I can only applaud the evening. For a little theatre like il Teatro Accademico di Bagni di Lucca to put on an event of top-class lyrical singing is praiseworthy and I, as indeed the rest of the full house was glad to be there.

However, back in 1870 one person wasn’t so happy when he attended a performance of Verdi’s “Aida”. According to the anecdote a friend told me that evening this person wrote a letter expressing his dissatisfaction with the work,  to the great man himself, criticising it as being of little significance – apart from a few nice bits with trumpets – and attaching an expenses claim for wasted train journey (second class ticket), theatre ticket, supper at the station restaurant, and programme cost. Verdi wrote back to the complainant stating that he would be willing to reimburse the dissatisfied customer except that he would only refund the cost of a third class ticket as he needn’t have travelled in the comparative luxury of a second class carriage and that also, regretfully, he would not pay for his station restaurant meal since he could easily have provided himself with vino e panini from home. Verdi added that he would only pay the costs if the plaintiff would sign a declaration to never attend an opera by Verdi again as he didn’t want to take the risk of any further similar types of expenses claims!

Verdi was indeed a very down-to-earth person – both metaphorically and literally.  Having slaved “in the galleys” as he said, writing operas at the rate of at least one a year he was glad to have some respite and free time looking after his farming estate at Busseto where he lived, well-ahead of the customs of his times,  and heedless of the town’s tittle-tattle, with his beloved common-law wife Giuseppina Strepponi. (The sudden death of his first wife and all their children by typhus had almost made the distraught man give up his music).

I would add a couple more things about Verdi: first, although appointed a member of the new Italian parliament and writing the government a letter of thanks for the honour, Verdi was never truly a political man and found politics in the new Italy often a trying experience. Second, although Britain embraced Verdi as a sort of musical Garibaldi and as a champion of freedom Verdi didn’t think all that much of the UK as he had a somewhat unfortunate experience with one of his first operas – the second-rate “Masnadieri” – which was commissioned by a London theatre, slammed by critics as “crude” (at that time the nation was still wrapped in post-Mendelssohnian mellifluousness) and not much liked by Queen Victoria either – “the music is very shoddy and banal” she wrote in her diary.

However, all was forgiven after the British premiere of his wonderful Requiem took place in May 1875 at the Albert Hall, conducted by the composer himself, with a chorus of over 1000 and an orchestra of 140 (and which work is now the staple of many a choral society in in that part of the world). One journalist at the premiere described the work as “the most beautiful music for the church that has been produced since the Requiem of Mozart”, a view that was echoed by most people (and still is).

Anyway, here is the programme for the Verdi evening at Bagni di Lucca theatre., Some of the items have video recordings I made of them. You can see them by clicking on the youtube link.

Concerto lirico vocale di arie e duetti tratte da celebri opere di Giuseppe Verdi con la partecipazione di:




LAURA BRIOLI mezzosoprano

MARCO RIMICCI pianoforte

con la partecipazione straordinaria della Corale di San Pietro a Corsena

Direttore: Ennio Stefani

Pianista: Susan Hopkins

conduce la serata: FRANCO BOCCI

programma del concerto

prima parte

Nabucco: coro di schiavi ebrei – Va Pensiero – coro

I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata: O Signore dal tetto natio – coro

Nabucco: Dio di Giuda – baritono

Il Trovatore: Stride la vampa – mezzosoprano

Luisa Miller: quando le sere al placido – tenore

La Forza del Destino: Pace, pace mio Dio – soprano

Don Carlos: Dio che nell’alma infondere – tenore e baritono

Aida: Duetto atto II Aida verso noi s’avanza – soprano e mezzosoprano

Seconda Parte

Macbeth: Ah la patena mano – tenore

Macbeth – duetto donna fatal un murmure – soprano e baritono

Don Carlo : O don fatale – mezzosoprano

Rigoletto: La donna è mobile – tenore

Il Trovatore: duetto Conte e Leonora – soprano e baritono

Il Trovatore: duetto finale ai nostri monti – mezzosoprano e tenore

La Traviata: Lunge da lei – Sassetti

La Traviata: Brindisi soprano, tenore e coro


The inno di Mameli (AKA Italian national Anthem) was a splurge of patriotism for which all the audience stood up, some with hands on heart and several singing it too.

It would be difficult to single out especially noteworthily rendered items. However, I found the Macbeth excerpts grippingly interpreted and I laud the programmers who included less well-known arias among the staple war horses.

Claudio Sassetti, Bagni di Lucca’s own tenor who made a guest appearance, displayed yet another side of his flexibility in the beautifully sung item from la Traviata

Again, on the home front, The Corsena Choir showed that they can sing opera as well as any item from their more normally ecclesiastical repertoire.

Of course, without the two pianists the versatile and virtuosistic Marco Rimicci and Susan Hopkins, a truly international accompanist, none of the performances would have been possible.

Here are some views of the evening’s performers:

Finally, when someone asked Verdi, towards the end of his long life (he died aged 87) what he thought his best opera was (opera in Italian translates as both “opera” and “work”) he replied “the rest home (casa di riposo) I founded for aged musicians”. Now that truly is modesty and sums up this extraordinary person to a T.