Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Journal: Puccini e la sua Lucca

"Men die and governments change but the songs of La Boheme will live forever" according to Thomas Edison, in a letter the great inventor sent to Puccini in 1920.

That letter is on display in the composer's home, Villa Museo Puccini in Torre del Lago. The Puccini museum also houses two of his most cherished possessions: “After the piano, my favorite instrument is the hunting rifle."

One of said hunting rifles is over 7 feet tall, and looks more like a cannon. It is a fascinating Villa.

Puccini's granddaughter, Simonetta, hawkishly presides over Villa Puccini, and was busying about the house and grounds during our visit there. The Association of the the Friends of the Homes of Giacomo Puccini ends its application letter with a lofty (if awkwardly translated) appeal:

"The Association is a cultural enterprise of great value, the sponsorship of which infers attention to sensitivity and spirituality, to the improvement of the world, and to the importance of the quality of human life on the part of the sponsor."

I think I'm going to adapt and use that for a pitch. It also appeals to vanity: "sponsorship is an investment in one's own image."

We were hurried through the house, but were allowed to linger in the garage, which features wheels from one of Puccini's motor cars, but more importantly for the enterprise, the gift shop. I left with a Puccini pencil and eraser, and a Madama Butterfly notepad. I have felt more inspired ever since.

In all seriousness, if the Puccini house was not inspiring enough, our lunch and recital in neighboring Lucca were even more so. Puccini was a homeboy. When he left Lucca to study in Milan, he asked his mother to send him some of Lucca's signature olive oil, which is less fruity and more pungent (with a strong note of pepper) than what we expect.

In one of her engaging talks during the voyage, Frances Mays (author of Under the Tuscan Sun) reminded us that one of the keys to Italian cooking is the olive oil. In addition to the immediacy of its freshness, it is used generously. An Italian home cook runs through a large bottle in a couple of weeks, which just happens to correspond with the oil's shelf life.

After a delicious four-course lunch (bruschetta, pasta, veal & dessert), the group walked around the beautiful town, enclosed within a wall the Lucchese never needed. Robert Frost's observation that "good fences make good neighbors" could be applied to the centuries-old rivalry between Lucca and Pisa. "Mending Wall" describes a relationship that covers as many sins as it prevents.

“A sin against art” is how one critic decribed Puccini’s second opera, Edgar. We skipped the first three and started with La Boheme in our recital in the church where the composer was baptized and later played the organ, San Giovanni.

After excerpts from Tosca & La Rondine and a detour to his cousins and nephews (Mascagni, Menotti & Barber, respectively), I closed the concert with the composer's ultimate aria, "Nessun Dorma." Amy said she'd never heard me sing better. I've certainly never experienced a more rousing ovation following a performance.

I was asked by several listeners if and how it was inspiring to sing Puccini in not only his home town, but his home church (which is also an archeological museum, and another example of the fascinating stylistic tensions about which I wrote yesterday).

The singleness of the occasion was certainly part of the reason why. But it was the accompanying focus and concentration that made the difference. We always aim to serve the composer through the performance of his music, and in that regard we artists are indeed public servants. The specificity of that intent was simply more concrete singing a beloved composer's music in such a sacred (literally and figuratively) space. Home to a festival that performs Puccini "in his Lucca" (the title of this essay) 365 days a year, there were life-size posters of the composer behind the piano and at the back of the 150-or-so seats in the church. If one needed a better target to sing to, I can't imagine it.

Puccini's "sugary music" (his own words) has always had its detractors. Tosca was drubbed a "shabby little shocker." Even his peers could be derogatory. Shostakovich (somewhat of a shabby shocker himself) said Puccini “wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music."

I wonder if the critics had simply had their fill of Puccini's desserts by the time he wrote La Fanciulla del West (which turns 100 next year). This favorite among his musician followers (like me) shows an evolution in his style. The score is even more fully integrated (which is why so few numbers are extracted from it). The influence of French impressionism and the sophisticated palette of orchestral tone poems are both present. The infectious melodies are in abundance, and their influence continues to be felt. The seamlessness with which the libretto is set reminds me of Janacek, where the inflections of speech rhythms are pitch perfect. In short, it is among its composer's most ravishing and accomplished scores. Which in the case of a great opera composer like Puccini, is no small feat.

Our day began and ended in the gorgeous Italian Riviera port of Lerici, in the aptly named "Bay of Poets." Byron lived there and Shelley died there. The romantic spirit that fed their lyrical genius inspired Puccini, and everyone within earshot on June 6.

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