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The Puccini Festival, set against the magical backdrop of lake Massaciuccoli at Torre del Lago is once more under way. This year marks the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mascagni, and as a tribute, 2013’s programme includes special productions of two of the most loved of all Italian operas; Verdi’s Rigoletto and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
The inauguration of the Festival began on 12 July with an unusual double bill – Puccini’s
Il Tabarro and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. There are many connections between these two 1 Act works, and director and playwright Antonio Calenda has presented them in the form of a diptych.
Both were written in the style of French Realism, (with the French writer Zola being a clear influence), and Italian Verismo (truth), using a language full of vivid metaphor but mixed with19th century Romanticism. Verismo is a theatrical style distinguished by realistic, often sordid or violent depictions of contemporary everyday life, especially the life of the lower classes.
Unlike many earlier operas, there are no members of the aristocracy, no goddesses or mythical beings. Verismo operas tell stories of working people’s life-long struggles and drudgery, with only occasional glimpses of joy and escape. In this rarely paired double bill, lust, love, jealousy and murder disrupt a life based around dreary routine, leaving the fatal and tragic impossibility of redemption.

Il Tabarro - Michele’s original costume

Puccini and Mascagni were students together, and it was Mascagni who after Puccini’s death in 1924 directed the first Festival of Torre del Lago in 1930 with a performance of La Bohème. Puccini loved the area; in 1900 he had a villa built by the lake and was able to indulge his passion for hunting as well as finding inspiration for his most famous operas, including Tosca and Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. I am sure he would have approved of the pairing of these two works.

Directly opposite Puccini’s villa and set in an idyllic position on the lake is the ristorante Chalet Emilio. The food here is simple but delicious, the local wine from a Montecarlo fattoria and the waiters charming and helpful. Add to that the romantic Turner-like views of the sun gradually setting over the distant mountains, the general ambience and the agreeable sounds of improvised jazz played quietly in the background by a local pianist, and you have the perfect prelude to a memorable night at the opera.

Dinner at Chalet Emilio
The Theatre as seen from the ristorante
As the seats began to fill up, a crane appeared from behind the stage area and flew in large props onto the set – always fun to watch.
The set of Il Tabarro

Il Tabarro is set on a barge on the River Seine in 1910 Paris and focuses on the events of one dark night. Giorgetta, sung by Chiara Angella finds life on the barge with her husband, Michele (Alberto Gazale) lonely and dreary, especially since she has recently lost their only child. The barge is moored in a dark, miserable quay, polluted by emissions from the factories of the Industrial Revolution, and life is hard. Giorgetta longs for the Paris suburbs where she grew up and for a proper house rather than a dark, dingy cabin and tiny kitchen. She and one of the workmen, Luigi (Francesco Anile) fall in love and dream of moving away to a better life. Michele becomes suspicious, and in fit of jealous rage, strangles Luigi and conceals the body in his cloak. Giorgetta appears on stage to apologise to Michele, only for him to throw open his cloak to reveal the lifeless body.
The music for Il Tabarro is very intimate and dark, mirroring the libretto and set. The chorus is unseen and sings off stage adding to the intimacy. This is a Puccini who was clearly influenced by a contemporary French composer known for his musical intimacy – Claude Debussy. The harmonies often move in parallel lines in the Gamelan style, and there is a greater simplicity and directness in the scoring, and sharper orchestral lines. There are no sweepingly memorable melodies but instead repeated leitmotifs, which are used to enhance the dramatic unity. There are also clear references to Mimi’s first aria in La bohème, the opening notes providing another motif.
Albero Gazale’s Michele is particularly convincing. His soliloquy reflecting on his wretched life and contemplating revenge on his younger rival for his wife’s affections is musically convincing, and psychologically believable, as is his dramatic portrayal of a desperate man, tortured by his own murderous jealousy into committing the ultimate act of crime - murder.

Il Tabarro (The Cloak) forms part of Il Trittico, a triptych of three short operas with unrelated plots, the other two being Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. The three are rarely performed together today because they run longer than three hours. Puccini first thought of writing this set of one-act operas in 1904 after hearing Mascagni’s Cavalieri Rusticana, and they were premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918.

Conductor, Alberto Veronesi

The action for the more well - known of the two operas, Cavalleria Rusticana takes place in a village piazza in Sicily. The set reminded me of the Greek ampitheatre in Taormina, with the quasi - stone steps cleverly providing levels and adding seemingly extra depth to the stage. This time there is a large visible chorus of villagers and children, a church almost hidden out of view and Lucia’s wine shop at the front of the stage, where she lives with her son, Turiddu.

This young villager has returned from military service to find that while he was away, his fiancée, Lola, has married Alfio, a carter. In revenge, Turiddu seduces Santuzza, a young woman in the village. As the opera begins, Lola, overcome by her jealousy of Santuzza, has begun an adulterous affair with Tiriddu and he is heard off stage singing of his love for her.

The distraught Santuzza, played by Anda Louisa Bogza, for me stole the show. This experienced Romanian soprano has a glorious voice and portrayed her dramatic role with complete conviction. Suspecting that Tiriddu has betrayed her with Lola, she approaches his mother Lucia to ask where he is. Then Alfio, Lola’s husband arrives on his wagon accompanied by the villagers. He praises his wife’s beauty and asks Lucia for some of her fine old wine before leaving.
The choir inside the church is heard singing the
Regina Coeli, and outside the villagers, joined by Santuzza, sing the famous Easter Hymn in a powerful and moving performance. The friction and jealousy between the four main protagonists is contrasted by the beautiful orchestral Intermezzo, played while the dignified procession leaves the church and slowly moves across the top level of the stage, carrying a statue and cross – a scene so often observed at Italian festas and so much a part of Italian village life.
Inevitably, Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel, after which voices are heard in the distance and a woman cries, ‘They have murdered Turiddu!’ Santuzza faints and Lucia collapses in the arms of the women villagers.

Opera performed in an open-air theatre and in this beautiful setting is a special event and well worth a visit.

There are two more performances of this double bill in August and details of these and all other productions can be found on the Festival’s website –

Torre de lago 2013 - A night at the opera by Tuscan Talent