The Beautiful Tale of Puccini and Lucca

July 13, 2012 4:40 pm

The gorgeous centre of Lucca, Tuscany.

Lucca is a beautiful town surrounded by a twelve metre thick and twenty-five metre high 16th century wall, which runs around Lucca’s entirety and protects the city. On top of the wall is a broad walk and cycle-way and there’s no better way to take in the city than to walk or ride along the giant wall, whilst admiring some of Italy’s finest medieval and Renaissance architecture. There is a ramp alongside Porta Santa Maria that allows wheelchair access up on to the wall and there are altogether eight ramps built for cyclists and they are adequate for wheelchair access.

Cars are not permitted in a large proportion of Lucca and walkers and cyclists seem to circulate together along the winding streets that so often cause visitors to get a little lost. There are two bike shops in town that you can hire bicycles from for the day: the Cici Bizarri and Antonio Poli.

Lucca is a rival to Florence and Pisa and attracts a more discerning visitor; it’s off the beaten track yet accessible and well positioned to visit nearby places: the seaside town of Viareggio is a few minutes away by train and you can be in Pisa within twenty minutes. Lucca doesn’t move quickly for anyone, its inhabitants do everything at leisure and it’s impossible for the visitor not to do the same. Nowhere in Italy seems to do relaxing better than those born and bred in Lucca.

With the sun baking the old buildings in the historic centre and the soft sounds of ‘Madam Butterfly’ playing from an open window behind shutters, it’s impossible not to see and imagine what must have inspired Giacomo Puccini to become a composer. It is Lucca where the composer’s love of music began and his inspiration was born.

Puccini was born in a house in Corte San Lorenzo 22nd December 1858 and it was within that house in Lucca that he spent the first twenty-two years of his life. He was born into a family with five generations of music behind it. At the age of five, Puccini’s father died and he was sent to study with his uncle Fortunato Magi, who rather than recognise his musical talent, thought Puccini undisciplined and in need of punishment. It is thought that the real reason for this was jealousy, as Fortunato received Puccini’s father’s job as choir master and his contract stated that when Puccini was of a certain age then he would inherit the job. Fortunato had nothing to be concerned about Puccini never wanted nor took the job of choir master.

A portrait of Puccini.

The house Puccini was born in is now a museum managed by the Giacomo Puccini Foundation and it contains many of the composer’s personal items such as furniture, awards and letters between Puccini and his wife Elvira, who he met when he was twenty-five on a visit back to Lucca to see family and friends. She was the wife of a rich merchant in Lucca and she left Lucca with Puccini and her daughter. Later, they had a son together, Antonio, born on the 23rd Decemeber 1886. Elvira was beautiful and she knew her own mind, she chose poverty and love rather than riches to be with Puccini and she never showed any sign of regret. The relationship created a scandal amongst the Catholic Church goers of Italy and it couldn’t be legalised until 1904 when her former husband died.

At seventeen Puccini and his brother Michele walked thirty kilometres from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ and this was when his inspiration to be a composer began.

It was in 1880 that Puccini left Lucca behind and enrolled in the Milan Conservatory to study composition with Stefano Ronchetti , studying Monteviti, Amilcare Ponchelli and Antonio Bazzini. In order to achieve this he obtained a grant and received financial help from another relative. This was an incredible stroke of luck for the young Puccini as he was over the age for admittance but scored such a high mark in the entrance test that they decided to let him enrol regardless.

In the same year, at the age of 21, he composed his first piece of music ‘Messa’, which focuses on his family’s love of church music in Lucca and the Ordinary of the Catholic Mass. The work has been re titled ‘Messa di Gloria’, a name that refers to the first two prayers of the Ordinary, the Kyrie and the Gloria, while omitting the Credo, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. ‘Messa’ was first heard at the church of San Paolino in Lucca on 12th July 1881, the church where Puccini had previously worked as an organist.

One of the most striking buildings in Lucca is the Duomo San Martino; its porch is decorated with a statue of each month of the year, from a girl giving a rose to a pig being slaughtered. Inside the cathedral is the wooden statue of Jesus Christ known as the ‘Volto Santo’ or ‘Holy Face’. The statue of Christ is on the cross; he has a beard and is fully dressed. It has been worshipped by the people of Lucca for centuries and it is believed that the cross contains hairs of Christ, a phial of his blood and his foreskin.

Ilaria del Carretto.

Deeper inside the cathedral is Lucca’s greatest monument, the marble tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, who at nineteen with her whole life ahead of her and newlywed, married to the nobleman Paolo Guinigi, died in child birth in the 15th century. Paolo Guinigi was so heart-broken that he had sculptor Jacopo della Quercia immortalise her. She looks like she is sleeping peacefully with her head on a cushion and at her feet sits the symbol of fidelity, a small dog. It is such a deeply moving site and has been held close by the people of Lucca for hundreds of years.

You can imagine the young Giacomo Puccini coming here with his mother as a small boy and returning at various points throughout his young life to stare at the beauty of Ilaria and being captivated by the agonising sadness all around her tomb. Perhaps this is where Puccini drew his inspiration for ‘Madame Butterfly’, where the young heroine cuts her own throat when she discovers that her husband has remarried. Many of Puccini’s greatest works concentrate on boy meets girl, girl dies and boy is left devastated, which is comparable the distraught Paolo Guinigi at the death of Ilaria. In ‘Tosca’ Scarpia throws herself to her death and in ‘La Bohème’ Mimi dies leaving Rodolfo’s cries of devastation to complete the opera. Stand by the tomb of Ilaria for a moment and you will feel the sadness that I am speaking of.

Madam Butterfly

His best known opera by far is ‘Madame Butterfly’ and Puccini wrote five versions; the original was in two acts and premiered in La Scala in Milan on 17th February 1904; it went very badly for the composer and he withdrew it immediately and rewrote it in three acts. This version was performed in Brescia 28th May 1904 and was hailed a great success. The same version premiered in the USA in 1906 by Henry Savage’s New English Opera Company, performed in English. Later that year Puccini wrote a third version, performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and in 1907 Puccini made a few changes, which became the fourth version. He reviewed it again in 1907 and this fifth version is what is known as the standard version, which you can hear around the world. Giacomo Puccini was a perfectionist and this is how the outstanding ‘Madame Butterfly’ that we know and love was born.

The Puccini e la sua Lucca International Festival began in Lucca 6th March 2004 and is said to be the world’s only permanent festival. Created by Andrea Colombini, whose dream was to see Puccini returned to his beloved home town, a town rich in musical tradition. Other composers have roots in Lucca; Nicolao Dorati, Cristoforo Malvezzi, Gioseffo Guami, Giovanni Lorenzo Gregari, Francesco Geminani, Filippo Manfredi, Luigi Boccherini and Alfredo Catalani. An impressive list of musical genius, but the greatest Giacomo Puccini is known all over the world.

Each night special concerts are held in the beautiful and unforgettable setting of San Giovanni, with a different cast, musicians and programme to give those who want to return daily a much more varied idea of Puccini’s work. It really does not disappoint and where better to hear the composer’s work than in the town where it all begun?

The house that Puccini was born in on Corte San Lorenzo re-opened to the public in 2011 and three years of events have been planned in Lucca to celebrate this. From 15th March to 15th November 2011 to 2013 concerts are scheduled for everyday in the Church of San Giovanni, without interruption and during the Winter months concerts will take place Friday and Saturday evenings at the Oratorio of the Museo della Cattedrale, a moments distance from the church of San Giovanni. All concerts begin at 7:00 pm and over 1,000 events have been scheduled in total.

Lucca is a town for lovers of all things Italian and lovers of opera. It deserves a visit, guarantees a great time and really can not disappoint.

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