Opera all'italiana

Verona isn't the only venue for summer opera in Italy, as Joanne Watson discovered on her travels to the festivals of Macerata, Pesaro and Torre del Lago

Mention Italian opera festivals and Verona immediately springs to mind, with audiences of 20,000 in the Roman amphitheatre enjoying balmy nights and spectacular performances. Delve a little deeper and you can discover numerous other festivals muscling in on the lucrative cultural tourist trail.

In Torre del Lago, south of the seaside town of Viareggio in Tuscany, a musical tornado has taken up residence in the form of a new artistic director, Marco Balderi. Torre del Lago is the hamlet on Lake Massaciuccoli where Puccini spent many productive years and just a few hundred metres from the Villa Puccini is a 3,000-seater open-air theatre.

The first opera was staged here in 1930, six years after the composer's death, and their singing tradition is impressive. Gigli, Di Stefano, Corelli, Pavarotti and Domingo have all appeared; here, Tito Gobbi made his debut as Scarpia and Mario del Monaco gave his farewell performances. Although not exclusively devoted to staging Puccini, the festival had a reputation for being short, safe and unspectacular - before Balderi's arrival.

A man of substantial vision, he sees Torre del Lago as offering huge untapped potential for the whole area. "I want to stage 400 concerts from May until the end of the festival in August, not only opera but jazz, classical and baroque as well as 20th-century music. My idea is for a holiday in music, a meeting place for the lyrically passionate." Part of this concept has already been instigated with a series of sunset chamber concerts in the tourist hotels around Viareggio. "All I need is the corner of a garden or a space by the swimming pool." He has just returned from giving a concert for children from Chernobyl and he waves across the lake to another village where a brass band from Southern Italy is giving a concert.

"Puccini doesn't need us but we need his image and popularity" - to which Maestro Balderi has added drive, charm and great contacts. "I got Jose Cura [Placido Domingo's tenorial protege] here for half the price of Verona; I promised him a good cast if he would sing Cavaradossi. Ines Salazar, one of the best Toscas around, and Sherrill Milnes and he came and on the last day he went into Puccini's house and was in tears by the composer's tomb - it is an emotional place." It seems almost churlish to ask about money; it certainly isn't uppermost in his mind. "It isn't a question of economics and for the first year I haven't looked at the books. I say to some artists: I can't give you much money but I can give you a fine production, a beautiful setting and ambience to make music." Underlining his expansionist zeal is the commitment to Puccini and the desire to stage some of his lesser-known works such as Edgar and Il Trittico.

This season's fare included the first operatic concert by the blind pop tenor Andrea Bocelli, whose album Romanza has sold a staggering six million copies and who sang Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth under Balderi six years ago. His concert certainly brought in the crowds but, perhaps more importantly, raised the festival's profile.

The current theatre does have its detractors - like any open-air venue, the weather can play havoc and the acoustics are variable, but Balderi has plans for remedying this; in fact he has plans for everything. Given time, patience and, of course, money, this revolutionary envisages transforming this sleepy hamlet into a major player in the festival game.

While Torre del Lago has the advantage of being close to a huge tourist catchment area, Macerata in the southern Marche is not. Historically its claim to fame is as the town where, for some obscure reason, Bonnie Prince Charlie married. Opera here is staged al fresco in the Sferisterio, which was built in 1829 to stage a local ball game and is shaped rather like an orange segment. The long flat edge is the stage side and the crescent wall encompasses two tiers of stone loggia boxes, with the majority of the audience in the middle. It's a striking venue and one which has just drawn Valeria Esposito, a former winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, back for her fourth season, this time to sing Lucia. "It has magic, a big open house and wonderful acoustics, so you can sing as in a normal theatre and not force the voice. I can listen to the birds and look up at the stars - for me it's a wonderful place."

The festival was launched in 1967 but only really hit the headlines in 1995, when a traumatic Tosca resulted in the tenor Fabio Armiliato spending more time in casualty than on stage. On the first night the firing squad, using Napoleonic rifles, found their blanks anything but and the famous cry of "Mario, Mario" was replaced by "Dottore, Dottore" as Armiliato writhed in agony from a flesh wound to his right leg. Bandaged up, he returned for the next performance - only to trip up in Act 2 and break the other leg!

One of Macerata's characteristics is its innovative productions. The stage is long and narrow but has no flies and hence no conventional backdrops. One successful format used in this season's excellent Faust is the projection of images on to the huge stone stage wall in lieu of scenery. The musical consensus is that the festival has matured in the past four years and Sovrindente Claudio Orazi can claim a growing audience: "We have both important artists and young singers in interesting productions and we're attracting new people - 70 per cent come from outside the region and 30 per cent from the rest of Europe." Although Macerata is off the beaten track, they've just instigated a Treno della lirica, a train that picks up opera-goers from as far away as Bologna, a round trip of 500km.

One hundred and fifty kilometres north of Macerata on the east coast is Pesaro, the birthplace of Rossini and home for the last 18 years to a festival celebrating his work. Money too is a major concern for the artistic director Luigi Ferrari. His budget of 11 billion lire includes nearly 60 per cent in subsidies and that's his major headache. "We have to wait months, sometimes years to receive the money already granted by the state, and so we have to ask the banks to help us." Fortunately they've shown sufficient business acumen to cultivate a very understanding bank manager.

Despite Rossini's apparent popularity, much of his serious repertoire has been neglected, leaving Ferrari in no doubt that the "Swan of Pesaro" still stands in need of promotion. "We are a sort of workshop. Musicologists from all over the world come here to rediscover the forgotten works and, as soon as the new scores are published, the festival tries to put them on stage and see if they are still viable." Reward for their enterprise has been an after-life in other houses for several of their stagings.

Pesaro splits its productions between three venues, including a basketball hall, the Palafestival, which staged this year's opening night. The production of Moise et Pharaon, the French reworking of Mose in Egitto, was a stunning collaboration between Graham Vick, Glyndebourne's director of productions, and designer Stefanos Lazaridis. Among outbreaks of spontaneous combustion, the set featured a huge mirror that was transformed into a steep ramp and a raised moat around the court area symbolising the River Nile and encompassing the orchestra at one end. The production received a mixed reception, though Vick wasn't unduly perturbed. "They're a conservative audience in Italy," he says. "Part of the public here has no desire for opera to become theatre, they only want it to be about singing and tradition. I think a sense of adventure is quite important in the theatre. Yes, this work is surprising and unexpected but I see that as a virtue not a vice." Much of the discontent revolved around the 30-minute ballet sequence in Act 3 which is normally cut, but Vick and Ferrari were adamant it should stay, since it is an essential part of the composer's original conception.

Like Macerata, Pesaro can point to a growth in audiences but this has to be earned, as Ferrari acknowledges: "The one thing that forces people to come here rather than anywhere else is the quality of the productions. We have simply to do our best; the market exists and our goal is to be good enough to stay in it. This year many festivals such as Salzburg and Verona are losing audiences but ours has increased, so it means quality pays." If Verona really is waning, there's no apparent shortage of other Italian options, all offering something a little different and now just as visible and accessiblen

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital