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

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