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
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

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.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin