Italy: An operatic odyssey

In 1913, the gentlemen of Verona began staging open-air operas in one of the largest Roman amphitheatres on the planet. As Simon Calder discovers on a harmonious tour of Italy, it continues to be one of music's greatest spectaculars
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The Independent Travel

Yet this is the same country that provided the planet with the fundamentals of music. A millennium ago, in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, a man named Guido was devising the stave. Today, schoolchildren there learn to play piano by reading music from the same five-line stave. Oh, and where was the piano invented? Padua, around 300 years ago, when a man named Cristofori figured out that the harpischord could be modified into a subtler and more versatile instrument.

Poor Cristofori does not even rate an alleyway to his memory in his home town, but later geniuses get street after street named after themselves: it is a rare Italian town without a via Verdi or piazza Puccini, and Milan has hotels celebrating both these composers. With some stirring music as a soundtrack, you can embark on a musical meander across northern Italy, along a course that forms a shape not unlike the fortissimo symbol.

The overture for this journey must be Venice, home of the world's first opera house: the Teatro Cassiano (1637). Venice has traditionally been the location of choice to premiere an opera: Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto; Semiramide and An Italian Girl in Algiers by Rossini; and even The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten. Perhaps the greatest concentration of openings was at Teatro san Giovanni e Paolo, in the piazza of the same name, where around 90 operas were premiered. Sadly, the theatre is no longer standing, but what remains is one of the finest squares in Venice. To the north stands the most grandiose hospital you've ever seen, dressed with fine columns and reliefs of lions. And at right angles to that, the Basilica of San Giovanni and San Paulo.

Venice has a very particular urban soundtrack. The time of day to be here is early in the morning, when you can wander through a surround-sound like none other. In the early morning in the world's ultimate backwater, you find a delicious approximation to serenity.

As in any Italian city, the first yawn of life begins well before dawn. But Venice has no grumble of lorries spluttering into life - just the ripples of human-powered craft, especially the traghetti. If you ever wondered what happened to those elegant gondolas when they've suffered too much wear and tear, walk to one bank of the Grand Canal. The elderly vessels become an essential part of the transport infrastructure, shuttling back and forth for a few cents for an economy-class gondola experience.

Even Wagner pops up in Venice, although he was fairly feeble late in 1882 when he checked in to the Palazzo Vendramin. He had seen through the Bayreuth Festival with Parsifal, then brought his family to Venice, where he worked on Tristan und Isolde. But on 13 February 1883, his heart gave out. The plaque announcing his demise is attached to what is now the Casino Municipale, just off the tourist drag.

The 40-minute slow movement from Venice to Verona marks a sharp change of rythmn. It takes you from one city with a rich musical history that has lost most of its auditoria to another city that had hardly any musical connections until it invented an opera festival. Indeed, Verona trades on invention: the story of Giuletta e Romeo (the names mysteriously reversed in the vernacular) is the city's strongest draw for most of the year, but from June to August operatic prodigality takes over. Number one, Piazza Bra, is the official address of the Verona Arena, but you need no street atlas to find the pink marble amphitheatre that tonight hosts 22,000 fans for the first performance of Puccini's La Bohème.

The gentlemen of Verona who, in 1913, chose to stage open-air operas in one of the largest Roman amphitheatres, proved that imagination can work in place of musical history. Aida was the first performance in the Verona Opera Festival. Since then, a number roughly equal to the population of Italy (55m) has watched opera here - and the venue also this year hosts latter-day Bohemians like Duran Duran, Lenny Kravitz and Coldplay.

The city's flirtation with fiction conceals her true civic virtues: a collusion of grandeur on just the right side of decay, with marvellous set pieces like the Giardini Giusti - a fiercely formal garden decorating a hillside on the far side of the river.

Verona shares an airport with Brescia, at least in Ryanair's book. And the two cities share an affinity for Puccini. Brescia's municipal auditorium has about one-20th the capacity of Verona's but it was the location for the greatest second performance in 19th-century music. Initially, Puccini was as unerringly successful as, say, U2: by the time he had Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca under his belt, he had eclipsed all the opera composers who came before him, bar Verdi. But Madame Butterfly proved a fiasco when it opened in Milan in 1904 - partly thanks to heckling orchestrated by some of Puccini's less talented contemporaries. But the composer took something of a Lord Coe attitude to adversity: he went back to the piano at his home in Torre del Lago, revised and revived the opera, and tried again at the Teatro Grande. Today, this beautiful little Baroque theatre seems a little cowed by the more modern developments around it, but its ornate pink marble still shines through - rather like Madame Butterfly.

To change architectural key from minor to major, you cross the land where "the Po runs down among its followers to find peace", according to Virgil. The ancient poet's home town of Mantua boasts a palace to match the finest in Italy - and a piece of operatic history. Four hundred summers ago, Monteverdi was composing madrigals to order - the orders being those of his patron, the Duke of Mantua. In the course of four centuries, the Gonzaga dynasty created, adorned and embellished the Ducal Palace, employing the likes of Mantegna and Pisanello as painters and decorators. Today, the jumble of 500 rooms vie for attention with courtyards and chapels.

The dukes also kept musicians in commissions. At the start of the 17th century, Monteverdi gave weekly concerts and composed for special occasions. In 1607, when the duke wanted a piece for the carnival, Monteverdi concocted a mixture of madrigals, single-line tunes and instrumental sections based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and called L'Orfeo. Today it is the world's oldest surviving opera.

Even though Mantua is steeped in culture, the town council wanted more. So officials fairly arbitrarily chose a handsome house just up the road from the palace, and deemed it to be the home of Rigoletto. For good measure, they have planted a life-size statue of Verdi's troubled and entirely fictional hunchback outside.

This part of Italy is violin territory. Cremona, Monteverdi's home town, is the home of Guarneri and Stradivari, while Parma - on the other side of the river - had * *Guadagnini. The virtuoso Nicolo Paganini chose to study in Parma, though his preferred instrument was from Cremona. Paganini lived like a rock star: he deliberately broke strings on his violin while on stage, and lived fast and loose offstage. He also spent a lot of time on the road, but between tours he sought refuge in Parma. The Grand Duchess of the city became a big fan. But when Paganini lay dying in Nice in 1840, he refused to accept the last rites, and consequently was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. His remains travelled almost as extensively as he had: from a cellar to the Grand Duchess's garden, before finally he was allowed to rest in the Cemetery della Viletta, south of the city centre - where his tomb is a marble masterpiece of indulgence.

The final destination of this grand tour is due south, a journey that takes you soaring across Italy's mini-Continental Divide - the Appenines. But a short diversion, to Florence, will allow you to spend the night with Giaocchino Rossini.

The man responsible for The Barber of Seville lived for a time at number 13, Via Cavour - which is now a two-star hotel, very well placed for the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery. The plaque facing the street tells you that Rossini lived here when he moved to Florence in 1848, to escape the revolutionary tumult in Bologna. Rossini did no significant work in Florence, nor ventured out much apart from the odd sortie for a thermal cure in Lucca. Today, Lucca - the smaller, sweeter sister of Pisa - is pure Puccini territory. The city makes a nod to Verdi, with a Piazzale named for him, but Giacomo Puccini gets a Viale, a theatre, a restaurant and even a boutique hotel in his memory. They converge on the statue of the great man, seated, looking casual and confident with his trademark cigarette in his right hand. On the same square stands the house where he was born, at present under restoration. But you need only go a dozen miles west to reach the great man's home.

You'll be reassured you're heading in the right direction when, on your way through Torre del Lago, you pass Via Bohème, Via Tosca and all operas to Via Butterfly. Puccini's villa is perched on the lip of Lake Massaciuccoli, one of the extinct volcanic craters that pock the face of Italy. In the garden, the Puccini Belvedere, between the villa and the lake shore, stands a statue of the maestro - this time, standing wearing a hat and overcoat, with the cigarette gripped between his lips. Are you beginning to see a pattern?

Torre del Lago is actually a very scenic spot, despite the autostrada marching across the horizon on the far side of the lake, but any opera fan is certain to be focussed on the contents of the villa. Puccini first moved to Torre del Lago in 1891. By the end of the century his earnings had allowed him to build a handsome villa. In between re-composing Madame Butterfly on his Forster piano and walnut desk, he lived as recklessly as a minor Royal: hunting for ducks on the lake, buying a series of fast cars, and occasionally crashing them.

Puccini's green marble tomb is housed in a chapel in the villa. His death mask is on display - the one representation in which he is not smoking. It wasn't the driving that finished him off. One of the most poignant exhibits is the handwritten note that Puccini wrote to his wife, Elvira, from the clinic in Brussels where he had had an unsuccessful operation for throat cancer. It reads "Elvira, povera donna, fini" - "Elvira, poor woman, it is finished." A sad finale for a musical genius.

Simon Calder presents Classic Journeys each Saturday on Classic FM, 2-3pm

Traveller's Guide

VENICE

Getting there

The luxury option is the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express (0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com) from London Victoria, which takes two days to travel from the Channel through the Alps to Santa Lucia station in Venice. Prices start at £1,695, including two nights in Venice and the flight home.

You can fly to Venice's main airport, Marco Polo, with BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Manchester and Gatwick, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick and Nottingham. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Treviso, 16 miles north of Venice.

If you touch down at Marco Polo airport, treat yourself by arriving in the city on water - every hour or so, vessels depart from the airport's own wharf. There are two routes: the rosso is likely to be the most useful - stopping at Arsenale, St Mark's Square and Zattere; from €5 (£3.50).

The Actv bus 5, €1 (70p) per person and €1 per bag, runs every half-hour from about 5am to 11pm, arriving at the Piazzale Roma. Ryanair offers a bus from Treviso, taking about 40 minutes to reach the same place.

Staying there

Accommodation is at a premium in Venice in the high season. Try Pensione Seguso at Zattere 779 (00 39 041 528 6858), overlooking the Giudecca Canal (and right next to a stop for the rosso service from the airport), where doubles start at €168 (£120) including breakfast. The quiet San Simon Hotel ai due Fanali (00 39 041 718490) is tucked away in the Campo San Simeon close to the Grand Canal. It has rooms from €100 (£70) including breakfast.

VERONA & BRESCIA

Getting there

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Verona's main airport. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to "Verona Brescia", which is south of Brescia and around 40 miles from Verona.

Opera Festival

This year's event (00 39 045 800 5151; www.arena.it) continues until 30 August. Highlights include La Bohème, Aida, Nabucco, Turandot and La Giaconda.

MANTUA

Getting there

Mantua is a bit of a branch-line town, but there are regular trains to and from Brescia, Milan and Modena, providng connections to stations elsewhere in Italy.

Staying there

Mantua has some interesting bed and breakfast locations in the centre, including B&B Verdeblu (00 39 0376 360 398), which charges €70 (£50) for a double room including breakfast and a "disjunctive electric system to avoid electro-magnetic fields during the night".

PARMA

Getting there

Don't make the mistake that some other travellers have made of booking a ticket to the Spanish city of Palma. The most convenient gateway is Bologna, served from Stansted by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and from Gatwick by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

Staying there

The Locanda Lazzaro at Borgo XX Marzo (00 39 0521 208 944) is primarily a restaurant, but has rooms available for around €50 (£35) excluding breakfast.

LUCCA, FLORENCE & TORRE DEL LAGO

Getting there

Pisa is the obvious gateway; it has links from a range of UK airports. From here, trains run often to Florence and Lucca and occasionally to Torre del Lago.

Staying there

In Florence, the Pensione Ottaviani on Piazza Degli Ottaviani (00 39 055 239 6223) is an excellent location, charging €50 (£35) for a double room including breakfast.

The Hotel Casci, the former residence of Rossini, is a two-star place at Via Cavour 13 (00 39 055 211 686; www.hotelcasci.com), which charges €100 (£70) for a double including breakfast.

TRILLS WITH NO FRILLS

Many of the great musical locations in Italy are easily accessible on cheap flights from the UK. These are some of the most tempting:

Rossini in Pesaro

You can fly to Forli or Ancona from Stansted on Ryanair, from which this resort is only a short distance. Somewhere in the hills above Pesaro resides the grand old man of Italian music, Pavarotti. The first 10 years of Gioacchino Rossini's life were spent at what is now the Casa Rossini, at 34 via Rossini.

The Rossini Opera Festival takes place each August. This year, it runs 8-22 August.

Palestrina in Palestrina

Rome's secondary airport, Ciampino, served by the no-frills airlines, is remarkably close to the former Roman fortified hill town of Praeneste, later Palestrina. Indeed, the composer who took his name from this town, Palestrina - Giovanni di Palestrina - also went by the name of Prenestino. Palestrina - the person - went as a boy chorister to Rome, and the rest is musical history.

Donizetti in Bergamo

Too many people believe the low-cost airlines' publicity, and assume that Milan Bergamo is convenient for northern Italy's commercial capital. It isn't, being just outside the fine city of Bergamo, some 30 miles from Milan. For just €1.50 (£1.10) you can hop aboard the local bus from the airport and be whisked to Bergamo's Citta Alta, the high town, from where you get an impeccable view of Lombardy - and the chance to pay your respects to Gaetano Donizetti, who emerged from the shadow of Rossini and now has a museum in his honour.

Gian Carlo Menotti in Spoleto

Most people who fly into Ancona on Ryanair head up or down the Adriatic coast. But if you aim inland, you reach the beautiful confusion of architecture draped on an Umbrian hillside that is Spoleto. It is right in the middle of the Festival dei Due Mondi, which the town shares with the Italian diaspora in America and Australia. A lot of people become besotted with Spoleto, among them the composer, Gian Carlo Menotti. He moved here in 1958 and set up what was then a small festival, which he founded and music-directed.

Bellini in Sicily

Air Malta flies from Stansted to Catania, the birthplace of Bellini. The composer hails from the port city of Catania at the eastern end of Italy's largest island. He is remembered in Catania's beautiful gardens, which each evening is the venue for an elaborate, almost operatic, passagiata.

Tim Lihoreau is creative director of Classic FM

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