The complete guide to musical Italy

Classical music - particularly opera - has always played a big part in daily life in Italy. The summer sees a series of festivals around the country. Anthea Milnes and Charlie Furniss present a traveller's overture to the best operatic, orchestral and choral events of the year


WHERE SHALL I START?

WHERE SHALL I START?

The most spectacular open-air opera festival begins today in Verona, home to Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Held in the dramatic setting of the city's Roman amphitheatre, the festival runs until 31 August. Although the quality of the performances may not always match that of the great Italian opera houses, what makes these events so special is the atmosphere. You're free to sip a glass of chianti and nibble crostini as you watch the action, and even join in with your favourite choruses.

On a balmy summer's evening, surrounded by hundreds of candles, there's nothing quite like a 25,000-strong audience singing along to the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Nabucco. This year's festival features performances not only of Nabucco, but also of Aida, Carmen, La Traviata, Rigoletto and Turandot.

If you're forced to choose just one, make it either the new production of Aida by Franco Zeffirelli or the gala performance of La Traviata on 31 July starring Angela Gheorghiu, José Cura and Ambrogio Maestri.

Tickets start at €14 (£10) and can be booked directly by telephone (00 39 045 800 5151) or online at www.arena.it. Alternatively, you can queue for seats on the less-expensive unnumbered steps of the Arena di Verona on the day.

CAN'T SOMEONE ORGANISE IT FOR ME?

Yes. Make a long weekend of it by spending three nights at the luxurious five-star golf and spa resort, Palazzo Arzaga, care of Exclusive Italy (01892 619650, www.exclusiveworldwide.com). You can combine nights at the opera with long relaxing days at this 15th-century converted mansion, close to the shores of Lake Garda. A three-night package costs £780 per person (based on two sharing) and includes return flights from Gatwick to Verona with British Airways, car hire, two opera tickets, transfers to the Arena di Verona, and use of the tennis courts, fitness centre, sauna and outdoor pool.

JUST ONE CORNETTO, GIVE IT TO ME...

The Wall's ice-cream ad created the mistaken impression that the tune is from a Venetian opera. In fact, the melody with which the gondolier serenades the couple is not a tune from an opera, but a popular song from Naples: "O Sole Mio". Although not strictly classical music, Neapolitan songs stir the passions as strongly as operatic arias. They are part of a long-standing southern Italian tradition. In the early 20th century the Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso had a series of hits with songs such as "O Sole Mio", "A Vucchella" and "Santa Lucia".

Sadly, the Festival of Piedigrotta in Naples which was devoted to Neapolitan songs no longer exists. However, there are still plenty of performances you can catch in and around the city. The next one takes place at the Royal Palace of Caserto on 29 June, where you can see maestro Massimo Ramieri singing his heart out. Tickets start from €30 (£22). The outdoor Stadio di San Paolo is another popular venue; and there are regular indoor renditions of Neapolitan songs at the Trianon Theatre, known as the theatre of Neapolitan songs (00 39 081 244 0411; www.teatrotrianon.it). Performances are every Wednesday at 9.30pm, Thursday at 6pm and Friday at 6pm and 9.30pm.

You can fly to Naples from Gatwick on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) or from Stansted on easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com). Fares start at around £83 return. A single room in the central Hostel of the Sun in Naples (00 39 081 420 6393, www.hostelnapoli.com) costs from €40 (£28) per night or you can have a dorm bed from €16 (£11) per night, including breakfast. Alternatively, Cresta Holidays has a package including flights on BA and three nights at the Hotel Del Real Orto Botanico including breakfast, for a price of £426 in July.

MI MI MI MI...

Ah, you mean Mimi, the tragic heroine of Puccini's La Bohème. The part of Mimi at this year's Puccini Festival will be played by Carla Maria Izzo or Maya Dishuk, depending on when you go. The festival takes place from 18 July-22 August in Torre del Lago in Tuscany, not far from the Villa Puccini, where this popular composer wrote most of his operas.

Torre del Lago's vast open-air theatre is situated on the shores of the Massaciuccoli lake, a beautiful setting for the four Puccini operas to be performed in rotation, including an extravagant production of Madame Butterfly with sets designed by Kan Yasuda. You can reach the location easily via Pisa, which is served from Birmingham on MyTravelLite (08701 564 564, www.mytravellite.com), from East Midlands on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com), from Gatwick and Manchester on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) and from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com). Tickets for individual performances start at €26 (£18); book on 00 39 0584 359322 or through www.puccinifestival.it. Or buy a package to the Puccini Festival with JMB Travel (01905 830099, www.jmb-travel.co.uk). The cost is £499 per person (based on two sharing) for three nights B&B in the three-star Puccini Hotel, two opera tickets, and return flights from Gatwick to Pisa with BA.

ANY OTHER FESTIVALS WORTH BOTHERING WITH?

Molti, molti. The oldest music festival in Italy, the Maggio Musicale in Florence, was founded in 1933. The name translates as "Musical May", but these days the festival runs through to 1 July; be quick if you want to catch the remaining operas, ballets or orchestral concerts (00 39 055 211158, www.maggiofiorentino.com). See above for details of cut-price flights to Pisa, which has a direct train connection to Florence.

The Adriatic town of Pesaro, Rossini's birthplace, holds its annual festival in the composer's honour from 8-22 August. This year, as usual, it will feature a variety of Rossini's orchestral and choral works, as well as his operas (00 39 072 213 8001, www.rossinioperafestival.it).

The Macerata Festival (00 39 0733 261 499, www.macerataopera.org) takes place in the 7,000-seater Arena Sferisterio from 19 July to 13 August and includes performances of popular operas such as Rigoletto and Carmen. The broad-ranging Festival dei Due Mondi ("festival of two worlds") in Spoleto from 27 June-13 July encompasses opera, concerts, ballet, drama, cinema and art exhibitions (00 39 0743 220 320, www.spoletofestival.it).

In addition, there are festivals in Barga, Catania, Martina Franca, Pavia, Ravenna, Rome, Stresa, Siena, Trieste and other venues.

WHAT IF IT RAINS?

Put on your glad rags and move inside one of Italy's grand opera houses. Milan's Teatro alla Scala (00 39 02 7200 3744, www.teatroallascala.org) is the home of Italian opera. Unfortunately the 2,800-seat opera house is closed for refurbishment until 2005. La Scala's museum, which houses an excellent collection of musical scores, set designs, photographs and portraits, is also closed during the refurbishment. In the meantime you can catch performances at Milan's brand-new Teatro degli Arcimboldi. From 3 to 19 July, it is staging Leonard Bernstein's much-loved musical West Side Story.

Opera is staged in many of the major cities. In Naples, recordings of the Greek diva Maria Callas singing in Verdi's Nabucco and Il Trovatore were made at the splendid Teatro San Carlo (00 39 081 797 2331, www.teatrosancarlo.it).

Another of Callas's haunts was the Teatro Communale in Florence (00 39 055 211158, www.maggiofiorentino.it). Venice's "Teatro La Fenice" ("The Phoenix") (00 39 055 213 535, www.teatrolafenice.it) burnt down in 1996 for the third time in its history but will rise from the ashes once again in 2004.

In Rome, the Teatro dell'Opera (00 39 06 481601, www.opera.roma.it) is renowned for its technically perfect performances and spectacular sets and costumes. Opera houses are also located in Bologna, Cagliari, Catania, Genoa, Palermo, Parma, Trieste and Turin. Some may be closed in July and August.

SOMETHING ON A SMALLER SCALE?

The prestigious Ravello chamber music festival (00 39 089 858 149, www.rcs.amalficoast.it) began on 5 March this year and continues to 1 November, taking a break for most of July and August. Beloved by Wagner, TE Lawrence, Gore Vidal, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy among others, Ravello offers a blend of natural beauty and artistic and cultural attractions.

The series of concerts strikes up again in September with homages to Schumann, Schubert and Ravel, and clarinet and flute recitals, among other events. Each ticket costs €20 (£14). The majority of performances take place in the beautiful Villa Rufolo, which has views down to the Amalfi coast below.

To get there, fly to Naples on BA or easyJet and take the bus or rent a car. Accommodation in the romantic four-star Villa Maria during the festival starts from €170 (£120) per night including breakfast, based on two sharing.

I STILL WANT TO GET IN A GONDOLA

No problem. For many years, Venice was the centre of European musical life. Both Gabrieli and Monteverdi wrote music for St Mark's Cathedral, and Vivaldi taught and wrote at the city's Pieta Hospital. This year, Venice's rich musical history will be celebrated at its triennial Festival of Music from 9-15 November.

The focus of the forthcoming festival is the first-ever recreation of the coronation music of Doge Marion Grimani, written by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, in the basilica of St Mark's, its original setting. This is one of eight contrasting concerts to be held in a selection of churches and private palaces, chosen for their close association with the music.

The well-respected and innovative specialist, Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355, www.martinrandall.com), offers a "Festival of Music in Venice" package from £1,690 per person. This includes a choice of return flights from the UK to Venice, boat transfers from Venice airport, tickets to all eight concerts, morning talks about the concerts, unlimited use of the city's water buses, and some meals.

WHERE CAN I FIND THE STRING SECTION?

Cremona near Milan is the violin capital of the world. Since a local inhabitant, Andrea Amati, first stretched a piece of catgut across a piece of wood in the mid-16th century, violins have been the town's business. Today the streets are lined with little shops selling all manner of stringed instruments.

Until last December, the town's Palazzo del Comune housed a small display of historic violins by Andrea Amati, his son Nicolo, pupil Stradivari and others. However, following a fire the instruments have now been moved to the Stradivarian Museum (00 39 0372 461 886, www.rccr.cremona.it) in the Palazzo Affaitati. This museum not only houses stringed instruments, but also the wooden moulds, paper models and different tools which belonged to Stradivari, the most famous of all Cremonensis violin-makers.

A violin-making walking tour around the town takes you to Stradivari's tombstone, his matrimonial home, the town's International School for Violin-making and to the Stradivarian Museum among other venues. Around 630 Stradivarius violins survive today and change hands for astronomical sums of money.

Kudu Travel (01722 349009, www.kudutravel.com), which specialises in cultural walking tours, runs an annual trip called "Monteverdi and Stradivarius in Cremona". Highlights include a private recital on several of the finest violins made by Stradivari, a private concert of chamber music written by Monteverdi, visits to Verdi's country birthplace, and nights out savouring Cremona's cuisine. Next year's trip is likely to take place at the end of May or beginning of June, for a price of around £820 per person based on two people sharing.

Alternatively, see Cremona by river with a one-week "Italian Renaissance" boat trip down the river Po with Cruising Holidays (0845 458 9855, www.cruisingholidays.co.uk). The cruise starts and ends in Venice, calling in Verona, Mantua, Bologna, Ferrera and Padua. Prices in summer start at £2,245 for a twin cabin and include return flights with British Airways from Gatwick to Venice, transfers, full-board accommodation and six city tours.

WHAT ABOUT THE MUSIC MAKERS?

Italy has plenty of museums dedicated to music and composers. La Casa della Musica in Parma (00 39 0521 031 170, www.lacasadellamusica.it) houses a multimedia museum with an interactive display demonstrating the development of opera in Parma from the 19th century to the present day; you can reach Parma relatively easily via Bologna, served from Gatwick on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) and from Stansted on easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com).

In Donezetti's home-town, Bergamo, you can visit the Museo Donezettiano (00 39 035 399269, www.museostoricobg.org), which has a collection of manuscripts and first editions as well as a range of string, wind and keyboard instruments associated with the composer. Bergamo is accessible from East Midlands on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com), from Leeds/Bradford on Jet2 (0870 737 8282, www.jet2.com), from Southampton on FlyBE (08705 676 676, www.flybe.com) or from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com).

There are two museums devoted to Rossini in Pesaro, and in and around Lucca you can see three collections associated with Puccini, including the Villa Puccini (00 39 0584 341445, www.giacomopuccini.it). Elsewhere, fans of Mascagni can visit the Museo Mascagnano in Livorno (00 39 0586 852695, www.comune.livorno.it/livorno/turismo/text/mascagni.htm).

Verdi enthusiasts should head for his birthplace, Casa Natale di Giuseppe Verdi (00 39 0523 830 000, www.villaverdi.org) in Santa Agata. Some of these museums require pre-booking, so it's a good idea to call ahead.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact the Italian State Tourist Office in London on 020-7408 1254 or www.enit.it.

Mandolin madness

Italy's home-grown instrument

The mandolin, a small instrument in the lute family, originated in Italy during the Renaissance. It has been written for by composers such as Vivaldi, as exemplified in his Concerto in G Major for Two Mandolins and Strings. Mandolin-players of the world unite in spring each year for the International Mandolin Festival in the port of Varazze on the Ligurian coast, just west of Genoa. At the same time, Varazze puts on a host of exhibitions, fashion shows, cultural and sporting events, all dedicated to women, making it the ideal place to meet your own Captain Corelli or Pelagia. You can reach Genoa on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted.

All that jazz

Events at Rome's new concert venue

If you think Britain was the only country not to complete its millennium building projects on time, think again. Not only was La Fenice in Venice supposed to be rebuilt in time for the millennium, Rome's newest and largest concert venue - the Auditorium Parco della Musica - was originally scheduled for completion in 1999 but didn't actually open its doors until April last year. The £100m space-age park was designed by Italy's most famous architect, Renzo Piano, who said that it was "born from the idea of a musical instrument with vibrations and resonance".

This summer's main event is the outdoor Dolce Vita Jazz Festival. Highlights include the Keith Jarrett Trio, Kronos Quartet and Joe Jackson. Ticket prices start at €8 (£5.50). Call 00 39 06 8069 2492 for more details, or visit www.musicaperroma.it.

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