by Melanie McWilliams
“This is Paradise!” Giacomo Puccini exclaimed when first setting eyes on the Torre del Lago – the place which was to inspire some of his best-loved operas. Nestled between sandy beaches and pinewoods and perched on the edge of the Massaciuccoli Lake with the Apuan Alps forming a stunning backdrop; it is perhaps no surprise Puccini decided this was the place where he wanted to live.
Born 18 kilometres away in Lucca, on December 22nd 1858 to a family comprising four generations of musicians, conductors and composers; Puccini”s future profession seemed a foregone conclusion. When only six his father unfortunately died and three years later Giacomo was sent to become a chorister and organist at the Cathedral. His first compositions were therefore sacred vocal and organ music. However Puccini became increasingly attracted to Opera – in 1876 he walked from Lucca to Pisa in order to watch Verdis Aida. It inspired him to continue studying, firstly at the Pacini Music School in Lucca and then at the Milan Conservatory, aided financially by a scholarship and his attorney uncle. He entered a competition for a one-act opera, and despite not winning, Le Villi was nevertheless staged at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in 1884 to great acclaim – the Corriere della Sera paper calling Puccini: “the composer Italy has been waiting for.”
The following year on returning to Lucca, Puccini met Elvira Bonturi, an amateur soprano, who was married with two children to Puccini”s friend Gemignani. Falling in love, she made the difficult decision to follow Puccini to Milan with her daughter Fosca, leaving the two-year old Renato to be raised by her husband. From there they moved to Monza where Elvira gave birth to Puccini’s son Antonio. Financial problems ensued after Puccini’s second opera Edgar failed, forcing Elvira to find work at Fratelli Bocconi.
It was no wonder then that the family leapt at a chance to start again in Torre del Lago. When they first arrived the only road was a dirt track leading east from the Spezia-Pisa road to the Lake with its surrounding sycamore and chestnut woods. Paths winding through the trees connected the few houses which were mostly two-roomed wooden huts roofed with marsh hay. Photographs taken in the 1900s show scenes hardly changed for centuries: women shoveling harvested hay onto wagons; washing clothes in the lake and cooking outside on charcoal braziers. The only modern convenience when Puccini and his family arrived was the north-south railway line which provided access to Viareggio and Pisa. Initially Puccini sublet two rooms in the Towerhouse which had once been the gatekeeper”s house and which lent the village its name. The decision proved to be the right one for Puccini as his first composition there, Manon Lescaut, became a huge success at its premiere in Turin in 1893, earning him thirty curtain calls and a decoration from the King.
Puccini also began his remarkable relationship with the librettists Illica and Giacosa who collaborated with him on his following three operas. La Boheme (1896) was the first and on completing Mimi”s death scene Puccini was so affected by it that as he later admitted: “Standing in the silence of the night, I began to weep like a child. It was as though I had seen my own child die.”
Tosca followed, taking four years to complete, and whilst working on the opera during a stay in Milan, Puccini wrote to his sister of his desire to return home: “For me the country is a necessity, something urgent, as when you are desperate to go the bathroom and there are people there and you cannot go. Torre is ideal for me.” The huge success that followed Tosca”s first production enabled Puccini to build himself a house in Torre and he chose a site on the edge of the Lake. Taking great care over its design, he chose the decorative wood and plaster details himself, commissioning Plinio Nomellino to paint frescoes. Downstairs consists of a large salon where he composed, kitchen, study, gun room and servants” quarters; whilst upstairs are the bedrooms. The original dining room was later converted into a small chapel. Furniture by Bugatti and Tiffany was added, which alongside Puccini”s Foster piano and weapons and hunting trophies can be admired today, as the villa is open to the public.
Meanwhile Puccini”s relationship with Elvira was deteriorating, partly due to what Puccini described as her “illness” or nerves, a result of her inability to gain a divorce. A bigger factor however was Puccini”s affair with Corinna, a schoolteacher from Turin and twenty years his younger. The affair became so serious that Puccini even set Corinna up with a house in Migliarino, three miles south of Torre, and spoke of leaving the “grim” Elvira to marry her. Elvira retaliated by going on hunger strikes in order to try and keep Puccini at home. She followed him to the house trying to catch the lovers together, but Puccini had already left. Corinna however was stepping into her carriage and Elvira flew at her poking her with her umbrella, then on returning home attacked Puccini leaving his face full of bloodied scratches. Puccini nevertheless continued seeing Corinna, finding her necessary for his inspiration for Madame Butterfly, until two incidents occurred causing him to break off the affair. A brush with death after a near fatal driving accident in 1903 left him injured and badly shaken, and the following year Corinna’s husband died, leaving her free to finally marry Puccini. Puccini transferred his emotional needs onto Sybil Seligman whom he met in London. Sybil quickly put an end to their initial affair, unprepared to risk scandal, transforming it into what was to become Puccini’s most important personal but platonic relationship – he wrote over seven hundred letters to her. An accomplished amateur musician Sybil also helped him professionally, scouting for new plays and singers.
Back in Torre del Lago Puccini and Elvira’s relationship was further stretched when in 1909 Elvira accused their maid, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with her husband, ordering Doria to leave the house. The maid subsequently committed suicide by drinking poison, however on examination was found to have been a virgin and the Manfredis brought charges of persecution against Elvira Puccini. The case became one of the great scandals of the day. Although Elvira was found guilty, the Manfredis withdrew their charges after damages were negotiated and paid. From that point, Puccini demanded independence from his wife, whom he, albeit jokingly, called his “policeman.”
An initial fallow period of composition followed Madame Butterfly, (which initially was a fiasco although re-writes turned it into a success,) caused by the death of his librettist Giacosa in 1906, and compounded by the death of his editor and publisher Ricordi, in 1912. On resuming writing again, Puccini traveled with his new operas to take part in their productions. La Fanciulla del West took him to the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in 1910; La Rondine to Monte Carlo and Il Trittico (a set of three one-act operas: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicci) saw him back in New York in 1918. Whenever he was away however Puccini longed for the time when he could return to Torre. His love of the place can be seen in a letter to his librettist Adami after being forced to cut down twelve pine trees: “to get more air and satisfy Elvira who complains about the humidity. My heart is weeping.”
Worse was to come as Puccini had begun what was to be his last work, Turandot (where “Nessun Dorma” comes from), pollution from the lake forced him to move from his beloved villa to nearby Viareggio. Three years later in 1924 he developed a throat tumour, interrupting work on the final part of the last act to undergo an operation in a clinic in Brussels. Puccini died there on November 24th and was buried in Milan. In 1926 however his son Antonio was successful in being allowed to transfer his remains to the small chapel attached to the villa in Torre del Lago.
The Villa is now a museum: the Villa Museo Puccini, but is still owned by Puccini’s granddaughter Simonetta. It is well worth visiting in order to see where Puccini created so many of his great operas. However if your visit coincides with the Puccini Festival you will be able to watch a production in the open-air theatre’s magnificent setting, with its stage opening onto the Lake. The festival first began in 1930, possibly inspired by Puccini’s comment to his friend Forzano: “I would like to come here and listen to one of my operas in the open air.” The first performance was of La Boheme, which used an improvised stage built on stilts in the lake with a traveling opera company conducted by Mascagni. The following year it was performed again with Beniamo Gigli singing, turning it into the beginnings of what is now a major opera festival.
In 1966 the Festival relocated to a site built upon reclaimed land just north of the lake harbour with the theatre (a controversially modern design), situated to take full advantage of its beautiful lakeside setting. A truly magical way to experience Puccini’s beautiful music, with the flickering lights from the small village on the opposite shore and the accompaniment of crickets in the summer evening. The Festival has attracted performers such as Placido Domingo, and Katia Ricciarelli with spectators exceeding forty thousand.
Even if you miss the Festival, the Torre del Lago provides a wonderful place from which to explore the diverse surrounding scenery. When Puccini first visited there were only twelve houses and 120 inhabitants, and whilst there has been some inevitable expansion, the essence of the Paradise he once described remains.
The sandy beaches of Viareggio are only four kilometers away and this town is worth visiting in its own right. Of Roman origin, it is the oldest of the coastal towns which make up the Versilia region and became notorious in 1822 when the drowned corpse of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley washed up on its shores. It became a popular place with artists throughout the 19th century, and its spectacular carnival (Jan-Feb) with its huge puppets and floats, attracts many visitors today. From here you can take a boat trip to the Cinque Terre, a collection of five small fishing villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. These villages are situated on 18 kilometers of sheer, rocky shoreline, along the coast from Portofino. Water ferries also run from La Spezia and Portovenere. The villages cling to the sides of the steep coastline and until the 1960s could only be accessed by boat. However a railway line now connects them.
For the walker, the Alpuan Alps offer a mixture of green valleys, woods, small villages, marble quarries, caves, waterfalls and mountain terrain to explore. In 1979 the Regione Toscana founded the Massaciuccoli-San Rossore Regional Park which lies between Pisa and Viareggio, covering 23,000 hectares. Nature trails run throughout the park and it is possible to catch a sight of exotic birds, for example the upupu, or glimpse of a family of wild boars. There are two restaurants within the park, both using local ingredients such as pine nuts and meat from the wild boar and fallow deer.
The cities of Lucca, Puccini’s birthplace, and Pisa are only 18 kilometres away and easily accessible. Until the 19th century, Lucca was an independent city-state and is surrounded by an intact 16th century wall. Climb the Torre Guinigi, distinctive for being a medieval tower with trees on top, for a glorious view of the city. Visit the 12th century San Michele in Foro Church on the site of the Roman Forum or Lucca Cathedral where Puccini was a boy chorister, with its unusual green-and-white marble facade. The house where he was born is now a small museum.
With such a range of activities and places to explore around Torre del Lago, there is surely something for everyone: whether relaxing on the beach or the tranquil lakeside; walking in the mountains; soaking up the culture or simply indulging in some retail therapy. With stunning scenery and beautiful sunsets, no wonder Puccini called the Torre del Lago “Paradise.”