Thursday, June 08, 2017

Italian Passages VII: Here Comes the Sun


[The seventh in an irregular series of commentaries on Minnesota Public Radio’s  Italian Passages classical music-themed cruise and tour of Italy, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the network's daily live concert program, Performance Today and led by PT host Fred Child.]

Italy’s A1 Autostrada (a superhighway, roughly the equivalent of an interstate highway in the USA) connects Milan with Naples via Bologna, Florence, and Rome. It’s the longest Italian superhighway and is considered the spinal cord of the country's road network.  It’s known as the “Autostrada del Sole” (“Highway of the Sun”) because of its termination the sunny south, but for most of our journey yesterday, it could just as easily have been called the “Autostrade delle Montagne” (“Highway of the Mountains”) since almost all of the first part of our trip (which ended in Rome that night) involved travel into the mountainous region around the town of Montepulciano. There we had a splendid lunch amid the spectacular vistas available from this hamlet, perched nearly 2000 feet above sea level atop limestone cliffs in the southern Tuscan province of Siena.

The drive to and from Montepulciano is a reminder of why this area of Italy holds such fascination for tourists from all over the world. Each turn of the road revealed yet another stunning view of vineyards with their orderly rows of grapes, lavish forests (protected from clear cutting by law), and mountain towns with their ochre walls and red roofs clinging precariously to steep slopes.  Montepulciano itself is a good example, with the city center accessible only via narrow, winding streets, to which access via automobile appears to be limited to inhabitants.

The core week of Italian Passages ended this past Sunday, June 4th, in Venice with the departure of Fred Child, resident violinist Anthea Kreston, and about two-thirds of the original tour group for various destinations. Fred, for example, was off the Fort Worth for the final round of the Cliburn International Piano Competition while Anthea returned to rehearsals with her quartet.  My wife and I opted for the Rome extension, so that morning we joined our fellow travelers for lunch in the picturesque hill town of San Gimignano, followed by three nights in the resort city of Montecatini.  The last few days, as a result, have been more about food, wine, and scenery than about music.

We did, however, have an exceptionally pleasant day Monday (June 5th) in the towns of Lucca and Torre del Lago learning about the life and legacy of one of Italy’s most justifiably famous operatic composers, Giacomo Puccini.  Led by Italian opera baritone and Lucca resident Mattia Campetti, the agenda included a personal tour of the Puccini museum and the town of Lucca (which prides itself on its devotion to music of all kinds, including jazz and rock; the Rolling Stones will be playing there in September) as well as the home Puccini built for himself on the shores of Torre del Lago.

For me, the Lucca part of the day was the highlight.  Despite its historical significance as the place where Puccini composed nearly all of his operas, the house in Torre del Lago didn’t strike me as all that interesting, and the guided tour quickly began to sound more like hagiography than anything else (“In this room you can see Giacomo’s actual boots..”).  I was reminded that this was the country that effectively invented sainthood.

Lucca, with its rich heritage, intact medieval wall (built to withstand an invasion that never happened), and more churches than you can shake an incense burner at, has much more to offer the culturally-inclined tourist.  Plus, we got an excellent lunch at a restaurant built right on top of the city wall, followed by a recital of opera arias at the nearby rehearsal hall by Mr. Campetti, his ravishing and talented operatic soprano wife Michelle Buscemi, and pianist Nicola Pardini.

From the moment Ms. Buscemi entered from the back of the house with “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s one-act comedy Giannini Schicci (with Mr. Campetti as the grumpy Giannini) to the classic “O Sole Mio” that closed the brief recital, Mr. Campetti and company had us all in the palms of their very capable hands.  Ms. Buscemi rather stole the show with her “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly as did Mr. Campetti with his “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.  And all three joined in the fun in “Quando me’n vo” (a.k.a “Musetta’s Waltz”) from La Bohème.

Tuesday, June 5th, most of our group went on a walking tour of Firenze (Florence to us Anglophones).  My wife and I opted out and instead took the funicular up to the village of Montecatini Alto at the top of the nearby hill.  We were rewarded with a quiet walk around the steep little streets and and many panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.  Next to one of them was a quote from Verdi: “Ecco è più splendidi panorami che io abbbia mai visto” (roughly, “Here is the most splendid landscape that I have ever seen.”). You said it, Giuseppe!

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