SPIRIT OF ‘THE MAESTRO’ IS STRONG IN THIS TOWN

TORRE DEL LAGO, Italy – Kansas City was the town where I made Giacomo’s acquaintance. I don’t think he’d mind if I call him by his first name, although most people generally deferred to him as “Maestro.” As in Maestro Puccini.

 

Anyway, it was Kansas City a long time ago, 1954, where I’d been lured by college basketball players of the NCAA’s Final Four: LaSalle, the victor; plus Penn State; Southern California; and Bradley. But I went away slam-dunked as a fan forever of masterly Giacomo, whom I’d encountered the day before the tournament in the form of his plaintive opera, “Madama Butterfly.” That was one fine day, all right, as Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton sang their hearts out for a small opera company, and Giacomo won mine.

Not that he needed it, since by that time he had captivated millions of them, and continues to do so with such as “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Manon Lescaut,” and “Turandot,” even though he’s no longer available to take bows, and hasn’t been since 1924. But surely his spirit thrives here in his Tuscan lake shore villa beside Lago Massaciuccoli, and in the four-story brick house at nearby Lucca where he was born and did some early composing.

The pianos, one here, one in Lucca, are the pieces of furniture regarded as holy relics by innumerable Puccini addicts, sometimes known as “appasionati.” Who knows how many of them there are in this country alone since opera, to Italians, is virtually as big as calcio (soccer), adored across social strata as you note in lining up to enter Villa Puccini where he is buried.

” ‘Giuseppe Publico’ – Joe Public – and his Mrs. are clearly out in force,” observes my friend Ron Sampson as we wait among 40-or-so loyalists for the iron gates to part and the next small contingent to be admitted.

“It’s like this every day, all year round,” says caretaker-guide Barbara Giovanoni. “The Maestro is more popular than ever.”

And why not? To hear him is to love him. Mimi coughs and dies, Rodolfo weeps and you weep with him. Tosca leaps from the balcony and you want to catch her and break the fall. Musetta waltzes and you’re tempted to cut in. That would be a kinder cut than the one “Butterfly” (Cio-Cio San) gives herself in the act of hara-kiri. Sampson, an opera maven lucky enough to have seen and heard “the greatest of all Cio-Cio Sans, Renata Scotto,” remembers being alarmed and thinking, “No! Please don’t do it!” as she draws the sword.

The pianos, silent for years, are as close as you can get to my man Giacomo, the Maestro, whose full, freight-train-of-a-name was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. His fingers touched those keys and touched us. Notes and melodies sprang forth to be entered on scores that would gladden while saddening countless audiences.

Making a womb-to-tomb circuit seems an appropriate journey for the day. Starting at the comfortable Puccini homestead on Corte San Lorenzo, a short dead-end street off Piazza Citadella, presently to wind up here, on the lake. Piazza Citadella is decorated by Giacomo himself in bronze. A dandy wearing three-piece suit, bow tie, and spats, he is seated contentedly, eyes half-closed, maybe listening to one of his arias.

For the terrific sculptor, Vito Tongiani, a relaxed Puccini is a far cry from his compelling action figures at Stade Roland Garros in Paris: a non-singing quartet. Strings players, they are France’s famed tennis champs of the 1920s, the “Four Musketeers” – Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jacques Brugnon.

Giacomo arrived in the Lucca neighborhood as a Christmas treat Dec. 22, 1858.

“When he bawled, I wonder what his first note was? And was he in tune?” says my friend Aurelio, standing in the birth room. “High-C or low gurgle?”

Destined for a career in music, whatever sounds he registered at the outset, Giacomo was the end of the line of several brilliant generations of Puccinis in the business. His father, Michele, choirmaster and organist at the deliciously embellished and ornamented Cathedral of San Martino, only a few arpeggios from the house, had arranged for Giacomo to have the job one day. But the kid fell for opera, and the rest is harmony.

This piano, a Steinway grand, the last he played, composing “Turandot,” has been moved from a villa in Viareggio. In his study is a big-trumpeted, hand-cranked Victrola that played for him the primitive recordings of his works.

But as we enter his first home, the clear, lovely strains of a “Boheme” duet on CD fill the place. Rodolfo and Mimi, entwining their voices beguilingly, are tenor Vincenzo Scuderi and – a delightful surprise – Madeleine Renee, a Boston soprano now living and working in Italy.

“We’re constantly changing tapes,” says a docent. “We hear a lot of different Rodolfos and Mimis.”

Overhearing the conversation, a visiting couple from Wellesley, Mass., the Henry Salustros, are pleased “to know it’s Miss Renee whom we once heard singing in a recital with Luciano Pavarotti at Symphony Hall.”

Among the collection of Puccini memorabilia, a deathbed note, handwritten in pencil to his wife, Elvira, is the stuff of which Giacomo’s operas were made. Sheltered by a glass case it reads: “Elvira povera donna finita” (“Elvira, poor woman, it’s finished”).

The tragedy was that the man who gave voice to so many indelible characters had his own stilled by the throat cancer that killed him at age 65. In portraits, photos, and sculpture, he is a jaunty mustachioed figure, an active ladies’ man, elegantly dressed with hat at rakish angle – and never without a cigarette or cigar.

His happiest days, 30 years, were spent at the lake, a remote, rustic spot in 1896 when, after five years of rentals, he purchased and directed the transformation of a watchtower into a roomy hideaway, the villa at Torre del Lago. Profits from “La Boheme” made it possible, assuring him he’d never be a bohemian.

Here he composed, boated, and hunted in the adjoining forests and marshes, toting a shotgun and perhaps imagining himself as a rough-and-ready character like Billy Jackrabbit from his opera set in the American wild West, “Girl of the Golden West.”

His hunting room contains firearms, tramping togs, stuffed game birds, and trophy heads of deer and wild boar. No longer a remote or rustic retreat where hunters would be welcome, Torre del Lago is overbuilt. In July and August it overflows with thousands attending the Puccini Festival of Opera at an outdoor arena that annually arises near the villa. Next door is the Butterfly Bar and an ice cream parlor named for another of his characters, the Liu Gelateria, and across the street a marina.

However, the villa is quiet and well cared for, the sea-green marble tomb of the Maestro and his wife in the family chapel.

Despite his death mask, there is vitality, too, in the spacious family room with coffered ceiling, mosaic flooring, and large tiled fireplace. Life seems yet within the upright Forster piano that tinkled with melodies from Giacomo’s brain, and go on resounding everywhere.

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