It is 10.00 pm and I’m standing outside the walls of Lucca waiting for the coach to take me to the Opera. My modest attire stands out among the Italians who are, as usual, dressed to kill, the bling, puffery and beautiful people determined to show la bella figura to the world of music. We are on our way to the annual Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, a celebration of Italian grand opera dedicated to the maestro of emotion and the town’s favourite son.
Our coach arrives and twenty minutes later we arrive at Torre del Lago in a tropical storm which is whipping the waters of the lake into white froth and making music in the palm trees. It doesn’t bode well for the open-air performance of Madame Butterfly tonight. No one seems to be worrying, though. Lambrettas buzz between cars and coaches, incredibly glamorous couples link arms and head for the restaurants and bars, and a couple of policemen, rain dripping off their smart blue capes, blow whistles and wave their white-gloved hands cheerily at the crowds.
On the way to the open-air Theatre we pass the composer’s villa from where he conducted his illicit affairs and from where he exited in his super fast cars and we saw the lake on which he loved to hunt the wild fowl.
The skies are darkening but the rain seems to be slacking off. ‘No problem’ seems to be the consensus, just a shower, it will soon blow over. Nevertheless, the ticket collector gives everyone a plastic poncho as we take our seats before the overture to the opera. There’s a cool breeze drifting across from the lake.
Overture over we settle down to watch Madame Butterfly: everyone has joined in humming along with the orchestra but no one seems to mind so I join in too. I think “This is what it should be like, why can’t we do this at the Garden, or the Coliseum” before realising why we can’t (can you see the glares, the pursed lips, hear the hssts, the shushes)?
This is not at all like an opera performance back in the UK but it is certainly akin to the one I’m familiar with from E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View” or was it “Where Angels Fear top Tread”? But in Italy, especially at outdoor performances, the enjoyment of the opera-loving Italians – even the jean-clad teenagers – is both vocal and loud. Torre del Lago is a more intimate setting than some open-air opera venues in Italy and people are talking together as if they’ve known each other for years, swapping sticky cakes and coffee from flasks.
All operas have drama but Butterfly has more – it has romance, race, class, opposing cultures, unrequited love, betrayal, and a tragic death. It is beautifully costumed, the hero in his white naval uniform is dashing, and Butterfly herself is perfect in voice and movement – especially the way she uses her fan.
Puccini’s emotional music always makes me cry. My tears start during the overture as the plaintive notes hit my heart, but this time we have the rain which dampens my emotions somewhat.
As the music swells and the drama unfolds, so the weather undermines our engagement with the stage. Hoods up and enveloped in rustling plastic we try to keep our spirits up. We know we should leave but we can’t tear ourselves away. Then, as Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) launches into her big aria, the lead violin gets up and walks away, taking his violin with him. The rest of the orchestra look on, unsure, then slowly, the second violin gets up and does likewise and then a steady trickle of musicians abandon the orchestra pit and follow. Cio-Cio-San continues her aria (I’ve started so I’ll finish) but eventually she gathers up her skirts, picks up her fan, and leaves the stage.
So, we didn’t get to see the big death scene. We didn’t get to see Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton’s return with his new American wife, or the desolation of Cio-Cio-San and her servant, Suzuki: the skies opened, the rain poured down and the management said they would have to close. We all ran for our transport back to Lucca.
Does it sound like a bad evening? It was one of the best evenings I’ve ever had at the opera. I shall never forget that performance of Madame Butterfly and the warm feeling of being among people who had opera as background to everyday life, people who loved the art form passionately and above all, people who weren’t afraid to laugh and cry openly.