Over a bridge behind the Palazzo della Pilotta, symbol of power for the Farnese noble family, you come to the Quartiere Oltretorrente in Parma, formerly a stronghold of wild revolutionaries. The tailor Claudio Toscanini, who fought in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s volunteer army for Italy’s independence, had only one day’s home leave in June 1866 on his way north. That very night he fathered his son Arturo. “These are the coincidences of life,” the world-famous conductor later commented laconically.
His modest birthplace is now a museum in which numerous memorabilia are exhibited – such as a minuet written by the Maestro, a concert tailcoat, batons, plaster casts of his hands, his death mask, concert posters and pictures of artist friends. A photo shows him with the composer Giacomo Puccini, with whom he had a close, if not conflict-free, relationship.
Toscanini championed Puccini’s operas, conducting the premieres of “La Bohème” in Turin, “La Fanciulla del West” at the Met in New York and finally the unfinished “Turandot” at La Scala in Milan.
The Toscanini Festival now wants to commemorate this long friendship. At the start of the first edition, a Puccini rarity is on the program. For the first time since the Milan premiere in May 1884, his first opera “Le Willis” is being staged in Italy in the reconstructed original version. Omer Meir Wellber, music director of the festival, ensures an entertaining evening with international soloists and the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini.
Filippo Ferraresi, Romeo Castellucci’s former assistant director, is responsible for the semi-staged implementation – which, of course, quickly reaches its limits on the small stage of the Paganini Auditorium.
The fairytale opera is about the forester’s daughter Anna, whose fiancé Roberto allows himself to be seduced by a siren. Anna dies of a broken heart and reunites with the «Willis», the souls of dead women betrayed by their lovers. Driven by revenge, they finally chase the unfaithful Roberto to death in a dizzying dance. The refined harmonies in the score of “Le Willis” already point to Puccini’s later operatic successes.
However, the acoustics of the auditorium in the former sugar factory Eridania are problematic. The elongated hall designed by star architect Renzo Piano is visually impressive. But the sound of the orchestra, safely led by Meir Wellber, and the voices of the singers and choir are only muffled in the audience.
Far better known today is Puccini’s debut in the revised version called “Le Villi”. On his debut as an opera composer, he first had to cope with a severe setback. When the 25-year-old submitted the manuscript to a competition organized by the publishing house Sonzogno in 1883, the jury disdainfully ignored it. However, Puccini was undeterred. With the help of patrons, “Le Willis” soon saw the light of day in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme.
The music publisher Giulio Ricordi immediately secured the rights after this success. What happened then reads like a thriller. It is now assumed that Ricordi deliberately prevented Puccini from winning a competition so as not to leave “Le Willis” to his rival Sonzogno. At Ricordi’s urging, the composer extended the piece to two acts.
“Le Villi” was then performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin in December 1884 and shortly thereafter at La Scala in Milan. The reconstruction of the first version, edited by the American musicologist Martin Deasy, was only recorded in 2019 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Mark Elder for the Opera Rara label.
Meir Wellber has made an international name for himself as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, music director of the Teatro Massimo and principal guest conductor of the Semperoper Dresden. He is not only eager to experiment in the field of opera. At one of the festival’s cabaret evenings on a former factory site on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia, he sits down at the piano himself. With soprano Hila Baggio, actor Ernesto Tomasini and musicians from the Filarmonica, he presents pieces by composers as diverse as Mischa Spoliansky, Henry Mancini, Friedrich Hollaender and Jacques Brel.
Together with the soprano Barbara Frittoli, the festival also commemorates the opera diva Renata Tebaldi, who would have celebrated her hundredth birthday this year. Toscanini called it “voce d’angelo”, angel’s voice, and helped her to a meteoric international career. The maestro’s own compositions can also be heard in Parma. Finally, on July 12, Fabio Luisi will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth on the Domplatz.