An Italian Operatic Journey: Il Tabarro, Puccini, La Tebaldi, and Zeffirelli

Tabarro Poster

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A story of infidelity and deception, murder, and infinite purgatory, a man whose music transcends, and a woman who was born to sing with Golden beams of sound that cause frenzied audiences: the combination of a lifetime and the reason behind one of the most rewarding trips to Italy I have ever taken and may ever take. I’ve thought for awhile about writing this blog entry and how or if I was going to publish one at all because of the deeply personal value of this trip for me, however the experiences and personas that I encountered, the understanding of the current artistic situation in Italy, and the state of opera in general have to be shared in order for it to gain true value.

Several months ago, when Aprile Millo was contracted to sing Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, I became overly excited because I have spent so much time with the great Maestro’s music.  I was tickled by the fact that her ever beautiful, but now much more lush and buoyant sound, filled with “corpo” and a cut that few singers have in this day and age, would be mingled with the harmonies in Tabarro that had haunted me the first time I heard it.  I was really interested to see how an artist of her ilk, seeking perfection and being very selective about the heroines she chooses to portray, was going to wrap her mind around a woman who is definitely one of the least honourable of Puccini’s women.  It is truly a lesson as an artist to observe someone great go through a journey of this type and boy what an honour it was for me to see this unfold.

IMG_3656 Via XX Settembre, Genoa

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View from the upstairs of the Teatro Carlo Felice

IMG_3688The beautiful Teatro Carlo Felice

Arriving in Genoa, the diva didn’t have much time to assimilate and acclimatize from the cold temperatures of New York to the more springlike temperatures of Genoa, nor the fact that we were in the north of Italy.  Nothing fazed her and off  she went to rehearsal the day after arriving.  I did not attend the first rehearsal but was busy exploring the area around the Via XX Settembre, which was of course filled with everything I adore:  bookstores, cafés, pen and stationary stores, and yes…shoe stores but we won’t talk about that…that’s another blog entry all on it’s own!

IMG_3675 Dress Rehearsal for “Il Tabarro”

The following day, I did attend the dress rehearsal in the Teatro Carlo Felice and was very interested in the construction of the theatre, especially the exposed stone walls that surround the stage.  I immediately fell in love with this orchestra.  Ma che bravissimi!!!  And, Maestro Donato Renzetti was truly a caring, diligent, and supportive conductor who allowed the singers and musicians to express while keeping the constraints of the music.  I cannot stand when Puccini is conducted like Mozart.  The music is very expansive with flex and fold and I usually become agitated when the passionate fervour of his orchestral palate is destroyed by a conductor who does not understand the important balance Puccini required  that in each of his operas is different.  Maestro Renzetti made sure to allow for expansiveness and flexibility which allowed the singers to express freely.

Donato Renzetti

Maestro Donato Renzetti

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The cast list

It was at this rehearsal that I became entranced with what Aprile was doing with Giorgetta.  I had always listened to la Tebaldi sing it and enjoyed it very much, but in this Aprile brought her own personal interpretation which was different and one that I have to say I enjoyed even more than Tebaldi’s.  Every word was expressed to the point that even the softest piani were heard in the back of the theatre.  Her sense of “parlato” was impeccable and the diction clear as a bell.  She was able to expand the character both expressively and vocally with a huge range of colour and volume.  Personally, I had never really liked Giorgetta as a character, and we’re not really supposed to the way Puccini presents her, but what I found was that I actually liked Millo’s Giorgetta.  I felt for her…I understood why she was acting the way she was.  The opera suddenly became more valuable to me within the repertoire.  I was also deeply moved by the rich chocolate baritone of Carlos Almaguer and the mezzo of Renata Lamanda who expressed their roles with elegance and personality.

The performance was gaining a lot of buzz around Italy and I was very happy to find this in the newspaper the day of the show:

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A full 3 page article discussing Puccini’s heroines in the Genovese newspaper and yes THAT is how it’s done in Italy people.  Opera gets headline news!!!  Viva L’Italia!!!  The theatre was buzzing that night and important persons were present, especially of note Signora Simonetta Puccini, the granddaughter of Giacomo Puccini himself.  She personally asked to meet Aprile before the performance and the two who are both soldiers for opera and the preservation of its authenticity became fast friends.  However, it must be noted that after the performance, Signora Puccini in my presence told Millo that her performance of “Tabarro” was the best she had ever heard.  She wished to include her photo at Torre del Lago of the great interpreters of his roles.  I already knew something historic was happening that night and Signora Puccini also realized what was being presented.  This would not be the final meeting with Signora Puccini…

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Aprile Millo and Signora Simonetta Puccini

The performance was electric.  A very lovely Suor Angelica was presented prior to, sung by the renowned Italian soprano Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi, who sang with beautiful tone and attention to every detail.  Also, of note was the singing of mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri who sang the role of La Badessa.  When Tabarro began, immediately the harmonies sweep you away into something you’re not sure you want to be in but you can’t help yourself.  Millo and her colleagues dove right in from the first utterances of “O Michele Michele.” which caused a hush in the theatre.  I was even more impressed by the expansiveness Millo showed that evening with the softest piano and two hairsplitting high C’s that are so full and yet penetrating that you’re not really sure what happened to you once they ring in the theatre walls.  The audience was in great appreciation with multiple curtain calls and a Signora Puccini who was applauding with great enthusiasm. Needless to say, honouring Puccini that evening was a great success for the Teatro Carlo Felice.

Review of Il Tabarro from the Bergamo Opera-click

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Lots of pictures and line ups of aficionados

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Maestro Valerio Galli, Aprile Millo, and Renato Bonajuto

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Renata Lamanda in praise of her colleague

Part II:  Villa Puccini

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Not only did Signora Puccini enjoy the performance, she invited Millo (and me in tow) to Puccini’s villa in Torre del Lago a couple of days later.  For me, this was the invitation of a lifetime.  I’ve spent 20 years studying the music of the great maestro and he is of course my “preferito” and so I could not believe that I was going to his home, where he had written so many of the operas I adore and those that I have fallen crazy in love with.  We arrived in Torre del Lago in what seemed to be a violent tempest of rain.  Blowing wind, water that seemed to be jumping up over the edge of Torre del Lago like some kind of wild animal, and very poor visibility because of the buckets of rain that fell.  As soon as we drove into the little town, the energy became electric for me.  Every street has the title of an opera and it is a long road that leads to one place only…the place Puccini loved, that he spent his most beloved hours in life.

IMG_3743Puccini’s statue in the distance looking at the wild water of the Lake.

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Exterior facade of the Villa Puccini

Upon arriving at the villa, my heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear anything else.  After so much time adoring this man I never even met and probably spending more time studying him and his music than I have with even my own family, I realized that I was on sacred operatic ground.  Not only was his villa intact with everything he owned, his furniture, photos, hunting materials, and his beloved piano on which he composed, he was also buried in the villa.  Needless to say my legs were shaking.  We were met by Signora Puccini, adorable in a red toque at the door after traversing the blowing wind and rain to get in.  Aprile and I were immediately overwhelmed by the idea of where we were standing.  The first room was filled with old letters, manuscripts, and photo signed by all of the great interpreters of Puccini, a beautiful statue of Enrico Caruso in La Fanciulla del West, and a glass case in which lay the white vest and cummerbund that Maestro wore.  I looked at it almost as if trying to figure out exactly how big a man he was.  Note:  none of these photos were taken by me personally.  They are taken from online sources.

Manuscript room

We continued through the house and entered into a room in which both of us were in tears.  Everything as he left it, preserved beautifully by his granddaughter.

Puccini villa 2

Upon seeing that piano, the presence of the Maestro was palpable.  I think Signora Puccini was not sure what to do because we were both so overwhelmed with emotion.  She graciously had the glass over the keys removed so we could touch the keys and Maestro Galli, who we were with, played “Tu che di gel sei cinta” on the piano.  Never will I forget the sweet but prominent tone of that piano on which my favourite composer in the world composed the operas that steal my heart.

Puccinie-grave-cropped

But more overwhelming was the move into the the room just behind the piano where the Maestro is buried right behind the piano he loved so much to play and on which the first melodies of Boheme rang against that wall.  It was not a place of sadness but of joy, of music, of someone trying to say, my music is important and I left it for you, please honour it.  We had brought a huge bouquet of red long stemmed roses which now was placed at the foot of his sepulchre.  Finally, I was able to put my hand where he rests and say “thank you” for the beauty and joy he brings to my life every day.  Even without knowing him, the room was filled with smiles, especially from Signora Puccini who by this point understood that Aprile and I were completely devoted to her grandfather.

We were so blessed to have spent time with her and I will never forget the wonderful things she spoke about, which I will not write here simply because of the nature of a private conversation, but I must document one important thing.  It became clearly evident how much the preservation and “authenticity” of her grandfather’s music was to her and to him.  Hearing her discuss her feelings on modernizing his productions made me furious with those who think it’s ok to simply ignore Puccini’s markings, instructions, and indications on the score.  It is NOT OK for directors to just rethink Puccini.  He did the thinking!!!  Modernizing is not the issue, it is when the composer’s wishes are bypassed in order to “rethink” his art.  I will forever stand in solidarity with Signora Puccini who made it clear that her grandfather would not have been too pleased.

In all, this was a day none of us will ever forget.

IMG_3747Simonetta Puccini and Myself

Part III:  The Home of Renata Tebaldi

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This angel continues to influence young singers every day.  I did not go on this trip and expect to be so close to her and yet so far. Another person I have admired and adored, who I never met, and yet now I feel like I have.  Aprile, who had a very beautiful friendship with La Tebaldi had not been to her home since her death and so this experience was different for her than it was for me.  It was one of realization and some sadness, but joy in being with those who devote their life to her still.  In Milano now, we were greeted at the door by the president of the Renata Tebaldi foundation, Giovanna Colombo, who is busy preparing for the opening of the Tebaldi Museum in Busseto in June.  I stood beneath a huge plaque that indicated this place as one of honour in Milano because she had lived there.  Again, shaking is an understatement.

Up the little elevator we went and down a hallway where we were greeted by Marisa and a little dog who ended up stealing my heart.  Bonnie (III) is the little dog of Tina Viganò who had spent more than half her life in service to “la signorina” (she never calls her by first name).  I could not believe I was meeting her.  I was immediately hit in in the face with a gorgeous life-size portrait of Tebaldi on the wall that was so radiant you would think it was going to speak to you.  Out came Tina, a sweet, gentle smiled woman with open arms so happy to see Aprile who Tebaldi had adored as a friend and an artist.  I  was so moved to meet her but I became mute as I usually do when something affects me deeply.  All of la Tebaldi’s things were in the apartment, untouched, almost as if she was still living there. Especially moving was the piano that was the centrepiece of the room, covered with photos of important people and of the angel herself.  When I was asked by Tina to play it, I felt like I couldn’t possibly touch this instrument but I sat at the bench and collected myself before touching the keys as respectfully as I could.  A beautiful sweet sound, one that I could imagine her voice mingling with.  What a gift.

Afterwards we spent a lovely dinner talking about “la signorina” with little Bonnie (III) keeping an eye on everything but mostly on her Tina who was so watchful of her.  So many things, so many memories, I felt honoured to hear them and I felt like somehow La Tebaldi would’ve been tickled to know that Aprile was with Tina.

My beautiful pictureAprile with Renata Tebaldi

DSC_0091Aprile holding Bonnie III, Tina, me, and Giovanna Colombo

To visit the Official Renata Tebaldi Page and learn more about the beautiful Museum set to open soon please click here:

Sito Ufficiale del Comitato Renata Tebaldi

Part III: Franco Zeffirelli

Rome:  one of the greatest directors of all time celebrating his birthday and of course Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Liu’s in history, was invited to celebrate with him.  Another unexpected meeting for me, but one I was honoured to experience.  His house was a thing of beauty.  Art, and music everywhere, photos of great actresses he had worked with and singers.  The vibrance and elegance of this man, and a huge personality abounds.  With one of his many little dogs firmly planted on his lap the entire evening, he smiled broadly, welcoming everyone who was beautifully dressed  and so happy to be there.  I kept thinking of how I felt when the curtain opens on the Imperial Scene in Turandot and how majestic it is and Act II of La Boheme.  SHAME ON ANYONE who is trying to replace his magnificent artistic and creative productions.  Viva Zeffirelli per sempre!!! Happy Birthday Maestro…I was so happy to meet you!!

Aprile and Franco

Zeffirelli and Aprile Millo

1938039_10152223612963497_1304165351_n The sweetest man and a great artist

Part IV:  Various and Sundry

Some photos for your pleasure

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The facade of the Vatican

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Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa)

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The interior window of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (Milano)

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Interior of the Galleria (Milano)

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Exterior of the Galleria at night (Milano)

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Duomo Milano (at night)

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Il Colosseo (Roma)

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Piazza del Duomo (Milano)

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Il Duomo (Milano)

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La Scala and someone who loves her

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Beautiful and rainy Venezia

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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A room with a view

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If one could only wake up to this every day

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The bridge of Sighs (Venice)

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St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Interior of St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Gondolas on the water

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One of the beautiful bridges (Venice)

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Beauty

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Yay for female gondoliers!  I wonder if she sings?

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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I tried very hard to take this from the train.  The Alps were magnificent

Part IV:  Verdi’s Grave

It would not have been right for one of the greatest interpreters of Verdi in the world to go and pay respects to Puccini and not to her “preferito”, Giuseppe Verdi.  Straight from a long train ride from Venice to Milano, we took a cab to the Casa di Riposo Giuseppe Verdi.  Although this was a deeply personal moment for her, I feel the need to recount it for its beauty and honesty. I knew this was going to be an emotional moment for la Millo because she had not ever been to this spot (I had several years ago during a research trip to Milano and had a totally breakdown in front of that great man’s tomb).  We both became very muted and there was no one around, just the sound of her walking on the stone path that leads to his and Giuseppina Strepponi’s grave.  In the courtyard, one of the residents known to sing constantly, was singing Act II of La Bohème with such beautiful “nella maschera” singing that you could hear her from the street and she was probably 70-something years old.  I walked behind Aprile and gave her space to approach this man to whom she is so utterly connected.  In my mind I recalled her unparalleled “Ballo in Maschera” and “Aida” and all of the operas of his that she had left an inedible mark on. She stopped before entering the chapel in which the great man is buried and I watched her catch her breath although she was visibly shaking.  She entered there and immediately fell to her knees at the stone wall that separates the graves from the public.  The head bowed in complete prostration and the tears falling upon the stone….we stood in complete silence but I broke the solemnity to take this photo which I think speaks a thousand words and ought to be public for its beauty and for the devotion of this artist to this composer.  I know he would have smiled at you Aprile, for the honourable manner in which you continue to serve him not just on stage but every day of your life. Viva Verdi!!!

DSC_0519Aprile Millo at Verdi’s Grave

And so ended this time with little Tina Viganò, and Bonnie III coming in the early morning to hug Aprile and myself and say goodbye.  How beautiful it was that she came to wave and watch the car drive away, as Aprile had done the last time she saw Tebaldi leave.  We were both moved and I personally felt such a protectiveness toward Tina that I didn’t want to leave.  I cried outright at leaving this lady who in her devotion to Tebaldi became a solider of the arts herself.  This time that was filled with opera and singing, history, tears of joy, tears of gratitude, song, new friends, old friends, and the beauty of a country that remains in my heart every day.  How proud I am to be Italian and although I was born in Canada I owe so much to my great-grandparents Erminia and Ernesto for instilling in me the ways of life in Italy, traditions I keep to this day.  I promise that I will return to her much sooner than later and with a song in my heart willing to be expressed in honesty and devotion to these beautiful memories that I was absolutely blessed to have experienced.  Viva la patria!  Grazie Aprile and congratulations on a huge success. Stay tuned everyone for much more to come from her very soon!  I’ll keep you posted!

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You luckiest of devils. The best posting EVER!! Thank you so much

  2. This is an amazing post Mary-Lou. Thanks so much for sharing. The pictures are incredible. What an absolutely wonderful experience for you!


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