Florence is a city with a rich musical past. During the mid-15th century, it was one of the most exciting places in the world to be living and working as a musician thanks to the work of a group of intellectuals known as the Florentine Camerata. They had begun experimenting with ways to set words to music, and this directly resulted in the writing of the first opera by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini. ‘Euridice’ was first performed in the Boboli gardens in 1600 on the occasion of Henry IV of France’s marriage to Marie de’ Medici.
Opera has come a long way since those early days, but it still plays an important part in the cultural life of the city, particularly during the summer music festival held at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence’s municipal theatre. Along with Salzburg and Beyreuth, the Festival del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is one of the oldest and most prestigious music festivals in Europe having been founded in 1933 by Vittorio Gui.
The 68th edition of the ‘Maggio’ as it’s known locally was inaugurated on April 30th with Puccini’s Tosca in the presence of such glamorous company as Sofia Loren and a theatre full of glittering Firenze per bene. It is the first time in many years that an Italian opera has opened the festival and the very first time that a work by Puccini has been chosen. Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s new production of one of the Tuscan composer’s most popular operas sets the drama in the ‘60s and makes use of video projections as a backdrop to the action. Florentines are conservative in their tastes and the new production was booed (only the director, mind, not the orchestra, chorus or solosits) on the opening night .
Reservations about the production aside, it is more than worth trying to get hold of a hard-to-come-by ticket for one of the seven remaining performances. Opera has a special place in the heart of many an Italian soul, and a chance to hear an Italian opera performed by good local orchestra and chorus is almost always a worthwhile experience and the standards at this theatre are high. The cast includes a marvellous Violeta Urmana as Tosca and Marcus Haddock as Cavaradossi plus the great baritone Ruggero Raimondi in the part of Scarpia. He may be 70, but his charisma on stage and powerful voice still do the job. Zubin Mehta, now in his 20th year as the Maggio’s ‘direttore principale’ conducts.
Opening on 8th May, the second opera on offer is Mozart’s great ‘dramma giocoso’, Don Giovanni. First performed in Prague in 1787 and written to an Italian libretto, the Mozart/Da Ponte version of this much-used classic plot has the Don Juan character raised for the first time to the image of a three-dimensional romantic hero, a rebel against authority and a supreme individualist, courageous and totally repentant to the end rather than a mere shallow figure of farce. It is a musically brilliant ghost story, a combination of comedy and compelling drama. The opera is being staged in the exquisite 17th century Teatro della Pergola, a gem of a theatre done out in red and gold and with three tiers of boxes where both atmosphere and acoustics are perfect for this kind of small scale production. The strong cast is led by young Uraguayan baritone Erwin Schrott whose charismatic, movie-star good looks and voice quality are perfectly suited to the part of the devilish Don. The two female leads are sung by Mariella Devia (Donna Anna) and the ravishing Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira. Frittoli’s husband Natale De Carolis sings Leporello. Don Giovanni is again conducted by Zubin Mehta and directed by Sir Jonathan Millar, one of the greats of the theatre world, whose work is always beautifully paced and pleasing to the eye; this lavish, classically-styled production was first staged in 1990. We’ll see if it stands the test of time.
Last but certainly not least of the season’s operas is a new production of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, a profoundly Russian work in terms of both words and music based on a drama by Pushkin. First performed in St. Petersburg in 1874, the story revolves around Boris, a councillor of Ivan the Terrible who, on Ivan’s death, succeeds him as Tsar by foul means; the opera deals with his growing remorse and eventual death, a tortured and terrified soul. The dark subject matter enhanced by Mussorgsky’s nationalistic music makes for fine drama. The cast is led by Italian baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto in the role of Boris while among the many Russian names in the long list of supporting characters is superb British tenor Philip Langridge as Prince Shuisky. Appropriately, the Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov takes the podium while the production is by Lithuanian Eimuntas Nekrosius. Described by the late Arthur Millar as ‘some kind of genius’, Nekrosius is a theatre director of immense international standing acclaimed for his productions of the great Shakesperean tragedies. The first of five performances is on June 17th.
Dance fans will be a little disappointed that there is only one ballet included in the programme this year. This version of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has been created especially for MaggioDanza, the theatre’s resident ballet company, by Sergio Mancini, their new director. It too is being staged at the Teatro della Pergola (with recorded music rather than a live orchestra) and opens on June 7th.
So much for opera and ballet, but what about the concerts on offer this year? It must be said that while the line-up of conductors is fairly impressive, there is not much of great interest in the way of repertoire. On May 13th, Zubin Mehta conducts a programme of music by the late Luciano Berio and Verdi (Four Sacred Songs) featuring the resident orchestra and, rather incongruously, the Swingle Singers. Mehta and the orchestra are joined by soloist Gil Shaham on May 19th to perform violin concertos by Mozart and Brahms while Riccardo Chailly, principal conductor of the Concertgebow orchestra in Amsterdam, conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano on May 28th in music by Brahms, Beethoven and Scriabin. The great Claudio Abbado conducts his new Orchestra Mozart on June 12th at the Pergola in an all-Mozart programme. Semyon Bychkov will conduct Mahler’s fifth symphony on June 22nd and then again on June 30th .for the closing concert.
Piano recitals are a feature of this year’s festival. Duo Bruno Canino-Antonio Ballista play on May 25th, Anna Proclemer on June 15th and Aldo Ciccolini on June 18th. Peripheral events include an exhibition dedicated to Maria Callas who appeared at the Teatro del Maggio many times in operas such as Norma, La Traviata and Medea and a wine auction in aid of the Fondazione Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on May 21st.
Tickets for this year’s Maggio festival went on sale on April 6th and certain performances are already sold out. It is always worth going along to the theatre at the last minute, however, in the hope of getting a return. Where tickets are still available, you can book online up to a week before each performance.
Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Corso Italia 16, tel 055 213535
(box office; open Tue-Fri 10am-4.30pm, Sat 10am-1pm and one hour before each performance)
Phone bookings within Italy, 199 112112 open Mon-Fri 8am-8pm ;