The Festival Verdi takes place on the stretch of country where the composer was born, schooled, learnt his trade, and, despite youthful resentments, where he bought a farm and built a villa as a haven and retreat for the last 50 years of his life. Lying then within the Duchy of Parma, it remains predominantly rural, with the attraction of a kind of unchanging, authentic ordinariness. This was the mise-en-scène which gave rise to an artistic oeuvre displaying a range of tumultuous passions and human empathy equalled perhaps only by Shakespeare. Happily, it is also an area famous for its food, and a region rich in musical history, with Cremona being the world’s most celebrated centre of violin-making.
The performances are in two theatres which are of the highest historical importance and beauty, and in the church of San Francesco del Prato in the heart of Parma. The Teatro Regio in Parma was built in 1829 by ex-Empress Maria-Luisa, modelled on La Scala in Milan. The small horse-shoe Teatro Verdi at Busseto dates to 1868 and was built within what had been the local magnate’s palazzo.
Performances at Parma’s Teatro Regio are always exciting occasions — the audience is one of the most knowledgeable and vocal (in every sense!) in Italy — and the new production of I Lombardi will surely offer a wonderful opportunity to sample authentic Italian operatic culture. I Lombardi is really the biggest event of this year’s festival, and a rare opportunity to hear and see a Verdi opera that was once very successful (it was the first of his works to reach America) but whose fortunes have faded a little. Yet it contains much exciting music — as only Verdi’s fourth opera, it was composed as a follow-up to the success he had enjoyed with Nabucco and aimed to replicate some of the more famous work’s big moments. Premiered at La Scala in 1843, its plot recounts the escapades of the Lombards at the First Crusade.
Parma’s presentation of the much better-known Macbeth is characteristic of a festival that never stands still. It will be performed in an alternative venue, still one of the city’s landmarks — the Chiesa di San Francesco del Prato, deconsecrated already in the 19th century and turned into a city prison. Restoration work is nearing completion, and it is due to be reconsecrated and handed back to the church, but not before it is used at this year’s festival. The festival’s approach to Macbeth itself will also be novel, building on its programme in recent years of exploring French versions of Verdi operas — we’ll hear the French libretto used in Paris in 1865, when Verdi revised the opera substantially.
Busseto, near the composer’s birthplace, offers a very different experience. Seeing performances in the little Teatro Verdi di Busseto provides one of the most intimate operatic experiences, and will doubtless heighten the tragic impact of that well-known masterpiece that is Rigoletto. The first of the three middle-period ‘hits’ that Verdi enjoyed in the early 1850s (Il trovatore and La traviata followed in quick succession), Rigoletto contains some of the composer’s best-loved music.
Fly at c. 2.45pm from London Heathrow to Bologna Airport (British Airways). Drive to Parma, one of the loveliest of the smaller cities in Italy and the base for all four nights of the tour.
Parma. Court city of the Farnese dynasty, Parma is a treasure house of art and architecture. In the morning there is a visit to the cathedral and baptistry, among the finest Romanesque buildings in Italy, the former with dazzling illusionistic frescoes by Correggio. Evening opera at the church of San Francesco del Prato in Parma: Macbeth.
Cremona. The birthplace of Monteverdi, Stradivarius and Guarini and still a centre of violin making, Cremona has a splendid central square formed of cathedral, campanile (Italy’s tallest), baptistry and civic palaces. The cathedral is richly embellished with 16th-century paintings, the baptistry with Romanesque sculpture and the municipal fortresses are red-brick Gothic. Evening opera in the Teatro Regio di Parma: I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata.
Sant’Agata, Le Roncole, Busseto. An excursion begins with the villa that Verdi built for himself at Sant’Agata, and continues to the territory where Verdi was born, grew up and lived intermittently for much of his life. Visit his birthplace in the hamlet of Le Roncole, and Busseto, where he lived for the earlier part of his life. Evening opera at the Teatro Verdi in Busseto: Rigoletto.
Drive to Bologna Airport for the flight to London Heathrow, arriving at c. 1.25pm.
Dr John Allison
Editor of Opera magazine and music critic. He was born in South Africa and completed his PhD degree while playing the piano and working as assistant organist at Cape Town cathedral. Since moving to London in 1989 he has written for publications around the world, authored two books and served on the juries of many international competitions. He co-founded the International Opera Awards in 2013. He reviews for the Daily Telegraph and has previously held positions as music critic on The Sunday Telegraph and The Times.
Dr R. T. Cobianchi
Art historian and researcher specializing in Italian art and architecture of the Renaissance and Baroque. His interests also span from the iconography of the late Middle Ages to the sculpture of Neoclassicism.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,970 or £2,870 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,410 or £3,310 without flights.
Tickets to three performances (see below); flights (economy class) with British Airways (Airbus 321); private coach for transfers and excursions; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 3 dinners with wine; tips for waiters, drivers, guides; state and airport taxes; the services of two lecturers.
Top-category tickets for 3 performances are included. In Parma, we have stalls seats for both performances, and in Busseto we have central boxes. Not all the seats in the central boxes will be front row, and front row places will be allocated to the first bookers.
Hotel Sina Maria Luigia, Parma: recently renovated 4-star hotel, located near the historic centre.
Some walking is unavoidable as coaches are not permitted into historic town centres. There are late nights throughout the tour, and most mornings start at 10.00am. Average distance by coach per day: 53 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'John Alison is a walking textbook in opera and Roberto's art commentaries made us see important details in the painting and buildings.'
'The two lecturers were superb.'
'A very good break intellectually conducted in brilliant weather and some interesting fellow travellers.'