Vienna at Christmas time is particularly magical. In this ex-imperial capital the elegant streets are beautifully decorated with fir trees and bright lights, the festive season’s christkindlmarkt spring up by the cathedral, next to the belvedere and several others of the city’s famous buildings:
I, therefore, without hesitation, seized the chance of accompanying the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra together with its choruses and soloists. Complimentary tickets were supplied thanks to the generosity of orchestra director and conductor, Lucca’s major musical energiser, entrepreneur and Puccini festival organizer, Andrea Colombini.
At 5 am on 19th December, we set out from our little mountain village of Longoio to reach one of three coaches carrying a total of 200 musicians, of which 75 were orchestral players, technicians and assistants, to start the 560 miles from Lucca to the Austrian capital.
Fourteen hours later we landed in south Vienna – it was clearly a long journey but certainly not a tedious one. Scenically, the route was very varied and the company was most convivial. I’ve never known a fourteen-hour coach journey go so quickly!
To attend a performance in the Musicverein is something I’d always dreamt of doing. To do so in the context of a concert by an orchestra I have praised as being a veritable asset to the city of Lucca is an added bonus as, indeed, was the very special occasion which prompted the orchestra to play at the Musicverein.
This was the second time the Lucca Orchestra has played there after last year’s successful Christmas concert. The difference this time was that the occasion was not promoted from Lucca but was a result of an invitation from the Musicverein itself, so happy with the sound the ensemble made last year. Since the Viennese public are particularly discriminating about matters musical this was, indeed, a great honour for Andrea and his band of musicians. In this sense, I felt that Lucca had conquered Vienna through the heart (and not by political machinations as it had been conquered by Metternich when he installed Maria Luisa, of the Bourbon dynasty, at the 1815 congress of Vienna.)
Would the musicians from Lucca live up to the occasion again? Certainly! Not only did they do so but they exceeded all expectations. In the words of the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Vienna Colombini’s Musicverein concert projected a positive and joyous image of Italy which could only increase confidence in the country’s talents.
This was the programme (and may I say how well produced was the actual written programme with full words of all the items sung and excellent biographies of the artistes):
Here are those who helped to make the event possible:
Verdi’s Sicilian vespers overture confirmed the stature of the Lucca orchestra from the very start. The sound was cohesive, well-balanced with a particularly impressive brass section. Of course, music lovers must know that the Musicverein golden hall has probably the finest acoustics of any concert hall in the world, due largely to its shoebox shape and the overwhelming use of wood in its interior. What seems marble is scagliolaed wood. Even the golden caryatids are of wood. This wood causes resonances in which one’s whole being seems to vibrate in tune with the harmonies produced. Truly, the Musicverein Goldener Saal (designed by Theophil Von Hansen and first opened in 1870) is a giant casket dedicated to the supreme aspirations of the greatest sounds ever produced outside heaven itself.
The first vocal item from “Madama Butterfly” confirmed the high level of the singing which would permeate the whole event. It was a clever move to introduce “Italian” items into the program, here in the form of the aria from Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier”. (I wonder if the orchestra will consider playing the same composer’s “Aus Italien” in their next visit to the former Hapsburg imperial capital?).
The orchestra reaffirmed its mastery in the playing of “La Traviata’s” prelude from Act 1 – a most sensitive performance.
Richard Strauss resumed with a melting performance of his song “Zuewignung”.
Lucca’s greatest son, Puccini returned with the heart-melting set of two solo arias and duet from the end of act 1 of La Bohème. The stature of the choir asserted itself in the famous humming chorus from “Madama Butterfly.” But the real coup-de-theatre came with the finale of the first part of the chorus which is that incredibly difficult thing to pull off: Musetta’s waltz and the whole of the finale of Act 2 of “La Bohème”. The children’s choir (not just boys as stated in the programme but including the girls as well…) of the Capella Santa Cecilia di Lucca were quite enchanting with their appearance and, although it was a concert performance, it was so vivid that the imagination stretched to the visualization of the Café Momus itself. I look forwards to Colombini staging opera, in the near future I hope…
The second half of the concert kicked off with the “Carmen” entr’acte played at a cracking pace which the orchestra showed it was able to fully sustain. The ubiquitous toreador’s song concluded the French element of the concert.
Perhaps the finest singing was sustained in Cavaradossi’s heart-rending aria from “Tosca”, “E Lucevan le stelle”, beautifully sung by Mugnaini.
Pieces from those two lesser stars of Italian verismo, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, followed. There was a wonderful Mozartian interlude when rising star Sonia Bellugi sang with panache the immensely difficult Queen of the Night aria from Vienna’s greatest ex-resident of all time (and the world’s?) , Mozart.
Mugnaini’s rendering of “Vesti la Giubba” had, by this stage in the evening, reduced us emotionally to pulp. The emotional high was sustained by “Vissi d’arte” and the official end of the programme concluded with the most celebrated items from “Turandot” including the reappearance of Lucca’s finest children’s chorus in the item “La Sui Monti dell ‘Est”.
At this stage it would not be an exaggeration to state that several of the 1,800 members of the audience present were showing lachrymose symptoms. The music played hits at the heart and only the most sang-froid characters or robots could possibly remain unaffected.
The audience clearly couldn’t face the streets of nighttime Vienna in this fragile state and the encore was appropriately “O Sole mio” in a highly inebriating interpretation with the entire soloists combining to raising our spirits again.
Clapping was long, culminating not only in a standing ovation for the brilliant performers but also by that slow hand-clapping which signifies that the highest of the audience’s expectations had been reached and extensively overtaken.
The combination of that wonderful golden palace of music, its sanctum sanctorum where the greatest composers have been played (and played) under the baton of the greatest conductors, Vienna’s Musicverein, so well-known from its New Year’s day concerts, together with the Christmas atmosphere and the energizing presence of prodigious and sonorous ambassadors from Italy, and particularily from Lucca, made us feel especially light-headed and happy at the end of this event which can only bring both praise and hope to an Italy struggling towards a cheerier future . When Andrea asked me how it went I had no difficulty in saying that he and his musicians had transported us all to seventh heaven. I’m still there now, thinking about that enchanted evening when Lucca swept Vienna off her feet.
PS If you missed this wonderful concert do not despair – there will be a replica concert at Lucca’s Giglio on Tuesday 23rd December. It was also filmed and the film will soon appear in cinemas. I’ll keep you posted when and where.