Where Turandot Grew Up

Once, Viareggio’s seafront consisted entirely of wooden chalets. However, a fire in 1917 destroyed most of them. The only one to survive to this day is the Chalet Martini which dates from 1899 and was designed by Modesto Orzali who was also the architect of some of the most spectacular villas on Lucca’s boulevard encircling that city’s walls.

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The chalet has a series of arches, now filled in, which give the construction a light and airy feel. The interior is pure Art Nouveau with a wonderful horoscope ceiling painted by Tito Chini, cousin of the great Galileo Chini and a member of that creative family which has done so much to make Viareggio Italy’s coastal capital of Art Nouveau.

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Entering the chalet I looked up at the ceiling and was entranced by this circular horoscope.

Here’s is my sign

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And here is Sandra’s:

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I then realised that February 8th is also the start of the Chinese New Year, now the year of the Monkey whose general characteristics are that it’s smart, quick-witted, and confident, but also irritable and stubborn.

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We were born in the year of the Rat. Now if that sounds inauspicious it isn’t. The rat is the first astrological sign in the Chinese New Year and has, in fact many endearing qualities. It has spirit, wit, alertness, delicacy, flexibility and vitality. So we won’t mind if you call us rat-faces!

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I then thought what predictions would occur would happen if my western astrological month sign were combined with the Chinese year astrological sign. What would this year be like for a Lion born in the year of the Rat? According to what I learnt a Leo-Rat is an inquisitive, creative and quick witted creature. The Leo Rat is usually charming and sociable but on occasion they can also be aloof and impatient if things are not going all their own way. They have a determined and optimistic outlook and so are effective motivators. they are happiest when they are in charge. These people can be quite domineering if they feel like they are losing control of a situation or excluded in any way. The Leo Rat does not like to take a back seat and hates to be ignored or rejected.

I’m sure a lot of people who know me wouldn’t disagree with much of that….

I wandered around a somewhat deserted Viareggio to try to see anything reminding me of China. Of course, at this time Viareggio has its carnival extending every week-end throughout February but this was Monday and the town looked pretty deserted.

Could I find some connection with China here? Of course I could! Not by seeing a couple of attractive Chinese girls. Not by guessing at oriental influences in Viareggio’s fabulous art nouveau buildings. Not through the connection of South East Asia with Viareggio’s greatest designers, Galileo Chini, invited by the King of Siam, enraptured by the artist’s work during the monarch’s visit to the Venice Biennale in 1910, to decorate his throne room in Bangkok. (Other great art nouveau Italian architects Tamagno and Ricotti designed several buildings for Bangkok like its railway station and public administration offices).

No, the supreme Chinese connection was a building I have described before in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/from-the-villa-by-the-lake-to-the-bungalow-by-the-sea/ and which conveniently lies between Via Marco Polo, the first Italian traveller to China, and the Piazza Puccini. It was the house Puccini had built by his architect friend Pilotti (who’d also designed his villa at Torre Del Lago) with decorations by Galileo Chini. (Chini, incidentally designed the scenery for Puccini’s last opera). With an almost Indochinese, indeed Laotian feel to it, the building provided the immortal maestro with a much needed escape from the noise that the newly-founded peat extraction factory near his beloved Torre Del Lago villa was now grinding out. (How could even the famous Puccini not have stopped this factory from being set up? What regard did the Italian government have for their greatest composer’s peace and quiet?).

Chinese-looking, indeed Indo-Chinese looking, is this highly attractive bungalow now thankfully saved from the disastrously dilapidated condition I last saw it in a few years ago. A victim of a typically interminable Italian law-suit the villa finally became the property of the Puccini foundation in 2012. The garden had been cleared of its brambles and I was at last able to read the plaque placed on one of its walls.

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La comunità di Viareggio promette di costudire consacrati a GIACOMO PUCCINI
e casa e bosco che furono reggia e giardino alla splendente regina Turandot.

(The community of Viareggio promises to look after the house and the woods,consecrated to GIACOMO PUCCINI, which were the palace and garden of the resplendent queen Turandot).

Let’s hope they really carry out that promise this time!

The portico is lovely and reminded me of a sweet country place we’d stayed at Luang Prabang, Laos last December.

But the cherry on the icing was that it was in this very house that Puccini composed his masterpiece, Turandot, all about the tortured love of Calaf for the ice-cold Chinese princess, Turandot, who eventually melts into his arms when she discovers the secret word ‘Love’:


La casa e bosco che furono reggia e giardino alla splendente regina Turandot

If love makes the world truly go round then I was surely moved. Like his neighbours during the time Giacomo Puccini was composing his last opera, I imagined I could catch the music from this transcendently ecstatic work on his piano (now at the Villa Torre del Lago).

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In my mind’s ear I heard the opera and those final words Turandot sings which I will not translate because only in Italian do they fully convey the emotional impact which always reduces me to pulp when I hear them:

Conosco il nome dello straniero!
Il suo nome è… Amor!

Amor! O sole! Vita! Eternità!
Luce del mondo e amore!
Ride e canta nel sole l’infinità nostra felicità!
Gloria a te! Gloria a te! Gloria!

Below is a video of my preferred ending of the opera. Let me explain. It’s possible that Puccini could not proceed further than the death of Liù and this was where the opera concluded when Toscanini conducted its first performance after the composer prematurely died in 1924 after an operation on his throat cancer,.

But the composer did sketch a happy ending where Turandot suddenly realises what she’s been missing by not falling into the arms of Prince Calaf. Puccini entrusted the conclusion and orchestration to his best pupil Alfano who worked wonders and produced a worthily spectacular finale. Unfortunately, this was rejected by Toscanini in favour of an abbreviated version which, in my opinion, is far inferior but which is the one we all seem to hear now.

This is how Turandot should really end with the the love-melted princess’s voice soaring high above that melody now so well-known but still overwhelming in its effect. I defy anyone to remain unmoved when they hear this!

So I did reach my Chinese New Year – or new life if you like, courtesy of Viareggio and Puccini…

PS If you want to read (and hear) more about how Turandot was created (and it was in our own Bagni di Lucca) do check out my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/turandots-carillon/

Meanwhile, Happy Year of the Monkey to you but don’t get up to any monkey business!

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