At five in the afternoon, the Tuscan lakeside village of Torre del Lago was peaceful to the point of somnolence. A couple of fishermen cast their rods from the jetty while a few other visitors relaxed by the shore, enjoying the late afternoon heat and the spectacular view of the Apuan Alps across Lake Massaciuccoli.
It would be a couple of hours before the crowds would begin to arrive for the evening’s performance at the Puccini Festival – Madama Butterfly. An annual event, the festival runs from late July until the end of August in the Gran Teatro all’aperto, the open-air arena on the edge of the lake – but this year’s is rather special: it is celebrating its 60th anniversary, as well as the 90th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s death in November 1924.
Puccini built his own house in Torre del Lago around 1900. Few people lived in the village then, and it suited him perfectly. Most of his famous work was composed here, usually at night, with dampers on the piano so as not to disturb his wife and son. During the day he would go hunting for snipe on the lake with local friends – a passion that ranked alongside his fascination with new inventions such as the car (he had the 118th driving licence in Italy) and the telephone.
Today the Villa Puccini is a museum. Hidden behind iron gates and a luxuriant garden, it remains much as it was when Puccini lived here. I spent an absorbing hour there and could easily envisage Puccini at his favourite piano and working on the table alongside it. The villa was crammed with paintings, fascinating photographs, letters and manuscripts, with one room just for his collection of guns. What was once the dining room is now a small chapel where Puccini is buried. His granddaughter, Simonetta Puccini, is usually around at festival time, and came into the villa to say a few words about the foundation she runs to protect Puccini’s homes and artefacts.
In the open square by the waterfront, a large bronze statue of the composer, dressed in a warm overcoat with a cigar in his mouth, surveys it all, eerily catching my eye as I looked at him. It would be smoking that eventually caused the throat cancer that killed him.
The festival organisers are making constant improvements and trying out new ideas. In 2008, the arena was redesigned and though it now seats fewer people (3,400), the sightlines are better and a huge foyer and bar has been added that didn’t exist before. It has been known, if it rains during the performance, for the singers to continue in the bar.
Away from the festival, there is much of Puccini to be found in this region. The walled city of Lucca is nearby and the family apartment where he grew up, on the second floor of an old house in the tiny Piazza Cittadella, has been recently renovated. This, too, is open to the public and is full of Puccini memorabilia – letters, proof sheets and working copies of his operas. Even the bed where Puccini was born is still in the bedroom.
Just inside one of the old gates in the city wall, the Teatro del Giglio has a small but rather charming exhibition. Figures from Puccini’s operas, all of which were performed here in his lifetime, have been set around the bar and auditorium. Puccini himself has been placed in the box where he always sat, right by the stage, so he could reach over to make instant alterations.
The composer’s last home was in the seaside resort of Viareggio, not far from Torre del Lago. He was working on Turandot when he became ill and died in a hospital in Brussels a few days later, never completing his final opera.
Not long before he died, it is believed that Puccini told a friend that he wished his operas to be heard outside. If he could see the thousands today flocking into the village he loved so much to hear his operas sung in the open, he would surely be a very happy man.
The Puccini Festival 2014 runs until August 30, see puccinifestival.it. Valerie Singleton was a guest of Tuscany Now (tuscanynow.com), which rents villas sleeping from two to 34, and Liaisons Abroad (liaisonsabroad.com), which books tickets to the festival. She stayed at Villa de Lanfranchi, which sleeps 14 and costs from £3,689 per week
Photograph: Giorgio Andreuccetti