Ahead of Il Letto‘s premiere at Grimeborn 2017, librettist and playwright Christopher Hogg goes in search of Elvira Bonturi, an amateur soprano who married the composer Giacomo Puccini.
I don’t think I have ever felt a colder January wind, than that which whips down from the mountains and across Lake Massaciuccoli to the gates of Puccini’s Villa at Torre De’l Largo.
I have been following signs to Puccini’s house for half an hour and suddenly I’m arrived.
I try to work out whether the museum is open or closed, and whether my journey from London has all been for nothing. I am here to write a new play about Puccini’s wife Elvira Bonturi. I have maxed out a credit card so that I get here, and now according to the sign, the museum is closed. I’m shivering. I go home tomorrow. The guide book said it would be open. Damn.
I have no choice but to find somewhere to warm up. There is a completely empty restaurant and within a few minutes, I am tucking into Parpedella with Boar with a glass of Chianti. Oh well. Tuscany is that kind of place. I ask my waiter why the museum is closed today. He tells me the Puccini’s museum is always open, but it always looked closed. I should ring the bell more forcefully. My spirits return.
As I return to museum I walk past a statue of Puccini. Collar up, cigarette on lip, he looks like a tough private investigator from some film noir. There is no mistaking his masculinity energy.
I ring the bell to the museum again, and magically a door opens and a curator comes out.
She tells me I am on the only visitor that day, and I have half an hour to explore as I feel. However, I must stay on the ground floor only and not take one single picture.
Not one single picture I say?
Not one, she replies.
I pay my six Euros and she hands me an audio guide. I put on the headphones and try and follow the gaze of the voice in my ears. However, I am immediately distracted by a cat. A handsome cat whose masculine energy you can’t disguise. When I try and stroke it, its fur goes up and it hisses and tries to bite me.
The first thing I think about, I think is that Puccini isn’t happy that I have come to write a play about his wife. He’s not happy that I am there at all. You see the story of Puccini’s wife, Elivira Bonturi is so full of scandal that the full tale only emerged in 2008.
My first task I decide is to try and find a picture of the woman herself. I want to get to know her. In all his music, Elvira was Tosca. Proud, possessive, Italian!
The house, itself is of course magnificent. It befits man who had 17 curtain calls at the premiere of Manon Lescaut; a man whose estimated fortune at the end of his life was, in today’s money around £130m.
The house is kept just as it was when he lived there.
There is even an imprint in the cushion. I suspect that it belongs to the evil cat at the entrance.
My search for Elvira continues. The house is full of hundreds of picture of incredible women. These are just a fraction of them. Many of them are inscribed with thanks; thanks for the music. I begin to wonder how it was for Elvira, being married to a man with such a formidable fan club.
Search as I might. I still can’t find a picture of Elvira. The play I am writing is called the ‘Il Letto’. In Italian means The Bed. The story I am telling concerns, the events that happened in the Puccini villa in 1909. A set of circumstances that led to the death of a girl, the near ruin of the Puccini family, and a five day prison sentence for Elvira on the charge of defamation. I keep looking.
I take a selfie.
I decide that my only option is to find the curator. I go to the gift shop. I love a gift shop. She is behind the counter, trying to keep warm. I ask her, where is Elvira Bonturi? She looks at me quizzically and then gets up, and says that ‘There are only two pictures of Elvira’ in the whole museum. She doesn’t know why.
This seems odd to me. I would not be half the writer I am without my wife. She gives me incredible notes, she proofs my terrible typos. Her name should go somewhere on every script. If I had a museum after my death, there would have to be many pictures of her. We are a creative team.
We wonder back into the museum. And there on a shelf devoted to weird objects collected from around the world is Elvira. Her picture is about the size of passport photo, and the frame is well, nothing special. Despite that, there is a strength to her features, she has a nobility. The kind of countenance that would inspire the Visi D’arte.
Callas sings Vissi D’arte.
It is as if in the story of Puccini, Elvira has been expunged. She has been placed on a shelf, far away from the art. Maybe she is still being punished for what she did over a hundred years ago.
In the end that is what this new opera-play is about. It is about listening to Puccini’s sublime music but with a new perspective from Elvira’s perspective. The woman who helped make it and honouring that.
‘Il Letto’ is being performed at the wonderful Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre in London on the 21st and 22nd of August: Tickets can be got just here.
PS. If you ever wondered what the Puccini marital bed looked like, here it is.
I snuck upstairs when the curator wasn’t looking.