Dennis O'Neill: Barga – the town that changed my life

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The world famous tenor Dennis O’NeillAn article by the world famous tenor Dennis O’Neil who was here in Barga in May of this year with the Cardiff International Academy of Voice (article here)  My first visit to Barga was in the summer of 1967. It was made possible by winning a scholarship (of £60!) in a competition.Peter Gellhorn of the Royal Opera House was the adjudicator and he managed to get a further £50 grant for me to join Opera Barga, an annual summer school.

My journey over was a night flight from Heathrow. I was 19 and it was the first time I had left the UK. Arriving in the middle of the night at Milan airport, I made my way to the deserted main railway station, which was an experience in itself. It could easily have been mistaken for a cathedral.

A train took me to Florence, then Fornaci di Barga where I boarded a battered country bus to Barga itself. On the way, lurching along in clouds of dust, a long-term resident, an English lady, enquired as to where I was going and why. I proudly told her that I was going to Barga to study singing.

“What voice are you?” she asked. “Tenor” I proudly replied. “Good thing,” she said. “Only two things for a young man to be in Italy, a tenor or a football player.”

The bus dropped me off in the square of the new town, Barga Giardino. It was nothing remarkable. What I didn’t know at this time – no internet checks then – was that there is an old Barga, Barga Vecchia, a steep ancient town of narrow streets and cobblestones on one side of the Ponte Vecchio and a new 19th-century Barga, Barga Giardino, built on the other side of the bridge. Barga is two towns – and I was in the less interesting one.

I had not anticipated the shock of the old walled town of Barga, in those days a wholly unknown medieval gem. In its heyday, Barga was often at war with the nearby republic of Lucca and Pisa. The town’s impregnable fortifications meant that it subsequently had difficulty expanding beyond its walls. That was until a bridge was built that linked it to new Barga to the north.

I was told just to cross the bridge and then walk up a very steep hill. After leaving the modern pavement where the bridge ended I turned straight into a dingy alley formed out of steeply ascending steps. That one step took me instantly into the world of medieval Italy. No lighting, windows heaving with flower boxes that looked ready to fall out on to the broken stone steps below and steps that were quite worn out. Up and up, even as a young person I remember being out of breath all time.

At the top, I arrived in Piazza del Comune, too small to be called a piazza. The little cafe that was the social centre for all us students is now called Caffe Capretz, after the Swiss man who opened it in 1870. His bearded face still stares down at the clientele from a hand-tinted photo. But we called it Lucia’s after the lady who ran it in those days.

Our working sessions were spread out through the old town – anywhere there was a piano, in fact. This included a convent, the back of a barber’s shop, the back of a grocery shop and the orchestra pit of the Teatro dei Differenti. I couldn’t settle into the siesta routine, so I used the afternoon breaks to explore. Although Barga is small, I defy any visitor to cover it in its entirety.

In Piazza Angelio the Latin poet Pier Angelio da Barga is commemorated, not only by a bust, displayed not far from the Barga Festival offices, but also by Osteria Angelio, with its banner proclaiming “We all scream for ice-a-cream” (this was in fact an exhibition by the artist Keane, which can be seen here) Barga specialises in good food. To the west on Via di Mezzo is Ristorante L’Altana and Ristorante Scacciaguai, both reasonably priced.

Aristodemo’s, right by Caffe Capretz, is good, too, a small bar that also serves sandwiches and cold cuts. Local musicians often drop in for a quick drink and a jam session. At the far end of Via di Mezzo is the Avalon Bar, which has the insalubrious honour of being the last place to get a drink in old Barga. It can still be found serving local teenagers well into the early hours of the morning.

As for shops, I remember when I first visited they seemed to be closed most of the time, but they were worth the effort. Old mahogany shelving and matching doors were commonplace and it’s still the same now, the smell of Time everywhere. Galleria Marzocco in Piazza del Comune has two large showrooms of antiques. Galleria di Michele Biagi is an art gallery (article here) with interesting exhibitions particularly in the summer. It’s just beyond the city wall, with a great outside patio. And Fratelli Caproni, in the new part of town, sells the best cold cuts, cheeses and local produce.

Some things change but I notice the number of places to stay hasn’t increased. These days singers and musicians still lodge with little old ladies, dressed in black, whose apartments overlook Piazza del Comune and Piazza Angelio. Villa Moorings, a recently renovated 1920s villa just in the new part of town, has its own pool. (site here) Casa Fontana, a town house on Via della Fontana, at the eastern edge of the old city, has a garden but only five rooms. (site here)

As for places to see, Palazzo Cordati, (site here) an ancient palace in the centre of town, is now the home of the Cordati Museum. It used to be known as Palazzo Bertacchi but was renamed after one of Italy’s most celebrated naturalistic painters of the first half of the 20th century whose work is displayed inside.

The Duomo San Cristoforo is the best place from which to view the Serchio Valley in which Barga stands. Perched on a platform at the very top of the town, it dates from the 10th century. Inside it is plain, but there’s a remarkable 11th-century pulpit resting on four carved columns, including one showing a man and a lion fighting and another a seated dwarf. From the steps of the duomo, you can see a breathtaking 360-degree view over the valleys and across to the mountains and hills with their tiny hamlets clinging to them. This is Tuscany at its most majestic.

Just outside old town, the Convent of San Francesco features eight of the most remarkable Andrea della Robbia enamelled terracotta bas-reliefs, all imported from the Medici stronghold of Florence, though it’s believed that for a short while the della Robbia family actually had a workshop here in the town. (3D tour of Barga churches here)

The Teatro dei Differenti on Vicolo dei Teatro can’t be missed. (articles here) I remember it as home to the performances that concluded my course. The first building was financed by the Medici family, not surprising given that Barga was essentially under Florentine rule from 1341 until the unification of Italy. The original wooden theatre was built in 1689. That was torn down in 1793 to make room for a new theatre designed by Michele Lippi with the interior decoration by Cav Francesco Fontanesi, a well-known painter and set designer of the time.

The new theatre opened with the opera Il Matrimonio Segreto by Domenico Cimarosa. It was here in 1911 that the great Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli pronounced his famous rhetorical discourse, La grande proletaria si и mossa, in which he sponsored Italy’s rather unfortunate colonial effort in Libya.

The oddly shaped piazza that lies between the theatre and Via di Mezzo isn’t a piazza at all. It’s there because in 1943 a USAF aeroplane dropped its bombs over Barga and the buildings immediately next to the Teatro were destroyed. Rather than rebuild, the city kept the space as a piazza, ideal for when an audience spills out in the evening.

Between 1982 and 1988 Teatro dei Differenti was pristinely restored by the festival organisers. It now has a discreet extension at the back that houses the new dressing rooms and stage wings. (In my day there were no dressing rooms. I remember having to change in the alleyway in the open air.) Today it still retains its surprise as one enters – you would not expect to find such a little jewel here. And yet with all the restoration perhaps there is something missing too.

This lovely hospitable town changed my life. By the time I left Barga, I had fallen head over heels for the culture, language and, above all the music of Italy. Much more, I had discovered that my amateur voice had potential and was told that with a great deal of work I would have a chance.   source: The Independent London

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