by Paul Richardson, The Telegraph, September 27, 2018
Take one Italian seaside town with a deep vein of culture, add the sunny geniality of Rossini’s music and some great food, and you’re looking at a pretty convincing recipe for la dolce vita. As a local might say: cosa non ti piace? What’s not to like?
Midnight in the piazza of a small Italian town: gangs of tanned young people are nibbling ice creams as they lean on their Piaggios beside a plashing fountain. Meanwhile, a well-turned-out crowd of older folk are streaming out of a 19th-century theatre, heading for open-air bars in which to sip Aperol spritzes in the cool summer night.
Similar scenes could be witnessed in any number of small Italian towns – but Pesaro takes the biscotti. The town itself is a winning combination of historic streets and squares, tree-lined avenues with grand mansions, and a lively seafront promenade on which to take the evening passeggiata.
The long beach of fine white sand is arrayed in the traditional Italian manner, with sunbeds and parasols in neat rows right up to the shoreline, changing rooms for hire, and carpeted paths that tiptoe between serried ranks of immaculate Italian bodies. The water, shallow and clear, is perfect for languid dipping.
For music-lovers, however, the main attraction has to be the Rossini Opera Festival. Composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was born in Pesaro, and every August the town celebrates his life and work with operas, concerts, talks and fringe events – this year with added fervour thanks to the 150th anniversary of his death.
I made the journey with Travel for the Arts, the boutique operator that’s the UK’s market leader in musical tourism. TFA specialises in beaming down small groups of music buffs into culture hubs such as Vienna, New York and Milan, and can wangle tickets for opera-fests in Wexford, Ravenna, Bayreuth and (a curious novelty) Oman.
Group travel always entails an element of risk, but this time I was lucky: my companions were without exception charming. All 12 (myself included) were passionate music fans and a few were opera geeks in the nicest possible way, trading stories of the big-name singers they’d once swooned over at La Scala or the Met and sparring amiably over the number of Rossini operas they had ticked off over the years – the record being 38 out of a possible 39. One lady, a retired biochemist from Glasgow, had been coming to the festival for 20 years, first with her husband, then as a widow, and had even bought the T-shirt (it said “I ‘heart’ Rossini”).
Launching ourselves into old-town Pesaro in the company of local guide Silvia, it soon became clear we had beamed down into a special place. A seaside town of just under 100,000 souls, Pesaro seemed immune from 21st-century urban ills such as graffiti, litter, begging, tacky souvenir shops and tedious fashion chain-stores. The main sounds on the cobbled streets were the gentle clatter of espresso cups and the calls of “ciao” between passers-by on bicycles (which far outnumber cars here).
As we strolled we discovered that, for all its modest size, Pesaro packs a punch in the cultural department. The 13th-century cathedral harbours 800 square metres of Roman mosaic under its floor. The Palazzo Mosca museum’s biggest treasure is the monumental Coronation of the Virgin by Giovanni Bellini, an early-Renaissance marvel of stillness and solemnity.
This was also a notably musical town, fully deserving the Cittá della Musica status bestowed on it last year by Unesco. I saw posters for concerts by Cecilia Bartoli and Valery Gergiev alongside billboards with details of the current opera festival and the starry bel canto voices – international names such as Daniela Barcellona, Lisette Oropesa and Juan Diego Flórez – to be seen and heard at the town’s historic little Teatro Rossini.
Prominently displayed in shop windows and on the sides of buses was the portrait of Gioachino himself with his large Roman nose and pointy chin, twinkling eyes and generous girth. Pesaro, it appeared, was fond of its most famous scion. Restaurant menus all over town offered dishes supposedly invented by the great man – a noted gourmand with a large appetite for truffles, fine wines and foie gras – such as Tournedos Rossini, Maccheroni alla Rossini, and a strange-sounding pizza topped with eggs and mayonnaise. At the Rossini Foundation with its cool high courtyard, where a life-size bronze effigy stood among palm trees, the liquid sounds of a tenor aria drifted from an upper window.
The culmination of our walking tour was the composer’s birthplace, a three-storey house on a side-street where the exhibition of letters and manuscripts, portraits and memorabilia shed light on the larger-than-life personality of the man (and also taught me a few fascinating facts, such as his fondness for English ale and stout). In the ground-floor gift shop Rossini devotees from around the world browsed among the souvenir mugs and perfumes, the jars of bottled truffles and the hard-to-find recordings of The Silken Ladder and The Thieving Magpie.
Next morning I breakfasted on peaches and cappuccino on the top floor of our hotel, a pleasant four-star with wall-to-wall views of the glittering Adriatic. The talk among the group was all of the night before: a production of Rossini’s opera seria Ricciardo e Zoraide at a sports stadium (the Arena Adriatica) cunningly reinvented as an opera house for the duration of the festival. I’ll admit to having my doubts about this little-known rarity with its creaky Orientalist plot, but had reckoned without the thrilling voices of star tenor Juan Diego Flórez, the Enrique Iglesias of opera, and South African Pretty Yende, coloratura soprano of the moment, whose dazzling runs were like strings of perfect pearls.
Our programme in the days that followed ran to three operas, a concert, cultural visits and epicurean feasts. Within easy reach of Pesaro lay various pretty towns, well placed for day trips through the placid countryside of the Marches, such as sleepy Fano, just along the coast, with Roman walls and a chocolate-box theatre, where on this summer morning the flagstone streets were magically quiet. Especially memorable was Urbino, a Renaissance hill-town of dreamlike beauty dominated by the Ducal Palace and its haul of masterworks by Raphael, Uccello, Botticelli and Piero della Francesca.
There was pleasure, too, in simply staying put in Pesaro. The town’s retail sphere was an insalata of chic boutiques, bookshops, gastro-grocers and design emporia, with not an Aldi or Zara in sight. Travel for the Arts had laid on meals in friendly restaurants such as L’Angolo di Mario, on the seafront, and Antica Osteria La Guercia, beside the Piazza del Popolo, where we lunched at a table in a secret square, tiny breezes pushing through a thick velvet curtain of midday heat. Waves of golden-yellow pasta with a spinach-sage-and-butter sauce were preceded by pellucid parma ham and creamy burrata – reminding me that Italian food does elegant simplicity better than most world cuisines.
Over espresso and limoncello the group chatted some more about food, wine, art and opera, happily avoiding all mention of Brexit.
But there was one more item on the schedule, a grand finale before we took our leave: a performance of Rossini’s comic masterpiece, The Barber of Seville. This rip-roaring farce, probably the funniest of all operas, overflows with theatrical brilliance and delicious melodies, the character of Figaro being one of art’s best expressions of joie de vivre. The handsome production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, all whitewashed Andalusian palaces and patios, made a fine backdrop for Rossini’s crescendos, the bubbling energy of his vocal lines.
We left the theatre with smiles on our faces, hitting the promenade, which was still buzzing in the early hours, for hazelnut ice creams and slices of pizza. The sunbeds and parasols had vanished along with the bronzed bodies, and the sea, shining in the moonlight, was as calm as a bowl of olive oil.
How to do it
Travel for the Arts (travelforthearts.com; 0208 7998 350) has a three-day Rossini in Venice tour to commemorate the composer’s death anniversary with top category tickets to attend two performances at La Fenice, guided tours of the city and time to enjoy Venice at leisure. Prices per person start from £2,095 and include flights, accommodation on a B&B basis, some meals, sightseeing tours as per the itinerary, and first category tickets to two performances. Departs October 18 2018. The Rossini Festival ( rossinioperafestival.it ) is running again next year from August 8-20.