Why opera? 7 Puccini



Now we come back to the problem of snobbery. In the case of Puccini, I have felt it at Oxford, but the worst culprits tend to come from the acolytes of the Master whom we have just been looking at.  It is, frankly, hard to see why people should feel so superior for worshipping at the same shrine as Adolf Hitler, but some of that Wagner crowd do stick their noses in the air and then hold them when the subject of Puccini comes up.  Well, there is one crowd that is hardly well placed to claim the high moral ground over the other on private life.  Perhaps the problem is that Puccini is and always has been popular.

Now, populism is right on the nose just now for obvious reasons.  But why was Puccini so popular?  He had an eye for drama, a natural sense of theatre, the knack of creating good songs, and the skill in manipulating the emotions of his audience.  Isn’t that essentially the case with Wagner – or any successful composer of opera?  Ah, yes, old boy, but think of the difference in the audiences – the Master did not patronise the gutter.  It is hard to think of a better case of pure snobbery.

In truth I think too many purists get needled by Puccini because he was like The Magnificent Seven – he just knew when to unleash his big guns, and the crowd – the unwashed crowd – specifically including ME – just bloody well loves it and calls out for more.  And, of course, Puccini was Italian, and opera is their invention.

Giacomo Puccini (1858 to 1924) was born into a fine musical family.  He began studies with his father who had studied with Donizetti, and then his uncle.  He then went to the Milan Conservatory and studied with Ponchielli.  His first works flopped, as did Verdi’s, but he had a success with Manon Lescaut in 1893 and a big hit with La Bohème in 1896.  Bernard Shaw then said that he was heir to Verdi.  Tosca and Madam Butterfly were also huge hits and came out at regular intervals.  Then came some hiccups around the time of the premiere of La Fanciulla del West in New York in 1910.  Puccini was working on Turandot when he died.  It premiered in Milan in 1926.

Puccini had become very wealthy and he could indulge himself in fishing and shooting.  His marriage was unhappy, as was his extra-marital life.  Many affairs became public, and one servant was driven to suicide.  Puccini won no friends by calling her ‘a silly girl’.

He did not have the sure conviction of his predecessors, but it might be said that he fused bel canto with verismo.  The Rough Guide’s summary is fair.

It can’t be denied that Puccini has his weaknesses: he often lapses into glutinous sentimentality; there’s more than a hint of misogyny in his preference for helpless heroines dominated by despotic men; and his plots are sometimes feeble or trivial.  But for most audiences, these weaknesses are beside the point, for his operas contain some of the most enjoyable music ever written, carrying into the twentieth century the legacy of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

Now for the operas.  There is for some, including me, a structural problem with La Bohème and Tosca – some feel that the climax comes too soon, or, put differently, that each opera reaches a peak that it never gets back to – or that the end is a bit of a fizzer.  For some that problem is worse in the first opera than the second because the perceived climax comes at the end of the first act – in Tosca, you wait for the end of the second act – and, boy, there you do have a climax.  Some people feel the same about Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica.

Poor garret residents in the Latin Quarter are doing it hard – and cold.  Rodolfo falls for a consumptive seamstress, Mimi.  Some past attachments lead to rift which Rodolfo tries to heal too late.  The songs of the lovers in Act I are among the most popular in all opera – ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’.  The 1952 recording with Bjorling, Victoria de Los Angeles and Robert Merrill was long seen as pre-eminent.  But now we are again spoiled for choice.  For the whole opera, you can go straight to Netrebko with Villazon, or listen to versions conducted by Karajan or Carlos Kleiber, who some good judges thought was one of the best, conducting at La Scala.  The Karajan version was directed by Zeffirelli, but it is fascinating to compare the two orchestral sounds.  At the least, you should listen to the two great songs I referred to.  They are best sellers for good reasons.  Try the 1964 concert version in Russia of Pavarotti – he really had the bullets to fire when the composer unleashed the guns.  That’s what the fans have come for.  Or try the Peruvian Juan Diego Florez, who is hot in bel canto and here.  He reminds me of Di Stefano.

When I was looking at Thomas Allen in the last act of Don Giovanni, and I said that it may have its dramatic equal, I had in mind the second act of Tosca, and one famous version of it in particular.  A painter, Cavaradossi, the lover of Tosca, a jealous opera singer, shields a political prisoner.  The evil head of police, Scarpia, forms a scheme to seduce Tosca while destroying the painter.  Scarpia has him tortured in her presence.  She reveals where the escaped prisoner is and agrees to sleep with Scarpia if he lets Cavaradossi go.  They do a deal which backfires even after Tosca kills Scarpia at the end of Act II.

It is relatively unusual to find a piece for the stage where a central figure is a study in pure evil.  That is very much the case in Billy Budd with John Claggart.  It is so here with Scarpia.  The tenor has two wonderful arias ‘Recondita armonia’ and ‘E lucevan le stella’ and the soprano has ‘Vissi d’arte’But the whole show centres on the life and death struggle between Tosca and Scarpia in Act II.  The 1953 recording of Callas with Gobbi was one of the most successful records ever made.

But now you can watch them on screen.  Try the 1964 Covent Garden version directed by Zeffirelli.  The voice of Callas may not have been what it was, although this was not her biggest test vocally.  But just look at the stage presence of each of Callas and Gobbi in a struggle between ineluctable evil and overwhelming innocence by two superstars of the stage in one of the great set pieces of theatre, so well-known that it has its own liturgy.  Just look at their eyes and feel the timing.  I doubt whether many saw intensity like that since the soprano’s ancestors were putting on Orestes and Medea.  The sense of elemental force is physically unsettling.  At Covent Garden, they take curtain calls at the end of the act.  You will see here that the audience does not applaud ‘Vissi d’arte’, and properly so because of the point in the drama, but they can let go at the curtain.  Even from here you can feel the tension – it reminded me in part of the tension on Broadway when Richard Burton loaded up on Hamlet.  And just look at the serene way these two pros take their bows.

Now, we have some wonderful singers now who can act, but I doubt whether the two we have just been looking at will ever matched for raw horse-power on the stage.  If you get nothing else but this act from these notes, you will not have done your money.

Madame Butterfly is another tear jerker.  It is all so inevitable – and for that reason, like Othello (on stage), it is not among my favourites.  You just find yourself bracing for the fall.  An American naval officer marries a young Japanese girl, impregnates her, and dumps her.  When he comes back with a white wife, Madame Butterfly kills herself.  I can’t help thinking that plot might be better placed in a ballet.  It crashed on its first night in the face of concerted attacks on the composer before an audience not as entranced with the orient as the French, but one used to the hard action of verismo.  Then Puccini cleaned it up a bit and it became a hit.  It has always played well for the AO.  I prefer the Tebaldi and Bergonzi version.  You may wish to see Alana Gheorghiu sing ‘Un bel di’ at the Lincoln Centre in New York.  (I saw Carmen there.  At the first break in the action, a guy about four rows back said, with a perfect Brooklyn accent that carried: ‘She’s got great legs, but she can’t (pronounced ‘Kant’) sing!’)

That brings us to another show set in the east.  Turandot is about an evil princess who tempts young blades to their death when they fail to answer her riddles.  She finally succumbs to the hero after the unfolding of a story involving his servant Liu.  It is a show that can stand a big production, and it got it from the AO when it was choreographed by Graeme Murphy, the ballet choreographer.  It now gets featured on Sydney Harbour.  It is a big role for the soprano.  Some think that ‘In questa reggia’ was what broke Callas.  I have a Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson doing it with Bjorling.  You might listen to her doing the opera with Franco Corelli – and then you can listen to two belters.  Another big voice for this aria was the great Leontyne Price.  You can get the famous Sutherland and Pavarotti version.  You should look out for the big aria for the soprano, and a lovely song for the tenor, ‘Non piangere, Liu’.

And yes, you are allowed to take ‘Nessun Dorma’. It comes near the end of the show. Try Jonas Kaufman who is thought by some to the best tenor now going.  You can get him on Last Night at the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by a woman.  Again we see that assurance.  It’s like being passed by a Bentley – you know he’s got a fair bit left in the tank.  Just watch him at the end before an enraptured English audience.  He knows he’s nailed it.  And he bursts out in laughter.  I mean this – really – when I say that it reminded me of the 2007 NRL Grand Final.  Greg Inglis ran more than half the field, and then while balanced just inside the line, he put on a fend to see him over the try line – he was a freak, and as he touched down, he burst out laughing.  At that level, you are entitled to enjoy your own great talent.  God bless all of them!

I might mention two well-known pieces from other Puccini operas that are popular in the concert hall – ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ from La Fanciulla del West and ‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut.  Both are on the disk Allegro al dente that we began with.

For completeness we might mention here also the French composer Georges Bizet (1838 to 1875).  You will see that he died too soon.  He of course wrote Carmen and The Pearl Fishers that has the great duet we looked at when we started.  Bizet said: ‘I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, and the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note.’  He was not alone.  For even more completeness, I may say that Tchaikovsky (1840 to 1893) who is famous for his ballets, wrote two operas.  Eugene Onegin is well supported when put on by the AO.

Well, there you have Puccini – a wonderful source of entertainment at the opera and of solace before the fire.  Don’t let any snob tell you anything different.  And remember, he was an Italian – and second in opera only to one other Italian and Mozart.

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