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Giacomo Puccini

Puccini's Golden Dozen

In the first Off the Cuff of 2013, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny considers the success of one of opera's most popular composers.



published Sunday, January 6, 2013

 

Having spent an exhilarating Christmas in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, "back at the ranch" I noted in last month's "Off the Cuff," that Giacomo Puccini's three most popular operas hold the second, fifth and seventh slots in Operabase's list of most performed operas. His fourth most popular opera, Turandot, comes in at a very respectable No. 16. These operas are such a consistent hit with audiences across the globe that over the last 15 years I have been asked numerous times by Board members of half a dozen different opera companies, "Why aren't we doing more Puccini?" In fact, some have gone so far as to suggest that an entire season be constructed entirely of his late-19th and early-20th century masterpieces.

Puccini wrote ten operas in all (including Turandot, which was left unfinished at his death in 1924), but Il trittico includes three one-act operas, so we can stretch the point and give him credit for an even dozen. While his style matured over the course of his career, it did not evolve to the same degree as Wagner's (for example, from Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman early in his career to Götterdämmerung and Parsifal at the end) or even Verdi's (compare the huge stylistic change between early works such as Nabucco and Ernani and his final two operas, Otello and Falstaff); which begs the question: if Puccini's brilliant mid-career works (La bohème, Tosca and Butterfly) are so highly regarded that for many they define the operatic genre, why are his remaining works not even more popular? And could a General Director really build a whole season around just this one composer's work?

With an Operabase ranking of No. 163, Puccini's first opera, Le Villi, is performed relatively rarely today. Puccini wrote the piece for a composition competition—a contest Puccini didn't win. Nevertheless, the work so impressed composer and librettist Arrigo Boito, not to mention music publisher Giulio Ricordi, that they arranged for a public performance and publication of the opera in 1884. Based on a Central European legend regarding the Wilis, or fairies (the same source material that inspired the ballet Giselle), this one-act opera revolves around Roberto's decision to abandon his faithful fiancée Anna right before their wedding. Subsequently, she dies of a broken heart, prompting her father, Guglielmo, to lay a powerful curse on the cad.  When Roberto returns home destitute and repentant, Anna's spirit and the Willis simply dance him to death. Serves him right!

Puccini's next opera, Edgar, premiered at La Scala in 1889. Never a popular favorite, Edgar clocks in on Operabase as No. 373 (between Charpentier's Louise and Humperdinck's Die Königskinder, in case you were wondering). It was an embarrassing failure for Puccini, despite some beautiful music, and he revised the work three times over the course of his career. The plot is a bit reminiscent of Bizet's Carmen, in that the lead tenor is torn between his love for a virtuous soprano, in this case named Fidelia (no surprise there), and an evil temptress of a mezzo-soprano named Tigrana. The plot is an embarrassing jumble, even by 19th century Italian operatic standards; in Act III, Edgar descends into a story worthy of a Monty Python parody. The title character is reported to have died in battle; at his funeral, a mysterious monk tells the mourners of Edgar's alleged misdeeds, and the villagers turn on him; only Fidelia remains loyal. Edgar's suit of armor at the funeral is found to be empty, and the "monk" is revealed to be none other than Edgar himself. Edgar attempts to leave the village with Fidelia, but she is stabbed to death by Tigrana—don't you hate it when that happens? Puccini himself ultimately repudiated the work, going so far as to amend the title on a copy he sent to a friend who requested it to read "E Dio ti GuARdi da quest'opera!" ("And may God protect you from this opera!")

Puccini's next effort was Manon Lescaut (Operabase ranking No. 52). Despite the existence of an already famous Manon (Massenet's 1884 version), and over the objections of his publisher Ricordi, Puccini was determined to write his own version based on the Prévost novel. The work premiered at Teatro Regio in 1893 to great critical and public acclaim. During pre-production, Puccini may have set an operatic record by working with five different librettists: Luigi Illica, Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva, not to mention Ruggero Leoncavallo and Giuseppe Giacosa. Manon Lescaut contains several exquisite arias (e.g. "Donna non vidi mai") and duets (e.g. "Tu, tu, amore tu?"), but has never achieved the success of the three timeless works that followed. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the inherent unattractiveness of the title character, Manon. Unlike Violetta in Verdi's La traviata (1853), who abandons her lover for selfless reasons and returns to her protector, Manon very clearly wants to live her life completely on her own terms. She desires true love with a younger (and poorer) man, along with all the luxury and trappings her elderly admirer can provide; in my view, this selfishness makes her character much less appealing, and audiences are less emotionally invested with this heroine when she meets her tragic end in the "desert of Louisiana." Note how tenderly Manon caresses her jewels in the second Youtube clip at around 2:40 and thereafter. This is one greedy heroine!

Following Manon Lescaut, Puccini's continuing work with the librettists Illica and Giacosa opened the door to the period of his greatest artistic success, and this self-proclaimed mighty hunter of "wild fowl, great librettos, and good-looking women" brought La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904) to the world in a mere eight years. More than a century after their premieres, these works still dominate the Western opera canon; intriguingly, their relative order of popularity also follows their premiere dates (i.e. they are respectively the second, fifth and seventh most performed operas). As an aside, TDO has showcased these operas regularly as well. Since 1960, TDO has produced Bohème eight separate times, Tosca six, and Butterfly a total of ten times, with each production being given between four and six performances.

These three masterpieces were very tough acts to follow, even for Puccini. His next opera was Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), listed in the Operabase rankings as No. 93. Commissioned by the Metthe Metropolitan Opera's first-ever world premierethe opera featured a "can't lose" cast headlined by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and Czech soprano Emmy Destinn in the roles of Dick Johnson and Minnie. The equally legendary Arturo Toscanini conducted the hotly anticipated 1910 New York City premiere. Incorporating a libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, Puccini's opera is a sentimental and somewhat comic interpretation of the California Gold Rush of 1849-1850. Although the work contains beautiful music and an astounding range of instrumental color, its weak plot and clumsy libretto (incorporating a number of laughable English lines) have prevented it from gaining widespread acceptance. Compounding these challenges is the fact that there are relatively few arias that can be excerpted to build popular familiarity with the piece ("Ch'ella mi creda" being a notable exception). The forced and artificial happy ending also seems dramatically implausible. Whereas in Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, Puccini embraced tragic themes to create memorable dramas, Puccini inexplicably shies away from tragedy at the end of Fanciulla. In the final moments, the saloon owner Minnie rescues Dick Johnson (who by then everyone knows is the bandit Ramerrez) from the gallows by threatening to kill both her lover and herself. After hastily discussing the matter, the miners relent, and Minnie and Dick Johnson ride off into the sunset, creating a new Western (if not operatic) cliché.

In 1913, the directors of Vienna's Carltheater commissioned Puccini to write a Viennese-style operetta, in the character of Richard Strauss's Rosenkavalier; the premiere of La Rondine (The Swallow), with an Operabase ranking of No. 105, took place in Monte Carlo in 1917. (By coincidence this is the same opera house that commissioned Tod Machover's opera Death and the Powers, a thought-provoking contemporary chamber opera that TDO will perform in February, 2014). Ever the perfectionist, Puccini revised it over time to create three distinct versions with two different endings. In common with Manon Lescaut, the storyline for La Rondine shares some plot elements with Verdi's La traviata.  The lead character, Madga, is torn between her reliance on an older protector and patron, Ruggero, and her younger lover Rambaldo. She lives happily for a time with Rambaldo under an assumed name, but when she learns that her secret will be revealed, making it impossible for Rambaldo's family to ever accept her, she either (a) returns to Ruggero or (b) commits suicide depending on the version performed. There is exquisite music in this work, and some memorable arias (e.g. "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta"), but I wonder whether Magda suffers from the same audience problem as Manon—namely, that she is not a compelling and sympathetic enough character. Magda has lived happily with her lover, but has never been honest with him about her identity or her past; when she leaves and/or dies, the audience's emotional response tends to be somewhat muted. By contrast, when Verdi's Violetta is mortally ill with tuberculosis and makes a supreme personal sacrifice for the good of her lover's family—or so she believes—her selfless actions elicit profound sympathy from even the most hard-hearted crowd.

Puccini's final work to be completed during his lifetime was Il trittico, which premiered at the Met in 1918. The first part of the triptych is Il tabarro (The Cloak), which with an Operabase ranking of No. 83 is the least frequently performed of the three. In this love triangle set on a barge on the Seine in Paris, Puccini returns to the raw emotions and blood lust most reminiscent of the themes found in Tosca. The second part of the triptych is Suor Angelica, Operabase ranking No. 67, which is a sentimental story of maternal love and redemption. Despite a sympathetic title character, Puccini's use of an all-female cast (tough to avoid in a convent, I know) produces a slightly saccharine texture to the music, and the overt sentimentality does not sit well with modern audiences. The third part, Gianni Schicchi, Operabase ranking No. 39, is by far the most popular, and includes the extremely well-known soprano aria "O mio babbino caro."

While TDO will not be presenting an entire season of Puccini operas any time in the near future, we will be presenting his final opera, Turandot, in April of 2013, with soprano Lise Lindstrom and tenor Antonello Palombi (who delivered an acclaimed performance in TDO's Aida last October). Turandot was completed from the composer's sketches and notes after Puccini's sudden death while being treated for throat cancer, and had its belated premiere in 1926. This extraordinary masterpiece features another extremely famous aria, "Nessun dorma" (that link is a clip featuring the indispensible Plácido Domingo).

In summing up Puccini's legacy, it is quite remarkable that his extraordinary popular reputation rests on 12 operas representing just nine evenings of music (since his first two can be presented as a double bill); with these compositions, he made an indelible impression on the repertoire and the operatic art form itself. Although not the originator of the verismo style, Puccini used music to intensify the words and dramatic context, and mastered through-composed music that avoids "set-piece" arias. An undisputed (and unashamed!) melodist, Puccini nonetheless was also a true master of orchestration. One of his great gifts was the ability to compose a truly memorable aria, consisting of a mere two or three minutes of music, making it easy for promoters to build audience familiarity with the new work. While Puccini lived a relatively uncontroversial and apolitical life (at least compared with Verdi or Wagner), minus a sex scandal or two, he nonetheless advanced musical practice through his verismo style, the incorporation of contemporary musical effects and thinking (such as whole tone scales), and "exotic" effects (including Chinese pentatonic scales in Turandot). In conclusion, love him or hate him—and most genuinely love him—Puccini remains the "gold standard" for composers trying to write dramatic, melodic and thoroughly accessible opera nearly a century after he last put down his pen.

 

◊ Here is that clip of Plácido Domingo singing "Nessun dorma":

 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Here is a list of previous columns:

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Puccini's Golden Dozen
In the first Off the Cuff of 2013, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny considers the success of one of opera's most popular composers.
by Keith Cerny

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