Behind the Bohemians: Puccini at 150, by Patrick O'Connor (Gramophone, February 2008)

James McCarthy
Thursday, January 10, 2013

Giacomo Puccini (Tully Potter Collection)
Giacomo Puccini (Tully Potter Collection)

In July 1909 Puccini’s wife, Elvira, was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment. She had been found guilty of what would today be called harassment in a case as tragic as any story dreamt up by an opera librettist. A young woman, an orphan called Doria Manfredi, had for several years worked as a servant in the Puccini household. She was apparently devoted to the family, but in 1908, Elvira, who was subject to wild fits of jealousy, accused the girl of having a secret affair with her husband. Despite entreaties and denials, even after Doria had quit the house, Elvira pursued her with letters and threats. The scandal was too great, and early in the new year Doria committed suicide by drinking poison. To save Elvira, Puccini’s lawyers made a settlement with the family of the dead girl, paying them off with 12,000 lire.

Although eventually forgotten, as such sensational stories are in the press, this was just one of several scandals attached to Puccini’s name that contributed to a general mistrust of him as a serious artist. Surely anyone who led such a sybaritic life – Puccini loved fast cars and motorboats – and whose works were so popular with the masses could not really be the only true successor to Verdi, as his supporters claimed?

That same year, 1909, was also a turning-point for Puccini’s compositions. Nothing that he wrote between then and his death in 1924 would ever achieve the easy success that he had found in his youth. When asked what his favourite opera was, King George V replied 'La bohème, for it is the shortest I know', and Puccini’s works, with their romantic plots, 'easy' tuneful scores and perfectly judged dramatic climaxes were quickly labelled 'low-brow', or worse, 'the refuge of the unmusical'. Even today something of this condescending attitude survives, yet there is so much more to his work than just a handful of crowd-pleasers. Despite the notorious failure of Madama Butterfly at its first performance, the quartet of operas premiered between 1893 and 1904 – Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca and Butterfly – had swiftly been established as core repertory on both sides of the Atlantic. La fanciulla del West (1910), La Rondine (1917) and Il trittico (1919) were all commissions from opera houses outside Italy.

This, and Puccini’s experimentation with new forms, fuelled the criticism at home which denied him the position of a 'great Italian composer'. At the same time, musicologists and historians routinely dismissed his work as being too sentimental, too reactionary, a throwback to the 19th century, not to be taken seriously in the age of atonalism and serialism. After his death, once talking pictures had been invented, his operas were also perceived as 'cinematic', and this too provided fuel for detractors to bracket him not with his great predecessors but with the journeymen of the cutting room and projection booth. By the time of Puccini’s centenary in 1958, opinions were somewhat altered, yet Joseph Kerman in his book Opera as Drama (1956) could still aver that Tosca was nothing but 'a shabby little shocker', a phrase that somehow entered the language of operatic folklore and stuck. 


A reputation at stake

Like all artists, although Puccini claimed to be oblivious to his critics, he was often plunged into gloom by the hostile reception his works sometimes provoked. In a letter of 1910 to his great English friend, Sybil Seligman, he wrote: 'Those pigs – the gentlemen of the press – were full of bile against me, and who cares a fig, if the public takes my side in this way?' Although often greeted with enthusiasm and sometimes treated seriously, throughout his career, in Italy and abroad, there always seemed to creep in a grudging, slightly suspicious air from reviewers. At the first London performance of Manon Lescaut in 1894, the anonymous critic of The Times wrote: 'There is a sense of straining after effect, and here and there of that hysterical mode of utterance which becomes so wearisome in Mascagni’s music', even though he had to concede that the 'workmanship' and the 'reality of its sentiment' were far above most of the products of 'Young Italian School'. More than a quarter of a century later, when Il trittico reached Covent Garden in June 1920, the paper noted (was it the same critic?): 'Like the barrel organ and the ballad singer, they give opportunities for Puccini’s peculiar skill in surrounding his theme with deft musical suggestion.'

After Puccini’s death in 1924, critics and musicologists seemed to take a delight in sneering at his popularity. The day after his death The Times’ obituarist told its readers: 'He may not be assured of a place among the greatest of the world’s artists – indeed his work may hardly be entitled to the word great.' The doyen of British music critics, Ernest Newman, even though he wrote with great perspicacity about several Puccini operas in Opera Nights, could not resist a jibe such as: 'His operas are to some extent a mere bundle of tricks…but for blubbering, whimpering pity there is no music to compare with it.'

Theodor Adorno relegated Puccini to the realm of 'background music' in his essay Music and Mass Culture, declaring: 'The greater the ecstasies, the more perfect the emotional calm of the hearers over whose heads they drift', and referring to an 'odd transformation of passionate appearance into the cold comfort of reality.' For Adorno, Puccini’s operas were merely made to be turned into 'imaginery pot-pourris' fit only for the palm court orchestra or the pianola.

In Puccini’s lifetime, the most damaging attack came in his own country. In her recent and persuasively argued book The Puccini Problem (Cambridge: 2007), Alexandra Wilson devotes a whole chapter to the fierce antagonism stirred up against Puccini by a writer called Fausto Torrefranca, who in 1912 published a diatribe entitled Puccini e l’opera internazionale. The 29-year-old author accused Puccini of debasing Italian culture by letting in an 'internationalism' which included traits that Torrefranca identified as 'effeminacy' and 'decadence', and further dismissing the composer as 'a third-rate physiological product of Italian culture' (there was a good deal of only slightly concealed anti-Semitism in the book as well). One rant by an ambitious, arrogant young writer could easily be dismissed. Torrefranca took up one theme, however, which seems to have become quite widespread in Italy during the latter part of Puccini’s career. The characters he chose to compose operas about were immoral, examples of fin de siècle decadence.

In this, Torrefranca’s views seem to have had a certain amount of support. Nearly all Puccini’s most famous heroines are what would have been called women of easy virtue – Manon, Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly, Magda (in La Rondine) and even poor Suor Angelica, who has 'stained' her family’s reputation with her child born out of wedlock. The heroes are not much better, Des Grieux ready to help Manon steal, Pinkerton the bigamous cad, Calaf the gambler and chancer. Arguments about the unsuitability of various subjects as opera libretti had plagued composers great and small throughout the 19th century – one has only to think of the problems that beset Donizetti over Maria Stuarda, or Verdi over La traviata and Un ballo in maschera.

Whatever his detractors may have found to criticise in Puccini’s works, we can now see quite clearly that he is the last in the line of the great originators of Italian opera between 1800 and his own death. There are just five names that must head any list: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. 


In his own time

Puccini worked in a way that was quite different from the 'years in the galleys' that Verdi had to endure as a young man, churning out two or three operas a year. He would not have been capable either of dashing off a new work in a few weeks, as both Rossini and Donizetti were obliged to do on more than one occasion. From his earliest efforts, Le villi and Edgar, each of Puccini’s operas was achieved only after long debates about the suitability of the subject. The list of 'might have beens' where Puccini is concerned is longer than with any other composer – at different times he considered subjects as diverse as Marie Antoinette, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Oliver Twist, Buddha, Rip Van Winkle, Romeo and Juliet, Trilby, The Three Musketeers, and other works by Wilde, Tolstoy, Maeterlinck (who once wrote that he would have preferred Puccini to Debussy for Pelléas), Balzac and many others. In his correspondence one can read of the doubts that troubled him throughout his work on every opera. Never content, he returned to most of them to make revisions in order to try and satisfy his desire to achieve a work equally effective as music and drama. 'Only with emotion can one achieve a triumph that endures', Puccini wrote at the time of Butterfly. Later he described the difficulty he found in working: 'I live in torment because I do not feel the throbbing life that is essential to the creation of a theatrical work which is to endure and hold.'

Once he was in the throes of composition, the fears still haunted him: 'If the fever abates it ends by disappearing altogether. And without fever there is no creation. For emotional art is a kind of malady, an abnormal mental state, accompanied by over-excitation of every fibre and every atom of one’s being.' In the last months of his life, struggling to finish Turandot, he lamented, 'I am a poor, unhappy man, discouraged, old, abject, nothing!'

How 'modern' was Puccini? Even though his operas proved more popular than those by any of his contemporaries, with the possible exception of his friend Franz Lehár, there is a progression in the 30 years between Manon Lescaut and Turandot that reflects much that was happening in music during that explosive era. Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, was given its premiere in Milan during the same month, February 1893, as Manon Lescaut; in the 1920s Puccini met Schoenberg, and attended a performance of Pierrot lunaire. 'This great man…I am proud that he was interested in me,' Schoenberg wrote after Puccini’s death. It has been suggested by Mosco Carner, among others, that the 'pallid, disembodied hues' of the orchestration of the choral passages in Act 1 of Turandot owes something to Schoenberg’s 'masterpiece of nightmare suggestion'.

Puccini was in Paris in 1913, at the time of the notorious first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. 'The choreography [by Nijinsky] is ridiculous, the music sheer cacophony,' wrote Puccini to his publisher Ricordi, but added, 'there is some originality, however, and a certain amount of talent. But taken altogether, it might be the creation of a madman.' Puccini’s only true rival in popularity on the international opera scene during the first quarter of the 20th century was, of course, Richard Strauss. Many singers took part in both composers’ works, among them Gemma Bellincioni (the first Italian Salome, and an admired Tosca), Emmy Destinn, Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann. The latter two sopranos were both in the premiere of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten; when Puccini examined the score of this in Vienna, he declared 'It’s logarithms!' Later, Lehmann and Jeritza, much to the delight of their groups of fans, carried over their Straussian rivalry into the realm of Puccini, and alternated as Tosca and Turandot. 


Something for the organ grinder

Everyone can make a list of those favourite Puccini arias and duets that made his music famous and adored by thousands who had never entered an opera house. From 'Donna non vidi mai' in Manon Lescaut to 'Nessun dorma' in Turandot, he always provided what Verdi used to call 'something for the organ grinder' – a crowd-pleaser, an instant success  and after the invention of recording, it became 'something for the gramophone'. 'Che gelida manina', 'E lucevan le stelle', 'Un bel dì', 'Ch’ella mi creda' and above all 'O mio babbino caro' all fitted easily on to one side of a 78rpm disc. Many singers who would never have taken the roles onstage essayed the arias; even Melba recorded 'Vissi d’arte'. With the advent of LPs and then CDs, the catalogues overflowed with 'Puccini’s greatest hits'. This increased the perception of Puccini as in some way being 'easy' or lightweight.

In this year, his 150th anniversary, there will be many opportunities to reassess every aspect of his work. Those who still tend to denigrate him might start by listening, not to all those famous arias, but to the passages that occur in each one of his operas where one can hear (and see) Puccini striving for something new and different. Here are just four examples which might take people by surprise if they try and imagine how startling they must have seemed when first performed. In Act 3 of Manon Lescaut, after long discussions between Puccini and his three librettists, they arrived at the embarkation scene. This could have been one of those classic moments in Italian opera when everyone suddenly stood still and poured out their emotions and voices (think of the finale of Act 3 of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda). Instead, and it was apparently Luigi Illica’s idea, there would be a roll-call, as the female convicts are called one by one to board the prison ship bound for America. In Julien Budden’s words, this 'conveys the passage of time as inexorably as the ticking of a clock'. Each woman’s name is called out by the Sergeant, the comments of the onlookers mixing with the voices of Manon and Des Grieux as they bid a desperate farewell. I have always felt that it was in the composition of this scene that Puccini made the leap from being an apprentice to a master. In the theatre it can have a tremendous impact. Reviewing the first London performance, George Bernard Shaw wrote: 'There is genuine symphonic modification, development…all in a dramatic way, but also in a musically homogeneous way…Puccini looks to me more like the heir to Verdi than any of his rivals.'

Moving on to La bohème, and Act 3, the very heart of the work, listen to the passage where Rodolfo catalogues his woes to Marcello, unaware that Mimì is listening. Strangely, this was a moment which Ernest Newman considered to be particularly weak, writing: 'The artist in Puccini, as we all know, delighted in scenes of suffering, with a touch of torture in them for preference.' Yet as Rodolfo blurts out his story – lento triste is the marking in the score – there is a build-up towards one of those classic Puccini moments. As he finally admits that it is not Mimì’s flirting that is causing him anguish but the knowledge that she is mortally ill, Puccini brings in one of the greatest tunes in the opera – only he would have the resources to use it for such a brief moment – 'a world of understated tragedy', as Budden puts it.

Fast forward now more than 20 years to Suor Angelica. Puccini seems to have had an antipathy towards the mezzo-soprano voice: with the exception of Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, he composed no substantial roles for mezzos until Il trittico. Here, though, there are three contrasting roles that provide splendid opportunities. In Il tabarro, there is the rag-picker, La Frugola, who entertains the company with her catalogue of 'finds', including a bullock’s heart for her cat. In Gianni Schicchi there is the domineering matriarch, Zita, attempting unsuccessfully to control the situation. Above all, though, is the extraordinary figure of La Principessa, Angelica’s aunt. The scene between these two is surely one of the greatest that Puccini ever composed. The accompaniment is spare, unrelenting in its depiction of the stony-hearted old aristocrat. As in the scene between Marcello and Rodolfo, though, Puccini holds in reserve a wonderful tiny melody on the strings, a brief recollection of happy times, as Angelica hears the news of her sister’s approaching wedding. The mood is swept away immediately as the unyielding Princess first insists on business, and then reveals the terrible news that Angelica’s son is dead. I once asked Renata Tebaldi why she had never sung this part onstage, and she told me: 'I could not have done. I cried so much while we were recording it that I could hardly sing.'

Now move to Turandot, and not to the great arias but to that phenomenal scene at the beginning of Act 2 for Ping, Pang and Pong. In this trio, divided into four sections, the three ministers begin by lamenting China’s past, then they recall their own happier youth in the countryside, then describe some of the recent executions; finally, to an apparently authentic 'Chinese march', they hope that their task will be not another beheading but the decoration of a bridal chamber. In their book Puccini’s Turandot: The End of the Great Tradition (Princeton: 1991), William Ashbrook and Harold Powers have written one of the most detailed and fascinating explorations of any of Puccini’s works. They describe 'Puccini’s rapprochement with modernism' in this and other scenes as following the 'bitonalism' of Stravinsky – that 'madman' whose Rite of Spring Puccini had heard in Paris before the First World War. Every time you groan when you hear 'Nessun dorma' playing on someone’s car stereo, think instead of this amazing passage.

Puccini, of course, did not live to complete Turandot, which nevertheless many people consider his masterpiece. Maybe there was a reason, apart from his illness. In the original story, there is no equivalent of the character of the slave-girl Liù. She was added at Puccini’s request by his librettists Adami and Simoni. The last music he composed was the orchestral passage after Liù’s suicide, a sort of funeral march, using the theme of her final aria, 'Tu che di gel'. It is possible to imagine that in creating this scene, Puccini was recalling the tragedy in his own family, when another servant girl had taken her life, through her own confused emotions over her master.

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