28 Mar 2005

WEAVER & PUCCINI: The Puccini Companion

If any opera lover feels daunted by the many biographies and analytical tomes dedicated to the life and art of Giacomo Puccini, Norton has done that reader a tremendous favor with the publication of The Puccini Companion. Tightly organized, this series of essays details the life, discusses the operas, and provides a wealth of supplementary information about the composer.

Perhaps best of all, it does this through a selection of writings from some top scholars, who are also, blessedly, skilled and communicative writers. Occasionally some repetition creeps in, and conflicting assertions are offered (the story that a performance of Aida set Puccini off on the path of opera composition is both repeated and debunked). Any such arguable weakness aside, this Companion is much more than a shortcut to a basic grasp of the issues arising from the art of this indispensable composer. Any doubter of the worth of Puccini's operas should have moved away from that stance by the book's last page; here is a mine of glittering ore in the social, cultural and aesthetic history of 20th century opera.

As one might guess, editor Puccini has close ties to the composer; she is his granddaughter. The book begins with her biographical sketch of the family history and Puccini's early years. Puccini gave evidence in the schoolroom of what today would be labeled "attention-deficit disorder." His sister Ramelde is quoted explaining Giacomo's lack of any "interest in any kind of study" as being due to his "vitality and restlessness of character." Not so long ago Puccini's views on and depiction of women served as a meaty repast for his more ravenous critics. One has to wonder if they considered his family. His father passed at an early age, and Puccini grew up surrounded by a gaggle of sisters with the most wonderful names: Oilia, Tomaide, Temi, Maria, Iginia, Ramelde, and Macrina. A younger brother, Michele, tried to find a place for himself in his brother's shadow, and died sadly while seeking that place in South America.

After the granddaughter's family history, the larger part of the book consists of essays that focus on the operas in chronological order. The choice of texts, collaboration with librettists, and reception of each opera gets full attention, and along the way the changing opera scene comes into view. Verdi hears of the young Puccini's early success with Le Villi, as recounted in Julian Budden's essay, and the essayist offers a thorough discussion of the whole topic of the supposedly 'symphonic" nature of Puccini's composition (in more strict terms, Puccini's raising of the orchestra to prominence in balance with the vocal line). Michael Elphinstone continues this discussion and offers an amusing anecdote of that still restless student in his literature class, required at the conservatory: "Alas!!!...Oh, God!...It's too much; bye, Professor,...I'm dying!"

Editor Weaver then moves to Manon Lescaut, developing an argument as to the commonalities and variances in Puccini's leading soprano roles. At one point Weaver proposes that there is more variety than most sopranos recognize in the portrayals, critiquing a certain "generic Puccinian pathos" that has crept into performance practice. A point for debate, but Weaver won over this reviewer by curtly dismissing the lazy criticism of Suor Angelica by describing the opera as "one of Puccini's subtlest accomplishments."

Continuing the discussion of the female roles, Harvey Sachs brings in a fascinating contrast in the wonderfully titled "Manon, Mimi, and Artu." Artu, as in Arturo Toscanini, a conductor with whom Puccini had a love/hate relationship. The story of La Boheme's premiere offers another one of those insights that puts into perspective one of the most contentious issues in opera performance, transpositions. For the chosen Rodolfo, Evan Gorga (they had names then!), could not handle the tessitura, and the role had to be transposed down. In fact, for every Puccini rave for a singer, there seem to be two assessments of grudging acceptance and another two of dire displeasure. Every age, it seems, has its share of Evan Gorga's.

Fedele D'Amico elaborates on the creation of Boheme, referring to its "decapitated romanticism." That phrase, perhaps better applied to Turandot (!), could have used some elaboration. Venturing into deeper, psychological waters, Franco Serpa has some fascinating things to say about nihilism and Tosca; it's doubtful that a serious reader of this essay would allow anyone to get by with that tired slag, "a shabby little shocker." This reviewer is also thankful to Serpa for making a distinction between Puccini and verismo composers such as Mascagni.

Madama Butterfly is the focus of Arthur Gross' "Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton." Gross covers the various changes that followed the tumultuous 1904 premiere, and the exposition reveals what a completely original creation the opera is, despite its nature as an adaptation.

The eventual blazing success of Butterfly somehow could not remove from Puccini the sting of that brutal first performance. He himself wrote of a desire to make progress away from his "sugary music," and Mary Jane Phillips-Matz tells the story of how that compulsion led to the brilliantly composed Fanciulla del West. The incredible media attention the Met premiere provoked suggests the kind of publicity firestorm that erupts over a blockbuster movie today. Sadly, Fanciulla could not sustain its initial ecstatic reception, but Puccini remained confident in the artistic success of his accomplishment (and rightly so). Leonardo Pinzauti details the next step forward for Puccini - the three one-acts called Il Triticco. Here Il Tabarro receives a great deal of deserved attention, although Pinzauti's description of Michele as a "victim" could have been further developed, or even explained.

William Ashbrook makes a valiant try to make La Rondine something other than a misstep, but the struggle drains away the strength of the argument. Finally, as far as the operas go, Turandot is covered by Jurgen Maehder, who strangely fills in very little of the story of Puccini's illness and death. Those details are available in an appendix, but they do seem to be relevant to a death-haunted opera such as Turandot is.

The last major essay, by David Hamilton, reviews the early recordings of Puccini's music and tries to posit a performance tradition. Fascinating stuff, but once again, the chief conclusion to be drawn seems to be that much talk of the "Golden Age" is from those unable to distinguish the precious metal from the fool's version.

The book closes with various appendices and a bibliography of major works on Puccini. One wonderful quote offered there has Puccini venting against a conductor's slack tempi, which "enervates everything." That quote should be printed boldface in large type and placed at the front of every score placed before every conductor of the master's operas.

With its many choice photos and handsome layout, The Puccini Companion does honor to the co-editor Simonetta's grandfather, the greatest 20th century opera composer and a man without whose art, very possibly, the world of opera could not continue to exist. The convinced and the unconvinced should both find much of interest in this fine book.

Chris Mullins
Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy