The Bard Music Festival and SummerScape Opera 2016: Puccini and his World, with Pietro Mascagni’s Iris

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Giacomo Puccini. © Frank C. Bangs, Library of Congress.

Giacomo Puccini. © Frank C. Bangs, Library of Congress.

The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.

The greatest challenge of all, perhaps, will come this year, when the Bard Festival takes up Giacomo Puccini—its first visit to Italy since its founding. A good many music- and opera-lovers detest his work, whilst for others his are the only operas they can sit through: they aren’t too long; there’s a lot of action and a lot of attractive and affecting tunes; theatrically they make their effect through striking coups de théâtre, characteristically mortal, preceded and/or followed by seductively pathetic outpourings by the bereaved. Puccini’s operas are loved and hated for the same reasons by different groups of people. The occasional visitor to the opera tends to find they fit the bill very nicely, while more dedicated opera lovers on both sides may occasionally meet and discuss their views—sometimes heatedly, although I am unaware of a Puccini opera causing any riots. One notable fact persists: both camps, even the most ardent enthusiasts, find fault with some and occasionally all of his work, and opinions differ on which of operas are the better ones. Tosca has proven especially controversial in this respect. From a more general perspective, Puccinians and anti-Puccinians may often find themselves in agreement that he is a flawed composer and a limited one. “Ephemeral” is a word that often appears, or “sentimental,” or “cheap.” His bittersweet, pathetic love stories lack the grandeur of Handel, the psychological insight of Mozart and Da Ponte, the idealism of Beethoven, the variety, range, and wit of Rossini, the pith, color, and passion of Bizet, the sophistication of Chabrier, the intelligence, integrity and power of Verdi, the mythic profundity of Wagner, and the brillance of Richard Strauss. It is hard to deny that his operas are at least to some degree superficial and meretricious.

People who take opera and its future seriously have yet other reasons to hate Puccini. This operas, as their popularity spread like dry rot through the opera houses of Europe and the Americas, degraded the taste of audiences with their facile sentimentality, and forced out many great or near-great works which had been mainstays in the nineteenth century, like Guillaume Tell and Les Huguenots. Now that opera-lovers have realized what they’re been missing, it is hard to bring those works back into the repertoire, since many of them are expensive to produce.

The standard operatic repertoire is the most limited in the entire world of music. It is impossible to find an opera house that can afford to pay its bills without its seasonal La Bohème, admittedly surpassed in popularity by the work of another composer, Verdi, in his La Traviata. The repertoire fans out predictably from there—an array of bad habits arising from the cravings of the public and opera administrators who unimaginatively believe they can cash in on indulging them. Maybe it will work for a while, but not forever. Opera-goers are getting tired of it, even dressed up in the grotesqueries of Regieoper. The Met’s attempt to enliven Tosca with fellatio and other unseemly details drove audiences away even when bowdlerized. For many Puccini means stagnation.

Puccini was a staple for an entire generation of singers who created the roles or sang them early on, as they became models for later generations of singers, as well as for opera-lovers, through the new medium of recording: Geraldine Farrar, Emmy Destinn, Nellie Melba, Enrico Caruso to name a few. Puccini was the first opera composer whose career paralleled the emergence of the gramophone, and his music came across well in acoustic recordings, more easily than Richard Strauss’ richer textures. Puccini’s music had a whole parallel life on the three-minute sides of discs. Everyone everywhere could listen to the great Caruso sing “Che gelida manina” and enjoy a little cry, imagine oneself in the splendor of the Metropolitan Opera House, or bask in national pride, if one happened to be Italian. Puccini achieved a twentieth-century level of popularity, with socially diverse audience thronging his operas in houses in Europe, the United States, and Central and South America. In addition to the recordings there was radio to bring his music into thousands of households. With the tools at his command Puccini brought opera to a level of popularity and fame that has never equalled by any composer since. If Leonard Bernstein rivalled it in West Side Story, it was no longer opera. Following Puccini, composers wrote operas either for connoisseurs or accessible operas for a specialized audience of operatic enthusiasts. This is a question that will be probably considered in Panel One: Puccini, the Man and the Reputation.

Yet, if we manage to suppress our immediate reactions enough to be objective, we realize how well-crafted the operas are, from dramaturgy to orchestration and vocal writing. In that recording of Caruso singing “Che gelida manina” we can admire how beautifully the line sits in the tenor range and how beautifully shaped it is for the melodic art so exquisitely cultivated by that generation of singers. The shape and pacing of Puccini’s individual acts, and the timing of those coups de théatre are masterful. For librettists and composers Puccini remains a great teacher, and his scores are rich sources of understanding and solutions. He was the most sophisticated orchestrator among Italian opera composers: colorful, but always light and allowing an opening for the voice. Devices or fashions like exoticism can prove dangerous in the hands of creators of less than impeccable taste. In his final version of Madama Butterfly Puccini got it just right. The Japanese coloring does not distract from the story and the characters, and it gracefully steers away from vulgarity or condescension…although I imagine some might diagree with this observation. Puccini came from a long line of local composers in provincial Lucca, and his inbred respect for music was unshakeable—or his sense of quality in dishes concocted for popular consumption. There was a reason why Puccini could assume Verdi’s cloak in the years of decadence following the great man’s death.

National identity and decadence are issues that were much discussed by Italian intellectuals and journalists during the years of Puccini’s rise to fame. The heady energies of the Risorgimento began to flag, and Italians were faced with countless problems in modernizing a now unified and independent Italy, where local, often retrograde roots and practices acted as a counterweight to centralization, progress, and nationalism. There was also the major question of just what a unified Italy was to be—a great nation, surely, worthy in some way of their Roman ancestors. However, intellectuals saw decadence everywhere, in one form in provincial towns and villages, and in another in the cities, as aestheticism and décadence filtered down from France. Verdi was an example, a leader, and symbol of the aspirations of the past generation. A year after the 1900 premiere of Tosca, Puccini’s fifth opera, the third to find a place in the standard repertoire, Verdi died, having written his last work in 1893, the same year as Manon Lescaut. Puccini had already laid the foundations for his later eminence before the vacuum appeared at the top of Italian cultural life, above all in La Bohème of 1896. With his apolitical attitude and his interest in foreign, above all, French settings and material, mostly dealing with the private microcosm of amorous relationships, Puccini would have been the ideal replacement for Verdi in this decadent time, at least on a popular level, with Gabriele d’Annunzio appealing to a more rarified sector of society.

Il Tabarro by Giacomo Puccini. Edizione_Ricordi

Il Tabarro by Giacomo Puccini. Edizione_Ricordi

At Bard we won’t see La Bohème or Tosca. The Festival will concentrate on a rarely produced early opera, Le Villi (1884), and, among mature works, Il Tabarro, the opener of Il Trittico, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918, a lurid melodrama, generally overshadowed by Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, the other panels of the triptych. The only operas by Puccini we will hear that are established in the repertory are Manon Lescaut and Turandot, their final acts, and Turandot will conclude with Luciano Berio’s 2001 completion rather than the universally disliked version by Puccini’s pupil, Franco Alfano, tacked on at Toscanini’s insistence. We’ll hear some forgotten operas by other composers, for example Jules Massenet’s La Navarraise in its short, two-act version of 1904, as an example of the French influence on Puccini’s style.

The first weekend is entitled “Giacomo Puccini and Italian Musical Culture.” In the first program, Opera, Politics, and the Italian, we will hear excerpts from other operas relevant to Puccini’s environment and development: the overture to I promessi sposi by Puccini’s teacher, Ponchielli after Manzoni’s venerable novel, and snippets from Boïto’s Nerone, Catalani’s Loreley, and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, which is hardly a rarity, but important to remember in this context. Most important of all will be this year’s full SummerScape opera performance, offered separately and before the Festival itself, Mascagni’s Iris (1898), another storia giapponesizzante, eclipsed from the repertoire by Madama Butterfly. By most accounts the rare performances of Iris in recent times have been enthusiastically received.

Iris, by Pietro Mascagni, poster by Adolf Hohenstein. Ricordi publisher.

Iris, by Pietro Mascagni, poster by Adolf Hohenstein. Ricordi publisher.

In Iris, Mascagni and his librettist Luigi Illica, who also collaborated on the libretti of Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, is credited with inventing the exotic genre in Italian opera. The parallels with Madama Butterfly are clear enough. Iris, a simple, naive girl, lives with her father, a blind old man. She derives pleasure and happiness from the beauty of nature. A young nobleman, Osaka, a libertine, finds her and plots to abduct her with the help of the brothel-keeper Kyoto. While Iris is enjoying a puppet-show, Osaka enters costumed as the child of the Sun and sings a serenade to her. She falls in love with him, and he carries her off. She wakes up in Kyoto’s brothel, believing that she is in Paradise. Osaka, after trying unsuccessfully to seduce her, gets fed up with her and turns her over to Kyoto, who displays her on his balcony. There he father finds and recognizes her by her voice, and he curses her and throws mud at her. Mortally shamed, she throws herself into the sewer, where she dies, hallucinating.

This is bound to be a hit, like all of Bard’s summer operas. But back to the Festival itself.

Outside of opera Puccini wrote very little: a few songs, some sacred music commissioned for specific occasions, some orchestral music written when he was a student and a rather pretty movement for string quartet, “Crisantemi” (1890), which he wrote as a funeral elegy for Amedeo of Savoy, the Duke of Aosta. It is not all that rare on quartet programs, as well as those for string orchestra. Puccini recycled some of the thematic material in Manon Lescaut. We will hear it, as well as some of his songs in Program Two: “Sons of Bach, Sons of Palestrina.” The argument of the concert is to demonstrate Puccini’s exposure to instrumental music, with chamber music by Verdi and Respighi and keyboard music by Busoni and Puccini’s grandfather, Domenico (1772–1815), among other works. “Program Three: The Symphonic and the Operatic”will combine Puccini’s mature one-act opera, Il tabarro (1916) with his youthful Capriccio sinfonico (1883) and an ambitious piano concerto  by Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909), to be played by Orion Weiss and the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein. Following Panel Two: “Defining the Italian: The Role of Music,” Program Four:”The Search for a Successor: Opera after Verdi,” a concert with commentary will explore post-Verdian opera with arias and ensembles by Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836– 96), Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919), Alberto Franchetti (1860–1942), Francesco Cilea (1866– 1950), Umberto Giordano (1867–1948), Italo Montemezzi (1875–1952), and Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944), as well as Puccini himself. The first weekend will conclude with Program Five: “Realism and Fantasy: New Directions in Opera,” in which Puccini’s Le Villi (1884) will be paired with Massenet’s La Navarraise (1894) in semi-staged productions. The Orchestra Now, Bard’s recently founded training orchestra, will play under Leon Botstein

On Thursday, August 11, there will be a special event, “Spaghetti Western.”—according to Bard announcement, “A program of crosscurrents, with music by Americans living in Italy and Italians whose music has permeated U.S. culture. From David Lang to Ennio Morricone, discover how Italian and American music have travelled together through film—dating all the way back to Puccini’s Girl from the Golden West.

Weekend two: “Beyond Verismo” begins with Program Six: “Futurism, Popular Culture, and Technology,” another performance with commentary with The Orchestra Now under James Bagwell. In Futurism, Italian intellectuals, artists, poets, dramatists, and writers of all kinds, as well as composers sought a solution to Italy’s cultural dilemma in liberation from a past culturally so rich and historically so powerful that it seemed a Sisyphean stone. The program will also include Puccini’s march, “Scossa elettrica,” written in celebration of a scientist, Alessandro Volta, as well as Puccini’s favorite jazz tune, “Dumbell” by Zez Confrey, and selected popular songs of the day. The primary Futurist composers presented are Francesco Pratella, Franco Casavola, and Luigi Russolo, who variously wrote in experimental and traditional styles. The concert will close with a screening of the silent film Rapsodia satanica (1915), by Nino Oxilia, accompanied by a live performance of its original score by Pietro Mascagni, who was the teacher of the futurist Pratella.

Panel Three: “Artists, Intellectuals, and Mussolini” will explore the complex relationship between Mussolini and the various intellectual and artistic movements which flourished in the aftermath of the First World War. Fascism appealed to some of them, especially early on, leading to disillusionment and total rejection later for some, but not all. This is an essential topic for any consideration of twentieth century Italian culture—which will be explored further in Program Eight: “Music and Fascism in Italy.”

Program Seven: “Reinventing the Past” will survey the widespread interest among Italian composers in their own music of the past, especially the great Baroque era spanning Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Tartini. The giants of this movement were Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) and Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973), who produced the first comprehensive edition of Monteverdi’s work. His edition of the Vespers of 1610, by no means pure by modern criteria, was the standard for many years. We will hear his own treatment of early Baroque counterpoint in his Third String Quartet. Respighi published editions of Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Marcello and arranged lute pieces by the Renaissance master Vincenzo Galilei, the father of the astronomer, in the First Suite (1917) of his Ancient Airs and Dances for orchestra. Also of the highest importance was Alessandro Parisotti (1853–1913), whose anthology, Arie antiche, was the primary source for Italian Baroque and Classical song for generations of singers, accepted as the foundation for sound technique. One old favorite among them, “Se tu m’ami…,” which he attributed to Pergolesi, is thought to be his own work today—a striking measure of the freedoms taken by this Romantic generation in adapting the music of earlier centuries. Puccini himself participated in this antiquarianism in his early Salve Regina (pre-1880).

The conductor Arturo Toscanini was a renowned, but rare example of a musician who took a stand against Fascism. Puccini himself, while basically apolitical, never withdrew from the Fascist Party and met with Mussolini several times. In Program Eight, “Music and Fascism in Italy,” we will hear works by more active supporters of Il Duce, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968), Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), as well as Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) and Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003), who worked with the system, but undermined policies of the regime to the best of their abilities.

One of the high points of every Bard Festival is the choral concert directed by James Bagwell. This year, Program Nine: “Italian Choral Music since Palestrina,” he and the Bard festival Chorale will be able to draw on the rich Italian choral tradition, beginning with the great Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–94) and ending with Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880– 1968). Also included are Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), Luca Marenzio (1553–99), Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), Carlo Gesualdo (1566– 1613), Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), and Puccini himself, the descendent of a long line of church composers.

If much of the second weekend’s programs have tended to look backwards at Italy’s magnificent past in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Program Ten: After Puccini will give us a long view of the music written in Italy after his death. Beginning with some piano pieces by Puccini, the concert will continue with a triple concerto by his pupil, Franco Alfano (1875–1954) from 1933. The rest of the program dates from after the Second World War, with peices by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968), Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75), Luciano Berio (1925–2003), and Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007), who pursued part of his career in the United States.

Turandot Poster. Ricordi publisher.

Turandot Poster. Ricordi publisher.

The Festival will close with Program Eleven: “The Turandot Project,” which, as mentioned about will contrast Busoni’s treatment of the story of the blood thirsty Chinese princess with the final act of Puccini’s last opera, as completed by Luciano Berio in 2001. This will be semi-staged by a prominent director and designer, R. B. Schlather, who previously contributed to the SummerScape stagings of The Wreckers, Euryanthe, and Die Liebe der Danae, and original designs by Paul Tate dePoo III, named “2015 Young Designer to Watch” by Live Design magazine.

As always, the Bard Music Festival, Puccini and his Times, is a must, especially if you detest Puccini’s operas. Personally, I have never come away from the Festival without gaining a higher opinion of the central composer than I had before, but, even if you don’t, you will acquire some powerful ammunition for your next argument between acts at the Met.

Ferruccio Busoni, Turandot Suite Score Cover by Emil Orlik. Breitkopf & Härtel.

Ferruccio Busoni, Turandot Suite Score Cover by Emil Orlik. Breitkopf & Härtel.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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