For a discussion of other Puccinian issues omitted here, above all the role of the nascent recording industry in disseminating Puccini’s operas, see our preview article: click here.
For the festival program, with a complete listing of concerts and panel discussions, click here.
If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Music Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.
The premise of the Festival was that the disparagement of Puccini by academics and intellectuals is old hat, and that this dismissive attitude died at least fifteen years ago. I must confess that I have looked down on those sweet tragedettes, although there are some that I can tolerate more than others. The concerts avoided the operas that have been performed to death over and over again, although one of the speakers played a video of Mimi’s death scene in La Bohème in a questionable cinematic version which cut Colline’s overcoat aria, one of Illica, Giacosa, and Puccini’s deftest touches, which heightens the pathos of Mimi’s demise by distracting us from it. Puccini celebrated the moment by drawing a skull and crossbones at that point in the score. His publisher, Ricordi, quipped that everyone would be crying and the money would roll in. I felt Puccini’s pathos philter creep into my eyes, as Socrates felt death crawling up his legs. I resisted, gripping my nails into my palms. My eyes remained dry. I did not want to be manipulated. It’s not art, in my opinion. Nobody is more impressed by the art of making audiences cry than I, but one has to do it in a classier way: say, Kurwenal in Act III of Tristan.
The operatic performances fell in with my own tastes, with a final scene from Manon Lescaut, in which the young Puccini flexed his powers of seduction most irresistibly, and Il Tabarro, a tough work, mercifully free from cheap pathos or sentimentality, and a marvel of economy, proportion, and dramatic moment. There were gasps of horror in the audience in the strangulation and revelation scenes. I find Il Tabarro complete and satisfying in itself, but Puccini intended it as part of a triptych, to be performed together with two other short operas, which are more often performed, the comedy Gianni Schicchi, and the potentially sickly sweet Suor Angelica, an île flottante on the banquet-table of operatic tragedy. Puccini may have been smarter than we think. He intended the operas to be performed together. Il Tabarro needs Suor Angelica as much as Suor Angelica needs Il Tabarro, with Gianni Schicchi as a digestivo, in which case we might think of Il Tabarro as a fine Tuscan t-bone and Suor Angelica as cinghiale al cioccolato, a speciality of Puccini’s native region. When we consider all this, there can be no doubt that Puccini was supremely adept at pushing our emotional buttons, but what is its value, dramaturgically and morally? Are Puccini’s operas classics, bourgeois entertainment, or cheap tear-jerkers? Just how does this bear on the question of their quality as works of art?
Leon Botstein, in his enlightening essay, “Music, Language, and Meaning in Opera: Puccini and his Contemporaries,” defines the issue in this way in Bard’s 2016 essay book: “The old ‘Puccini Problem,’—the idea that no matter the unrivaled popularity of his operas, and indeed perhaps on account of it, the music was somehow manipulative and superficial—has vanished as worthy of serious deliberation.”1 In his discussion he borrows a method used by Michele Girardi in his Puccini: His International Art, applying it in a way all his own. He compares major Puccini operas with contemporary operas by other composers: Madama Butterfly with Jenůfa, La fanciulla del West with Der Rosenkavalier, and Suor Angelica with Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna. Botstein attempts to approach each comparison with an open mind and fair-handedly, and if any bias is apparent, it is toward Puccini. He wants to give Puccini the best consideration possible, and he comes to a positive judgement. However this is on the surface in the denotational level of his discourse. As the reader assimilates Botstein’s accounts of the six operas, the power and fascination lies with Jenůfa, Der Rosenkavalier, and Sancta Susanna, and most importantly the creators’ commitment in heart and intellect to depict the full weight of human experience. In this Puccini is lacking, when we consider the protagonists’ deep pain in the Janáček’s peasant tragedy, the poised sensitivity of Hofmannsthal and Strauss’ portrayal of sad and happy rites of passage, as time and life unfold, and the inexorable grip of sexual desire, even in the oppressive society of a convent.2 It is clear enough between the lines that Botstein’s writing about the comparisons is that much warmer and more engaged.
The primary anti-Puccinian voice at the festival was that of Fausto Torrefranca, who, in 1910 at the age of 29, wrote a polemical book, Puccini e l’opéra internazionale, in which he attacked Puccini and Italian opera as the most lamentable elements in Italian culture. Excerpts were published in English translation in the essay book, along with a pithy introduction by Alexandra Wilson, author of an essential study, The Puccini Problem.3 Torrefranca, like many other intellectuals of his time, saw Italian culture entering a period of decadence. Born in 1883, he was too young to have experienced the Risorgimento at first hand, and he is typical of this younger generation. He believed that music was the highest expression of human creation, of human cultural life, and believed passionately that Italian music should be cleansed of opera, a cheap, impure form of expression, appealing and belonging to the lower, uneducated classes. Puccini’s whorish melodies and manipulative sentiment reeked especially of the mindless, consumerist bourgeoisie. His point of view conformed to that of his publisher, who also published the Rivista musicale italiana. In addition to being the most serious musical journal of its day, it was founded on the right-leaning views of its publisher, who published an Italian translation of Richard Wagner’s Das Judentum in der Musik. Hence, the anti-cosmopolitan, nationalist, anti-Semitic, tone of Torrefranca’s arguments. Some of his rhetoric became prominent parts of fascist ideology: the primacy of masculinity and the inferiority of female intellect as weak and childish. Torrefranca’s book, as Wilson notes, was extensively discussed among intellectuals, but much less in the popular press. Torrefranca’s book, with its repellant proto-fascistic baggage, is unlikely to have been the source of the reservations about Puccini, which were widespread among critics, both in the popular and the intellectual press.
From the uneven quality of the music performed in the concerts and the arguments of the talks, it was apparent that Puccini emerged at a time of crisis in Italian culture, in music as in literature and the visual arts. The Italy of Rossini, Foscolo, and Canova was the fragmented collocation of independent duchies, kingdoms, and states that had existed for centuries up and down the Italian peninsula. They were divided by mountains, rivers, lakes, bad roads, dialect, government, religion, and culinary traditions. (This particularism has by no means disappeared today—fortunately.) The Risorgimento, the decades of revolt and war marked the decades that led to the unification of Italy in 1871, brought most of the Italian cities, towns, and states together as a political unit under the kingdom ruled by the House of Savoy, but it failed to create a unified Italian people. Local pride gave regional dialects pride of place over the artificial language that was recognized as Italian, so that some groups still had trouble understanding each other. Ingrained cynicism and illiteracy blocked change, much less progress. I heard on the RAI’s excellent historical series, Nascita di una nazione, the point that the Risorgimento produced no poets to celebrate, memorialize, and disseminate the values and achievements of unification. The movement had its heroes, above all the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni and the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, but few others, and no organized school or movement to make art from the philosophical and political ideals of the political and military leaders. Neither Manzoni nor Verdi, as politically engaged as they were, could be identified consistently with these political values. Their works expressed rather generally patriotism, struggle with the oppressor, and above all the ideals of the art forms they practiced. Manzoni provided the model for the language of unified Italy, which was enshrined in school curricula but little used in homes and streets. Verdi gravitated to foreign sources: Shakespeare, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Dumas fils, and Eugène Scribe. In spite of this disjunct between the forces that shaped the new Italian state and the work of its artistic heroes, Manzoni and Verdi, along with Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi assumed heroic stature and got their full due of statues, piazze, and boulevards.
Verdi’s final masterpiece, Falstaff, was premiered at La Scala within a week of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and it was planned this way by Giulio Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, who took up Puccini at the very outset of his career as the successor to the composer of Falstaff, and this was indeed his last opera. Ricordi’s business and, in his view, Toscanini, and many others, needed a successor, and Puccini had already begun to lead the pack of the younger operatic composers, notably Mascagni and Catalani, who in any case died later that year. The conductor Arturo Toscanini enthusiastically embraced the work of Puccini, above all, after Catalani’s early death, and set to the task of promoting the composer’s work. Ricordi brought together the second playwright who worked on the libretto of Manon Lescaut, Luigi Illica, and the poet Giuseppe Giacosa, who collaborated with Puccini on his three subsequent operas, La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904). These form the core of his work—although his final, unfinished opera, Turandot (1924), has grown in popularity over the last generation. The combination of seductive melody, orchestral color, and the depiction of more or less ordinary people in tragic situations had a strong appeal for the public, while winning less favor from critics, who castigated Puccini for setting sentimental, common stories to facile, vulgar music, as mentioned above. For this new generation of middle-class audiences, in a cultural environment that both flourished on decadence and suffered from a certain sense of falling short because of it. In all aspects of social life—from economics and politics to literature, the visual arts, and music, above all their beloved opera—Italians anxiously sought achievements for their new, unified kingdom that were worthy of their past greatness under the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. This generation produced, however, the sensualism of Medardo Rosso and Gabriele D’Annunzio and the verismo of Mascagni and Puccini. All of these expressions shared the limitations of privacy and intimacy—with the exception of D’Annunzio’s bombastic, militaristic public gesticulations, which foreshadowed (and later happily flowed together with) Benito Mussolini’s fascism. Contemporaries felt the absence of Verdi’s grandeur and high ambition in Puccini, but when we today compare his work with the overblown historical dramas of Boïto, Catalani, and others, it is clear that it more truly embodies the most characteristic and the best attitudes of the time and provides us with the most aesthetically and emotionally satisfying legacy of its culture. When Toscanini conducted the premiere of Turandot in 1926, he laid down his baton at the end of Puccini’s own writing and addressed the audience: “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto.” The implication was drawn from it that with Puccini the great tradition of Italian opera died with him. The question remained, both in his lifetime and today whether we should interpret it as the great tradition or, thinking of Verdi, the great tradition on life support.
If Giacomo Puccini was formed within Italy by the trends and needs of Italian culture—from his family environment (a family of composers going back several generations) to his training at the Milan Conservatory and his relationship with Ricordi and Toscanini—his career was international in scope. When one of his operas premiered in Hamburg, London, Paris, Buenos Aires or New York, he traveled there to supervise the production and to promote it. As a representative of Italian culture he had a special significance for the large populations of Italian immigrants in South and North America, as did the idolized interpreters of his work, Arturo Toscanini and Enrico Caruso. Recordings further enhanced his worldwide presence, even in places where he and his operas did not travel—places where there were no opera houses. In spite of a certain laziness in his work habits—a trait that frustrated Ricordi no end—he was a conscientious craftsman, both dramatically and musically, and if his operas lacked the ambition and profundity (occasionally limited or even pseudo) of Richard Strauss’, they carried the stamp of Italian workmanship—produzione italiana—in the world at large, rather like fine leather goods or a Bugatti automobile—products in which style and craft excel equally. In their search for an essentially Italian manner in opera, some Italian composers gave themselves over to the heady influence of Wagner, while others assimilated French models. Wherever the inspiration came from—and both Mascagni, the father of verismo, and Puccini were eclectics—the orchestra became more important than ever, assuming the narrative on its own without a vocal overlay, and one of the most compelling achievements of both composers was their management of the orchestra and orchestration. In this, Mascagni was an explorer and Puccini an excelling fabbro.
As usual the Bard Festival gave a fine overview of the cultural, social, and political situation and a richly rewarding investigation of the music. If the music itself was more uneven than in other years—and, yes, that includes last year’s festival, devoted to Carlos Chávez—that is what the Italy of this period had to offer, and one cannot say that the organizers didn’t make the best of it. Still, I’d say that the only truly great music from Puccini’s lifetime we heard over the two weekends were the two short pieces from Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri, Laudi alla Vergine Maria and Ave Maria. Before that there was of course Palestrina, Monteverdi, and Gesualdo, and after that the level of interest rose with Dallapiccola, Petrassi, and Berio. But this is not to say that the festival wasn’t rich in enjoyable, interesting, and moving works of the second tier.
Pietro Mascagni, Iris
I’ll include Mascagni’s Iris at the top of these, although the annual staged opera performance isn’t strictly a part of the Bard Music Festival proper. It is more germane to the subject of the festival than usual, and it is an opera worth knowing, well deserving an occasional place in the standard repertory. Iris, with its Japanese setting, written by dramatist of Madama Butterfly, was quite popular before it was eclipsed by Puccini’s work. There is admittedly inherent bathos in its story, that of the undoing of a naive country girl, whose deep connection to nature exposes her to the corrupting deception of a young aristocratic roué named Osaka. Bored with her unwavering resistance to his efforts to seduce her, he turns her over to his pimp, Kyoto, who auctions the beautiful virgin off publicly in front of his brothel. Her blind father recognizes her voice and curses her as a whore—whereupon she jumps into the sewer and dies. While Cio-Cio San’s death, preceded by her farewell to her little boy and followed by Pinkerton’s reaction, is as rapid as her insertion of a saber in her breast, Iris dies slowly, allowing time for her to hear the voices of key characters in her innocent path to destruction, characterized as their “egoisms”: Osaka, Kyoto, and her blind father. She believes she is dreaming, as the life ebbs from her. In her final death-agony, she remembers the little cottage where she lived with her father and the flowers of her garden at the beginning of the opera. Surrounded by apparitions of her beloved flowers, Iris is joyfully reunited with the Sun and his eternal realm as she draws her last breath.
As effusive as the stage directions, which go beyond their usual function to offer responses and interpretation, are, this conclusion is not mere claptrap. It is an organic part on a Symbolist vein which Illica and Mascagni put at the core of their essay in verismo, which as Leon Botstein has pointed out, is not always a helpful term. The heroine and her father are humble people; we see plenty of low-lifes in the brothel scene; and at the beginning of her finale, Iris is surrounded by rag-pickers down in the sewer, but her otherworldly connection to flowers, nature, and the sun come first and last in the opera. For the creators of this very moving opera, verismo and a Platonic variety of Symbolism were naturally fused.
One notable trait of Italian opera composers of this generation was their interest in the orchestra. In spite of the marvels Verdi had worked in Otello and Falstaff, this was one area where the emerging generation believed they could make progress, basically following the lead of Richard Wagner. They were not only eager to exploit the orchestra as a story-teller or actor in itself, but to explore new methods and devices in orchestration, not as a self-contained effect, but as an integral part of the harmonic and contrapuntal workings of the music as a whole. Puccini may have been a brilliant colorist, enhancing his dramatic situations with instrumental atmosphere and striking aural incident, but Mascagni, from the works we heard at the festival, devoted much thought and labor to the development of an orchestral style characteristic of his period and nation at an advanced level.
The score of Iris was indeed fascinating, especially under the direction of Leon Botstein, whose objective manner made him an ideal proponent of Mascagni and Puccini, as well as of later composers like Dallapiccola, with whom he is more commonly associated. As one might expect from his enthusiastic essay about Iris in the program, his conducting showed that he understood exactly what Mascagni was doing. His eschewal of exaggerated expression, sweetness, and passing coloristic effects allowed the composer’s rigor and intellect to come through. The sonority and balance of woodwinds and brass got all the careful attention the score requires. His steady pace maintained the integrity of both the dramatic flow and the compositional structure of the music—both crucial to this carefully structured work. Botstein’s sturdy objectivity served Mascagni better than impressionism or on-the-sleeve sentiment.
In this respect the performance was just right, and fortunately the other elements were on a high level as well. The cast brought together a mostly impressive group of young singers. The male roles were consistently outstanding. Gerard Schneider’s Osaka, the young aristocrat, was truly memorable. His tenor voice has all the golden sensuality one would want for Italian repertory, but it is also very large, heroic in scale, both rich and brilliant in color. He was able to use this to convey the divine qualities the deluded Iris sees in him as the offspring of the Sun. Douglas Williams brought a handsome baritone and edgy acting to his portrayal of Kyoto, the brothel-owner: he had, along with a corrupt air and a certain ferocity as a businessman, a certain world-weariness about him, as if Kyoto, as tough as his scales might be, projected a feeling that he had seen too much. Matthew Boehler sang Iris’ blind father with an imposing dark resonance. In his acting, his charismatic presence seemed to take over the stage. What a splendid future for opera, with these three gentlemen still early in their careers! Cecilia Hall gave a riveting performance as a geisha, making the most of the intense drama and music that was written for the part. Talise Trevigne did not quite live up to the enthusiasm of the press materials. Her rich, colorful voice was often a joy to hear, but her upper register was occasionally thin and insecure in pitch. Her voice was not always well-integrated. While her performance was charming in many ways, it still seemed on the whole forced and awkward, as if she has not fully assimilated the art of operatic acting. Sometimes her carriage and gait could not leave its down-to-earth American origins behind. Still Ms. Trevigne’s Iris was attractive, and when she was convincing, she was quite moving. Her scene with Osaka in the brothel was a high-point for her, superbly acted and sung.
The choral parts in Iris are extensive and beautifully written. As one might expect, James Bagwell and the Bard Festival Chorus acquitted themselves magnificently in the sensuous, urgent, and emotive passages they had to sing. The Chorus love to act, and they were equally vivid in Iris’ village, the brothel, and the sewer.
James Darrah’s direction lived up to his rapidly growing reputation. He and the designers, Emily Anne Macdonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, chose to simplify and schematize the production, in order to downplay the Japanese localization—a touchy area since the outcries of an activist group managed to shut down a traditional production of The Mikado at NYGASP last year. As in the Berkshire Opera Festival’s Madama Butterfly, the makeup eschewed a Japanese look. This worked, since it was entirely appropriate to bring the universality of Illica’s parable to the fore. Peabody Southwell’s brilliant costumes suggested little if anything of the Japanese, and their striking designs were intended mostly to reflect the character or worldly function of the person who wore them. Southwell was also dramaturg, reflecting how closely knit all aspects of the production were. There was one more stroke of genius in this haunting production, the contribution of WIFE, an LA-based “trinity of illusionary performance-makers,” Jasmine Albuquerque, Kristen Leahy, and Nina McNeely (replaced at Bard by Justine Clark), appeared as lead dancers in Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s choreography. Their sense of characterization, design, and movement was extraordinary, and I can’t wait to see them again.
Maestro Botstein and his cast and crew gave a powerful realization of the lasting value of Mascagni’s Iris, and proved beyond a doubt that its emotional effect is genuine, its music is finely crafted and very beautiful, and that it does indeed deserve a place in the repertoire of major opera houses. In fact it would be more than welcome if this production could somehow find an afterlife.
The Festival: More Mascagni
Last year’s festival, Carlos Chávez and his World, celebrated a secondary hero, made clear enough by Leon Botstein’s warm references to him: Sylvestre Revueltas. This year, I was tempted to think of Pietro Mascagni in that light, entirely on the force of his own music. Iris showed him to be a leader in Verismo, an original, and a hard-working and ingenious craftsman. Maestro Botstein’s admiration was vivid enough in his essay on Iris and in his conducting of the opera, although in general he admitted the unevenness of Mascagni’s oeuvre and his unfortunate enthusiasm for Mussolini and fascism, although plenty of old fascists survived the Second World War, enough to have made him a cult figure. Perhaps they weren’t sufficiently powerful in the performing arts to put operas on the stage.
Mascagni wasn’t the only creator of opera, both composers and librettists, to venture into the new world of cinema. One of the most intriguing discoveries of the festival was Nino Oxilia’s 1917 film, Rapsodia satanica, for which Mascagni composed the score, with the same care, attention to detail, and invention he devoted to Iris. This dramatic film was a serious effort in every way, even risibly so on occasion in its unrelieved artiness. If Oxilla’s determination to make film a high art led him into pretension, it also inspired him, and his fine sense of composition, light, and texture and brilliant montage and cutting show an impressive mastery of cinematic technique and art.
Oxilia entered the Italian film industry, which had a strong presence in his native Turin, from a background in poetry and theater. The product of a classical education, he came under the spell of Gabriele d’Annunzio early in his brief life. He published several volumes of poetry, the earliest coming out of the culture of student satire and romance (goliardismo), and wrote several plays, generally without success. His first work in cinema, beginning in 1912, was as artistic advisor for Savoia Film in Turin. He soon worked as assistant director, then as director, and before his enlistment in the First World War and death in action, he made nineteen films, achieving the high sophistication of Rapsodia Satanica, which was released in 1917, the year of Oxilia’s death at the age of twenty-eight. The story, which involves an elderly noblewoman who makes a pact with Mephistopheles to restore her youth on the condition that she renounce love, was taken from a poem, published in 1915, by Fausto Maria Martini, a contemporary of Oxilia’s with similar D’Annunzian inclinations. It is worth noting that Martini was close to Adolfo de Bosis, the founder of the important aesthetic journal, Il Convito, who persuaded him to translate into Italian the poems of P. B. Shelley, a poet much admired in those circles.4 Hence, Rapsodia Satanica is the product of high tastes, which found their way into early Italian cinema.
In its own time Rapsodia Satanica most likely never received a musical accompaniment as fine as that provided by TON under the direction of James Bagwell. Below him, close to his podium, a digital read-out guided his timings. Mr. Bagwell wanted perfection and he got it in terms of synchronization with the film. This was made more difficult by the loss of some footage from the surviving elements. The performance in any case did more than justice to the passionate, atmospheric, and poetic film. The Orchestra Now, described as “a unique training orchestra and master’s degree program designed to prepare musicians for the challenges facing the modern symphony orchestra.” This meticulously synchronized film score under a master conductor offered the students a highly specialized and demanding exercise. One might well compare the rather less sophisticated, but professionally important task put before them in the first program, in which a grand ceremonial scene from Boïto’s Nerone required them basically to make a lot of noise. This they dutifully carried out. Rapsodia satanica was indeed one of the more memorable events of the festival, an important document in the confluence of opera and cinema in those early years, and a work of some excellence.
Puccini, Le Villi
Puccini’s Ballet-Opera Le Villi (1884), performed in a semi-staged form, with projections and costumes, in Program Five (Realism and Fantasy: New Directions in Opera), the final concert of the first weekend, shows Puccini at his closest to Mascagni (and to Wagner), during the period when both were students at the Milan Conservatory and sharing an apartment. The harmony, orchestration, and character of melody reflect the common tastes and ambitions of the two young composers. The libretto, by Ferdinando Fontana, a member of the bohemian Scapigliatura movement in literature, theater, and opera, revolves around the spirits of young women who have been deceived by unfaithful lovers. They haunt a particular part of the Black Forest, where they wait for unfaithful lovers, whom they force to dance to death. The curtain rises on the engagement of on Roberto and Anna. Before they marry, Roberto must go to Mainz to collect an inheritance. Anna worries that she may never see him again, especially after a dream in which she saw Roberto dead. In fact Roberto, while traveling is bewitched by a siren and forgets all about Anna, who waits and pines for him over months, until she dies of a broken heart. Anna’s father, Guglielmo, knows who is to blame and pronounces the curse of the Villi on Roberto. Pursued by them, he seeks forgiveness of Guglielmo and Anna’s ghost…to no avail. Dancing with Anna and the Villi, he succumbs from exhaustion.
Puccini wrote a one-act version in 1883 for a competition of one-act operas sponsored by the publisher Sonzogno in which it failed to win even honorable mention, because, it is thought, the hastily prepared score was illegible. However, Arrigo Boïto, one of the leaders of the Scapigliati, financed a performance of an expanded two-act version at the Teatro del Verme in Milan the following year. This was a huge success, enough to launch Puccini’s career with some fame and public enthusiasm. Ricordi published the work, urging Puccini to keep on expanding it. The two acts are separated by an intermezzo, which was intended to accompany a ballet. Maestro Botstein, the American Symphony Orchestra, and a cast of three singers delivered a musically excellent performance. Levi Hernandez was a solid, credible Guglielmo, Talise Trevigne was rather more at home as the homespun Anna than she was as the otherworldly Iris. The range and shape of the phrases seemed to sit better with her voice. Sean Panikkar, on the other hand, was truly memorable as Roberto, with his glowing, powerful voice, evenly resplendent across the registers.
The production was less successful visually. The singers looked out of place in their rustic American costumes, which looked like leftovers from last year’s Oklahoma! This was intended to underscore the characters’ humble background and to remind us that this supernatural fantasy is an example of verismo. The projections were occasionally effective, but often seemed jury-rigged and incomplete. The most serious lack, however, was a corps de ballet. The singers’ half-hearted attempts at a few steps only made it clear that dancing was not among their skills, and the absence of dancing Villi deprived lengthy sections of music of their raison d’être. Puccini seemed to keep delaying the confrontation of the Villi with Roberto, so that the music, without dancers, seemed repetitious and over-long. There were some attractive tunes and some rich colorful orchestration, but the reason for the original Milan audience’s excitement was not immediately apparent.
Massenet, La Navarraise
Le Villi shared the program with Jules Massenet’s La Navarraise (1894), which was by contrast a marvel of concision and focus. Like Le Villi and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, it consists of two scenes separated by an orchestral interlude, all performed without interruption. Jules Claretie and Henri Cain wrote the libretto, after Claretie’s short story “La cigarette.” It was in fact modeled on Cavalleria rusticana, written specifically to capitalize on Mascagni’s huge success. In terms of the argument of the festival as a whole La Navarraise illustrated the close relationship of Italian opera composers of Puccini’s and Mascagni’s generation with French music, as well as the influence of Mascagni outside of Italy.
It is set during the Carlist Wars, in 1874, (therefore virtually a news item) in a village square near Bilbao. Anita, a poor girl from Navarre, which makes her a foreigner without friends or family in this region, loves Araquil, the son of a wealthy landowner, Remigio, who thinks her unworthy of his son. He will allow a marriage only on the condition that she can offer a dowry of 2000 douros, an obviously impossible sum for her. The rebel leader Zuccaraga has recaptured Bilbao and is decimating the opposing army. She overhears their general, Garrido, curse Zuccaraga and offer to pay a fortune to anyone who will kill him. Anita offers to carry this out for the 2000 douros she needs. She persuades the general that she is serious only with great difficulty, and he still doubts her sanity. She crosses the no-man’s-land to visit Zuccaraga. Araquil runs off to find her. She returns, covered in blood and gets the reward from Garrido. Araquil returns, mortally wounded. When she produces the dowry, Araquil thinks she has prostituted herself to Zuccaraga. Then they hear bells proclaiming his death. Araquil dies, cursing Anita, and she goes mad over his body, believing their wedding can still take place. This may be melodramatic, but it strikes home. Massenet structured the action with a perfect sense of proportion in sustaining different moods and dramatic and psychological situations: love, contempt, grief, insanity, and more. Maestro Botstein’s direction solidly supported the unfolding of the narrative as well as its urgency in portraying the process of war and inexorable progress to the young woman’s doom, cursed by her lover with his dying breath. The cast was well up to the high standard of the festival. Sean Panikkar sang as beautifully as he did in Le Villi, and here he had a more interesting and persuasive character to work with. Nora Sourouzian brought a sumptuous mezzo voice to her intense portrayal of Anita, attractively shaping her lines while expressing the emotional life of her character, who is strong as well as vulnerable. Levi Hernandez sang another father role with strength and authority, and Paul Whelan was equally substantial as Garrido. The projections, costumes, and staging were more convincing than in Le Villi, in which one was distracted by a nagging feeling that the projections weren’t quite functioning properly. Or perhaps it was just easier to ignore them.
Puccini, Il Tabarro (from Il Trittico)
These Sunday performances concluded a rich feast of one-act opera over the first weekend. The highlight of Saturday evening was a performance of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, the opening opera of Il Trittico—my personal favorite in the Trittico and among all of his operas. (It is interesting to note that Suor Angelica was Puccini’s favorite in the Trittico.) Like La Navarraise, the success of Cavalleria rusticana was Puccini’s inspiration. However, Puccini felt strongly that the three operas should be performed together, and would get quite annoyed when either Ricordi or producers ignored his wishes. Puccini first began to work on Il Trittico in 1904, but he did not complete it until 1918, when the Metropolitan Opera premiered it. Puccini’s painstaking craftsmanship, both musical and dramatic, is at its strongest in the trilogy.
Il Tabarro is as relentlessly grim as La Navarraise. The opera opens with an ostinato evoking the waves of the River Seine, the background of an unhappy marriage. The master of the barge, Michele’s wife Giorgetta, has grown weary of his dour dedication to the routine duties of his position, and she is having an affair with Luigi, one of the hands. Michele gets wind of this and strangles Luigi, whose body in conceals under his greatcoat. He and Giorgetta used to snuggle under it in happier times. At the end of the opera, she feels an inclination to reconcile with Michele, and she invites him to join her under the coat, whereupon he pulls it aside revealing her lover’s corpse. As touching as Giorgetta’s feelings about her marriage to a much older man and her love for Luigi may be, made especially believable and real by the heavy circumstances of their lives, they are dwarfed by the almost monumental wrath of Michele, the true expression of the misery of their lives of toil.
The beautiful, if unhappily yearning lines of the vocal parts arch over the recurring rhythm of the waves. The orchestral colors are as meaningful as the other elements of the score. Leon Botstein was attentive to all of these qualities and delivered a measured, suitably earnest performance from the ASO which brought the drama home to its grisly conclusion with all the power Puccini intended.
The superb cast was led by Louis Otey, who made such a powerful contribution to last year’s festival in his portrayal of the conflicted minister, Pascoe, in Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. His rich, varied baritone has both a dark foundation and a softer, lighter upper register, allowing him a great range of expression in the complex role he masters so well. The character of Michele is a prime example of just how rich verismo could be in character development. Oppressed by the frustration and tedium of an unhappy marriage, aging, and his routine responsibilities, and hurt by the realization that his wife’s affections are going elsewhere, he expresses his isolated mental condition in a premeditated murder. In the end he grows to fearsome proportions as he uses the power in his hands to kill. This proved ideal material for Otey’s impressive dramatic and vocal art. Kelly Kaduce was a sympathetic Giorgetta, singing with a clear, bright, but vulnerably soft-edged soprano. Michael Wade Lee, as Luigi, convincingly balanced his character’s weariness and dependence on drink with romantic lyricism. The comprimari, tenor Theo Lebow as Il Tinca, bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as Il Talpa, and mezzo Margaret Lattimore as his wife, La Frugola, all gave colorful and well-sung performances. Interestingly, I think, when I remember this straight concert performance, images come to mind, as if it were fully staged. Human imagination and this practical mode of performance are fruitfully compatible.
While Il Tabarro was combined with an early symphonic exercise by Puccini (Capriccio sinfonico, 1883) and a somewhat overworked piano concerto by Giuseppe Martucci (1878), brilliantly played by Orion Weiss, Programs One (Opera, Politics, and the Italian) and Four (The Search for a Successor: Opera after Verdi) cast a wide net in bringing together excerpts from a wide range of different operatic genres and composers contemporary and surround Puccini’s generation. Program Eight: Music and fascism in Italy, included the Prelude from an significant and symptomatic opera of the early 1920s, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Lo straniero, to which the composer wrote his own libretto on an Old Testament subject. In any case, Program One ranged from Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), represented not by an operatic excerpt, but by his Inno a Garibaldi of 1861 and Verdi in the famous chorus from Nabucco (1842), “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” which became an unofficial national anthem and acquired a political subtext that was not originally intended, to Catalani, Mascagni, and Puccini, represented, respectively by substantial operatic excerpts: the finale of Loreley (1888), the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana (1890), and the Intermezzo and Act IV of Manon Lescaut (1893; 1923 version). The vocal parts were splendidly sung by soprano Melody Moore and tenor Russell Thomas, and the Orchestra NOW acquitted themselves with spirit, under the direction of Leon Botstein. In this, the late revision of Manon Lescaut, just a year before Puccini’s death, and Boïto’s unfinished Nerone, posthumously performed in 1924, six years after the librettist-composer’s death, brought us to the end of the core period of the festival. As mentioned at the beginning, many thought that Italian opera died with Puccini.
Program Four, a concert-lecture guided by Emanuele Senici, consisting of arias with piano accompaniment representing the major players in the world of Italian opera at the end of Verdi’s life: nor only Verdi himself, but Ponchielli, who was important as a teacher and mentor, Antonio Carlos Gomes (1836-96, a Brazilian who settled in Italy), Alberto Franchetti, Francesco Cilea, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Italo Montemezzi, Umberto Giordano, Riccardo Zandonai, and of course Mascagni and Puccini. While some of these saw the future of Italian opera under German (especially Wagner’s) influence, others looked to France for models. All of these composers represent a popular vein, with operas created as entertainment for wide audiences. The post-Puccinian generation was dominated by less compromising personalities, for example Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi. the operas of Puccini’s student, Franco Alfano, are largely forgotten—although his Cyrano de Bergerac will be revived at the Met this season. Only Gian Carlo Menotti, who emigrated to the United States, made much of a mark in writing operas of popular appeal.
The organizers are to be congratulated on managing to include so much opera in the established Bard Festival format, which relies on solo and chamber music to tell a good part of its story. Vocal recitals with piano accompaniment to the rescue…but Alfano was offered an opportunity to show himself as a distinct personality beyond that of the uninspired completer of Puccini’s unfinished Turandot in his Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano of 1932. A flashy, aggressive piece, richly worked out, it brought the audience to its feet in a long ovation for the composer as well as the superb musicians who have championed Alfano’s chamber music: violinist Elmira Dargarova, cellist Samuel Macgill, and pianist Blair McMillen.
Program Eleven: The Turandot Project
After this moment of glory Alfano found himself sidelined in the final concert of the festival, another program of opera, with Act III of Puccini’s Turandot performed with Luciano Berio’s completion (2001), paired with Ferruccio Busoni’s very different treatment of the same subject (1917). The contrast of these two works points directly to the great problem of Puccini’s final opera, his inability to find an ending for it. Both operas were based on a comic play by Carlo Gozzi (1762) after a pseudo-Chinese story which was included in Les mille et un jours, compiled, translated, and largely invented by the French orientalist François Pétis de la Croix. Of the two Busoni’s follows Gozzi’s original, which was an almost surreal review, incorporating commedia dell’arte characters and many diversions. In 1801, Friedrich von Schiller adapted Gozzi’s work into his own more coherent and serious play. This is the version for which Carl Maria von Weber wrote incidental music and which continued to be the more popular version throughout the 19th century. The qualities of Gozzi’s original were not appreciated until the 20th century. In 1905 Busoni wrote an orchestral suite based on Gozzi’s play. Later Max Reinhardt used this score as incidental music for his 1911 production in Berlin, where Busoni lived and worked.5 After the First World War broke out, Busoni moved to Switzerland. There he adapted his music into a short two-act opera that could be presented together with his one-act opera Arlecchino. It is not insignificant that this small-scale Turandot came into being under similar circumstances as Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. Busoni appreciated the fable or fairy-tale qualities of Gozzi’s play along with the intrusions of commedia dell’arte characters.
When the librettists Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami pitched a Turandot opera to Puccini at the beginning of 1920, they gave him an Italian translation of Schiller’s play to read. Puccini responded with enthusiasm, calling Turandot “the most normal and human of all Gozzi’s works.” Working with Schiller’s treatment, the librettists tried to make something psychologically coherent and sympathetic to Puccini’s usual bourgeois audience. Rather than attempting to humanize the murderous Chinese princess, Puccini conceived a new character, the nobly born slave-girl, Liù who dies under torture rather than betray the secret of the man she loves, thus making Turandot even more repellent. Puccini worked away on setting the libretto up through the death of Liù, and then he hit a wall. How could he make Calaf’s victory and the great kiss which transforms Turandot convincing, much less uplifting, for an audience? He got nowhere with this before his death in surgery in 1924. His modernizing of his musical style and orchestration was admirable, but he could not solve the problem of the presumably happy ending to the opera. It fell to Franco Alfano to write the ending—reluctantly, yielding to Toscanini’s insistence. The conductor was unhappy with Alfano’s first effort and made him write a second, shorter ending, more faithful to the sketches Puccini had left behind. This is what has been accepted as the standard conclusion to the opera, but it has never fully convinced audiences and critics. Eventually the Casa Ricordi commissioned a new attempt from Luciano Berio, the most prestigious Italian composer of his generation, known for his post-modern adaptations of works in the standard repertoire. This has attracted both admiration and criticism, and it has hardly been snapped up by mainstream opera companies. In it, Berio remained scrupulously faithful to Puccini’s notes, but he has translated them into his own musical idiom He made no attempt to conceal the obvious fact that Puccini wrote his Turandot in the early 1920s and he himself his finale in 2000. Typically, he weaves in quotations from other composers of the past, from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Schönberg’s Gurrelieder, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, almost slyly evoking an context for Puccini’s final opera—personal choices for sure—but these quotations do not seem precious to the listener, but intriguing echoes of Puccini’s musical environment, whatever his direct relationship to the quoted scores.
Berio’s ending is ultimately very beautiful, and its ambiguity serves the opera and Puccini well. Alfano’s conclusion, especially his original version, was both colored by his penchant for brash high spirits and conventional in its professionally managed build-up to the triumphant happy ending of an exotic fairy tale. The audience are insulated from its improbability by their presumed acceptance of this fairy tale reality. The cut, standard ending, imposed on Alfano by Toscanini, jumps to grand final chorus in a perfunctory way that makes the ending something worse than conventional—absurd, perhaps even a bit silly. A sensitive study of the music Puccini had written would have ruled out both of these solutions. By following Schiller’s interpretation and humanizing and psychologizing the story even further, making a middle ground between the sentiment of verismo and the fairy tale, Puccini created a goal for himself that was beyond his reach. Was it a heartfelt apotheosis of the power of love, ennobled by Calaf’s bravery and determination and Turandot’s divine grandeur? Or was it something transcendent? Berio found both in Puccini’s score and was able to respond to both in an inclusive, balanced way. Berio did not see a conventional happy ending in Turandot, rather a result that is both ambiguous in terms of the lives of the characters and otherworldly, since it is only on that plane that a love that is willing to sacrifice life itself and superhuman cruelty can be reconciled.
The chorus begins Berio’s finale pianissimo and returns to introduce an intimately felt mood entirely alien to Alfano’s version. The focus varies between the perhaps labile intimacy between the two protagonists and the celestial region they are moving towards. Berio’s harmonies and orchestrations are not at all alien to Puccini. They are related by their origin in Berio’s response to the score of Turandot. However, he arranges them in surprising ways, which alert us to the unresolved, fragmentary thought of Puccini’s sketches, which he faithfully included. I felt Maestro Botstein was striving for what was most characteristically Berio in this music. However, it is possible to play it in a way which brings out Berio’s efforts to fit in with Puccini’s. Riccardo Chailly, for example, followed this sympathetic communality in his interpretation. Both approaches are valid, I believe. Botstein brought us more radically into other worlds: Berio’s on the one hand and his vision of an eternal cosmos on the other.
Melody Moore applied her generous, warm voice to both the Busonian and the Puccinian Turandots. She mustered more than enough willful grandeur to bring off Puccini’s renowned creation with the requisite power. Otherwise the casts were entirely different. Each were vocally very strong, led in the Busoni by a fine Heldentenor, Richard Cox, who already has Florestan, Loge, Lohengrin, and Siegmund under his belt, and in the Puccini by Russell Thomas, a tenor in the finest spinto tradition, who made a great impression as Des Grieux in the last act of Manon Lescaut, performed at the beginning of the festival. Soprano Cecilia Violetta López, who brought a sumptuous voice and southern warmth to several songs early in the festival was an outstasning Liù, fully inhabiting the pathos of her demise, with more animation and passion than is usual.
The singers acted as effectively as the apparatus of the semi-staging allowed them. I have not been especially taken with the semi-staged productions adopted by the Bard Festival over the past few years. They have ranged between the hasty and the ridiculous. At the very least they are distracting, and at the most they are irritating. In this Turandot double-bill—or “Project,” the technique proved the most deleterious of all, since it distorted the scale and style of Busoni’s intimate work by presenting it on the same “stage” as Turandot, that is, with a parapet in front and steps for the singers to go to different levels and even prowl around the orchestra. Busoni was enough of an aesthete to have been offended by the cheap-looking, ugly costumes, and the clumsy action on stage was a disservice to the commedia dell’arte element, which can’t be tossed off with a few rehearsals. In talking to other audience members during the intermission, I had the impression that many people just didn’t “get” what Busoni was after in his sophisticated “pre-postmodern” entertainment. It would have come across better as a straight concert performance—either that or a fully-developed staging. Turandot perhaps suffered less, because of its scale and power, but there were also numerous inappropriate gestures in the “staging,” for example, Calaf casually straddling the parapet, as he waits for the dawn and the resolution of his fate. R. B. Schlather was stage director, and Paul Tate dePoo III was scenic designer. JAX Messenger’s lighting was superb, as always.
This compromised the excellent idea of pairing Act III of Puccini’s Turandot with Busoni’s. Puccini at least knew about Max Reinhardt’s production, and it gave the audience some idea—if historically distant and mediated through the rebirth of interest in commedia dell’arte in the twentieth Century—of Gozzi’s original. They are however, such different works in spirit and scale, that a producer should take special care to separate them in theatrical space and style.
There is no need to end this account of the Bard Festival—always an exciting and joyful occasion—on this low note about the “production values” of a musically successful performance. There were plenty of other concerts and lectures and panels to remember with pleasure and enlightenment. Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss headed an array of fine pianists and other instrumentalists.
Puccini came from a long line of church composers in his native Lucca, and he wrote a few ecclesiastical works in his youth. The first program of the festival, following Verdi’s famous chorus from Nabucco, included a mature choral work of Puccini’s, which is in fact not strictly an ecclesiastical work, although it is called Requiem. It is a brief piece he composed in 1905 for a performance in a retirement home for musicians to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death. Scored for chorus, solo viola and organ it is a heartfelt tribute to the greatest Italian composer of the nineteenth century from his successor. The performance, directed by the remarkable James Bagwell, was riveting. Choral intonation was perfect, every detail seemed in place, and the piece was truly moving, making those five minutes among the most memorable of the festival.
Continuing—and concluding—in the choral vein, Bard regulars know that one of the most musically satisfying sessions of every festival, year after year, is the Sunday morning a capella concert by the Bard Festival Chorus under James Bagwell’s direction. He has developed the Bard Festival Chorus into a multi-talented virtuoso ensemble, with high technical standards, excellent diction in several languages, a command of many colors, and a passion for acting. In these Sunday morning concerts we are treated to a select group of these excellent singers, concentrating on an historical topic that cuts through the history behind the festival’s main subject. This program sandwiched Verdi’s learned—and surpassingly beautiful—Ave Maria from the Quattro pezzi sacri, as well as his Laudi alla Vergine Maria from the same collection between a movement from Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria and two madrigals by Luca Marenzio, a younger contemporary of Palestrina. There followed further madrigals by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, and Vecchi. The program closed with three religious pieces by Pizzetti, Vivaldi, and Puccini’s homonymous ancestor, who lived through most of the eighteenth century. The line of tradition is clear, and Verdi was as capable of honoring it as the more overtly retrospective Pizzetti. Verdi studied the music of Palestrina with enthusiasm, as much to affirm his Italian national identity as to learn the sixteenth century master’s art of counterpoint, as Byron Adams observed in his excellent program note. Then, later in his career, between the composition of Otello (1886-87) and Falstaff (1893), he wrote a series of tributes to Palestrina: first the Laudi, a setting of the Hymn to the Virgin in the last Canto of Dante’s Paradiso, and second, the Ave Maria, which he composed in response to a musical puzzle published in the Gazzetta musicale di Milano on an “enigmatic scale.” In these two spare, concentrated masterpieces Verdi followed what what was then the current view that Palestrina intended his liturgical music for a cappella choir. When Ricordi came to publish these, they joined them with two later works in the modern style for choir and orchestra, a Te Deum (1895-6) and a Stabat Mater (1896-7). Those two works were performed with as much precision as sensitivity and marked a musical high point in the festival.
Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, and the others were splendidly served by the festival, largely because of the quality of the singers, who were on the whole so intelligently cast in their many roles, and because of Maestro Botstein’s insight into and sympathy for the orchestral and operatic writing of the early modern period in Italy. Puccini deserves the respect and admiration that musicologists have been willing to grant him in recent years. In working with operatic dramaturgy, one can only learn from him and his various librettists, whom he dominated to some degree, and even if he lacked the moral and political stature of Verdi, few composers took their craft more seriously. Leon Botstein and his team did well in choosing to confront Puccini’s particular excellences and shortcomings, as well as the issues of his time. One issue, much-discussed in the talks and panels, but persuasively dispatched by Ben Earle in his penetrating essay6, that is, the establishment of fascism in Italy and the reflection of its ideology in Puccini’s work, specificallly Turandot. Puccini, never an intellectual, was at heart a bourgeois materialist who saw a threat to his well-being in Communism and Socialism. He believed that a strongman like Mussolini was what Italy needed at the time. He received an honor from the fascist government and approached Il Duce about a national opera house, to no avail. Some scholars believe that elements of fascism found their way into Turandot, not least in the male triumph over the bloodthirsty, man-hating woman, but this is not at all persuasive, if we consider what the opera, taken as a whole, is actually about.
Except for the vilest of opportunists, the response to Mussolini was complex and changing, and for that reason the political behavior of Italians in the 1920s has to be studied closely and precisely, if at all. Fascism is for the most part such aberrant behavior that it is difficult for anyone who does not embrace it to come near it for study. On the other hand, most horrifyingly, it is all too human. Facing this extraordinary dilemma, the informed student may resort to a clinical method, cutting himself off from a present emergency. Michael Mann has adopted the useful dichotomy of the word fascist to denote the academic’s concept and “Fascist!” for the popular sense, which might occur to anyone as he reads the newspaper or deals with daily life.7 From the perspective of his book, it is clear that there was much that couldn’t be grasped or discussed by the generations who lived through fascist dictatorships. It is possible that we may experience yet another shift of perspective.
- Puccini and his World, Princeton, 2016, p. 183. ↩
- An excellent performance of the rarely performed Sancta Susanna from the Opéra de Lyon is currently available on The Opera Platform. ↩
- op. cit, pp. 323-36. ↩
- Respighi’s setting of Roberto Ascoli’s translation of Shelley’s poem, “The Sunset,” performed at the 2011 Bard Festival, devoted to Sibelius, belongs to the same milieu. ↩
- Puccini, contrary to common belief, did not see this production. He rather knew of it through an acquaintance. Puccini, Letter to Simoni, March 18, 1920, ed. Gara (766, 490), cited by M. Girardi, Puccini, His International Art, Chicago, 2000, p. 444. ↩
- Ben Earle, “Puccini, Fascism, and the Case of Turandot,” op. cit., pp. 159-182. ↩
- Michael Mann, Fascists, Cambridge, 2004, pp. ixf. ↩