Giacomo Puccini and His World
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Giacomo Puccini and His World

Arman Schwartz, Emanuele Senici, Arman Schwartz, Emanuele Senici

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eBook - ePub

Giacomo Puccini and His World

Arman Schwartz, Emanuele Senici, Arman Schwartz, Emanuele Senici

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About This Book

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) is the world's most frequently performed operatic composer, yet he is only beginning to receive serious scholarly attention. In Giacomo Puccini and His World, an international roster of music specialists, several writing on Puccini for the first time, offers a variety of new critical perspectives on the composer and his works. Containing discussions of all of Puccini's operas from Manon Lescaut (1893) to Turandot (1926), this volume aims to move beyond clichés of the composer as a Romantic epigone and to resituate him at the heart of early twentieth-century musical modernity.This collection's essays explore Puccini's engagement with spoken theater and operetta, and with new technologies like photography and cinema. Other essays consider the philosophical problems raised by "realist" opera, discuss the composer's place in a variety of cosmopolitan formations, and reevaluate Puccini's orientalism and his complex interactions with the Italian fascist state. A rich array of primary source material, including previously unpublished letters and documents, provides vital information on Puccini's interactions with singers, conductors, and stage directors, and on the early reception of the verismo movement. Excerpts from Fausto Torrefranca's notorious Giacomo Puccini and International Opera, perhaps the most vicious diatribe ever directed against the composer, appear here in English for the first time.The contributors are Micaela Baranello, Leon Botstein, Alessandra Campana, Delia Casadei, Ben Earle, Elaine Fitz Gibbon, Walter Frisch, Michele Girardi, Arthur Groos, Steven Huebner, Ellen Lockhart, Christopher Morris, Arman Schwartz, Emanuele Senici, and Alexandra Wilson.

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PART I
Essays
Realism and Skepticism in Puccini’s Early Operas
ARMAN SCHWARTZ
The final act of Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito’s 1876 opera La Gioconda takes place in “the entry hall of a dilapidated palace” on Venice’s Giudecca island. It is a lonely, indeterminate space, designed to contrast maximally with the glamorous, public, and—to any tourist or collector of lithographs—familiar Venetian tableaux that had dominated the previous three acts. As the curtain opens, Gioconda, a beautiful singer, is struggling to reconcile herself to an awful bargain she has made: she will offer her body to the malicious spy Barnaba if he frees Enzo, the object of her own unrequited love. After securing safe passage out of the city for Enzo and his lover, Laura, Gioconda attempts to flee, only to be cornered by her nemesis. There is no way out, and the singer consents to Barnaba’s proposal, asking only for a moment to pretty herself first. Then, unexpectedly, Gioconda pulls out a small dagger and stabs herself in the heart. She “falls to the ground as if struck by lightning,” and the opera concludes with what must count as one of the strangest stage directions in the history of Italian opera: “Bending over the corpse of Gioconda and screaming into her ear with furious voice,” Barnaba informs her that he has killed her mother.
The unforgettable image of a man screaming into a dead woman’s ear has no precedent in the literary source for La Gioconda, Victor Hugo’s 1835 play Angelo, tyran de Padoue, nor does it feature in Saverio Mercadante and Gaetano Rossi’s Il giuramento (1837), an earlier opera inspired by Hugo’s text. Yet however murky its origins, Ponchielli and Boito’s conceit would soon take on a life of its own. Scenes in which men confront deaf or silent women appear prominently in both Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) and his La bohème (1896), and there are clear parallels between the conclusion of La Gioconda and the second act of Tosca (1900). (Indeed, if Puccini’s diva had stabbed herself instead of Scarpia, the two scenes would be hard to tell apart.) This chapter proposes that the final act of La Gioconda constitutes something like the primal scene of Puccini’s oeuvre; it is a scene he would revisit throughout his career, recasting its climactic confrontation in increasingly sublimated forms. By tracking these recurrences, we may gain a new understanding of Puccini’s early operas. More specifically, we may be prompted to reconsider the composer’s relationship with the verismo movement, and with the aesthetic and philosophical anxieties it provoked. Taking my cue from recent scholarship on the dramaturgy of “skepticism” in realist spoken theater, I suggest that Puccini uses isolated, desperate characters—figures who, like Barnaba, struggle to establish meaningful connections with those around them—in order to engage with larger questions about the situation of opera in a silent, newly disenchanted world.
From La Gioconda to Manon Lescaut
Although it remained enormously popular in Italy for generations after its premiere, La Gioconda might not seem to have had, from the perspective of current historiography, much of an afterlife at all. Ponchielli is often depicted as a conservative stalwart, purveying Meyerbeerian “effects without causes” well after the genre of grand opera had faded from fashion.1 Nonetheless, La Gioconda exhibits a decidedly nontraditional anxiety about its own medial conditions. Diegetic performances, those hallowed vehicles for operatic self-reflection, abound in La Gioconda, and a relentless thematization of the human mouth—from the heroine’s Leonardine name to the menacing statue of a bocca di leone that looms over the first act set and the speaking trumpets that the sailors place on their lips at the start of Act 2—helps call attention to the physicality of vocal production.2 Hearing, too, takes on extraordinary importance: one of the main characters is blind, and many others spend whole scenes in masks. Barnaba may be the only spy in La Gioconda, but his profession is an apt metaphor for all the inhabitants of Ponchielli’s world.
The opera’s pervasive concern with performance, hearing, and spectatorship coalesces in its final scene. Crucially, Gioconda begins by describing herself as an operatic diva:
T’arresta. Raffrena il selvaggio delirio!
Halt. Restrain your savage joy!
Vo’ farmi più gaia, più fulgida ancor.
I want to make myself even more gay and bright.
Per te voglio ornare la bionda mia testa
For you I want to adorn my blonde head
di porpora e d’or!
with purple and gold!
Con tutti gli orpelli sacrati alla scena
I’m already covered with all the tinsel of the
dei pazzi teatri coperta già son.
stages of frivolous theaters.
Ascolta di questa sapiente sirena
Listen to the sweet song
la dolce canzon.
of this skillful siren.
Ponchielli’s music here amplifies Boito’s imagery. Gioconda sings a series of flashy, but stock coloratura gestures—laughing ornaments, staccato broken triads—that sound nothing like the weightier music given to her elsewhere in the opera. Julian Budden has despaired that Gioconda’s “descent […] to the coquettish language of Violetta in Act 1 of La traviata verges on the bathetic.”3 Yet her lapse into an earlier and more self-consciously performative mode of operatic expression, at precisely the moment in which she presents herself as an opera singer, must be Ponchielli’s point. Barnaba, too, is transported to the operatic past. Listening to Gioconda’s “dolce canzon” he repeats the old formulas of Romantic desire—“Ebbrezza! Delirio!”—as mechanically as did any primo ottocento hero.4
Both the musical style and the distinctive poetic meter change the instant Barnaba realizes that he has been deceived:
Ah! ferma! irrision!… ebben … or tu …
Ah! stop! derision! … well then … now you …
m’odi … e muori dannata:
hear me … and die damned:
(curvandosi sul cadavere di Gioconda e gridandogli all’ orecchio con voce furibonda)
(bending over Gioconda’s corpse and screaming with a furious voice in her ear)
Ier tua madre m’ha offeso! Io l’ho affogata!
Yesterday your mother offended me! I drowned her!
Non ode più!!
She hears no more!!
Ponchielli sets these faltering lines to a series of chromatically ascending octave drops that sound like a desperate attempt to reassert authority, but also suggest a voice on the verge of breaking. Similarly, Barnaba’s words are both emphatic and inscrutable. Is it Gioconda, or her mother, that no longer hears him? Should “m’odi” be translated as “you hear me” or (as some English language translators render the phrase) “you hate me”?5 It is as if Gioconda’s deafness has infected the audience; we, as much as the protagonist, are unable to fathom the message that Barnaba so violently intones.
Indeed, the final moments of La Gioconda are full of strange transfers and reversals. Just as previously Barnaba had been a passive spectator, now he struggles to make himself heard. By a similar logic, Gioconda ceases to perform for Barnaba and is instead recast, however unwillingly, as his silent audience. Barnaba’s final speech to Gioconda’s corpse might thus be described as replaying the earlier deception scene, but with its conventionalized gender roles reversed. Yet this reversal also unchains a string of paradoxes: a performer who speaks sincerely, an audience that cannot hear. If the final scene of La Gioconda asks to be read as an allegory of theatrical performance, it is a cautionary tale: truth and meaningful connection are precluded from its rigid roles. Perhaps this is why Barnarba, after emitting a final unpitched and incoherent “Ah!!!,” rushes off into the darkened alleyways of Venice. They resemble the mess of hallways that wind behind the stage of any theater: a maze to get lost in, but also a place to hide from the footlights’ deadly glare.
With this cluster of concerns in mind, let us turn from the fourth act of La Gioconda to the fourth act of Manon Lescaut. Puccini studied composition with Ponchielli during his final two years at the Milan Conservatory (1882–83) and La Gioconda was a formative influence on the young composer. From it, Puccini learned the technique of recycling short melodic fragments to create grand orchestral perorations at the end of acts, and he drew on La Gioconda for more local models as well. “Suicidio!,” Gioconda’s famous final aria, seems clearly to have inspired “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” Manon’s last, and equally despairing, solo utterance.
Puccini also seems to have adapted from La Gioconda an altogether more eccentric set of dramaturgical ideas. Like his teacher’s opera, Manon Lescaut follows three busy, crowded acts with a shorter final act that focuses exclusively on the main characters and seems designed to frustrate expectations for spectacle. (Here the scene is a flat and barren desert “on the borders of New Orleans.”) What is more, and perhaps not unrelated to these final scenic voids, both La Gioconda and Manon Lescaut feature heroines who seem to lack coherent selves. In Budden’s assessment of the former work, “Gioconda herself is less a personality than a succession of moods and attitudes—wilting and forlorn in Act One, the avenging tigress in Act Two, an almost ‘veristic’ victim in her great aria in Act Four.”6 Similarly, Alessandra Campana describes how Manon “adapts to the changing background, mirroring and fulfilling the expectations prepared by each setting.”7 Campana perceives a connection between the large-scale dramaturgy of Manon Lescaut and the peculiar character of the heroine who inhabits it. If the first three acts of Puccini’s opera position Manon as the willing object of the audience’s gaze (sutured through the obsessive onstage looking of Manon’s lover, Des Grieux), the last act implies that, outside of this spectacular structure, there is nothing. Tellingly, and thinking back again to La Gioconda, Campana invokes the figure of a spy to make her argument. In Acts 1 through 3, we look at Manon as if through a keyhole; in Act 4, we hear footsteps, and realize that we, too, are being seen. “No longer hidden behind the look of onstage spectators, those in the theatre are abruptly deprived of that illusion of mastery over the scene that they had been surreptitiously and repeatedly granted thus far,” Campana writes, and her words could easily be applied to the final moments of Ponchielli’s opera.8 So could her final judgment: “Act Four reveals how the operatic machinery is necessarily founded on voyeurism.”9
Like many critics since the work’s premiere, Campana treats the last act of Manon Lescaut as a single, undifferentiated span of time. It may be possible, though, to pinpoint the moment when the “operatic machinery” fi...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Permissions
  7. Introduction: Puccini, His World, and Ours
  8. Part I: Essays
  9. Part II: Documents
  10. Index
  11. Notes on Contributors