Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Puccini and the Evolution of Italian Opera

(This essay appeared in the Program Book of  Opera Company of Brooklyn's production of Puccini's Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica on 9/23/11 in NYC)

       Tonight’s Opera Company of Brooklyn presentation of two one-act operas by Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924),   Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”) and Suor Angelica (“Sister Angelica”),  from   Il Trittico  (“The Triptych”) shines the spotlight on a composer who, to many opera-goers and music lovers, is the most “popular” of all time. Puccini certainly deserves his place among the greatest of operatic composers, but why is it that his music, his operas in particular, have resonated so deeply with so many over so long, now more than a century?  It is often said that “success has many fathers,” so it is important to understand the sources of Puccini’s creative process and his phenomenal success, both in his lifetime and today.

    Opera, as crisply defined by Professor Robert Greenberg in his delightful course on the topic for the Teaching Company, “is a drama that combines soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action and continuous music.” And this musical drama could be serious (opera seria), comic (opera buffa) or somewhere in between (dramma giocoso). Greenberg goes on to remind us that “opera is posited on a single and simple idea – that music has the power to distill, crystallize and intensify the meaning of words. This is the essence of song.” Indeed, in Puccini’s operas, this dramatic intensity of song, a combination of the fortuitous marriage of excellent librettists (the exception, not the rule) and the emotionally supercharged musicality of the composer, makes for some of the most monumental and compelling experiences in all of music.

    Opera has been around a very long time, well over 400 years. Most scholars agree that opera arose from the musical concepts of the Florentine Camerata of the late 16th century. The Camerata, a private philosophical academy, posited a theory of music quite new for its time, based on and returning to classical Greek ideals- again, from Professor Greenberg, “and this music must transmit the feelings and emotions of the character who is singing.” Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, which premiered in Florence in 1587, was the first work that could be called an opera. Sadly, the music to that work is lost. Even Peri’s Euridice (1600) is hardly ever performed today. To Claudio Monteverdi is thus the credit given, with his majestic Orfeo from 1607, as having originated the operatic ideal.

     Opera is, as well, a product of the country and culture in which it was written. Germany, France, Russia,  Czech Republic and Italy, have all birthed splendid and distinctly different operatic styles, a consequence of the unique vocalizations of their different languages, and of the historical, cultural and political milieux in which they were written. Even within one country, opera changed dramatically over the centuries, to remain “relevant” and popular within a society that was changing dramatically as well. Before TV and radio, and before the rise of a middle class that was literate enough to read as voluminously as we do today, opera was the go-to activity for many people. People got dressed up; it was a night out; it was a social scene (not that opening night galas today are not) but back then for sure, it was a very big deal !  So, operas had to be spectacles, but also had to bend and change with the times, to excite audiences anew, to be fresh and relevant.

     Any of these countries could stake a claim as the epicenter of the operatic art form. But Italy and Italian opera take pride of place, not only because of Italy’s history as the incubator of opera from the very fountain of its birth, but moreover with the consistently exceptional quality of music and libretti stemming from the quills and pens of Italian composers and librettists. Even two Germans – Mozart and Handel – wrote many of their most inspired operas in Italian working with Italian librettists. This fortuitous combination of artistic exceptionalism carried through the centuries.  From the opening fanfare of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, through the soaring vocal pyrotechnics of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso, to the bel canto elegance of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. to the sheer power of Verdi’s Don Carlo culminating in the heartbreak of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Italian opera amazes us through the centuries. And from Monteverdi’s time up through Puccini’s, Italian operatic composers often had superb libretti from which to draw their compelling musical inspirations.

    This relationship of the music to the libretto is an old one. Indeed, it was yet another Italian composer, working in Vienna as court composer, namely Antonio Salieri, who in 1780 wrote an opera on this very theme, “Prima la musica e poi le parole” – “First the music and then the words.”   For Salieri, the music always came first, and the words, which would be the libretto or the story line, followed. That same theme, which is really an unresolvable question, “what comes first in the creative process of opera, the music or the words? ” was also elegantly explored by Richard Strauss, 150 years after Salieri, in his last opera “Capriccio” (1942). The answer is moot; either way, the outcome is powerful.

     So, Puccini sat on the shoulders of four centuries worth of operatic composers’ masterpieces, and on a half century of dramatic changes in art, music and literature. The two operas from Il Trittico that we hear this evening, Il Tabarro  and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), both dramas, both with heartbreaking endings, display aspects of what has come to be called the “verismo” style of operatic writing. We would transliterate this in English as “truthfulness,” “realism” or “naturalism.”  Realism as an artistic style was already happening in literature (Balzac, Zola, Capuana) and in painting (Courbet, Millet, Daumier). It was a democratization of art, a renunciation of classicism, and a new focus on depicting the lives of the common people, an identification with “the little guy.” No longer were operas written about lofty subjects, like the Norse Gods of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, kings and queens as in Verdi’s Aida and Don Carlo or Shakespearean characters in his Falstaff and Otello.  Opera purists state that not all of Puccini’s operas adhere to the verismo style. All agree, however, on the two that are truly verismo operas: Tosca and tonight’s  Il Tabarro. With verismo operas, the daily and sordid affairs of the common man and woman came to the fore. And, with the advent of verismo style, beginning with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, Puccini and his librettists (among them Luigi Illica, who wrote the libretti for Chenier as well as Puccini’s Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Boheme) already had a strong verismo template to guide them on character development and music style.

    Of course, Puccini was also a masterful musical chimera. He learned and took from his artistic idols. After hearing a performance of Verdi’s Aida in 1880, he decided to dedicate his own life’s work to opera. Puccini was also a student of Wagner - he attended Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889, and enjoyed Wagner’s operas immensely.  As Professor Alexandra Wilson states, “some aspects of Puccini’s verismo style have a Wagnerian influence:  the descriptive orchestral passages…,  the quasi-symphonic organization of certain scenes, and a use of motifs...”  Indeed, Puccini’s use of these motifs, such as the recurring theme we hear in Tosca announcing Scarpia’s entrances, or the theme  in tonight’s  Il Tabarro when Giorgietta and Luigi are together, harken back to their  leitmotif forebears  in Wagner’s   Ring and Parsifal.

   Maestro Antonio Pappano says : “There is a cruel irony in the fact that one of the greatest composers for the human voice, Giaccomo Puccini,  died of throat cancer in 1924, and the supremacy of Italian opera died with him.” He died  before finishing his last opera, Turandot.

Music that was so ravishing, intimate, clever, tender, flirtatious, violent passionate, erotic,  ever heard in the opera house the theater and beyond. Puccini wanted his works to be simple and straightforward. He said of his operatic style “l’evidenza della situazione” so that the audience could follow the story without understanding the words, an Italian language uniquey created to glorify the voice.
     Puccini’s works and legacy have always been stuck in a quagmire, the so-called “Puccini Paradox.” Rossini’s operas were full of vocal pyrotechnics, musical high wire acts with soaring arias. Wagner and Verdi had created operas that were complex,”highbrow”  if you will,  nationalistic and with an organic whole. Verdi especially created opera that was a powerful symbol of the Italian identify. These works became the benchmarks by which Puccini’s output was measured.
     As the heir apparent of the Italian operatic tradition, Puccini was expected not only to continue this organicity in his own compositions, but also to bring Italian opera into the twentieth century with that life-affirming Italian spirit inherent in its music, whole and intact, and not devolved into a “copy-cat” or derivative artistic style; a tough challenge for any composer. As a result, in comparison with Rossini, Wagner and Verdi, Puccini was criticized throughout his career as writing music in too much haste, that was too simplistic, too facile, too “lowbrow,” despite its immense popularity with the opera-going public on both sides of the Atlantic. The critics called Puccini’s works “disappointing, cheap, empty, trivial” even as his operas were sellouts.  This criticism is at odds with his long-term success.  How can we square such a paradox?

     The answer, of course, is in the music itself. Puccini amalgamated the best aspects of the Italian operatic tradition and made it modern, fresh and memorable.  Puccini was one of the shrewdest masters of musical theater who ever composed;  he was the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his time.  Puccini developed his operas’ characters with such sweep and power, such fidelity to reality, to the raw, true emotions of love, rage, passion and loss, to a greater extent than his contemporaries, that his works literally “tug at our heartstrings.”  Much of his music had a rich, innovative vibrancy, even if the tunes were “popular.”  The critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote that Puccini “shamelessly and skillfully” created works of art that were at once “sincere and manipulative, creating music that was relentlessly memorable even-maybe especially- at its most saccharine.” That was Puccini’s genius.  That was his art. And as you listen this evening, see if you don’t have your own deep, heartfelt emotional response to opera by Italy’s master musical dramatist, Giacomo Puccini.

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

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