The Puccini Problem:
Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity
Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007. 321 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: BABA - By an academic for academics.
How can one of the most popular classical composers in history possibly
be thought "problematical?" Opera houses make their seasons on Puccini's
works, after all. Yet how often does one find any mention of Puccini,
let alone favorable mention, in reference works on twentieth-century
music? Other than Rosenkavalier, I can't think of a twentieth-century
opera as popular as Tosca, Madame Butterfly, or Turandot. Nevertheless,
one of my favorite music critics refers to "melodies cheaper than Puccini,"
and Joseph Kerman famously called Tosca "a shabby little shocker." Even
though Puccini's critical reputation has risen somewhat in recent years,
it's still obviously okay to dismiss him and by extension the audience
that goes for his work. Much as I would love Luigi Dallapiccola's Ulisse
or Berg's Lulu to become repertory staples, I must admit that the audience
that keeps opera going will prefer La boheme for many years to come. An
obvious disconnect has arisen.
Alexandra Wilson searches for the source of the disconnect, which she
locates (a surprise to me) in Puccini's reception within Italy itself.
The tropes of these criticisms have found their way into the international
critical discourse, often without the critics themselves understanding
the original context of the opinions they have received.
According to Wilson, Puccini's reception must be viewed in the context
of Italian nationalism. After the unification of Italy in 1861, the
politician Massimo d' Azeglio supposedly said, "we have made Italy; now
we must make Italians." Since the Roman Empire, at any rate, Italy was
never really a country, but a geographic proximity of regions. The
Italian language was a hodge-podge of dialects. A Tuscan in the north
might have great difficulty understanding a Sicilian in the south. As
hard and costly as it was, the political unification of the country
amounted to a cakewalk, compared to the country's cultural unification,
which one can argue has not to this day taken place. Consequently,
artists felt a great pressure to demonstrate their "Italianness." The
problem is that Italian art, with few exceptions, no longer mattered.
Italian painting had declined since the glory days of the Renaissance.
Italy had a few excellent writers, but they tended to have little influence
even outside their region. The composer who fit the bill, post-1861,
who became the ideal all other artists should strive for, was Verdi,
whose operas played world-wide. Even so, most Italian critics looked
uneasily at Falstaff and Otello. One reads here and there of rumblings
that Verdi had become too "international" (read "Wagnerian"), but the
critics played this down in their hagiographic idealization and in their
anxious concern, sometimes crossing the line into hysteria, for a distinct
and "healthy" Italian art.
Around the time of Manon, the publishing house of Ricordi (and its
mighty publicity machine) tapped Puccini as the next Golden Boy and began
to build him up according to these nationalist ideas. It was largely
hagiography in the making. Puccini was portrayed in the press not only
as the ideal Italian composer but as the ideal Italian man: a perfect
Tuscan specimen, physically-fit sportsman (despite his paunch), artistically
honest, "sincere," direct, and tuneful. Manon, of course, enjoyed a
fair amount of popularity in the Italian houses, as did The Mighty Three
of La boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. But with each of those operas,
the Italian critics, particularly the ones who actually knew something
about music, found Puccini more and more wanting. They began to turn
the earlier cliches on their head. Puccini was increasingly insincere,
"feminized," international rather than Italian, distant, and, worse -
hard as it may be for us to fathom today - no tunes! They bashed him
for not fitting Italian opera to the complexities of Wagner and bashed
him some more when he began to move in that direction as insufficiently
Italian. They began looking suspiciously at the fact that more of his
premieres were taking place outside of Italy. They pointed to his
popularity as a sign of artistic insipidity, pandering to the comfortable
middle class. The Futurists and the progressive Italian proto-modernists
sneered at him as bourgeois and, as Italy's most prominent and financially
successful contemporary artist, single-handedly responsible for Italian
social degeneracy. They also showed an even darker side: the urging of
Italy into war, any war, to purge the land by fire, raging misogyny,
hatred of democracy, and the seeds of Fascism. Many of these folks
seemed overwhelmed by their own testosterone.
The Italian critical reaction against Puccini came to a head in 1912,
with the publication of Fausto Torrefranca's Giacomo Puccini e l' opera
internazionale. Of course, the word "international" should tip us off
right away that Torrefranca wasn't tossing bouquets Puccini's way. Most
of the aesthetic charges leveled against Puccini had been made before,
but Torrefranca took them to pathological extremes. He implied Puccini's
homosexuality (a laugh, if one considers the composer's philandering).
He railed against the "femininity" of the operas and used Puccini's
dramatic sympathy for women against him as a serious artist. Indeed,
Torrefranca's frenzied railing on this point and his hatred and fear of
women should intrigue readers to wonder about his own sexuality. Puccini's
international success meant that he couldn't possibly be Italian. He
was a polyglot, a traitor, a Jew. Tosca was smutty and "French," Butterfly
"superficial," and La Fanciulla international and insincere. Many of
these criticisms found their way abroad.
Oddly enough, the brand-name Fascists adopted Puccini as a culture hero,
and Puccini, fundamentally apolitical, expressed admiration for Mussolini
after the March on Rome. The premiere of Turandot, two years after the
composer's death, was a glittering affair with a lot of money behind it,
and Wilson notes that it had elements of a memorial service about it.
The Fascist papers proclaimed it a triumph (and dissenters kept their
mouths shut), but, significantly, it seldom ran in Italy for decades.
The current high regard for this opera dates from well after World War
II, and it began outside Italy.
Obviously, critics had no clue as to the treasure that walked among them.
Sadly, foreign critics took up many of these notions. The current vogue
for Schenkerian analysis doesn't work all that well for most opera, and
we have no critical vocabulary for analyzing a melody as uncomplicated
and as beautiful as "Shenandoah." Critics tend to raise up the things
they can talk about. If writing a "Puccini melody" were all that easy,
I guarantee more composers would do it. Indeed, composers have tried,
usually with no success (viz., A. Lloyd Webber). Also, at least since
Adorno, popularity has been regarded as incompatible with true art.
One suspects the popular. Popularity of great art belongs to future
generations; understanding doesn't come immediately (except to those
elite souls qualified to appreciate it) and certainly not to the current
masses. I have never understood how anyone can read this kind of nonsense
and fail to recognize it as such.
Obviously, Puccini isn't a "symphonic" composer like Wagner, although
he is a coherent one. His scenes hang together, as do his acts. As he
got older, he wrote fewer arias and relied more and more on an arioso
style, brilliantly inventive in itself (just compare him with Zandonai).
As to the question of his italianita: name a more "Italian" composer
after the death of Verdi. Most of these criticisms have behind them,
I believe, an older notion of opera, essentially the full-blown Verdian
type. One of Puccini's great innovations was the scale and kind of story
that he chose (exactly what critics hold against him). The Verdian opera
begins in the bel canto era and heightens the drama. We get either grand
tragedy or buffa. It's a heady mix, but it doesn't suit all stories.
Significantly, Puccini's great critical success in the 1910s was Gianni
Schicchi, a straight buffa. As great as Traviata is, it's a lot of power
for the story's milieu, as if Alfredo should be wearing a toga or at
least a powdered wig. Puccini gives us something smaller (excepting
Turandot), more lyrical, closer to contemporary drama and stories, not
to mention reality. Essentially, Puccini opened up the kinds of stories
available to composers. An opera like Weill's Mahagonny or Street Scene
wouldn't have been possible without Puccini.
Wilson has not written a book for the faint of heart. It reads like a
reworked Ph.D. thesis. In short, it ain't light reading. But there's a
solid, complex argument, backed up by terrific research, and a payoff
to those who keep with it. It may even stand as a milestone in Puccini
scholarship. I hope she follows it up.
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