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Book Review

The Puccini Problem

The Puccini Problem

Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity

Alexandra Wilson
Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007. 321 pp
ISBN-10: 0521856884
ISBN-13: 978-0521856881
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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 bohème 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 bohème, 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 clichés 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 real 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 italianità: 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.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz.