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Book Review

Puccini Without Excuses

Puccini Without Excuses

A Refreshing Reassessment of the
World's Most Popular Composer

William Berger
New York: Vintage Books. 2005. 471 pp
ISBN 1400077788
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: A fast read, with the occasional speed bump.

I suppose one has to sell books, but I'd love to know how Berger arrived at Giacomo Puccini as the World's Most Popular Composer. Judging by the number of recordings, I would have guessed Mozart, especially since he had a dumb play and movie in which somebody with his name was a main character. However, I don't seriously object to the marketing, particularly when Berger has gotten so many things right.

Berger attempts to reach three seemingly contradictory goals. First, he wants to introduce the novice to Puccini or even to opera itself. Second, he wants to convince people who listen to classical music but not opera that they've missed something. Third, he wants to destroy the critical and musicological half-truths and out-and-out inaccuracies that have grown up around Puccini's work. He has essentially three different audiences at three different levels of sophistication and must communicate with all of them. Communicate he does, brilliantly. This is one of the best books on music I know aimed at a reader of general intelligence (you don't have to read music to appreciate Berger's essays; in fact, he uses no musical type at all) and one of the sharpest works of musical criticism I've come across in a while.

One wouldn't think at this late date that Puccini needed defending, but he certainly seems to. I've come across even good critics, like Andrew Porter, who throw mud at the composer almost by reflex. One encounters phrases like "a melody cheaper than Puccini's," as if writing a Puccini melody were sinfully easy. Not even Puccini tossed them off. Indeed, critics have thrown these brickbats since Puccini was a pup, although recently the composer has at last begun to earn some respect, at least after Mosco Carner's 1992 Puccini: A Critical Biography. Until then, no one liked Puccini except opera audiences. Entire opera companies made their seasons on Puccini. Still, the New Grove entries, signs of establishment consensus, have been particularly back-handed. Critics, however, have begun to shuffle into the line.

Berger explores reasons for the disconnect in what I regard as the most important part of the book: a long discussion of how to read verismo opera, noting first and foremost that verismo doesn't mean realism or naturalism, but something more like "truthism." One can arrive at truth in many ways, including myth. Puccini deals in myth, although admittedly usually without the fairy-tale scenery. Berger also talks about differences between northern and southern European art and ties it to different ways Catholics and Protestants interpret text – archetypally, Biblical text. The nineteenth century saw the intellectual raising of German ideas above all others and the investiture of art with quasi-religious significance. All of this worked against opera in general, with the exception of Wagner's. For years and in my lifetime, even Verdi was sneered at as a simple-minded melodramatist, tying heroines to operatic railroad tracks. Critics have begun to wipe off the mud from both Verdi and Puccini, without quite accepting them on their own terms.

Writers rehabilitated by essentially turning both composers into little Wagners, as they ferreted out thematic relationships and motific developments within the scheme of the drama. These relationships of course exist, but they're not the main reason for the strength of these two operatic powerhouses: melody, melody, melody. If you're not prepared to talk about the dramatic power of melody, you probably shouldn't discuss these two composers at all. Berger doesn't make this mistake. His analysis isn't dauntingly technical – one reason being that no technical vocabulary for melody exists – and if you've got working ears, you can easily follow him.

After a brief intro and biography, Berger plunges into treatments of each of the mature operas beginning with Manon Lescaut, the opera in which "Puccini became Puccini." There are two earlier ones, Edgar and Le Villi, which don't sound like the Puccini people know and love and which, like most of the operas of Leoncavallo, haven't held the stage. Amazingly, for a major opera composer, Puccini didn't write all that many operas: twelve (or fourteen, depending on how you count Il Trittico) in all. Berger keeps to the same organization for each discussion: "The Name and How to Pronounce It," "What is [the particular opera]," "Cast of Characters," and a plot summary. As you can tell from the titles, the audience addressed runs the gamut from novice to professional, although even cognoscenti could probably learn something from the pronunciation guide and "Cast of Characters." The last two sections do not merely recite plot points or character function in the plot but discuss the dramatic impact of the music itself. Unlike John Simon on Music, for example, and most other books on opera, Berger doesn't mistake text for operatic power. He keeps his attention firmly on the music, where it belongs. Berger then winds up with essays on Puccini's mythic landscape and his place in popular culture. The last brims full of observations that can apply to classical music in general. Hollywood in particular, although it steals left and right from classical sources, nevertheless tends to view it dramatically as the occupation of psychopaths and other perverts. So now you know who you are. These sections count as among the sharpest in the book.

Here and there, Berger slips up. He is all-too-ready, for example, to let fly the word "racist" when dismissing Puccini's detractors (he becomes much more judicious when discussing problematic works like Butterfly and Turandot). To me, "racist" is just about the worst thing you can call somebody, and a use of argumentative convenience to me cheapens the idea. I admit as well that some of his discussion of quadrigia (read the book) seemed fuzzy and reaching for significance. Aside from these small blots, however, the book gives you a splendid time.

Copyright © 2006 by Steve Schwartz