Not Entirely Nice

Jerry Fodor

  • Puccini: His International Art by Michele Girardi, translated by Laura Basini
    Chicago, 530 pp, £41.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 226 29757 8

I have a friend who has a friend who is a composer of international stature, heavily invested in the aesthetics of difficulty. He’s also opera-addicted and likes to get to the Met whenever he comes through town. My friend remembers a phone call from his friend that went about like this: ‘Listen, they’re doing Bohème tonight. Let’s go; but please don’t tell anybody.’

Perhaps you’ll recognise the sentiment. Half a dozen of Puccini’s operas have held their audience for going on a hundred years. Bohème continues to run neck and neck with Carmen as the opera most frequently performed. Tosca and Butterfly are cash-cows in every company’s barn. If you’re fond of operas at all, you are quite likely fond of Puccini’s. But probably you think that you shouldn’t be. Puccini is a taste one disapproves of in proportion as one shares it. Since preference and judgment are supposed to run together in a well-ordered sensibility, his operas pose a small but genuine critical conundrum.

Pretty clearly, Michele Girardi’s book has it in mind to sort that out and set it to rights. It is judicious and scholarly and respectable to a fault. There are swarms of footnotes, which say things like: ‘Interestingly, Illica emphasised the crucial influence that the continuity of the plot in the same ambience has on the tragedy, an opinion similar to Boito’s reaction to Verdi’s proposal of inserting a Turkish attack in the third act of Otello.’ The temperature of the prose could hardly be lower. But just beneath the academic surface, this book has a chip on its shoulder. If I read his subtext right, Girardi thinks that the mainstream of critical opinion much underestimates both the structural integrity of Puccini’s operas and his responsiveness to the development of European music from Wagner to the turn of the 20th century. People don’t like liking Puccini because they think they can see that he’s unsophisticated, provincial and, well, too Italian by half. Or, even if they don’t think they can see that, they’re worried that everyone else can.

So Girardi takes us through the operas, act by act, showing us how cleverly they’re put together, and how thoroughly they are conversant not just with Wagner (who would have guessed that Puccini was in love with Parsifal?) but also Berg, Schoenberg, Mahler, Stravinsky, Strauss, Debussy and others. Many others. Together, of course, with such of the locals as Boito, Carvalho, Mascagni and Respighi. We also get a sampling of Puccini’s correspondence with his various librettists and with his publisher, the ubiquitous and long-suffering Giulio Ricordi; and the discreetist possible hint of the amorous embarrassments that he was forever getting involved in. There is an occasional outbreak of the sort of learned semiotic babble that academic critics seem, these days, unable to resist (‘ambivalence on the semantic level . . . does not mean a lack of justification in terms of dramatic logic.’) But, by and large, the book is commendable and, quite likely, tells you more about Puccini than you want to know.

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