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.
I think, however, that, insofar as he offers to diagnose the ambivalence of our response to Puccini’s operas, Girardi is on the wrong track. There are, to be sure, composers (Bellini is a paradigm example) whom one thinks of as masters of a naive, Italianate lyricism in which an audience is entirely delighted to be immersed. But that’s nothing like the way that a Puccini opera strikes one. On the contrary, Puccini’s effects feel studied; his operas are theatrical machines, not utterly unlike what Broadway musicals have become. The occasional breath of honest naivety is positively refreshing. In fact Puccini is at his best in the early operas (particularly Manon Lescaut and Bohème), where he sounds most like himself and least like Wagner or Debussy. In the later works, however technically accomplished they are, he seems increasingly self-conscious in the sense of the epithet that connotes contrivance. One is often moved to be sure; but there is also a sense of being complicit in something not entirely nice. The puzzle about Puccini is why this should be so.
Here, perhaps, is a clue: there’s a genre of aria in which a character undertakes, more or less explicitly, to offer his portrait to the audience. Often enough this will be an ‘entrance aria’ in the form of a soliloquy; but its function is analogous less to Shakespeare’s monologues than to the expository material that omniscient narrators use to introduce the protagonist of a Victorian novel. Since it’s the convention that what is said in such a passage should be taken to be true, one is thus offered a fixed point from which the character’s development can be understood. The ne plus ultra of this kind is Cherubino’s first aria in The Marriage of Figaro, a bare three minutes of song in which Kierkegaard claimed, without undue hyperbole, to find a complete revelation of the erotic life.
Puccini doesn’t ever succeed at quite that level, but he’s indisputably a master of the form. The eponymous heroine of Tosca has such an aria, and so does the evil Scarpia; and both are justifiably famous. The double aria with which the tenor and soprano introduce themselves to one another, and to us, in the first act of Bohème, is similarly among the great set pieces of the operatic literature. (Recording ‘Che gelida manina’ is a rite of passage for Italian tenors with careers to make. No exceptions are allowed.) The same applies to ‘Musetta’s Valse’ in Act 2 of Bohème, and, though it’s less widely acclaimed, to Pinkerton’s first aria in Butterfly (‘Whiskey?’ ‘Si.’ ‘America for ever!’). Most wonderful of all, perhaps, is Manon’s one-line aria of self-specification (‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’), on hearing which the tenor, quite understandably, falls hopelessly in love. There are lots of other notable examples in Puccini; they’re among the specialities of the house.
What’s odd, however, about these certainly splendid pieces, is the extent to which Puccini doesn’t offer them as fixed points from which to appreciate a character’s development. They can perform no such function because, simply, his characters don’t develop: they only suffer. What they say about themselves at first is all there ever is to say about them. And it doesn’t matter much when in the course of the action they say it, since the truths in Act I are still true at the final curtain. (Very occasionally, and much against his grain, Puccini tries to convince one otherwise; as at the end of the unfinished Turandot, when getting kissed by Calaf is supposed to transform the ice queen from a murderous to an amorous passion. One doesn’t believe it for an instant, of course. ‘This isn’t The Mikado,’ one thinks. ‘Why doesn’t she keep in character and chop his head off?’ The scene in which she fails to do so is maybe the most embarrassing in all of opera.) Entirely to the point, and all too true, is what Manon’s lover says of her: that she is ‘always the same, always the same’. And what Girardi writes of Bohème applies equally to Puccini’s other operas: He ‘does not depict evolving characters, but merely a multicoloured reality . . . within which the characters seem like emblems’. It’s striking – and it shows his distance from the main Italian tradition, up to and including Verdi – that there are no significant travesti roles in Puccini. One can’t imagine him wanting to evoke that kind of complexity in his hearer’s response; or, having evoked it, knowing what to do with it.
Consider, for an egregious case, Tosca’s aria, ‘Vissi d’arte’. It’s one of Puccini’s legendary gifts to dramatic sopranos, and a reliable show-stopper. ‘Vissi d’arte’ comes towards the middle of a second act in which, even by the local standards, quite a lot’s been going on. Scarpia, early identified as a first-class stinker, lusts for Tosca, whose lover he arranges to have tortured, audibly, off stage. He then proposes to Tosca the classic operatic quid pro quo: the tenor’s life for the soprano’s favours. Tosca is unclear what to do about this, so she interrupts the action to sing an aria that explains (to Scarpia, God and us) that she has lived for art and love and so really doesn’t deserve the trouble she has got into. Tosca is absolutely right to make this point. But it’s a puzzle why she should choose to do so at exactly that moment. It doesn’t come as any news to us (or, presumably, to God), and Scarpia is hardly the sort of person who is likely to moved by the considerations that she offers. One has, strongly, the sense that Tosca might have made much the same observations about herself, with equal justice and at least equal pertinence, anywhere else in the opera. In the event, ‘Vissi d’arte’ once completed, the action is able to resume, though it does so with something of the effect of a jammed film jerking back into motion. Tosca gets up off the floor (tradition has it that her aria is delivered prone) and stabs Scarpia with a bread knife that she happens to find at hand. It’s a near thing which of them is more surprised. Eventually, Tosca and the tenor die, too. Not for any discernible reason, however; it’s just that kind of opera.
Tosca is right that she doesn’t deserve her fate. In fact, her pain could have happened to anyone; it’s only there for the sake of the aria that she sings about it. It’s the same, more or less, with many of Puccini’s other heroines. Poor Mimi, poor Liu, poor Butterfly; how beautifully they sing when they suffer. It certainly does get to you, but since there is nothing to be understood, there can’t be a catharsis. At one point, we are encouraged to think of Cio-Cio-San as a torn butterfly, but the analogy isn’t apt. An animal’s pain is meaningless; that’s what makes it so unbearable to think about. That’s also what makes it not a possible subject for art.
That is quite typically the situation in which Puccini’s operas place their audience. As in tragedy, what appears to be gratuitous pain – emotional and sometimes physical – is offered as an appropriate object of aesthetic appreciation. But, in Puccini, the sense that the pain is gratuitous remains unresolved, so the audience is required to acquiesce in a suffering that signifies nothing but itself. That, however, is the aesthetic of a voyeur. No wonder one feels spasms of ambivalence; no wonder one feels jerked about and put upon. And Puccini knows his business. The extraordinary erotic charge of his music co-opts one’s responses; nobody else can make suffering sound so sexy. The critical consensus to the contrary notwithstanding, the right complaint against Puccini isn’t that he’s sentimental: it’s that he’s brutal.
That, anyhow, is what it feels like on the very rare occasions when a Puccini production succeeds other than financially. More usually, the ambiguities of his operas are drowned in the scenery. Directors of Italian opera have, these days, a lot to answer for. Thus the grotesque, vulgar and meretricious Puccini presentations in which the Met has come to specialise: there’s an elevating stage for the last act of Tosca; there’s a crowd scene like rush-hour on the subway for the second act of Bohème; and aren’t those real heads on the pikes in Turandot? Poor Puccini, too, after all; here’s an artist with an authentically nasty temperament who is reduced to the status of a tourist attraction. Strauss tried hard to be decadent in Salome and Elektra; but it didn’t really suit him, and he had to give it up. By contrast, Puccini’s decadence seems to come naturally. It might well make his operas interesting, if only their expositors would let him have his way.
Like the Met, Girardi is unanxious to sound Puccini’s abysses. He remarks, very much in passing, on the ‘sado-masochistic’ character of Puccini’s marriage, but not at all on the pathology of his art. It’s thus mostly in the quoted snippets that one gets glimpses of the temperament that informs the works: ‘The bitch Palmira’ – the wife of one of Puccini’s early librettists – ‘is waging a bitter and terrible war against me. I’ll tell you about it in person . . . Now, as a token of my love, I’d give her a bouquet of fava beans and shit.’ There’s the authentic voice of the maestro, without the slightest doubt.