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'IMPASSIONED PUCCINI' with Joan Carden

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					              IMPASSIONED PUCCINI, with Joan Carden AO
        Great Hall, University of Sydney, 8.00pm, Saturday, 12 May 2007

For the first concert in our Great Hall series for 2007, the Sydney University Graduate
Choir and orchestra, under the musical direction of Christopher Bowen and with the
exciting participation of the great operatic soprano, Joan Carden, will present a
program devoted to the music of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).

Puccini is almost certainly the most popular of the great composers, whose passionate
melodies and dramatic genius continue to attract listeners from far beyond the normal
ranks of art music lovers. Ironically, this most worldly of composers, whose operas
and music evoke erotic passion so powerfully, seemed from birth destined for a career
in church music. He came from a long line of church musicians in the Tuscan city of
Lucca (this provides an unlikely parallel with Bach in Germany). Four of his
forebears, including his father, Michele, had been organists and choir masters in
Lucca. Under the influence of his musical mother, Giacomo, the fifth of seven
children, took up musical studies, and from the age of 14 played the organ in Lucca’s
main churches. He began composing when he was 16. At Lucca’s Pacini
Conservatory, he was not regarded as a precociously brilliant, or even particularly
diligent, student. He was strongly influenced by Verdi’s music and fell foul of his
teacher by including improvisations of snatches of Rigoletto and other operas in
processional music at services in Lucca.

A turning-point in Puccini’s musical career was a performance of Aida in nearby Pisa
in March 1876. He wrote later about this experience: “When I heard Aida in Pisa, I
felt that a musical window had opened for me.”

Although it was home to Geminiani, Boccherini and Alfredo Catalani, as well as
Puccini, Lucca was not one of the main musical centres in Italy. So in 1880 with the
help of a Royal scholarship and the financial support of an uncle, Puccini went to
study at the Milan Conservatory.

Before leaving Lucca he composed the Mass in A flat, which we perform in this
concert under the title by which it is best known today, Messa di Gloria. In his
definitive Puccini- a Critical Biography, Mosco Carner writes that “Puccini’s Mass is
a considerable piece, running to some 200 pages in full score and well deserving to be
heard, for in addition to its splendid choruses it represents the most important and
inspired of his early works and the summing-up of his style as a church composer”. It
was not performed for many years after Puccini left Lucca but, since its revival in
Naples in 1952, has established a place in the choral repertoire. Several recordings
now exist.

The extensive Gloria is the core of the work and is the reason for its nickname.
Puccini demonstrates a gift for melody, religious expression and great technique – the
complex, demanding fugue on Cum Sancto Spiritu, is a model of the genre. Not
surprisingly, the work also shows an operatic feel in such passages as the chorus, Qui
Tollis Peccata, which could easily slip into a Verdi opera.

Young Sydney Conservatorium of Music singers, Lorenzo Rositano (tenor) and Jae-
Hyeok Lee (baritone), winner of the 2006 Joan Carden Award, will be the soloists in
the Messa di Gloria.
In Milan, Puccini studied with Amilcare Ponchielli, the opera composer, whose
masterpiece is La Gioconda (1876), and Antonio Bazzini, who in 1867 had composed
an opera on Turandot, the subject of Puccini’s final, unfinished stage work. Puccini
became a much more serious student and an habitué of La Scala. Ponchielli was an
important influence, championing vocal supremacy in Italian opera against the
“symphonism” of the Wagnerian music-drama. Although a master of orchestral
technique, Puccini broadly followed Ponchielli’s approach. As William Ashbrook
comments in his The Operas of Puccini: “The predominance of melody for Puccini is
beyond question. As a true Italian, his is primarily vocal melody.”

Importantly, Ponchielli promoted Puccini to the influential Milanese music publishing
house, Casa Ricordi, and, finding him a librettist, encouraged him to enter a
competition to write an opera. Thus emerged Le Villi, which was very well received
by the public and critics alike but passed over by the judging panel in favour of
Mascagni’s hit, Cavalleria Rusticana. Puccini and Mascagni had roomed together as
students but from now on became fierce rivals. Le Villi was originally produced in
Turin but made it to La Scala in January 1885. The critic of the influential Corriere
della Sera wrote that “we sincerely believe that Puccini may be the composer for
whom Italy has been waiting for a long time”. Ricordi’s PR work smoothed the way
for Puccini’s success, since the company planned to showcase the young composer as
the successor to their previous big earner, Verdi. Le Villi was soon performed in many
opera houses outside Italy, including in Hamburg in 1892 under Gustav Mahler.
(Simone Young, the Australian conductor, is now conducting in the same house.) At
this stage, Puccini met the great Arrigo Boïto, composer of the opera, Mefistofele, and
brilliant librettist of Verdi’s late masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. Boïto became such
a vigorous champion for Le Villi, that Puccini dedicated the opera to him

Puccini’s next opera, Edgar, (La Scala 1889) was not a success, apparently because
Puccini did not find the libretto congenial. Manon Lescaut (La Scala 1893) was,
however, a different story. According to Carner, “it placed him on the operatic map
fairly and squarely and was the foundation of his international fame”. It was
performed in St Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Rio di Janeiro, Munich and Hamburg. It
was the first subject he chose himself, interestingly despite the fact that Massenet had
enjoyed major success with the same subject as recently as 1884. Puccini’s comment
on the difference in his approach is instructive: “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman,
with the powder and the minuets, I feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.” . ( In
Manon Lescaut Puccini uses the Agnus Dei from the Messa di Gloria as a madrigal).

Now a comparatively wealthy man, Puccini moved to the country villa at Torre Del
Lago, on a lake near Lucca, where he based himself for most of the rest of his life.
Puccini now entered his golden period: Manon Lescaut, and the next three Puccini
operas, all of them frontline staples of the modern repertory, La Bohème (1896),
Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), had as their librettists, Luigi Illica and
Giuseppe Giacosa. Puccini involved himself all the way in the literary work, while
Giulio Ricordi, head of Casa Ricordi, also involved himself in the dramatic workload.
Illica showed the extent of Puccini’s commitment to the theatrical side of his operas in
1906 in an obituary for Giacosa:

       Those sessions of ours………Real battles in which there and then entire acts
       were torn to pieces, scene after scene sacrificed, ideas abjured which only a
       moment ago had seemed bright and beautiful; thus was destroyed in a minute
       the work of long and painful months. Giacosa, Puccini, Giulio Ricordi and I –

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       we were a quartet because Giulio Ricordi, who was presumed to preside,
       would always leave his presidential chair and descend into our semi-circle….
       After each session, Puccini had to run to the manicurist to have his fingernails
       attended to: he had bitten them off, down to the bone!

Anyone who has ever professionally written words to be used by someone else will
sympathise with the bitter frustration described by Puccini’s librettist here.

The next project of this team was La Bohème, a real masterpiece. Puccini knew he
was competing with another rival, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of I Pagliacci, to
bring out an opera on Henri Murger’s autobiographical novel and play, Bohemians of
the Latin Quarter. Puccini beat Leoncavallo to the footlights by fifteen months. La
Bohème may well be the most popular opera in the contemporary repertoire after
Carmen, but it was not immediately successful when premiered in Turin in 1896. Its
mixture of light-hearted and sentimental scenes and its conversational style, which
largely account for its popularity with today’s audiences, did not recommend
themselves to the Turin audience in 1896.

While working on La Bohème, Puccini toyed with the idea of writing an opera on a
lurid story by the Sicilian short story writer, Giovanni Verga, author of the tale which
Mascagni turned into Cavalleria Rusticana. When Puccini outlined the plot of his
Sicilian opera, an aristocratic lady acquaintance advised him to have nothing to do
with “this drama of lechery and crime, and with a religious procession in it”. Puccini
followed this advice but her words could be used to describe his next big hit, Tosca,
another masterpiece, still enormously popular with audiences, which came out in
1900. It was based on the play, La Tosca, written for Sarah Bernhardt by the very
successful but vulgar French playwright, Victorien Sardou. With Illica and Giacosa,
Puccini created for this opera two of the greatest characters of the musical stage,
Floria Tosca, the passionate, temperamental diva heroine, and Scarpia, the security
police chief of Rome, villainous in his ruthlessness, cruelty and lechery; all this in a
violent and sadistic plot, featuring an attempted onstage rape, foiled only by an
onstage stabbing.

Our concert presents the finale of Act One of Tosca, set in the Roman church, San
Andrea della Valle. Jae-Hyeok Lee will sing Scarpia’s monologue, salivating over his
lustful plans for Tosca and his sadistic plans for her lover, the political dissident,
Cavaradossi, until he is interrupted by the Church choir’s singing of the Te Deum.
How far, in a few short years, Puccini had come from the innocence of the Messa di
Gloria.

This golden vein of operatic masterpieces had not yet run its course. In London in the
summer of 1900, Puccini saw Madam Butterfly, a play by the American dramatist and
theatrical entrepreneur, David Belasco, which told of the tragic consequences of the
encounter in the city of Nagasaki of an American naval officer and a Japanese
woman. The opera is an early sign of the emergence of the United States as a world
power (Puccini works the Star Spangled Banner into the score). In the opera, the
somewhat crass Pinkerton is balanced by the sensitive, culturally aware, US Consul,
Sharpless, so Puccini (and Illica and Giacosa) cannot be accused of anti-Americanism.

At the heart of Madama Butterfly is the tragic figure of Butterfly herself, passionate ,
dutiful, loyal and doomed. In our concert, Joan Carden will sing the great and popular
aria, which encapsulates these qualities, One Fine Day (Un Bel Di), in which

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Butterfly, in the face of all indications to the contrary, expresses her desperate
optimism that Pinkerton will one day return to Japan, to her and to their son.

Difficult as it is to believe today, Madama Butterfly was a disastrous failure at its La
Scala premiere in February 1904. This was partly because of injuries Puccini suffered
in a car accident in the winter of 1903 which delayed the delivery of the full score to
the theatre and reduced the opportunities for rehearsal. But the main factor seems to
have been the efforts of Puccini’s jealous rivals to engender hostility in the La Scala
audience. This overwhelmingly powerful and beautiful work was received in glacial
silence. No matter: it is now a staple of the repertoire, loved around the world, and in
Milan, too. (Puccini revised aspects of the action in the final act, in the light of the
fiasco of the premiere).

Puccini was to set to music another Belasco play, the cowboy drama, La Fanciulla
del West (The Girl of the Golden West) in 1910. It had been commissioned by the
Metropolitan Opera, New York. This has good claims to be the first spaghetti Western
or first horse opera ever produced but it has not achieved the popularity of La
Bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly.

For New York also, he composed Il Trittico (The Triptych) during the first World
War, premiered by the Met in 1918. In 1904, he had conceived the idea of composing
three one-act operas for performance on the one evening. Giulio Ricordi vetoed it
then, however. Subsequently the practice developed around the major opera houses of
performing Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, as a double bill (‘Cav and Pag’)
and Puccini returned to the idea. Whereas ‘Cav and Pag’ are both examples of the
same genre, ‘verismo’ operas, Puccini envisaged three very varied dramas for Il
Trittico, and so they indeed are: in order of performance, Il Tabarro, a blood-and-guts
naturalistic tale of adultery, violence and murder set on a Parisian barge on the Seine;
Suor Angelica, a quasi-religious, mystical, contemplative piece, with an all-female
cast; and Gianni Schicchi, a pastiche Florentine black comedy, set in Renaissance
Florence. Performed as conceived by Puccini, Il Trittico makes a marvellous evening
at the theatre but it has become a practice to perform the operas individually. (Opera
Australia occasionally revives a splendid production of the complete work by Moffat
Oxenbould. It is due for another revival in August this year.)

Of the three Gianni Schicchi has always been the most popular with audiences. This
depiction of avaricious scheming and hypocrisy is so brilliantly funny that it is very
difficult to believe that it is not based on an actual Florentine play. In fact, however,
Puccini and his librettist, this time Giovacchino Forzano, built the entire dramatic
edifice themselves on a passing reference in Dante. The story tells of the gathering of
the relatives around the deathbed of Buoso Donati; their grief is compounded by the
rumour that the beloved old man has left the best parts of his property to a religious
order. They are lamenting this misfortune and plotting how to circumvent Buoso’s
wishes, when it emerges that the old man has died. A cunning, resourceful peasant,
Gianni Schicchi, is called in to deal with this new situation. His ruse is to restore
Buoso to life by impersonating him in order to dictate a false will to a notary. This he
does, heavily disguised in sleeping cap and under voluminous bed covers in a dark
room. The plot goes off like clockwork and Schicchi ends up double- crossing his
fellow-conspirators by awarding the prized parts of Buoso’s legacy to “my good
friend, Gianni Schicchi,” and blackmailing and bullying them into acceptance of his
trick by the threat of collective exposure.



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Joan Carden will sing the opera’s most popular excerpt, Il Mio Babbino Caro ( O My
Beloved Daddy), which was a particular hit at the New York premiere and has been a
special favourite of audiences ever since. It is typical of the cynical irony of the opera
that this exquisite, innocent-sounding piece is actually a moving and effective appeal
by Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, to participate in the fraud so that she and her lover
will have the money to marry.

One of the incidental joys of Gianni Schicchi is its tribute to the glorious artistic
contribution of Renaissance Florence to the world. In this opera, Puccini, like Verdi in
Falstaff, reveals a wholly new and unexpected dimension to his artistic personality.

Towards the end of his career, the masterpieces flowed less frequently from Puccini’s
pen than when he was in his prime. One more masterpiece lay ahead of him,
Turandot, which was unfinished when the composer died (of throat cancer) in
November 1924. The measure of Puccini’s achievement is the large number of works
he has left in the operatic repertoire. Puccini was active at a great period of operatic
composition, particularly in Italy, so he did not have the field to himself. But
contemporaries like Boïto, Catalani, Cilea, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Mascagni,
Ponchielli and Zandonai between them do not have as many works in the repertoire as
Puccini. The Ricordis were right. Verdi is the only legitimate comparison in the field
of Italian opera, although the Frenchman, Jules Massenet, was almost as productive.

Puccini was above all a theatrical genius. A feature of his career was his liking for
setting plots which were the subject of successful stage plays, and actually worked as
plots. Notwithstanding his flair for melody, Puccini remained strongly conscious of
the dramatic requirements of his operas. For example, he vetoed Caruso for
Cavaradossi, the tenor hero of Tosca, opting for a more aristocratic-looking singer in
the role. In the interests of realism, he travelled to Rome and climbed to the top of the
Castel San Angelo at dawn, in order to hear the effect of the church bells for the last
act of Tosca.

Musically, he was conservative, (which helps to explain his enormous popularity), but
he was aware of and open to developments in modernism, which was in its heyday in
the years of his maturity. La Fanciulla del West, for example is influenced by the
music of Debussy and Richard Strauss, which may help to explain its relative lack of
popularity. Puccini was aware of the work of such composers as Schoenberg and
Hindemith. For example, he travelled to Florence in April 1924, to hear Schoenberg’s
Pierrot Lunaire, commenting afterwards: “Who can say that Schoenberg will not be a
point of departure to a goal in the distant future? But at present – unless I understand
nothing – we are as far from a concrete artistic realisation of it as Mars is from earth”.

In his student days in Milan, Puccini was seen as a potential master of symphonic
music, and his orchestral music is also represented on our program. The Preludio
Sinfonico was composed as an examination exercise in 1882. It is an effective piece
for full orchestra, with overtones of the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin. By contrast,
Crisantemi, (Chrysanthemums) is an elegiac movement for strings alone, which
Puccini used again for the music depicting the heroine’s tragic fate at the end of
Manon Lescaut.

Tickets to ‘Impassioned Puccini’ cost $35 (children under 15 half price) and are
available from MCA Ticketing (1300 306 776 or www.mca-tix.com).


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