Review: Putting Puccini in His Place

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CONCERTS: Puccini “Beyond Verismo” at Bard SummerScape 2016

OPERA: Tosca at Opera North

Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini, © Frank C. Bangs library of congress

Puccini qua, Puccini ! Arguably the most popular and successful opera composer in history has been enjoying his typical ubiquity this summer, as a single weekend’s sampling around the Northeast United States will demonstrate.

Friday, August 12 saw the closing performance of the maestro’s Tosca as rendered by Opera North (Lebanon, New Hampshire) in a taut, handsome production. And at Bard College’s final weekend of SummerScape 2016 (Dutchess County, New York), three full days of programming (August 12 through 14) were dedicated to winding up an exploration of “Puccini and His World” (the final weekend subtitled “Beyond Verismo”) with lectures, panel discussions, and concerts, all leading up to a climactic tour de force of scholarship and performance virtuosity called “The Turandot Project.”

Puccini su, Puccini giù!

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Playing Every Angle at SummerScape…

As it has every summer for 27 years, the Bard Music Festival at SummerScape 2016 welcomed scholars, cognoscenti, enthused amateurs, and thrill-seeking musical laity to the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York for a multi-perspective and interdisciplinary exploration of the work, life, and influences of a single major musical figure. This year’s focus was Giacomo Puccini.

 

Back to the Future

Kicking the weekend off on Friday evening, August 12, at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (though not attended for this article) was a concert and mixed media program – music, poetry, audio, and film clips – provocatively placing Puccini in the context of Italian Futurism, that early twentieth-century movement of avant-gardists jazzed by the prospect of a coming age to be lit, fueled, and propelled by electricity. And while Puccini himself was not of the avant-garde, he unquestionably shared the forward-looking modernist fascination with technology and innovation – automobiles, gramophones, films, gadgetry of every kind – and even composed a march (performed on August 12 by pianist Blair McMillen) entitled Scossa elettrica (“Electric Shock”) in honor of Alessandro Volta, the Italian inventor of the electric battery.

 

The Maestro and the Strongman

Politics was the lens through which the Puccini legacy was viewed on Saturday morning, August 13, at Bard’s Olin Hall, with a panel discussion among three distinguished visiting academics – Victoria de Grazia, historian at Columbia University; Ben Earle, music lecturer at the University of Birmingham (UK); and Benjamin Martin, professor of history at Sweden’s Uppsala University – who all descended gamely into the scholarly cockpit to batter out notions of Puccini’s relationship to Italian Fascism. Referee duty was handled deftly by Joseph Luzzi, Bard College professor of comparative literature.

No, Puccini was no fascist. His politics were stipulated by the expert panel as those of a “conservative nationalist.” Moreover, Puccini died in 1924, before Mussolini’s dictatorial ambitions were fully discerned, let alone realized. Still, since every Italian knew of – and nearly all vicariously prided themselves on – Puccini’s fame and accomplishments, it was inevitable that Puccini-style opera, as Italy’s peculiar institution, should be co-opted by the era’s new political masters for their own ends.

 

Little Men

Attilio Teruzzi

Attilio Teruzzi

Professor de Grazia posited fascism as the politics of “little men” whose anxiety amidst modernity “played itself out in a politics of melodrama.” And despite some disparagement of Puccini’s “bourgeois” sentimentality, the melodrama they indulged was in large part an imitation of Puccini-esque passion and grandeur. Some music-loving little men even saw the character of Calaf, the hero of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, as a proto-fascist figure – a notion that might have come as a disconcerting surprise to Puccini himself.

Professor de Grazia introduced one such little man, a Mussolini henchman named Attilo Teruzzi (whom Il Duce appointed governor of Benghazi in Italian Libya), who was enough of a Calaf-dreamer as to pursue, woo, and ultimately win one Lillian Lorma, a prominent operatic diva of the time. Their 1926 nuptials (the same year that Puccini’s Turandot made its posthumous premiere) were referred to by de Grazia as “the fascist wedding par excellence.” Mussolini himself was in attendance.

As attested by his own letters, Teruzzi/Calaf actually serenaded his Turandot bride Lillian on their wedding night with his own rendition of “Nessun Dorma”; and, when the marriage collapsed three years later, amidst Teruzzi’s misgivings over his wife’s fidelity, he construed the fall again in operatic terms – ice princess having bested prince.

In a final irony that de Grazia believes “cries out to be made into an opera of its own,” it turns out that Teruzzi’s diva bride had not even been Italian (Lorma was her stage name), but an American, Lilliana Weinman, from an affluent New York Jewish family.

Professor Earle offered intriguing thumbnails of some of Puccini’s younger contemporaries. Composer Alfredo Casella managed the complex task of embracing Stravinsky’s “spiky modernist neoclassicism” and justifying it as fascist-friendly in the face of assorted critical pushback. And Luigi Dallapiccola, an avid fascist at the outset, was traumatized by the destruction of his own Jewish wife’s career by Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policies; nonetheless, numerous of Dallapiccola’s later works, such as his “protest” opera Il prigioniero (1949), still reflect, according to Earle, a kind of “sadomasochistic fondness” and nostalgia for the powers that had been. (“Desperate to escape from tyranny, but in love with the tyrants,” as Earle expressed it.)

Professor Martin limned a portrait of Alessandro Pavolini, Mussolini’s chief cultural minister and thus the “Italian Goebbels,” who recognized Italy’s operatic treasure as an important medium of exchange – capital to be deployed in buying Italy back into the world’s cultural marketplace. Pavolini initiated the still-important Maggio Musicale Fiorentino arts festival; and he ended as one of the supporting cast of corpses hung upside-down in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto alongside Mussolini’s own.

 

The Past as Prologue

Saturday’s second festival event was “Reinventing the Past,” which proved a delightful collation of older Italian songs and instrumental works by composers such as Cesti, Pergolesi, and Tartini, along with twentieth-century reactions to and reworkings of much of this same material by contemporaries or successors of Puccini, such as Gian Francesco Malipiero, Luigi Dallapiccola, Alfredo Casella, and Ottorino Respighi.

One crepuscular, art-song-like hymn, “Salve del ciel regina,” written in the early 1880s, was the only piece by Puccini himself on this program, while the afternoon’s performance highlights were two tenor duets of works by Monteverdi – “Chiome d’oro” and “Zefiro torna” – performed by César Delgado and Theo Lebow.

 

Hard Music, Hard Times

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein, Photo: Ric Kallaher

Saturday evening saw the festival transit back to the Sosnoff Theater at the Fisher Center (Frank Gehry’s gleaming silver behemoth of an opera house on the Bard campus) for “Music and Fascism in Italy.” Here, audiences finally got a full-on sonic confrontation with the power of big works created by composers introduced at the day’s earlier panel discussion, including Casella’s Elegia eroica, Dallapiccola’s Partita for Orchestra, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Prelude to Lo straniero and Goffredo Petrassi’s Magnificat. Conductor Leon Botstein, who is also the festival’s Artistic Director, warned that much of this music is “grim” yet vital, and he adjured the audience to appreciate this first and possibly last occasion to hear much of it live. Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra rendered the material with fierce and fearless clarity and commitment.

Grim, yes. Mordant, intense, passionate, dense, sometimes savage, sometimes despairing, other times straining toward renewal, this was music mostly forged during or in the aftermath of the devastation of World War I. An air of elegy suffused the evening; and, at concert’s conclusion, as audience dispersed into the soupy and humid Hudson Valley night, nature seemed to have picked up the strain, with silent fusillades of heat lightning blooming in random measure over the vast murky sky. A bourgeois might be pardoned his fancied premonition of world’s end.

 

Preaching to the Choir

Sunday morning saw the festival return to Olin Hall and a spry survey of “Italian Choral Music Since Palestrina,” interspersed with jaunty commentary by choral director James Bagwell. The composers represented included Carlo Gesualdo (“the only known murderer on the program,” Bagwell noted, referencing that composer’s notorious 1590 murder of his wife and her lover), Claudio Monteverdi, Giuseppe Verdi (including his Ave Maria written using the treacherous and challenging “scala enigmatica”) – and even Giacomo Puccini the elder (the opera composer’s great-great-grandfather). The standout among a thoroughly winning rundown was a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s brilliant, muscular Lauda, Jerusalem, scored for double choirs, double instrumental ensembles, and two female soloists.

 

And Then They Wrote…

Sunday’s midday offering was a concert dubbed “After Puccini,” which included some beautiful 1966 songs by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, setting poems by medieval Jewish mystic Moses-Ibn-Ezra for performance by mezzo-soprano and guitar (the performers were Teresa Buchholz and Colin Davin); a virtuosic piano Ricercare and Toccata by Gian Carlo Menotti (pianist Anna Polonsky); some decidedly weird, tone-painting songs by Luciano Berio, setting poems by James Joyce (Teresa Buchholz was the vocalist); and a gorgeously inventive concluding concerto for solo violin, cello and piano by Franco Alfano (performed by Elmira Darvarova, Samuel Magill, and Blair McMillen).

 

The Princess Never Sleeps

The Turandot Project, Melody Moore (soprano), James Bagwell (choral director), American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, Photo: Cory Weaver

The Turandot Project, Melody Moore (soprano), James Bagwell (choral director), American Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Leon Botstein, Photo: Cory Weaver

The festival’s conclusion, moving the action back one more time to the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater, was “The Turandot Project” – a fitting end, of course, as both Puccini’s career and, in the estimation of most musical historians, the career of Italian grand opera proper concluded with the Project’s subject work.

Unexpected, however, was the revelation that came with the Project’s presentation in toto of an earlier opera based on the same tale, and with the same title – Ferruccio Busoni’s 1917 Turandot.

Busoni’s opera is sung in German (the original production, undertaken in the midst of World War I, was performed in Zürich). But the libretto, by Busoni himself, nonetheless cleaves much more closely than does Puccini’s to the Italian commedia dell’arte roots of the story as preserved in Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play.

Busoni’s opera is a delight. Unencumbered by any of the dark narrative elements Puccini introduced into his opera, this Turandot plays for laughs and broad romantic smiles (even the inaugural execution of the hapless Prince of Persia is handled lightly). Supporting characters retain their commedia names – the scheming courtiers are Pantalone and Tartaglia, and the outrageously characterized, subversively comic court eunuch is Truffaldino. The score is lively and listenable, even if it contains no remarkably memorable passages (though, strangely, at a point roughly corresponding to Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” nocturne, Busoni introduces an interlude based on the melody of “Greensleeves”!).

Busoni’s plot is free of psychological clutter or ambiguity. Far from being a problematic pairing, there is every indication that the clever prince Kalaf and the intellectual, riddle-loving princess Turandot are – like Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice – made for each other.

The performers in this semi-staged presentation were all excellent. Kalaf was played by tenor Richard Cox; Turandot was soprano Melody Moore; King Altoum was bass-baritone Nathan Stark; the waiting woman Adelma was mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom; and the hilariously fey and over-the-top eunuch was tenor Marc Molomot. Other valuable support was given by soprano Elizabeth Byrne, baritone Steven LaBrie, and bass-baritones Aubrey Allicock and Matthew Burns.

“The Turandot Project” was crowned by a performance of Act III of the Puccini opera – the act which Puccini himself never completed. But here, it was not the familiar and traditional Franco Alfano version of 1926 that was performed, but the 2001 Ricordi-sanctioned version by composer Luciano Berio.

The seam between the death of Liù, where Puccini’s actual composition ends, and Berio’s completion, including the indispensable final confrontation duet, is smooth, and the ensuing music is elegant and elevating. Berio’s modernist and gently exotic reworking of Puccini’s themes and motifs is rich and arresting, and the moral question mark suggested by that astringent and sustained last chord somehow invites rounded reflection on the meaning of the story as a whole, in a way that the easy disengagement of Alfano’s rather peremptory final choral assertions fails to do.

This performance proved an eloquent and moving argument for establishing the Berio version as the ending of choice for future major productions.

Theo Lebow (tenor), Steven LaBrie (baritone), Cecilia Violetta López (soprano), Cesar Delgado (tenor), American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, Photo: Cory Weaver

Theo Lebow (tenor), Steven LaBrie (baritone), Cecilia Violetta López (soprano), Cesar Delgado (tenor), American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, Photo: Cory Weaver

Turandot was again played by Melody Moore, with the almost supernaturally warm and rich tenor voice of Russell Thomas creating Calaf. Other wonderful turns were given by silver-voiced soprano Cecilia Violetta López (devastating as the doomed slave girl Liù); bass-baritone Paul Whelan as the blind king Timur; and baritone Steven LaBrie and tenors Theo Lebow and César Delgado as, respectively, the courtiers Ping, Pang, and Pong.

Both segments of “The Turandot Project” were conducted by Leon Botstein leading his American Symphony Orchestra, with the Bard Festival Chorale under the direction of James Bagwell, stage direction by R.B. Schlather, scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III, and lighting design by JAX Messenger.

Thus came to a close Bard’s far-ranging excursion across the landscape of Puccini’s life, times, culture, and mindset, leaving the attentive participant with an awed appreciation of the enormity of the frame within which this season’s portrait of the artist was realized, and the density of detail achieved.

Leon Botstein has announced that next year’s festival will explore “Chopin and His World” – and will include a full staging of the Antonín Dvořák opera Dimitrij, the story of which is a sort of historical sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The relationship of Dvořák’s opera to the work of Chopin? One consulting scholar at this year’s festival confided, sub rosa, “I don’t get it.” But perhaps that’s all to the good, as suspense thus already mounts over what revelations Botstein and his team may have in store for 2017.

 

Opera: Tosca in New England

Sandra López (Tosca), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Mario Cavaradossi), Toasca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Sandra López (Tosca), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Mario Cavaradossi), Toasca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Not mentioned at Bard’s “Beyond Verismo” weekend was Puccini’s 1900 Tosca, though it might be asserted that a larval anti-fascist paradigm is coded into that opera – the artistic free spirit pitted against the strongman “before whom all Rome trembled!” Indeed, the opera has been presented in explicit fascist trappings, as in Mark Lamos’ quasi-Nazi-era 1998 production for New York City Opera, or the 1946 Anna Magnani film entitled (yes!) Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma, in which an opera company performing Tosca in Mussolini’s Italy is also working clandestinely for the anti-fascist Italian resistance.

But overt dramaturgical polemics are not required to render the power and punch of Tosca, as demonstrated by Opera North’s recent production. This company, based in Lebanon, New Hampshire, gave us a Tosca conjured straight-up in its original Rome 1800 setting – opulent Rococo interiors, luxe empire-waist gowns and all. (The impressive scenic, costume, and lighting designs were by Paul Tate dePoo III, Jack Maisenbach, and John Bartenstein, respectively.)

Indeed, the very choice to play it straight provided for a spontaneous combustion of meta-theater. It was fascinating to see Puccini’s tale of blood and sex, with its heavy atmospheric amalgam of Roman passions, Catholic pomp, and Napoleonic-era intrigues, played out amidst the austere and chaste, white-walled Lebanon Opera House, premises that could double as any spacious and traditional Yankee town hall.

Tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, as the painter and lover, Mario Cavaradossi, was wry, charming and self-assured in Act I, and suffered manfully and expressively through Acts II and III. His voice is robust and full, but negotiated readily the lyric heights of “Recondita armonia” and the elegiac heartbreak of “E lucevan le stelle.”

Aleksey Bogdanov (Baron Scarpia) and Sandra López (Tosca), Tosca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Aleksey Bogdanov (Baron Scarpia) and Sandra López (Tosca), Tosca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, as the flagitious Baron Scarpia, crafted a performance of cleverly observed idiosyncrasies and louche gestures. His voice, wonderfully grave and sonorous, gave Scarpia’s Act II credo of rough wooing, “Già, mi dicon venal,” a richly dripping lasciviousness; and throughout his sadistic cat-and-mouse game with Tosca, his head cocked to one side, lips pursed as though sucking marrow from a bone, Bogdanov’s Scarpia was the very embodiment of corrosive and unregenerate will-to-power.

Soprano Sandra López as Floria Tosca gave a refreshing, big-hearted take on the beleaguered diva. There was no want of customary glamor, yet López also mined a rarely discovered youth and innocent credulity in the character – this Tosca could well be traced back to the imaginative and precocious child she must have been, so full of fancy as to make her matriculation to artistry inevitable, yet equally capable of tripping herself up with her own vivid inventions, be they jealous fantasies or lurid pieties. López’s wonderfully nuanced and original take on the angst of “Vissi d’arte” gave the aria dynamic forward narrative thrust, rather than stranding it as a mere showpiece. And her measured, post-homicidal pantomime of superstitious sanctimony, arranging the candles and crucifix about Scarpia’s corpse, was a chilling mix of wide-eyed fascination and transfixed childlike terror.

“It was important to us to make things real,” López says. “After all, Tosca began as a piece of theater – Sardou’s play Tosca, which had fascinated Puccini when he first saw it – and we wanted to make sure our production was still first and foremost a piece of theater, played for reality, moment by moment.” Admirable ambitions, admirably realized.

Aleksey Bogdanov (Baron Scarpia), Tosca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Aleksey Bogdanov (Baron Scarpia), Tosca, Opera North, Photo: Lisa Morrison

Director Russell Treyz ably facilitated these ambitions. López’s and Gwaltney’s Act I lovers’ contretemps, for instance, was handled with an operetta-like lightness, enhancing the impact of the subsequently gathering tensions. Conductor Filippo Ciabatti’s vivid, fluid handling of the score mounted Act I to monumental and pulsating purple melodrama after Scarpia’s intrusion, climaxing in a fantastically novel, surround-sound coup de theatre – Scarpia booming onstage, the chorus ranged along the entire expanse of both walls of the opera house, and the wonderfully expressive chamber orchestra supporting the action from the clever logistical asymmetry of its location down audience left.

Acts II and III were equally flush with satisfactions; and throughout the evening, highly effective performances were vouchsafed by Eric Lindsey as the Sacristan; Joshua South as the ill-starred consul Angelotti; Justin Manalad and Trevor Neal as Scarpia’s agents Spoletta and Sciarrone; William Meinert as Cavaradossi’s jailer; and Alexandra Burkot as an ethereal-voiced Shepherd Boy.

Opera North is justifiably proud of its now-34-year history of giving first-rate opera and musical theater to the North Valley area of Vermont and New Hampshire. “We are a true producing company,” notes general director Evans Haile, “not just a presenting company that rents or books in outside productions,” and the company’s energy, integrity and commitment were well deployed in giving Puccini pride of place in New Hampshire this summer.

Opera North’s Tosca played the Lebanon Opera House on August 5, 7, 9 and 12, and was viewed August 12.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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