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Giacamo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

This excellent book was a gift from my friend Paisley, one apparently of a series about popular composers. This is a witty, entertaining, knowledgeable,  and above all, loving consideration of Puccini. My copy of the book is spiky with all the markers I have stuck in, keeping the place of especially memorable bits. The “without excuses” is referring to the many critics who spurn Puccini as sentimental and his music as slight and unworthy of being listed with the Greats.  Berger contrasts the composer to D’Annunzio, another artist of the times, whose work was an inspiration to Mussolini, “who applied D’Annunzio’s aesthetics exactly but more effectively. This was the payoff of the cries for muscularity and action demanded by the early critics who deplored Puccini’s sentimentality and feminine sensitivity. We should remember this when we repeat those comments uncritically today. ”

The first section of the book is about the man and his life, and the second is about the operas, describing the plots and music of each, and  Berger’s amusing comments about them. There was, for instance, the disastrous premiere of Madama Butterfly–amazingly, almost booed off the stage at La Scala. Well, amazing considering the opera’s future extreme popularity. Not amazing for La Scala, it appears, where many now famous operas were resoundingly booed–Verdi’s second opera (Un giorno di regno) was such a failure that he said it almost “cured him of the impulse to write operas”. Butterfly was greeted with jeers and cat calls from the beginning: “In the now celebrated vigil and sunrise scene. . the audience answered with its own birdcalls, rooster crows, and eventually, mooing.” A reporter wrote that  “the audience, after shouting and screaming for the final curtain, left the theater in a festive mood, quite pleased with itself.”

There are so many felicitous quotes, and many are simply irresistible–of composers’ wives, he mentions Mozart’s Kostanze (“unfairly enshrined as a twit”), Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney (“somehow both blamed for the demise of the Beatles”), and Pauline Strauss, and others, but his comment about Mrs. Wagner is priceless: ” Cosima Wagner (admittedly a difficult character) is always cited as being even more hateful than her husband, which is simply not within the realm of possibility.”

The opera  section is followed by a sort of miscellaneous writings section, where all of a sudden he is madly comparing Pope Gregory to Apollo and finding sources for Puccini in Gregorian chant. Music theory without the catty remarks about divas and opera directors–more challenging to those of limited understanding! These essays might be gathered from earlier works, perhaps. I hear familiar echoes of literary devices and reviews–“The Appearance of the Anti-Christ in Alice in Wonderland” sort of thing, which makes me think he added older stuff at the back to bulk up the book. Which is no crime! And often entertaining. There is also a section on recordings, performances and reference books.

But then he ends with a simply brilliant glossary–filled with useful, and often wonderful definitions (reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s Devils Dictionary, eg: ‘“OPERA, n. A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes. All acting is simulation, and the word simulation is from  simia, an ape; but in opera the actor takes for his model ‘Simia audibilis’ (or Pithecanthropos stentor) the ape that howls.”)
Here is a quote from his simply irresistible definition of grand scena, tersely defined as “a specific form used at climactic moments, ” which he then elaborates on: ” Our heroine wanders on the stage, alone, and dressed to the teeth, declaiming her joy on this, her wedding day. She sings placidly and in lengthy melodic lines of the fulfillment of her pious prayers. Polite applause. The court herald rushes in to inform her that her true love has been killed in battle. She resolves to avenge his death and then to kill herself (all this in recitative, which encompasses action) and then sings a fireworks aria with runs, trills, octave leaps, and a generous dollop of the words “vendetta” and “morte.” She sweeps her ample skirts with a flourish and exits amidst torrents of applause and shouts of acclamation from the balcony. She returns before the drawn curtain and prostrates herself before the ovation, right hand folded before her breast like St. Teresa in agony and left hand greedily collecting the floral tributes. The audience bounces to the bar in a state of rare satisfaction.”

HAHAHA!

But wait, that’s not all! As a little lagniappe, Berger also notes that there is a famously campy Opera company in New York CALLED La Gran Scena and the DIVA played by Ira Siff (aka Mme. Vera Galuppi-Borshhk) has blushingly allowed some of her more poignant moments to be filmed for posterity. Well, only as many as can be crammed on to Youtube, that is. Click on a few–you will be amused!

Well, if you like opera, that is.

Well, if you like opera with transvestites and silliness, that is. And, who doesn’t?

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