Puccini in 1958

Musical Opinion, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Puccini in 1958


For the musician who grew up in the decade before the Second World War, to write any sort of salute to Puccini in his centenary year, is quite likely to be a surprise. Puccini, the histrionic tune-trundler, the vulgar sentimentalist, the eclectic user-up of everybody else's remnants who had nothing much of his own in the way of raw material, was hardly a respectable figure in my highbrow youth. We could forgive the preWagnerians for their unenlightenment; we could forgive Verdi for being born on the wrong side of the Alps. But Puccini, the casual opportunist who was everything in turn, Wagnerian, Verdian, even Mozartian, Sraussian, modern, romantic, pseudo-austere and exotic - as the occasion demanded - he was late enough in history to have learned the errors of his ways and become a good, sound exponent of the music drama.

Something like that, it seems, would have been a common reaction to Puccini and his works a comparatively short time ago. History's verdict seems to be that Wagnerian arguments are eternally valid for Wagner's, and for no other, works. And it is necessary to admit that whatever intellectual scruples and aesthetic doubts my juvenile self, looking for highbrow refinements that now, perhaps, strike me as irrelevant, may have had about Tosca, La Boheme, and Turandot, were likely to be swept into abeyance by any full-throated gush of luscious Puccinian melody. It is not, I feel, that the necessity of saluting Puccini's centenary arises from the mature uncovering of answers to immature criticisms; Puccini remains all, or most, of the unflattering things we decided years ago. Time has mercifully shown that these criticisms are not the main issue about his work; the main issue is that he rarely failed to do what he intended to do, that within the limits of his art and its conceptions, he hardly ever wrote ineffectively. If the voice of our youthful puritanism asks the value of what he did with such outstanding success, it is perhaps a more tolerant liberalism that gives him the benefit of the doubt.

The fact is that first and foremost, Italian opera is a popular art in the sense that Shake- speare's plays are popular art whilst Congreve's are not. A play by Congreve might be prod- uced and acted with great success; it's wit, style, and comic mastery might be widely applaud- ed: it might, in the sense of gaining wide- spread esteem and enthusiasm, be 'popular'. A play by Shakespeare, on the other hand, is 'popular' in the sense that it arises out of the general ideas, attitudes and conceptions of people by and large. Often enough it rises to a great height from these common foundations, but it carries with it a body of essential thought that it shares with its audience. A few German operas notably Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Die Zauberflöte, Der Frieschütz and the works of Marschner and Lortzing - have this quality in one way or another, but we should do better to consider the evolution of Italian opera in terms of an art like the cinema or the Elizabethan drama, that grows by reflecting and expanding the tastes and conceptions it shares with an audience upon which it directly depends not only for economic sustenance but also for a lively participation in the work as it goes forward. Anybody who regards this as a cheap belittlement of the work of the Italian masters need only remember that we are attributing to the works of Rossini, Verdi and Puccini qualities which they must share with Hamlet, the Henry IV plays and The Tempest.

It is as well to remember that parallels drawn between Italian and German opera, even between late-Verdi's continuous "lyricdrama" and Wagner's music-drama, start from each other that there are relatively unexplored continents between them. The essential quality of Italian opera is to be theatrical; it aims first and foremost at effectiveness, at moving and enthusing its audience. We are in this faced with the essential parallel between Italian opera and the theatre out of which Shakespeare's work developed.

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