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The Complete Operas of Puccini: A Critical…

The Complete Operas of Puccini: A Critical Guide (1981)

by Charles Osborne

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Charles Osborne

The Complete Operas of Puccini:
A Critical Guide

Victor Gollancz, Paperback, 1990.

8vo. 279 pp.

First published, 1981.
First published in Gollancz Paperbacks, 1990.



I. Le Villi [1884]
II. Edgar [1889]
III. Manon Lescaut [1893]
IV. La Boheme [1896]
V. Tosca [1900]
VI. Madama Butterfly [1904]
VII. La Fanciulla del West [1910]
VIII. La Rondine [1917]
IX. Il Trittico [1918]
- Il Tabarro
- Suor Angelica
- Gianni Schicchi
X. Turandot [1926]

Some Books Consulted

* In square brackets: the year in which Puccini completed each opera. Turandot was, of course, completed by Franco Alfano, some year and a half after Puccini's death.


After his books on Verdi (1969) and Mozart (1978), this is the third volume in Mr Osborne's The Complete Operas Of series. It is the first one which is a considerable disappointment. And the reason for this, almost exclusively, is Mr Osborne's ludicrously dismissive attitude. This is also the case in his later volume on Wagner (1990). The fifth and last book in the series, the one on Richard Strauss, I have never read and, frankly, I am afraid of doing so. As regards Verdi and Mozart, whatever criticisms he may have, Mr Osborne often writes with enthusiasm and even affection, precious qualities that go a long way to excuse his somewhat high-handed and self-conscious attitude. Well, virtually all traces of enthusiasm, let alone affection, have vanished into thin air by the time he came to write The Complete Operas Of Puccini. I do wonder if Mr Osborne didn't write this book, as well as the one on Wagner, out of some perverse desire for completeness, apparently unaware that the first prerequisite to write about any subject is to have a genuine empathy with it.

To begin with the good news, Mr Osborne's book is wonderfully comprehensive and organised in his usually fine manner. Each opera Puccini ever composed, including several that are seldom if ever staged (or even recorded) today, is discussed from every possible point of view: historical background, sources and composition of the libretto and the music, synopsis, musical analysis. Though this is no biography of the great Italian composer, each chapter starts with fairly detailed and well-researched account of Puccini's life around the composition of the work in question; in the case of the first chapter quite enough information about Puccini's ancestors (a long list of distinguished local musicians) and childhood is also provided. As made clear by the author in his introduction, the book is especially designed for the lay reader who wants to get further insight into some of his favourite operas. There are quite a few musical examples between the pages, but the writing is on the whole delightfully non-technical. When instrumental passages are discussed, they are identified in terms of orchestration and simple musical terms (e.g. tempo indications) and can easily be located by anybody even slightly susceptible to music; besides, in most cases the musical examples are accompanied with lines from the libretto which makes the identification even easier.

Again as usual with him, Mr Osborne writes a clear and lucid, if a little dry and mannered, English and he is often insightful both about the music and the historical background. One notable example about the latter is Mr Osborne's case that Toscanini's famous world premiere of Puccini's last and incomplete opera, in which the Maestro didn't conduct Alfano's now generally accepted ending, may have been as much an homage to Puccini as a snub to Alfano, whose work Toscanini apparently didn't think much of. Mr Osborne's musical analyses are remarkably readable and sometimes offer the reader revealing touches as regards Puccini's complex use of leitmotivs. To take but one minor example, it is fascinating to read that the opening theme of the second act of La Boheme, which takes place in "Cafe Momus" in the Latin quarter in Paris, is actually introduced in the first act, while Schaunard mentions the Christmas celebrations in the Latin Quarter. This is subtle and difficult to notice without assistance. It is also a fine example of Puccini's masterful use of recurring themes (something which Mr Osborne otherwise condemns harshly; see below).

The historical background is often illuminating as regards both the music and the libretti. For instance, it is perfectly fascinating to know that Henri Murger's picaresque novel Scenes de la vie de Boheme, from which the libretto of La Boheme was later adapted, was largely drawn from life, Murger himself being the model for Rodolphe (who became Rodolfo in the opera). All four of the bohemian characters - the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Shaunard and the philosopher Colline - were firmly based on real-life models; in Paris of the 1820s and 1830s the famous ''Cafe Momus'' was also in existence.

Mr Osborne's decision to quote one complete chapter (some 12 pages!) of Murger's original is perhaps a trifle questionable, but it is rather interesting to notice the numerous differences. The chapter in question refers to the material for the last act, but here Mimi dies in a hospital and Rodolphe is informed about that by a friend. The novel, however, is rather dull, verbose and quite unsuitable for the stage. Interestingly, it was adapted into a highly successful play by a Murger's friend, but for this version Mr Osborne is unfortunately taciturn. At any rate Illica and Giacosa, Puccini's librettists, did a superb job to craft a very effective story well-suitable for the opera stage. Whatever the quality of their poetry, in combination with Puccini's music the effect is ravishing. I am not ashamed to confess this final act to be one of the most moving moments in opera I have experienced. Those who find it, in the unforgettable phrase of Mr Osborne, ''too cloyingly sentimental to stomach'' must be curiously cold-hearted fellows.

(By the way, here is a telling incident about this notoriously melodramatic finale. I was once telling the story to a friend of mine, a most charming girl, and she declared that if I took her to the opera she would laugh while Rodolfo was crying over Mimi's dead body. Later I did, but she didn't.)

Mr Osborne investigates meticulously the origins of Puccini's music also, including many things he salvaged from earlier and obscure works into his later and famous operas. One memorable example here is Musetta's naughty waltz-like aria from the second act of La Boheme. Mr Osborne rightly marvels how such perfect musical equivalent of the bohemian atmosphere of the Parisian cafes was earlier used by Puccini, in his student days, to write a piece of music designed for the launching of a battleship.

But now I come seriously to what I have so far only alluded: Mr Osborne's, to say the very least, highly questionable attitude. Only about La Boheme and Turandot, from Puccini's still popular works, does he allow himself to express some qualified admiration - accompanied by quite a few barbs, to be sure. He is generally appreciative, if far from moved, about Puccini's less-known music dramas, such as his ''Wild West Opera'' La Fanciulla del West or his cycle of three one-act operas Il Trittico. This tendency to regard more highly the most forgotten makes me wonder if Mr Osborne does not suffer from some snobbish preconceptions that popular taste is necessarily poor; this is unlikely, however, as in his books on Verdi and Mozart he had to deal - and did deal admirably - with a number of operas at least as popular as Puccini's masterpieces. But when he comes to Madama Butterfly and especially to Tosca, almost every trace of appreciation in Mr Osborne's writing simply disappears. The chapter about the former he finishes with this astonishingly ambiguous sentence: ''But, if one responds to Puccini at all, Butterfly remains solidly in one's affections.''

Now I venture to suggest the extremely controversial notion that Mr Osborne is one such man, one who doesn't respond to Puccini at all. This is the only explanation of his generally negative and sometimes almost vicious attitude. And this is the greatest mistake any writer, critics firmly included, could commit: writing about something out of pure negativity. This is not criticism. This is a pathological superiority complex in print. Nothing more, nothing less. True criticism, whatever its value, stems from positive response which, it cannot be repeated too often, has nothing to do with blind adulation and does not in the least prevent one from finding faults now and then. Yet, when there is an implacably negative attitude from the very beginning, an essential conviction that what you deal with is no good, which I am sure is the case with Mr Osborne and Puccini, one certainly has no business writing books on the subject. Those who read and believe them do so at their own peril.

Mr Osborne reaches the peak of his deliberate perversity when discussing the music of Tosca. Now this is truly baffling stuff. Cavaradossi's ''Vittoria'' arioso (which quickly turns into trio) in the second act is ''musically poor stuff and dramatically risible'', Scarpia's music, except for the finale of Act 1, is ''disappointing throughout the opera'', the theme from the first love duet is repeated many times later ''sometimes to dramatic purpose and sometimes not'', a theme from the end of the second act - and this is Mr Osborne at his most condescending best - ''does something to elevate the stature of the opera at this point'', and so on and so forth. He finishes the chapter with these astonishing lines:

Tosca can hardly be described as its composer's finest creation: its lyrical pages are, with one or two exceptions, not among Puccini's most successful, and its dramatic music rarely rises above a workaday level. The fact remains, however, that it is one of Puccini's most popular operas, and would stand high on any list of popular operas. [...] Tosca is popular with audiences not because of the quality of its music, but because its melodramatic plot is tautly constructed, and its three leading roles give their interpreters ample opportunity to shine vocally (Cavaradossi), dramatically (Scarpia) and both vocally and dramatically (Tosca). And, of course, it contains in 'Vissi d'arte' and 'E lucevan le stelle' two highly effective arias.

What I have omitted above is Mr Osborne's quoting the wise words of Joseph Kerman, from his Opera as Drama (1956), that Tosca is a ''shoddy little shocker'', and Benjamin Britten's even more profound statement that he was ''sickened by the cheapness and emptiness'' of Puccini's music (Opera, February 1951).

(By the way, Mr Kerman's description is, unfortunately, an often-quoted one. Interestingly, the first word of it is generally given as "shabby"; this includes the ''Fiftieth Anniversary Edition'' of Opera as Drama as can be seen on Amazon. Whether Mr Kerman changed his mind, figuratively speaking, or Mr Osborne misquoted him, is hardly of any great relevance, though.)

One doesn't know where to start the discussion of a passage so rife with ridiculous rubbish.

At first glance, according to Mr Osborne, Tosca must be this unique creature of an opera that has remained in the standard repertoire, nay even attained amazing popularity, not because of its music, but because of its plot and drama. This is, of course, pure nonsense. Mr Osborne admits as much in the very next sentence. What a glaring contradiction indeed! The music is of poor quality, yet two of the major characters ''shine vocally''. As for the fiercely intense drama, who would dare predict how far the libretto would survive on the theatre stage only, without Puccini's music? Indeed I would. Not a single performance!

I am inclined to think that Mr Osborne takes the audience for a trifle bigger fools than they are. No matter how intensely dramatic and ''tautly constructed'' the plot may be, nobody would go to the opera house, much less make or buy a complete recording, because of the drama on the stage. This is not theatre. This is musical theatre. The same goes for ''Vissi d'arte'' and ''E lucevan le stelle''. These are surely two of the most famous arias, for soprano and tenor respectively, in the whole of opera. All the same, nobody - least of all the public at large - would stand two hours of boredom because of five minutes vocal brilliance.

As for the lyrical pages, I take issue with Mr Osborne and do claim that both love duets, in Act 1 and in Act 3, are definitely among the finest things Puccini ever composed. So, for that matter, is the whole of Act 2, which must rank as one of the most highly-charged dramas ever put on the opera stage. Any moral objections one may have to the violence or the pornographic undercurrents of the second act are simply beside the point. It is musically and dramatically as close to perfection as anything ever composed by anybody.

Now, it goes without saying that Tosca is not for children, nor for prigs, prudes, the squeamish and the faint-hearted. It is extremely violent. After the final curtain the body count is exactly four, and only one death (Angelotti's) is altogether off stage; Cavaradossi is shot and Scarpia stabbed very much on the stage indeed; as for Tosca herself, her suicide may be said to be half-offstage. The death of Scarpia, which forms the end of Act 2, is probably the most horrifying thing in all opera. After stabbing him with the words ''This is the kiss of Tosca!'', Tosca watches the villain expiring with words like ''Is your blood choking you?'' and ''Die accursed! Die! Die! Die!''. When Scarpia is dead, come the cynical ''And now I pardon him!'' and the contemptuous ''All Rome trembled before him!'', sung in a low, menacing voice, accompanied by anguished strings.

Nor is the nearly pornographic sexual innuendo between Tosca and Scarpia, which occupies a good deal of the second act, or the highly erotic overtones of Cavaradossi's wistful fantasies in ''E lucevan le stelle'', very suitable for the morally fastidious. I imagine something like the latter prompted Deryck Cooke to describe memorably the essence of Puccini as ''despairing eroticism''. But this, too, is an important part of the story. It also has, in addition to certain dramatic significance, some of the most sublime music in existence.

But all that is beside the point. On the theatre stage Tosca may be a revolting spectacle, which is probably one of the reasons why Sardou's original five-act play didn't survive the test of time, but in the opera house or on record, with Puccini's magnificent score and a trio of great singer-actors, it is a chilling yet compelling drama, or melodrama if you like. I have never been able to listen to it without being terrified yet fascinated, trembling in cold sweat yet exalted by what must be one of most gorgeous dramatic scores ever composed. And what is the use of great art if not to sharpen your sensibilities as regards the whole of humanity? Have you never wondered how it feels to kill a man? Have you never wanted to do so? If you are not as saintly as to answer "no" to both questions, you might just find Puccini's Tosca surprisingly self-revealing.

Perhaps Mr Osborne found the melodrama much too lurid for his taste? Perhaps his prudish consciousness was outraged by what he rightly (though at the wrong place!*) describes as ''quasi-pornography''? Whatever the reason, it must be said here and now that his musical analysis of Tosca is a shameful ranting that should never have been published. Virtually all his negative points can be refuted as easily as he no doubt made them. And that's what I propose to do now.

To begin with some matters that are purely a question of taste. Personally, I think that Cavaradossi's ''Vittoria'', though certainly not among the most inspired of Puccini's thoughts, is far from ''musically poor stuff'', let alone ''dramatically risible''. In fact, it is dramatically highly effective and, indeed, critical for the action as it is this outburst with which Cavaradossi signs his own death warrant. As for the two most famous arias in the music drama - for Tosca is no opera at all; if I occasionally call it that way, it is from pure habit - I do think they are much more than merely ''highly effective'' - a cold praise if there ever was one. The enormous popularity of these arias outside the complete work may have done a lot to attract new listeners - myself included - but there is much, much, much more in Tosca than that. Indeed, the more one listens, the more one is amazed how well everything - even arias and love duets - fits the drama and advances the action.

Mr Osborne's curious remark that Scarpia's music is ''disappointing throughout the opera'' is strangely inane. If he meant melodic richness and vocal splendour, he was certainly right. But Scarpia is not there to delight you with ravishing singing. He is there to frighten you, to repel you, to disgust you. He is the kind of man who is turned on, in every sense of the phrase, by the misery of others. Unscrupulous, hypocritical, corrupt, lecherous and sadistic, Scarpia is probably the most loathsome creature in all opera; Jago from Otello is a saint in comparison. Mr Osborne enjoys declaring this or that ''aria'' of his to be ''unmemorable'' or full of ''empty rhetoric'', while he completely fails to understand that, in the first place, talking of ''arias'' in Tosca is very misguided. Small wonder that he would miss the point completely. And the point is that Scarpia, no matter how disgusting he may be, is a fabulously done character, if necessarily simplified for the stage. When his largely declamatory part is performed by a baritone who is endowed both with great voice and with great ability to act with that voice - say, for example, Guiseppe Taddei or Titto Gobbi; or, in more recent times and in smaller degree, even Sherrill Milnes and Ruggero Raimondi** - it's an extraordinary experience, both aurally and visually.

Mr Osborne's disparaging remarks about Puccini's dramatic use of his leitmotivs also reveal nothing but the author's outstanding superficiality. Strangely enough, other eminent writers (Mosco Carner, Richard Osborne) have been equally condescending about that. They invariably state that Puccini's use of the leitmotiv technique is radically different than Wagner's, by which they of course imply that it is inferior to Wagner's admittedly more complex and far-reaching method. But why? Because Puccini's short themes do not change throughout the work and are largely used for mere identification; this is the same as Debussy's famous dismissal of the leitmotivs in Wagner's Ring as ''calling cards''. I do not think this is the case at all. Indeed, Puccini's orchestration has always impressed me as very Wagnerian, although this is, of course, a dangerous oversimplification. In other words, I imagine Wagner would have admired Tosca, even though it is not something he could possibly have composed himself. But let's get few direct examples. The finale of the music drama is condemned by Mr Carner (in his liner notes to Karajan's 1979 recording for DG) as ''dramatically entirely irrelevant'', and here is what Mr Osborne has to say about it:

...and the wildly inappropriate statement by the full orchestra, 'tutta forza con grande slancio', of Cavaradossi's 'O dolci baci, o languide carezze' from his aria 'E lucevan le stelle'. The theme from the love duet or even the fateful Ex. 26 would have made a more suitable conclusion. Even better would have been the Scarpia theme with which the opera began.

Well, at least in this case, unlike in most others, Mr Osborne offers some alternatives of his own. But it would have been much better if he had spent a few sentences more to tell us why these alternatives are better suited. (For the record, ''Ex. 26'' is the brooding theme in the strings from the end of the second act which was referred to earlier and which accompanies Scarpia's writing of a safe-conduct pass for Tosca; and Cavaradossi's line translates, roughly, as ''Oh soft kisses, oh sweet caresses''.) For my part, the reference makes perfect dramatic sense: Cavaradossi's anguished erotic fantasies, infinitely amplified by the blast of the full orchestra, are in line with the tragic end both lovers have just come to. It is quite possible, of course, that now and then Puccini sacrificed dramatic consistency for a purely musical effect. But I don't believe that, either. Puccini was too much a man of the theatre to do that. Moreover, he definitely was skillful enough a composer to finish Tosca quite effectively with any theme he liked. Nor is the argument that the theme in question is associated entirely with Cavaradossi any more viable. After all, his erotic reveries definitely refer both to him and to Tosca.

(In his liner notes Mr Carner also thinks that, had Puccini been consistent in his use of the so-called ''Scarpia-motif'', he should have finished the opera with it. Mr Carner's only justification is that this would be a nice ironic remark that Scarpia had triumphed over the lovers. Now this does make dramatic sense. But I really don't see how it makes more dramatic sense than Puccini's alternative and my explanation of it. After all, the opera is not called ''Scarpia''.)

To take one other example, in the first act Cavaradossi and Angelotti leave the church accompanied, ''incongruously'' as the dismayed Mr Osborne tells us, by the jaunty melody associated with the comic character of the sacristan. This, again, shows an appalling disrespect for Puccini's masterful use of his leitmotivs; it also shows that labeling themes as ''calling cards'' is a very dangerous business indeed. As a matter of fact, the reference to the sacristan's theme, cleverly interwoven with others, can very easily be explained: it simply anticipates the appearance of the sacristan himself; for he does appear no sooner than the painter and the ex-prisoner have left. And this, indeed, is a very Wagnerian use of the leitmotiv technique.

(Of course in Wagner's case, as usual, the scale is quite different: in Der Ring des Nibelungen such references often refer to another music drama in the cycle, namely to something that you have heard the previous evening or you are going to hear on the next one, assuming of course that you're attending the Ring staged in four consecutive days - something which, for both logistical and vocal reasons, is virtually never done.)

Tosca is full of such suggestive references, but Mr Osborne either does not notice them or does not think them important enough to be worth-mentioning. For instance, while Scarpia reflects in Act 1 how he should use the fan of Countess Attavanti to make Tosca jealous, there is a subtle reference to the theme from Cavaradossi's aria ''Recondita Armonia'' where he compares the different kinds of beauty of the Countess, whom he had painted while she prayed, and his beloved. Another example is the use of the ''Scarpia theme'' in the end of the second act, miraculously transformed from its brutal orchestral force to a kind of quiet requiem for the dead man. Here Puccini has, again, merged musical beauty with dramatic importance in a very ingenious way. But Mr Osborne is not impressed.

There are also bigger issues in Tosca which Mr Osborne glosses over. The role of the church*** as regards the characters is a case in point. Tosca is presented as a very pious woman and it is perfectly in line with her character that she should remove the Crucifix from the wall and put it on the bloody chest of the dead Scarpia. This is no ingenuity of some modern director; it is written in the libretto. Scarpia himself, though he uses religion, as anything else, to satisfy only his vile instincts, is not without some God-fearing nuances in his make-up. When, in the end of the first act, he bursts out passionately that Tosca makes him forget even God, but then remembers where he is and kneels down to pray during ''Te Deum'', I am never sure how much of a humbug he is. On the other hand, Cavaradossi is an acknowledged free-thinker. He is called a "Voltairean dog" and has influenced even Tosca's rigid piety. The banter between him and the sacristan is as amusing as it is pointed. And Tosca's faith in God is, indeed, greatly shaken by the events as well; her famous aria in the second act finishes with a direct question to God which sounds almost like accusation: ''perché me ne rimuneri così?'' (''Why dost Thou repay me thus?'') The whole issue is rather complex and certainly worth a study, in respect to both the historical period in which the opera is set (1800) and Puccini's own attitude.

So much about Tosca. But even about La Boheme, where Mr Osborne unbends as much as using such untypical words like ''moving'' and where his treatment of the music is more detailed and more insightful than anywhere else, there are quite a few nasty touches. Probably the nastiest one is the glorious finale of Act 1 (Rodolfo's and Mimi's introductory arias and, immediately afterwards for life is short, the love duet) about which Mr Osborne loftily declares that ''Puccini's lyrical genius operates at its highest'' - and two sentences later he states, with even more nauseating loftiness, that we shouldn't complain if the composer ''is functioning at the aesthetic level of the cheap romantic novel, when he achieves his aim with such conviction.'' What's that supposed to mean? Puccini at his best is like a ''cheap romantic novel''? Well, his librettists may well be there, but his music is definitely on another, infinitely higher, plane.

Leaving aside the trademark ambiguity of Mr Osborne's conclusions (as if he was afraid of expressing any unqualified admiration, and in each case he felt compelled to drag Puccini through the mud), the discussion of the last act of La Boheme is dismal. We are told that Colline's little aria about his old coat (''Vecchia zimarra'') is ''dramatically a mistake and musically slight''. In fact, it is neither. Mr Osborne obviously equates shortness with smallness. He should have known better. When performed by a bass who can manage the mezza voce well, the aria is incredibly moving. And dramatically relevant, because Colline is going to sell his coat, not for any other reason, but to help the dying Mimi. One wonders if Mr Osborne would consider Musetta's short prayer from the same act to be ''dramatically a mistake and musically slight''. Of course it is neither, and for the same reasons as Colline's aria, but the remarkable thing is that the author does not even mention it!

Mr Osborne also objects that Puccini should finish the opera with the theme from the end of Colline's ''Vecchia zimarra'', apparently forgetting that the final word of the aria is ''Addio'' and thus the theme fits quite well Rodolfo's irreparable loss. Earlier in this chapter Mr Osborne even quotes Ernest Newman to support his theory that Puccini revived old tunes promiscuously and without any dramatic purpose. Well, we all know the ''authority'' of Mr Newman as regards Liszt and even in the case of Wagner, by far his forte, his wise remarks have been largely, if not entirely, superseded. I wonder if it wasn't Mr Newman with whom this fashion of degrading Puccini's dramatic sense started. Mr Carner and Mr Osborne seem only too eager to repeat his ''authoritative'' opinions.

The third act of La Boheme reveals, for yet another time, that Mr Osborne works according to some preconceptions of his own that have no truck with Puccini's dramatic thinking. When his expectations are not fulfilled, it never crosses the author's mind that it might be he who is wrong, not the composer. After his flippant remark that the two fortissimo chords that open the act are "Puccini's method of telling the audience to shut up and listen", a little later Mr Osborne tells us that the repetition of these chords in the middle of the bleak winter brilliantly described with quiet music seems to be "a miscalculation on the composer's part". It never occurs to Mr Osborne's that the chords in question might be, for instance, an amplification of the drama for which the cheerless winter alone is not enough. In the very next paragraph, the author high-handedly tells us that at the appearance of Rodolfo "he and the orchestra between them produce a reminiscence from the happier past of Act 1 which is hardly appropriate to the situation." As a matter of fact, since Rodolfo is about to break with Mimi and is reluctant to do that, such reminiscences are more than appropriate.

With Madama Butterfly and Turandot I am unfortunately unfamiliar, having listened carefully mostly to extracts. Yet I am familiar enough to be exasperated by Mr Osborne's passion to be even-handed, even more so by his complete lack of appreciation for Puccini's music. Even when the author goes as close to losing his mind as "poignant", "splendid" and "magnificent", he sounds conceited and presumptuous. For most of the time Mr Osborne is actually rather non-committal - which is indeed the worst possible case. Of course he doesn't miss the opportunity to describe certain episodes as "somewhat characterless" or "somewhat lachrymose". Or to ask his favourite question: "Is this one of those moments when Puccini merely wrote down the notes that came into his mind, without considering whether or not they suited the dramatic situation?" The moment in question is the "phrases full of a tender yearning" with which Butterfly greets Prince Yamadori, even though "she is supposed to feel nothing but contempt for her". Significantly, Mr Osborne forgets to tell us why she should feel contempt for him. Because she is in love with her husband and he has come to propose her by way of a ''matchmaker''? Well, perhaps Butterfly is not as stupid as some writers want to make her. Besides, she could sense that Yamadori is genuinely in love with her, and that's why she is naturally sympathetic. She knows only too well what love is and thus can imagine what a broken heart must be like. That she would come to experience the full force of the latter in the very next act makes the episode all the more poignant.

It is obvious from the very contents of the book that Puccini was a very slow worker, producing even in his prime no more than one work every few years. While engagements in productions all around the world (from Milan to London to New York), quarrels with librettists, and certain laziness on his part may have played part in this, the main reason certainly was his perfectionism and conscientiousness. Keeping this in mind, I do think we can do him justice only by first trying to find some way to explain his own use of his own music, and then - and only then - by trying to impress our own fantasies on his works. Not so with Mr Osborne. He accuses Puccini of poor dramatic sense and inappropriate use of his own thematic material on nearly every page of his musical analyses. To say that this is arrogant is an understatement. As I have shown several times already, it doesn't require some startling intelligence to supply alternative, and dramatically relevant, explanations of Puccini's music. Far-fetched and fanciful as they may be, I really don't think they are a bit more far-fetched and fanciful than anything the author may offer you. But Mr Osborne goes even further. Discussing Alfano's ending of Turandot, he finishes the last chapter of his book thus:

The short final scene which follows without a break is disappointingly perfunctory. After the chorus has sung a few bars of the Imperial Hymn, Turandot announces that the name of her unknown suitor is Love ('Il suo nome e Amor!'), and with a choral restatement of the theme from Calaf's 'Nessun Dorma': not altogether appropriately, since Calaf had used that phrase to declare that his mystery remained locked within him, but there can be no guarantee that Puccini would not, in any case, have chosen the same phrase to bring the curtain down. He was not very particular in these matters!

Truly stupefying! Imagine Giacomo Puccini, one of the most dedicated to the theatre composers who hardly composed anything else but music dramas, being ''not very particular in these matters!'' And why should Alfano's ending be regarded as ''not altogether appropriately'' conceived? Actually, it makes a wonderful sense that the same theme should be used at both places, for it is only in the finale that Calaf's mystery is finally revealed; it is no longer ''locked within him''. Significantly, Mr Osborne neither offers an alternative solution nor reminds us that the ''restatement'', in this case as in many others, varies greatly in orchestration and character than the original appearance of the theme. Thus it may well serve a dramatic purpose Mr Osborne never even imagined.

Yet this is not the end. There are few paragraphs by way of conclusion of the whole book which Mr Osborne uses for an outright ad hominem attack on Puccini, declaring that he lacked, not only the musical genius of Verdi, but also his qualities as a man. Or in the author's memorable words:

His will, bequeathing a very large sum of money to Elvira and to Tonio, [Puccini's wife and son] was thought distinctly ungenerous by many because, unlike Verdi's, it left nothing to charity or to his community. More to the point, surely, is the lack of generosity of spirit Puccini revealed in his lifetime. His character was neither philosophically reflective nor especially attractive in any way. He was self-centered, and his principal interests outside his music appear to have been sex, fast cars, and the shooting of birds.

Big deal!

As far as artistic stature is concerned, well, it goes without saying that Puccini did not have the versatility**** or the productivity of Verdi; nor, for that matter, his melodic gift. That said, within his narrower range Puccini did achieve the utmost mastery. Apart from Verdi, Wagner and Mozart, no other composer may boast four music dramas - La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot - which are in the repertoire of almost every opera house on the planet. Mr Osborne admits with his usual grudge that Puccini is indeed Verdi's successor, as often claimed. But it is a claim well-founded on several fronts. Where Verdi left off with Otello and Falstaff, Puccini took over with Manon Lescaut (which is still revived regularly, and it is well-worth it). From Puccini's contemporaries, the verismo masters Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea and Giordano, none has remained in the repertory with more than one opera (which is hardly as revered as any of Puccini's ''big four'' anyway). The most important point to note is that Puccini's works are not just popular. They have remained so for about a century now. And there are no signs that their appeal with audiences all around the world is diminishing.

As for the purely ad hominem rubbish, this is really very base of Mr Osborne. It is very feeble and irrelevant, too. First of all, if we are going down this shameful road, we may make a fine case that Verdi, like Puccini according to Mr Osborne, was hardly a man of any great sophistication, culture or philosophical depth. And we can make quite a nasty case that Verdi was and remained all his life a peasant. But this is absolutely the wrong way all the same. For what exactly, pray tell me, do the personal shortcomings of a composer have to do with his artistic achievements? Unless you are a snobbish prig and a nauseating snob like Mr Osborne (to give him back his ad hominem with a vengeance), the answer is this: nothing whatsoever.

Last and least, Mr Osborne should be reprimanded for his spectacular laziness. The parts dealing with the historical background are often riddled with quotations of intolerable length. Their value is rather a mixed bag. It is completely fascinating to read the extremely graphic scene of Butterfly's suicide in the short story of John Luther Long (one of the main sources for the libretto), but a full page with the bizarre "English" that was bestowed on her by Long and Belasco (who adapted the story into play, another source of the libretto) is totally unbearable stuff. Both the play and the story are also quoted at unreasonable length, with Mr Osborne barely supplying few short comments in between. It is also charming to read a whole scene from Sardou's La Tosca, the one that became the basis for the beginning of the first act, but do we really need it in the original French with English translation running as footnotes? The only place where Mr Osborne's profligate quotation is excusable, and even desirable, are Puccini's letters. Ironically, they largely refute his foolish attempt for character assassination. They draw the picture of a man, not so much self-centered and ungenerous, as remarkably self-assured and candid.

All in all, Mr Osborne's book on Puccini's operas is just about at the mediocre level of his ranting on Wagner's. It is pleasantly comprehensive and rather illuminating in terms of historical background. But the most important part of the book, the musical analysis, is deeply flawed by Mr Osborne's relentless anti-Puccinian attitude. He never tires of degrading the composer's music at every possible opportunity. Even at his most positive passages he gives the impression that he hardly keeps his disdain away from the pages. It makes for a most unpleasant reading. And most stultifying, too. My desire to improve my unfortunately slight knowledge of Puccini's oeuvre is entirely due to the fact that I consider La Boheme and Tosca to be among the most affecting among my musical experiences. Mr Osborne's ill-hidden contempt has completely failed to stimulate my serious exploration of the nearly forgotten today La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico, let alone the fairly-well known Manon Lescaut or the famous Madama Butterfly and Turandot. When the time to become familiar with these works finally comes, I very much doubt that Mr Osborne would offer me something more than careful listening to a complete recording with libretto in hand would.

In short, excellent resource for historical background, extremely poor inspirational value and deeply flawed musical analyses, marred by negativity and superficiality. A book to be read selectively and with great caution. Even worse than Mr Osborne's Wagnerian attempt actually, as his dislike for Puccini seems to be more deep-seated and all-pervading.


* Mr Osborne calls "musical quasi-pornography" the scene before Cavaradossi's "Vittoria", when as a matter of fact Scarpia's clearly pornographic offer to Tosca comes later and forms the rest of the second act. Whatever moral objections some inhumanly sophisticated people may have, the scene is musically and dramatically more than effective - when performed well that is, which is seldom the case.

** I am not, of course, forgetting Ettore Bastianini. Unfortunately he never made a commercial recording of the part. So far as I know the only opportunity to hear him as Scarpia is a live performance from a guest appearance of La Scala in Brussels in 1958, released on double CD from Myto. The sound is rather poor, with the the orchestra (under the fine baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni) sounding as if it were in the basement, and a sound-proof basement at that, but perhaps one is unwise to expect more. The voices are much better recorded, if placed unusually forward, and in addition to Ettore, the most suave and cunning Scarpia imaginable, you also get Tebaldi and Di Stefano is superb form. On the second CD there are also some great bonuses with Pippo and Renata, singing arias and duets from Puccini's La Boheme, Manon Lescaut and Gianni Schicchi, recorded live in concert in a very decent for its age (1954) sound.

*** If you happen to see the marvellous film from 1976, currently available on DVD, starring Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, and filmed on location in Rome, note the perceptive touch of the director Gianfranco de Bosio in the beginning. As Kenneth Chalmers, a far more sympathetic commentator on Tosca, has remarked in his liner notes, when the baleful "Scarpia-theme" opens the opera, de Bosio couples this with a shot of the facade of Sant' Andrea della Valle, where the first act takes place, thus suggesting that the Church is just as corrupt and evil as Scarpia himself, and indeed used by him for many none too saintly deals.

**** Speaking of Puccini's versatility, compare La Boheme and Tosca. The never-ending, languid lyricism of the former and the harsh, brutal and swift drama of the latter could hardly have been more different. The writing for the orchestra and for the voices is thoroughly Puccinian, yet the character of the works is on the whole startlingly different. Furthermore, a good case can be made that each of Puccini's music dramas, much like Wagner's, has its own, unmistakable aural character. After hearing no more than ten minutes of each, it is not likely that you would mistake Madama Butterfly or Turandot for either La Boheme or Tosca. So, in short, Puccini's versatility may well be underestimated. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jan 25, 2012 |
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