Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sunday Classics: Is this any way to start an opera? (Puccini thought so)


by Ken

When I wrote here last January about Puccini's operatic rendering of David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, I was horribly frustrated at not being able to enable you to hear the opera's exhilarating orchestral introduction, with its soaring anticipation of the gun-slinging heroine Minnie's exhortation to the miners in the Bible class she conducts: "There isn't, in the whole world, a sinner to whom a path to redemption isn't open. Let each of you keep within you this supreme truth of love."

Well, let's correct that omission straightaway. This isn't the Met broadcast performance that originally set me to thinking about Fanciulla (see below); the first track of that CD goes too far into the opera. Instead we're going to hear the opening of a 1966 performance conducted by Fausto Cleva:

[UPDATE: I originally had a parenthetical note noting that the beautiful bass voice heard briefly at 1:20 as the still-offstage minstrel Jake Wallace belongs to the young John Macurdy, who would be a Met mainstay in the whole of the bass repertory for several decades. Don't know why I deleted it.]

What I wrote back then was:
Not long ago I put on an old Met broadcast performance of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West . . . and within seconds I was startled to realize I had tears in my eyes.

Now the brief orchestral introduction to Fanciulla (it lasts, on average, maybe a minute and 10 seconds) isn't sad, not in the least. It is mostly a glorious explosion of surging energy. You can hear the last 26 seconds in a promotional video for Covent Garden's 2006 performances. I decided that those 26 seconds didn't justify subjecting you to the remaining three and a half minutes of twaddle, and in any event it's really the surge of the very opening, and the bit that follows immediately, that I wanted you to hear. The soaring melody, carved out of a harmonically surprising whole-tone scale, is the one with which Minnie imparts to her miner Bible students the personal view of human redeemability I've quoted above.

If we were going to try to talk seriously about Puccini's operas, those might be the first things I would want you to hear: that soaring opening, and then Minnie's Bible reading (from Psalm 51), and its lesson of the "supreme truth of love," which sends her soaring into the soprano's upper range, a remarkable effect from the kind of heavyweight voice for which the role is written -- a "dramatic soprano," as opposed to the lighter-weight "lyric soprano" (like Mimì, the heroine of Puccini's La Bohème).

While we're at it, why don't we correct that omission as well? Here is Minnie, as sung heart-rendingly beautifully by Renata Tebaldi in the wonderful 1958 Decca Fanciulla conducted Franco Capuana, first asking where they left off (in Psalm 51, "Purge me with hyssop"), then after some confusion among her improbable Bible students reading the second stanza [1:51]: "Wash me, and I shall be as white as snow; set within my breast a pure heart; and renew in me a right spirit." Then [2:23] she offers her interpretation of the text, as quoted above.

Sorry, I've got those tears again. Okay, moving on, back then I also wrote:
Another reason to start out with that rousing Fanciulla curtain-raiser is that the simplest measure of the scale of Puccini's genius may be those amazing orchestral introductions. Someday I would love to be able to string together the openings of [his mature operas]. Puccini was following Verdi in his final masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), in eliminating any formal overture or even shorter prelude, instead plunging the audience into the action with just a brief orchestral scene-setting. Puccini made an art form of these orchestral introductions. His not only grab the audience's attention and draw us into the action but are in themselves astonishing feats of musical imagination, no two of which resemble each other.

Well, that's just what we're going to do now: hear the openings of all the mature Puccini operas, from Manon Lescaut through Turandot. I've gone beyond just the bare openings to include what we might think of as the "destination point" toward which each opening is aimed, so I encourage you at least once through to listen just to the orchestral intro; as soon as you hear a voice, pause that clip and go on to the next. On another pass-through you might try listening to just the first track of each audio clip, for a closer juxtaposition of these remarkable openings.

(Note: The date given for each opera refers to its first performance, including the posthumous premiere of the unfinished Turandot. In the recording listings, characters are given in order of appearance, except where I've screwed it up.)


Ramón Vargas (t), Edmondo; Luciano Pavarotti (t), des Grieux; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine, cond. Decca, recorded August 1992

We're skipping over Puccini's first two operas, Le Villi (1884) and Edgar (1892), partly because they seem to me so uninteresting and partly because I don't have either on CD -- the two parts being distinctly related. If you could hear them, though, I think you would be even more jolted by the opening of Manon Lescaut. Within a few seconds we know we're in the presence of a major talent; by the minute mark it's clear that the talent is of the once-in-a-generation level.

At curtain rise we're in "a vast piazza near the Paris Gate," and the lyrically inclined student Edmondo is getting a hard time from his friends for his effusive celebrations of youth, hope, and love. When their friend the Cavaliere des Grieux shows up [track 2], he joins in, and in the brief aria "Tra voi belle, brune e bionde" [track 3] claims to be picking out from the lovely ladies present one he might fall in love with.

If i had the EMI Manon Lescaut with Maria Callas on CD, I might have gone with that, even in mono, on the strength of its fine tenors, Dino Fiorentino as Edmondo and the younger Giuseppe di Stefano, in much closer to peak form than we're going to hear him in the Karajan-Decca Tosca below, as des Grieux. I know people tend to associate Puccini with the soprano voice (or voices, since he wrote for distinctly different kinds), and goodness knows he left many generations of sopranos deeply in his debt. But I always think first of what he could do with the tenor voice (or, again, voices). Even a role as tiny as Edmondo -- so tiny, it's barely a role, and yet when you hear the music Puccini lavished on him, you assume he must be one of the principal characters. Who would entrust such music to such a small one? Ramón Vargas does a fine job with it, and then we get to hear Luciano Pavarotti -- doing the kind of pressured, not very elegant singing that became increasingly common as the years wore on, but still, it gives us Pavarotti. (A not-entirely-fresh-sounding Mirella Freni is the Manon of this recording, and Dwayne Croft her brother Lescaut.)


Ettore Bastianini (b), Marcello; Carlo Bergonzi (t), Rodolfo; Cesare Siepi (bs), Colline; Renato Cesari (b), Schaunard; Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Tullio Serafin, cond. Decca, recorded August 1959

Talk about plunging right into the action: We are introduced immediately to two of the principals, freezing in the Paris attic they share with two other would-be artist friends. Marcello is having a rough time painting the Red Sea in the cold, and is about to burn a chair when it occurs to Rodolfo the poet [2:34] that the play he has written can save them -- not by reading it, as Marcello assumes, but [2:50] by burning it for heat. Act I goes up in flames [3:18], and soon they are joined [3:45] by their roommate Colline, a philosopher, who is appalled to have discovered that just because it's Christmas Eve all the pawnbrokers are closed! Now he's startled to find a fire burning in their little stove, and the three Bohemians enjoy Act II [track 2] -- until the warmth-giving fire dies down and goes out. Just as Marcello and Colline are formally denouncing the author, in storms their musician colleague Schaunard [track 3], with porters bearing a harvest of treasures including many of the edible variety. He tells the story of this great windfall mostly for his own benefit; the others are already attacking the loot.

The "magic fire" music of this scene is a special favorite musical moment of mine, and I've never heard it played more magically than it is here by the Santa Cecilia musicians under Tullio Serafin. That would be reason enough to have chosen this recording, but hearing voices of the caliber of Carlo Bergonzi's, Ettore Bastianini's, and Cesare Siepi's in this music (we sometimes get a front-line singer for Rodolfo, but not often for Marcello and even less often for Colline) counts for something too. (About to appear is -- who else? --  the great comic bass Fernando Corena as the landlord Benoit, come to collect the rent, which he doesn't, thanks to quick thinking by Marcello; we'll actually hear Corena in a moment as the Sacristan in Tosca, another role he recorded a zillion times. After the landlord is booted out, it's almost time for the first appearance of Renata Tebaldi as Mimì, one of her loveliest roles.)


Carlo Cava (bs), Cesare Angelotti; Fernando Corena (bs), the Sacristan; Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Mario Cavaradossi; Vienna Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. RCA/Decca, recorded September 1962

That's Baron Scarpia, the dreaded commander of the Roman police, we hear in the thundering opening chords, followed immediately by the appearance in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle of a fugitive from his clutches, Angelotti, searching desperately for the key to the private Attavanti chapel left for him by his sister, the Marchesa d'Attavanti. He finally finds it, and admits himself to at least temporary sanctuary. The church's Sacristan (sung here, as promised above, by Fernando Corena, in what by my quick count was the fourth of five recordings of the role) limps in [track 2] -- we can hear the limp in his music -- assuming that the noise he's heard came from the painter Cavaradossi, who has been working on a portrait of the Madonna in the church. Finding himself alone, the Sacristan is reciting the "Angelus" as Cavaradossi enters and scandalizes the poor fellow by explaining that the face he has given his Madonna is that of an unknown woman he observed in the church praying devoutly. He prepares to resume his painting, asking the Sacristan to give him his paints ("Dammi i colori," track 3), then launching the aria "Recondita armonia," pondering the "strange harmony" between the beauty of his unknown model and that of his beloved Floria Tosca, drawing horrified running expostulations from the Sacristan.

I chose this recording partly for Corena, partly for the splendidly dramatic conducting and beautiful playing of Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, partly for Corena, and partly for tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. Even in the abused condition of the voice circa 1962, a measure of its former liquid beauty and glorious ring can be heard, along with his distinctive feel for the shape of a Puccinian phrase. Also, my attempt to provide some variety ruled out the 1957 RCA recording with Jussi Bjoerling, since I had already slotted Bjoerling in for the opening of Madama Butterfly. (The Karajan-Decca Tosca also stars the young Leontyne Price as Tosca and baritone Giuseppe Taddei in fine form as Scarpia.)


Jussi Bjoerling (t), Pinkerton; Piero de Palma (t), Goro; Miriam Pirazzini (ms), Suzuki; Mario Sereni (b), Sharpless; Rome Opera Orchestra, Gabriele Santini, cond. EMI, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1959

I have serious problems with Butterfly, but none of them involve the opening, which once again just bowls me over, even in this not exactly razor-sharp performance. We're on a hilltop overlooking the port of Nagasaki, and the broker Goro is showing the American Navy lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton the miraculous little house with sliding walls he has found for him and his lovely 15-year-old bride Cio-Cio-San (known as Madama Butterfly), whom he's to marry as soon as she and her large coterie of relatives as well as the American consul Sharpless are gathered. Goro then [track 2] introduces Cio-Cio-San's faithful servant Suzuki, as well as a (silent) cook and manservant who will serve the happy couple in their new home. Sharpless arrives, panting from the climb, before the bride and her retinue, and while they wait, Pinkerton shares with him [track 3] his philosophy of taking life's pleasures as they come -- and leaving behind its inconveniences. They toast: "America forever."

As noted, we could have had more incisive execution of the wonderful opening fugato for strings. I gave serious consideration to the later EMI Butterfly conducted with brilliance and passion by Sir John Barbirolli, with Carlo Bergonzi and Rolando Panerai as Pinkerton and Sharpless, but I decided to leave Bergonzi with his Bohème assignment on the strength of the Pinkerton of Jussi Bjoerling, complemented by the sonorous Sharpless of Mario Sereni and the peerless Goro of the best Italianate character tenor I've ever heard, Piero de Palma. (The recording's soon-to-be-heard Butterfly is Victoria de los Angeles, Bjoerling's partner in the 1956 New York-made mono Bohème conducted with stimulating audacity by Sir Thomas Beecham, my co-favorite Bohème with the above-heard Serafin-Decca version.)

(The Girl of the Golden West)

Nicola Zaccaria (bs), Jake Wallace; Renato Ercolani (t), Nick the bartender; the various miners; Andrea Mongelli (b), Sheriff Jack Rance; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Lovro von Matacic, cond. EMI, recorded July 1958

There's not much to add to what we've already established at the top, not to mention in the January piece, about Fanciulla. We're in Minnie's Polka saloon, and in the proprietress's absence Nick the bartender is tending to the needs of the gathered miners, all of whom sound happily like Italian immigrants, given the lovely music Puccini has given them to express both their quarrels and their loneliness and homesickness.

I chose EMI's Fanciulla (which has Birgit Nilsson in the title role) on the strength of the rich playing of the Scala orchestra and Lovro von Matcic's dynamic reading. However, we could just as easily have gone with the 1958 Capuana-Decca recording from which we heard Renata Tebaldi sing the Bible lesson above. With Mario del Monaco as the rogue Minnie falls in love with and Cornell MacNeil as the sheriff and excellent casting of the many supporting parts, not to mention Capuana's lively conducting and the excellent early stereo sound, it's an easy choice for the opera as a whole.

(The Swallow)

Friends of Magda including William Matteuzzi (t), Prunier; Angela Gheorghiu (s), Magda; Inva Mula (s), Lisette; London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, piano and cond. EMI, recorded August 1996

In her elegant Paris salon, Magda is hosting friends of hers and of her lover (or perhaps more accurately "keeper") Rambaldo. The poet Prunier is entertaining Magda's other friends at the piano, but is upset by their casual attitude toward his favorite subject, love. Even Magda's maid, Lisette, has her say on the subject. Prunier performs a song [track 2] he has written, about the mysterious dream of one Doretta, who turns down the king's offer of riches in exchange for her surrender to him. Prunier has no ending for the song, though, and Magda steps in [track 3] to offer her version of "Chi'l bel sogno di Doretta," in which the restless Doretta one day recklessly falls in love with a poor student. It's the first inkling we get of Magda's repressed dissatisfaction with her life, it's also one of Puccini's great soprano arias.

Puccini's Viennese operetta used to be the stepchild among his operas, but in recent times it has been performed (and recorded) a lot more. Again, the opening promises a grand time ahead, and while it might take a truly brilliant performance to make the whole opera work (my problems reside mostly in the third act), there's a lot to love in this hybrid of Traviata-like social drama in Acts I and III and an exhilarating Fledermaus-like escape from the bounds of the characters' everyday reality in Act II. The EMI recording was an easy choice -- it's the only Rondine I have on CD. It's okay, I guess.


Various Donati relatives including Ewa Podles (ms), Aunt Zita; Enrico Fissore (bs), Simone; and Roberto Alagna (t), Rinuccio; Orchestra of the Florence May Festival, Bruno Bartoletti, cond. Decca, recorded July-Aug. 1991

If the openings of the other two segements of the Trittico are understated (see below), the perennially captivating Gianni Schicchi could hardly be grander in scale. We've actually been over this opening, in the January Puccini post, when, in the absence of any usable Fanciulla video clips, I was relieved to be able to offer a full 10 minutes' worth of the opening of Gianni Schicchi.

To recap quickly: The greedy relatives of the just-deceased medieval Florentine Buoso Donati are gathered in his house, grieving listlessly, when someone mentions a rumor that old Buoso made a new will disinheriting them in favor of the monks. A frantic search for the will ensues, and young Rinuccio hopes that by finding it may give him leverage with the formidable family matriarch, Aunt Zita, and induce her to consent to his marrying his beloved Lauretta, the daughter of the wily Gianni Schicchi. Unfortunately, although Rinuccio does find the will, it turns out that the rumors of disinheritance are true, and the last thing Zita wants to think about is the low-class Schicchi or his daughter. As a result, when the Schicchis, father and daughter, arrive, having already been sent for by Rinuccio, Schicchi finds the bereaved Donati family genuinely grieving . . . their lost inheritance.

Pretty much any recording would have done here; it's hard to miss the point of this amazing scene. This one is from Decca's second complete Trittico, featuring Mirella Freni in the soprano roles of all three operas. (The earlier one had Renata Tebaldi singing all three roles.) We also have the luxurious casting of Roberto Alagna as Rinuccio.


Giuseppe Morresi (bs), the Mandarin; Renata Scotto (s), Liù; Franco Corelli (t), the Unknown Prince; Bonaldo Giaiotti (bs), his father; Piero de Palma (t), Prince of Persia; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1965

We're in ancient Peking for a grim occasion: the execution of the Prince of Persia. As the Mandarin explains in his opening proclamation, the prince is the latest of the suitors of the princess Turandot to fail the test of her three riddles -- the prize for winning being her hand, the punishment for losing being the extreme one. Amid the increasingly turbulent throng, a young woman's voice is heard pleading for help for her fallen master, and a serendipitous reunion takes place between an unknown prince and his now-blind father, the deposed king of the country from which they have been exiled, each having assumed the other dead. The prince learns that his father's life has been saved and so far preserved by the young woman, Liù, a former servant in the royal palace, who has never forgotten the prince one day smiling at her. The bloodthirsty crowd, meanwhile, is eager for the execution that is to take place at moonrise.

Choosing a Turandot recording wasn't so easy, in a good way. I would have been happy to use the 1959 RCA recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, which has been sounding mighty spiffy in its most recent CD transfers and boasts Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, and Giorgio Tozzi as Liù, Calaf, and Timur (not to mention Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, plus outstanding casting of the supporting roles), but of course we already had Bjoerling slotted in for Butterfly. This gives us a chance to hear Franco Corelli in one of his most memorable roles (with his classic Turandot, Nilsson, repeating her performance).


When I originally proposed playing all these Puccini openers, I specifically excluded two of the one-act operas that make up his Trittico, Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). They're perfectly fine openings in their own ways, but in these cases the composer chose a lower-keyed approach. The Tabarro prelude (it really is more like a brief old-fashioned operatic prelude) actually is quite a lovely and atmospheric piece of scene-setting but doesn't seem to me much of an attention-grabber of the sort we've been hearing. Anyway, just to complete this part of the record --

Il Tabarro

London Symphony Orchestra, Antonio Pappano, cond. EMI, recorded July 1997

Suor Angelica

Orchestra of the Florence May Festival, Lamberto Gardelli, cond. Decca, recorded 1961


I did a quick Puccini discography along with the January Puccini piece.


The current list is here.

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At 9:49 AM, Anonymous robertdaggmurphy said...

Ken: Thanks for this marvelous material. The presentation was so beautiful and informative. I have not had the time over the years to get into opera that much but your post is an inspiration to do so. I look forward to Sundays with anticipation to see what new delight you will bring us. From Bernstein to Puccini many thanks.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

My pleasure, Robert. It's nice to know there's somebody out there reading!



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