SFOpera - End of the Line: Thoughts on Puccini’s Il Trittico at San Francisco Opera

End of the Line: Thoughts on Puccini’s Il Trittico at San Francisco Opera

First published in the 2009 September/October issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

It had been a tuneful 100 years. There were great operas, thankfully, before and after, in many nations, but from the premiere of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1816, to Puccini’s last completed work, his 1918 experimental trio of one act operas, Il Trittico, Italian opera enjoyed an abundant repertoire, an audience hungry for new works, and a scale of popularity it would never see again. Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858–1924), the composer of three of the most popular operas in the repertoire—La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca—lived and wrote at the apex of a great cultural shift. The treasured values and cultural memories of the nineteenth century stretched into the early years of the twentieth, and the cultural position of Italy was potently symbolized by Giuseppe Verdi, whose death in 1901 had left Italy without a unifying figurehead. All eyes soon fell upon Puccini, who was ultimately expected to be much more than a composer; he was figuratively charged with the responsibility of sustaining Italianita, that elusive definition of what it means to be an Italian.

And when he didn’t comply, the complaints rained down upon him. Puccini was highly criticized for the exotic (i.e. non-Italian) settings of some of his works, such as La Bohème’s Paris, Madama Butterfly’s Japan, La Fanciulla del West’s California, and he was consistently accused of “effeminacy,” as in the appeal of his works to women, which at the time was considered highly suspect and proof of their lack of profundity (they have a more democratic appeal now). As most of Verdi and Wagner’s title characters were male, those two titans of late nineteenth-century opera were viewed as masters of Apollonian art, ennobling symbols of their time and exemplars of their respective nations. Puccini was seen as the lightweight and decadent Dionysus, dangerously giving in to the impulses of the middle class that was emerging out of the Industrial Revolution—a man who, it was thought by his critics, might have maintained the weighty beauty of the nineteenth century and personally upheld the line of Italian culture that stretched from Dante to Verdi, had he only had the strength to overcome his propensity to sentiment and popularity. Puccini’s operas have been constantly maligned by many critics: one provocative current impresario won’t program his operas at all, calling them “the worst collection of pieces ever written”; a music student at any major conservatory can pass through several degree programs without hearing Puccini’s name; a prominent conductor colleague of mine told me in all seriousness not to conduct too much Puccini, or “people will think you actually like him.”

The three diverse operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico have a powerful unifying theme: the effect of death on those left living (the English word would be “triptych,” as in the three part altarpiece paintings of the Middle Ages). Each is told with a distinctive musical and linguistic language—the tragic and veristic Il Tabarro, the mystical and reflective Suor Angelica, and a masterful tale of comic retribution, Gianni Schicchi. Orchestrally, the evening moves with great subtlety from darkness to light: the Debussian translucence of the beginning of Il Tabarro quickly becomes a score of tremendous darkness and weight, with a constant undercurrent of deep sadness; Suor Angelica is largely sparse and deceivingly dissonant, filled with whole tones and an occasionally severe simplicity; and Gianni Schicchi has the musical equivalence of bright Tuscan sunshine. Puccini’s Il Trittico may have been intended as a modern take on the seminal work of Italian literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, itself a “trittico,” with Il Tabarro as Inferno (hell), Suor Angelica as Purgatorio (purgatory), and Gianni Schicchi as Paradiso (paradise). A passing reference in the dramatic Thirtieth Canto of the Inferno provided the germ of the comic plot of Gianni Schicchi, which is briefly referenced in the title character’s final address to the audience.

These operas are easy for an audience to absorb and enjoy at first hearing, and thus are wonderful first operas for newcomers to the form in that they give the public a wide variety of styles in a single evening; for opera veterans, Il Trittico provides a unique architectural change in what it usually thought of as Italian opera. It was Puccini’s wish that the three operas always be performed together, a wish largely ignored almost from the beginning. It was common to present Gianni Schicchi as a curtain raiser for, bizarrely, Strauss’s Salome, and many companies have presented two of the three operas in one evening because to present all three, with their dozens of roles and formidable length, makes complete performances of Il Trittico a rarity.

Gianni Schicchi is a masterpiece of ensemble opera and of what would become known as “cinematic” comic timing. It is a musical marvel, full of sophisticated and delicate parodies of several musical genres like its wicked tango (“Ecco la cappelina!”), its hysterically obsequious waltz (“oh Gianni, Gianni, nostro salvator!”), and the dissonant pulsating expressions of the unashamed greed of the Donati family, which occasionally sound like a dig at Stravinsky, to name but three. The falsely grieving relatives who open the opera even parody Verdi: their off-beat drooping figure, initially played by the whole orchestra but eventually given to a single bassoon, is a transposed and truncated version of Leonora’s impassioned phrases at the end of each stanza of the famous Miserere from the final act of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The unsavory relatives of Buoso Donati sing in irregular rhythmic phrases, while the “true” characters, the young lovers and Schicchi himself, sing in great lyrical outpourings. Rinuccio’s impassioned hymn to Florence is written in the manner of a Tuscan stornello, a folk song. And, of course, Gianni Schicchi contains one of the most recognizable two minutes of classical music ever penned, Lauretta’s brief “O mio babbino caro.” The gorgeous main love theme of Gianni Schicchi is repeated multiple times and ravishingly orchestrated in the opera’s final moments, linking the passion of the young lovers to role of Florence as the heart of the Italian soul and as the birthplace of art and love itself, and Dante is briefly referenced before the title character brings down the curtain with a brilliant final musical gesture.

The score of Suor Angelica, which opens in gentle whole tones, manages to sound both reassuringly stalwart and cold. The scoring is sparse, often dissonant, glassy, and transparent, quite unlike the normal Puccinian associations. The daily life of the convent is musically expressed by major “open” keys, mostly F Major and A Major, and the score is full of tonal painting, of birds, bees, and even a donkey. Angelica’s music vacillates between hopeful and warm “flat” keys (E-flat for her paean to the glories of death) and translucent and brief minor passages. The central scene with Angelica and her noble aunt, one of the coldest characters in opera—”a Turandot who never melts” as Conrad Wilson puts it— is the most brooding and harmonically experimental music Puccini would write prior to Turandot.

Suor Angelica, Puccini’s favorite of his own compositions, is the most mystical of the three operas and suffers greatly when performed with the verismo dramatic strokes of Il Tabarro or Tosca. Its finale has been consistently criticized for its sentimentality and religious fervor. However the finale is most likely not a religious tableau at all but rather a post-Freudian musical experiment in psychology, and we’re never meant to be sure of the extent of the reality of Angelica’s hallucinations. This opera’s delicate finale has one of Puccini’s most bizarre orchestral combinations—two modern pianos, organ, cymbals, chimes, and three trumpets, all in an offstage orchestra. It is a unique and very strange sound combined with a religious text, filled with luscious and densely packed harmonies, and should leave us wondering what is transpiring. This opera doesn’t “conclude” in a typical way, it merely stops and hangs there, which was very disconcerting to early audiences and has felt incomplete to many critics.

The score to Il Tabarro is suffused with rhythms depicting the flow of the River Seine and the metaphoric flow of sadness that flows through the relationship of Giorgetta and Michele. The tragic loss of their son has destroyed their relationship and forced her into an affair, which will ultimately destroy another life. Puccini scores the sounds of tugboats and taxis and lines rise up suddenly, like passionate grief, in great sweeps. Luigi and the rest of the stevedores enter to a jaunty drinking song, music that Puccini transforms into a bitter diatribe from Luigi about the hopelessness of his working class life. For relief from Il Tabarro’s undercurrents of tragedy and violence, Puccini quotes himself, with a song peddler on the banks of the Seine selling music sheets about La Bohème’s Mimì, and there is brief and lovely duet for two anonymous lovers enjoying a Parisian stroll that sets the opera’s central pair in tragic relief. Giorgetta dreams of returning to the clear air of Belleville, a suburb of Paris, and to the familiar views from which she was once happy, all to Puccini’s most optimistic and glittering phrases—the only pages of the score that approach a traditional “love duet.” Listen to the halting pizzicato figure in the low strings at the first clandestine meeting of the two lovers as well as the incomplete phrases of romantic longing (“E baci senza fine!”). These phrases never quite fulfill themselves, and this “almost” love duet turns into jealous rage at its conclusion with Luigi’s tremendous final expression, one of the most punishing passages for a tenor in any Italian opera. The duet between Giorgetta and her husband Michele begins with a tender children’s lullaby as the two carry on quite normal conversations over this music that tells us at once that their lost child is at the forefront of everything. There is a deep current of sadness and regret through this opera: Michele’s emotions about his lost child are raw. He desperately wants to return to a happier time, to a time “before.” Luigi’s music is transformed into the main theme of Michele’s sepulchral final aria—the grieving husband trying to figure it all out. A mistaken signal, the lighting of a pipe, brings the short opera’s violent dénouement, and the double entendre title reveals itself as both a real and metaphorical cloak.

One of the more clichéd sayings about Richard Wagner is that if he were living today, he’d be the greatest film composer, an assertion that probably arose from the fact that early Hollywood film music—the great scores of Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a set of other European composers who were schooled in the Wagner-Mahler tradition—utilized Wagner’s “leitmotif” idea, a technique used to this day. But of all composers of that era who could have most easily taken to the new medium of film, surely it is Puccini who would have most earnestly embraced the writing of memorable film music. It is not difficult to imagine him enjoying the company of beautiful girls under palm trees; Wagner seems much more likely to have owned and run the studio.

The remainder of Puccini’s life following Il Trittico was spent on the grandly scaled and harmonically daring Turandot, left incomplete at his death in 1924 from throat cancer (he was a lifelong and passionate tobacco consumer). We popularly regard the posthumous 1926 premiere of Turandot as the “end” of Italian opera, a night that has passed into lore with conductor Arturo Toscanini laying down his baton just after Liù’s death and sending the audience out into the Milan night in silence—a moment Puccini himself had presciently predicted a few years before. Giacomo Puccini’s unique ability to connect with a wide spectrum of audiences, to touch the heart with great imagination, and to create musical adventures like Il Trittico appeared to die with him. But did it? As he breathed his last, in 1924, four entities would open their doors in what was then a dry and exotic emptiness, a world away, in Southern California: Warner Brothers, Columbia, RKO, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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