SFOpera - “One swallow does not a summer make” Puccini’s Bittersweet Operetta

“One swallow does not a summer make” Puccini’s Bittersweet Operetta

A major criticism of Giacomo Puccini during his lifetime was that, at a time of fervent Nationalist sentiment, he was not Italian enough. Here was a man whose operas were inspired by the French literati (Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca—albeit set in Rome), the American playwright David Belasco (Madama Butterfly and La Fanciulla del West—set respectively in Japan and the Wild West), and brilliantly-overblown Orientalism (Turandot). Of all his works it was the Dante-inspired Gianni Schicchi that found favor with his compatriot audience, though compared with some of his contemporaries he never wanted for popularity in his own lifetime. All of these works (except for Il Trittico and Fanciulla) had their premieres in Italy and their grip on the international repertoire spread from the composer’s home. In box office terms, La Rondine was the poor cousin to the other great hits, and the work’s blend of Italian and Viennese genres never sat easily with audiences of its day. His neglected masterpiece is painted with diaphanous pastel tones rather than the broad brushstrokes of Tosca, but like that piece of Roman nihilism, La Rondine provides some of the composer’s most intense lyrical outpourings. Like the poignant personal tragedies of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, it traces the bitter fragility of human nature. In eschewing the grandeur of his previous box-office hits, Puccini divorced himself from their popular appeal and La Rondine has not, until recently, entered the heart of the operatic repertoire.

Puccini became an international composer with his lachrymose successes, and with the premiere of La Fanciulla del West in New York in 1910 he established a broad performance base on which he would rely for the rest of his life. Fanciulla was subsequently seen in Chicago, Boston, London, Rome, Budapest, Marseille, Milan, Hamburg, and Leipzig in quick succession. Throughout his travels Puccini, ever keen for the next project, was discussing potential new subjects with various colleagues and possible librettists. After Fanciulla’s Hamburg and Leipzig premieres, the composer struck a potential new vein: Viennese operetta. While in the Austrian capital he formed a number of friendships, including one with Erich Wolfgang Korngold—already a popular composer—as well as with Franz Léhar, who was the doyenne of the operetta scene at the time. Operetta had evolved out of the French opéra comique—embodied in the figure of Jacques Offenbach—but through the works Johann Strauss, Jr. it became synonymous with the final days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was the conservative counterpart to the political and intellectual unrest that marked out the Viennese fin de siècle and thereby enjoyed huge popularity with the middle class audiences, which was a major attraction for the crowd-pleasing Puccini. Strauss’s operettas were littered with references to contemporary culture, with the effervescent life of the Fasching (Viennese carnival season) and the music of the Viennese ballroom invading each work he wrote. Although it took a while to establish itself in Vienna, operetta was the Broadway musical of its day and the great Viennese tradition begun by Strauss was taken up by the likes of Lehár, Oscar Straus, Carl Zeller, Leo Fall, Richard Heuberger, Edmund Eysler, Ralph Benatzky, Robert Stolz, and Emmerich Kálmán (Léhar’s drinking buddy, along with Gustav Mahler, at the Café Sperl just behind the Theater an der Wien).

Puccini was fascinated by this potentially highly rewarding brand of commercial entertainment, so Léhar introduced his Italian colleague to Siegmund Eibenschütz, the director of the Carl Theater. Through that contact, and the success of the Vienna premiere of Fanciulla, Puccini secured a commission to write a new operetta based on a book by Alfred Maria Willner, himself a leading composer and librettist. At first—perhaps aggravated by wranglings with his publisher Ricordi—Puccini was discontented with the terms and conditions of the proposed contract and he took very ill to the text he received. Describing it as "the usual, slipshod, banal operetta,” the composer immediately decided upon his own course, albeit still highly Viennese in flavor. His project was to be “a comic opera, yes, see Rosenkavalier, only more entertaining and more organic.” Puccini’s sour comment against Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s mega-hit can only be seen as professional (and financial) envy, but the comparison is revealing. Just as Der Rosenkavalier’s bittersweet profundity wins through at its end—rather than the glib prattling of Marianne and Valzacchi—so too does that of La Rondine.

Puccini’s caustic rejection of the original synopsis never reached Willner, but he had clearly gathered that Puccini was not pleased and submitted a second story entitled Die Schwalbe (“The Swallow”). This new attempt—a frothy take on the traditional tale of the morally corrupt female and her doting naïve lover—was just what Puccini fancied: light enough to pander to the conventions of his newly chosen generic home and close enough to his previous success with the tragédie larmoyante. He described the project as “light sentimental opera with touches of comedy—but it’s agreeable, limpid, easy to sing with a little waltz music and lively and fetching tunes… it’s a sort of reaction against the repulsive music of today.” If by the “repulsive music of today” he was referring to the other music coming out of Vienna—that of Schoenberg and his allies—he could not be more correct, but it is hardly surprising that Puccini had positioned himself so firmly on the side of the populist in his pursuit of the conventions of operetta.

However basic Puccini’s original intentions, La Rondine sadly coincided with the outbreak of World War I, and consequently the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire and some of its more innocent cultural products. With each slow footstep of a young soldier towards his death in the trenches went the innocence of La Rondine, and what remains is a melancholic work belonging to a bucolic era brutally cut short. La Rondine is, then, a hybrid.

Many have compared La Rondine with Verdi’s tragic masterpiece La Traviata; equally apposite would be a comparison with Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, a popular verismo bombshell, which Puccini would doubtless have known. Fedora is a Russian princess due to marry in proto-revolutionary Russia. The nobleman to whom she is betrothed is assassinated, but Fedora falls in love with his beguiling killer. In the final act, their two violent stories are fully confessed and Fedora takes her life with poison. Although La Rondine avoids the elements of Grand Guignol in Giordano’s “shabby little shocker,” there is a clear parallel in their themes of lovers with bitter secrets. This pertinent similarity demonstrates how Puccini’s approach differs in La Rondine from the equally extravagant statement of his early verismo tragedies. Here he tempers the Latin fire with some North-of-the-Alps reserve and creates a more bittersweet work. Ruggero’s hope of a life with Magda is the picture of innocence of so many youths across Europe at that time, while Magda embodies a woman lacking the emancipation for which so many of her counterparts had been fighting. Through their meeting Puccini releases his most tender score. Although he wrongly described the work as “easy to sing”—the floating lines of  “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” is test for any soprano—La Rondine does avoid the full bloom of roles such as Minnie, Tosca, or Pinkerton. Indeed the piece’s construction eschews the traditional set-up that we have come to associate with the composer. “Chi il bel sogno” is the only stand-alone set piece in the work. Act Two has the great chorus and soloists’ concertato “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” but its sense of ersatz bonhomie points to the fact that Puccini avoids the  “number” approach that had previously provided the concert halls with so many “bleeding chunks.” The musical structures of La Rondine are more fluid, built up over longer sections, without the sham operetta tendency to launch into song without dramatic motivation. Through this eschewing of the bellicose, this operetta-cum-opera acts as a shadow to the composer’s other works—the tellingly sad story of how men and women react to each other in Puccini’s operatic world.

As well as coloring the  “operetta project” with a darker hue, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the ensuing European hostilities brought with it more practical problems. Italy was pulled in opposite directions, with allegiances to both the Alliance and the Allies; a collaboration with Austrians could prove problematic for Puccini, particularly given his prominence in public life, so any link with the work’s origins was played down. But Puccini’s problems did not end there. Ricordi (the publishers with whom Puccini had worked exclusively) had not been included in the composer’s early negotiations with the Austrians and therefore decided not to continue their relationship with Puccini on this latest opera—although they went on to publish Il Trittico and Turandot. Sonzogno, a rival firm with a strong reputation for popular verismo operas, managed to secure the rights to performances outside Austria. So, with the war still rumbling on, Puccini’s bittersweet confection had its premiere in the politically neutral city of Monte Carlo. The city’s fun-loving Riviera lifestyle may have been perfect for the work, but it wasn’t until its Italian premiere in Bologna (a new premiere city for the composer) that the work received its now-typical reception of bewilderment and downright rejection. Puccini wasn’t happy and revisions continued throughout the next few years, settling finally with the 1920 premiere at the Volksoper in Vienna. Puccini was more content with its Viennese home than the previous political grumblings might have prefigured. It was at the Volksoper that he had enjoyed success with Tosca, so Puccini was in safe theatrical hands. Mixed reviews, and even a mix-up in languages with an Italian Ruggero and the rest of the cast singing in German, didn’t proffer fine results sadly, and the performance history of La Rondine seemingly ended for the composer in a slump. He called it a “pig of an opera.”

Soon to follow this half-success, however, was the trilogy (Il Trittico) with which Puccini managed to hit the Grand Guignol (Il Tabarro), the sentimental (Suor Angelica), and the Italian (Gianni Schicchi) before creating, if not finishing, the greatest blockbuster of them all: the chinoiserie camp-fest that is Turandot. La Rondine, for both the composer and his audience, didn’t fit into their perception of who they thought Puccini was. But to think of him as merely pandering to public taste would be to miss the greatness of his achievement. Here was a subtle craftsman, whose understanding of the nuance and suppleness of post-romantic tonality was perfect for the melding of psychologically manipulative entertainment. That is not to be derogatory, but rather to praise Puccini for understanding why his brand of opera was the most popular of its time. His concision, the brilliance of construction (the sweep of Act One of La Rondine—with Magda’s “conclusion” to Prunier’s stumbling composition or the brilliantly-timed arrival of Ruggero—is the equal to moments in La Bohème), and the search for emotional truth are synonymous only with Puccini. Verdi never quite captured the tenderness that his Tuscan counterpart achieved, and neither did he allow himself the brilliant fun of the respective second acts of La Rondine or La Bohème.

While Puccini never enjoyed success with La Rondine (like Richard Strauss, he was too often guided by box-office receipts), in our opera-going world  we are able to look back at the work with a mixture of affection, nostalgia, and an understanding of its historical context. Magda’s final parting notes, held in mid-air, are a crystallization of how her and Ruggero’s relationship was born of a make-believe whirlwind romance; sadly, in the light of day it cannot exist. Like works such as Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes or even The Great Gatsby, La Rondine captures a world slowly sliding into its own demise. The political, financial, and romantic circumstances of late-Imperial incubation were soon to be snuffed by the brutal counteractions of the major world powers in the violence of World War I. Even the ballroom scene in Rondine, with its bilious waltz (complete with pseudo luftpausen), sounds as if the tradition itself had become rotten to the core. It more readily recalls Ravel’s own ironic homage La Valse than it does the Johann Strauss model that Puccini claimed. Puccini was, then, a victim of his own success. Since Manon Lescaut, he had produced a rapid-fire of confident, all-guns-blazing hits, ranging from the high emotions of Parisian students to the Gold Rush in nineteenth-century California. With La Rondine he turned inward and found his more reflective voice; it was his downfall. His audience had come to expect an unequivocal blockbuster night at the opera of their Tuscan patriot, and in La Rondine he not only pandered to and then revolutionized another (rival) country’s traditions, but he dared to avoid the stylistic conventions with which they had become comfortable. In La Rondine we hear the end of the beginning: the start of a process that was to extinguish this great rush of emotionally pungent creativity forever—it is called the modern age.


Musicologist Gavin Plumley has written widely on music and cultural history in Vienna during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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