Puccini: Don't Forget the Kleenex
Puccini tugs at the heart in a way that no other opera composer, and maybe no other composer of any kind, ever has.
The first truly modern composer?
I say a case can be made for Giacomo Puccini.
I know, I know – you’re thinking that Puccini was perhaps the least modern of late-19th to early-20th century composers.
I think not, and I’ll get to why in a moment.
There’s no question, to begin with, that Puccini is by a wide margin the most popular opera composer in history, at least among ordinary ticket buyers. If there were no “La Boheme,” “Madame Butterfly” or “Tosca” hundreds of opera companies around the world would go out of business tomorrow, and that’s no mere smart-alecky turn of phrase.
At the same time he elicits massive, unrelenting scorn among the musical intelligentsia. Benjamin Britten famously said the “cheapness” of Puccini’s music literally made him sick. Not one to pull his punches, that Benjamin.
Puccini is on my mind because next week, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and Yale Opera are collaborating on an unusual double bill. The first half is a new work, technically a short oratorio, by Yale-based composer Christopher Theofanidis, called “Virtue.” The second half is Puccini’s heart tugging little one-act jewel, “Suor Angelica.”
The production will be given, costumed and semi-staged, Thursday and Friday nights, Nov. 20 and 21, in New Haven at the historic St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Ave. Saturday night, “Suor” alone, this time with no costumes or staging, will be repeated at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford.
Since I’ve never seen it, I can’t say much about the Theofanidis piece other than:
1. It’s based on a morality play by the suddenly hip 12th-century mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen; and
2. that this is the work’s New England premiere; and
3. Theofanidis tends to write sparkling, atmospheric music that is usually beautifully orchestrated.
But I can say a word or two about “Suor.”
I saw a performance in the early '80s that haunts me to this day.
To quickly set the scene: The opera tells the simple story of a young woman who is banished to a convent for having a baby out of wedlock. The child, a boy, is taken from her at birth and she never sees him again.
One day, several years later, Angelica is visited by an aunt who tells her, none too sensitively, that her little boy has died of fever. Overcome with grief, Angelica poisons herself, and as she dies, sees a vision of her son welcoming her into Heaven.
At the performance I saw all those years ago (it was a non-professional collegiate production but a high-quality one), the Angelica was played by young soprano of -- for once -- roughly the character’s own age, which is to say early 20s. This young singer had the audience rapt for the entirety of the hour-long opera. But as the final, emotionally wrenching minutes of the production unfolded, I became aware of a steady, vaguely humming sound in the auditorium. For a moment I thought that something had gone wrong with the ventilation system in the hall, and that the radiant final few pages of the score would be obscured by some irritating mechanical problem. But as I listened more closely I realized that what I was hearing was not a squeaky fan. It was, in fact, the sound of 400 people – basically the entire audience -- crying. Not discreetly wiping away a stray tear, but openly weeping, sobbing. I noticed, to my surprise, that I was among them.
I have never seen or heard anything like it.
When the performance was over, and the young soprano came out for her bows, people choked out their bravas as best they could, but they sounded as if they had just swallowed a jar of Skippy Chunk Style.
My wife and I were in the company of a woman of our acquaintance, a seasoned musician herself who had been to many a performance over the years. She needed a few minutes to compose herself before she felt able to get up and exit the hall.
The point of this little story, I think, is that Puccini, at least for those open to the experience, tugs at the heart in a way that no other opera composer, and maybe no other composer of any kind, ever has. And “Suor” is not unique in this respect. The sound of an audience crying certainly is not unknown at the end of “Boheme.” (The composer admitted that he himself wept as he wrote the final few measures of music for Mimi, his doomed little seamstress.) Ditto for the death of “Butterfly.”
There is something more going on here than just cheap sentimentality. At the very least, it’s high-quality sentimentality. And, for that matter, efficient sentimentality. “He gets on with it,” the conductor Thomas Beecham once said.
Why is any of this modern? Just this: Puccini, beginning with his 1893 opera “Manon Lescaut,” gave us harmonic and melodic ideas that still sound recognizably contemporary, at least within the conventions of tonal music. Like all great composers he invented a specific musical soundworld that hadn’t existed before, and he had the craft – of orchestration, of characterization, of scene building – to make it all work in the theater.
And let’s not forget that, toward the end of his life (which ended all too early at age 65, in 1924) he demonstrated that he was paying real attention to the changes that were happening in 20th-century music. Some of the strange, exotic harmonic flashes in “Turandot,” his final and incomplete opera, give a tantalizing glimpse of where his musical thinking might have been headed.
Still, the Classical Standards Bureau insists that Puccini is treacly and cheesy. I’m not buying.
To put it another way, if you can go to a well-executed performance of “Suor Angelica” and not reach for your handkerchief, you should make an appointment to have a full neurological workup.
Put Your Hands Together for Mr. Richard Strauss
Speaking of opera, an important experiment – at several levels – is coming up Thursday, December 4. The enterprising conductor/impresario Adrian Sylveen, who presides over both the Connecticut Lyric Opera and the Connecticut Virtuosi chamber orchestra, is bringing his combined forces to Hartford’s new downtown Infinity Music Hallfor a performance of Richard Strauss’s“Der Rosenkavalier.”
This is will be a great opportunity to check out the acoustic viability of Dan Hincks’s spanking new 500-seat facility on Front Street. The place opened a few weeks ago to widespread cheering, and the initial visual impact is certainly dazzling. With its imposing raised stage and gleaming new Yamaha seven-foot grand piano, the room just looks like the kind of place that will be hospitable to music of all genres. Sylveen’s ambitious troupe will give us a chance to confirm whether that statement extends to early 20th-century Germanic opera.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at email@example.com.