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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI, G.: Ultimate Opera Album (The)
Puccini’s fascination with exotic locations, doomed heroines, high drama and tragic romance are brought to centre stage in this immensely moving selection from his greatest operas.
By Robert Cummings
The Ultimate Puccini Opera Album
Descended from a family of musicians, Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was the most important Italian opera composer in the generation after Verdi. He began his career as a composer of opera with Le Villi, based on the story familiar from Adam’s ballet Giselle, but first won significant success in 1893 with Manon Lescaut. A musical dramatist of considerable power, he wrote in all twelve operas, the last, Turandot, unfinished at the time of his death in 1924.
Music critics sometimes accuse his music of lacking ‘depth’, but performers and audiences the world over have resoundingly rejected this claim (born, more often than not, of simple musical snobbery based on the false notion that what is very popular could hardly be considered very good). Even a glimpse at any of his operatic scores proves, instead, that Puccini had that rarest of gifts, the ability to compose utterly compelling music for the stage.
It has also been noted that most of his heroines fail to reach the final curtain alive, which is, indeed, true. From the operas featured on The Ultimate Puccini Opera Album only Magda from La Rondine, Lauretta from Gianni Schicchi and Turandot survive. Cio-cio San (Madama Butterfly) commits suicide, having been abandoned by her ‘husband’ Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who then marries ‘a real American wife’ and returns with her to claim his half-Japanese child. The seamstress Mimi (La Bohème) dies of consumption (tuberculosis). The slave Liù (Turandot) kills herself after having been tortured. Manon Lescaut perishes on the ‘vast plain’ beyond New Orleans having fled from France to the United States with her lover the Chevalier des Grieux. The opera singer Floria Tosca flings herself from the top of the Castello Sant’Angelo in Rome after her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, has been executed by the evil chief of police Baron Scarpia. Anna (Le Villi) dies waiting for the return of her lover Roberto, who has been seduced by fairies. Sister Angelica takes poison after her aunt reveals that her illegitimate young son has died.
Are these cases of musical misogyny or even sadistic sexism, as some have claimed? Puccini’s operas were composed at a time when the civic and legal restrictions on women were being contested: the right to vote, the right to work, and to equal status with men in many other respects were hot topics that could possibly account for a ‘patriarchal backlash’ on the operatic stage. Puccini himself has been called an old school chauvinist who as both a man and an artist felt entitled to any number of romantic liaisons, and there’s truth in that. But the artist’s life is not the same as the artist’s work, so it’s worth reconsidering those fateful heroines, each of which can also be seen in a more heroic light.
In the final version of La Rondine Magda renounces her true love Ruggero because as a former actress and kept woman she feels unworthy of him (in an earlier version, Magda drowns herself when her past is revealed). Cio-cio San prefers to die with honour than live without it, like her father, who had committed hara-kiri on the emperor’s orders. Mimi dies in her lover Rodolfo’s arms, having been ‘abandoned’ by him (he is too poor to pay for the medical treatment she needs) and subsequently taken up with a wealthy viscount, only to have been found wandering the streets of Paris in her near-final delirium. Manon perishes recalling her past and musing about her fatal beauty; Puccini noted that ‘Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public’. Tosca leaps to her death rather than be captured by the Baron Scarpia’s soldiers, having earlier murdered the police chief when he tried to rape her. Anna, having herself become a willi (the spirit of a woman who dies for love), has her revenge on the faithless Roberto by joining her jilted sisters as they dance Roberto to death. Liù stabs herself rather than reveal Prince Calaf’s name to Turandot. Sister Angelica’s suicide, which she believes will sentence her to eternal damnation, is forgiven by the Blessed Virgin Mary (a mother who herself has suffered much) and the repentant nun is blissfully reunited with her dead child.
In each case, Puccini’s doomed heroines defy their melodramatic fate although they usually fail to escape its grasp, while the men at whose hands they have suffered scarcely do better, either dying themselves or surviving to repent the grave wrong they have done (a fate worse than death?) or regretting the rigid social conventions that make their love impossible. Lauretta gets to marry her handsome Rinuccio (but Gianni Schicci is a comedy, so a happy ending is expected) and Turandot’s icy resistence melts under the heat of Calaf’s passionate kiss as she declares that she has discovered his true name, ‘Love’ (but Turandot is a fairy tale, after all).
However one chooses to analyse the ‘gendered politics’ of Puccini’s heroines, these are hardly frail creatures who live and die passively for love. But as tragic characters whose fates are inescapable, they win our hearts as fully human creations whose feelings are revealed to us by Puccini’s ravishing music.
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