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Puccini, Puccini, Puccini!

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 6th, 2016

Sosnoff Theater at Bard College

Summerscape, Bard College’s annual musical extravaganza which has Giacomo Puccini as its focus this year, opened with an historical backdrop sketching Italy’s musical threads during Puccini’s early rise to fame. Leon Botstein conducted The Orchestra Now with prefatory comments on each of the pieces presented. Beginning with a Hebrew psalm from Puccini's Nabucco (1841) and Puccini’s solemn and brief Requiem for Giuseppe Verdi (rarely performed yet it contains genuine moving lamentation), the program explained why Puccini became the heir of Verdi. The program provided samplings of Puccini’s revivals.

Some of the material presented the patriotic narrative of Italy’s rather recent unification. While the trite bandstand folk song Hymn to Garibaldi by Saverio Mercandante (often sung at Italian-American meetings and fests) had no need of a full orchestra, a well-known lyrical excerpt from future fascist Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) offered momentary aesthetic satisfaction, while the concluding excerpt from the climax of Alfredo Catalani’s Loreley (1888) displayed Catalani’s dramatic eloquence with verismo duet. Botstein pointed out that Arturo Toscanini backed Catalani instead of Pucinni. Catalini’s refined melodic approach avoided the melodramatic excesses of Mascagni, leaving the melodrama to the script while supporting actors with interesting harmonies and achieving a clear balance between orchestration and dramatic recitative. The point was effectively made that Catalini was Puccini’s only potential rival for Verdi’s crown, yet Catalini’s early death resolved the question of succession.    

Russell Thomas

The second half of the program opened with the Overture from Amilcare Ponchielli’s I promessi sposi, which sounded promising. This was succeeded by an excerpt from Arrigo Boito’s life-long folly, Nerone (1924). Boito (whose 1868 Mefistolele I admire, despite the influence of Wagner) labored for forty years to over-go and refute Claudio Monteverdi’s baroque masterpiece L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642), which depicted Emperor Nero as history’s greatest villain. The bombastic excerpt presented would have not been worth hearing at all, except that Russell Thomas’ magnificent tenor voice boomed with startling eloquence. What Boito was attempting in this excerpt was to provide a musical equivalent of the cerebral aesthetic invoked by Dante Alighieri in the last cantos of his Paradiso that deliver sublime philosophical poetry on the theme of light, yet what Boito achieved was merely a clumsy fourth-rate embarrassment devoid of light, aestheticism, or ethics, as it presented the only example of Italian opera that attempted to cannibalize Richard Wagner’s incipient, late fascism.

To emphasize Puccini’s supremacy, the Intermezzo and concluding act of Manon Lescaut in its revised version (1923) was performed. While I prefer the simpler harmonies of Jules Massenet’s version as more representative of Abbe Prevost’s elemental narrative, Puccini’s concluding Act 4 remains more faithful to Prevost’s text and the complex harmonies of Puccini offer an unlikely yet successful surpassing of Massenet’s masterpiece. Once again Thomas delivered an arresting, memorable performance.

And, yes, Puccini was the heir of Verdi who invented an alternative style of opera with Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Program performances contain many samplings of Italian music from the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century. For more information see The program runs through August 14.