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Opera Feature

Equal Time for Puccini?

September 10, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:

Coping with crisisSince we've done Verdi, we almost had to do Puccini, as in Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (22 Dec 1858 – 29 Nov 1924). He was 45 years younger than Joe Green (to anglicize the name), but he fits firmly into the Italian operatic canon and tradition. Verdi, you will recall, was born just a decade after Rossini penned his last stage work. But during that period, there was hardly silence, even after Rossini and before Verdi's first – the Italian operatic composers who were alive then include Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851), Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86), Arrigo Boito (1842-1918; also a librettist for Verdi), Alfredo Catalani (1854-93), Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942), Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), Francesco Cilea (1866-1950), Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), Franco Alfano (1875-1954; completed Puccini's Turandot), Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948), Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), and Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968). (We promise we won't do articles on each!)

That said, the biggies were Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, with runners-up Donizetti (incredibly prolific) and Bellini (sadly short-lived*)

So it's Puccini's turn. And what's not to like? Even the early operas overflow with melody, richly set, and the Internet makes it easy to sample all of 'em from the comfort of your recliner without the risk of neighbors figuring out that you, too, are a certifiable operatic nut case.

The best known came in a great spurt of creativity that lasted just a decade, starting in 1893. These are Manon Lescaut and La bohème (both premiered by Toscanini), Tosca (the "shabby little shocker"), and Madama Butterfly. Girl of the Golden West premiered in the US under Toscanini's baton, and Il trittico, too, but under Roberto Moranzoni's leadership, Toscanini having left the Met in 1915. The charming Rondine, rejected by Ricordi**, Puccini's usual publisher, and premiered in Monaco, remains the odd man out – it's basically the composer's tribute to Johann Strauss II. And then there's Turandot, also premiered by Toscanini. (So you see why Toscanini's recordings – commercial and off-the-air – still carry so much weight. These include La bohème and excerpts from Manon Lescaut – reviewed here together, but note there are better transfers….)

That leaves the early ones – Le Villi and Edgar – both revived in the fairly recent past. Puccini had The Gift from the very outset, so don't overlook them.

Do we have favorites? Well, La bohème, of course – preferably (for this writer) in recordings involving Licia Albanese – of which there are two, one with Beniamino Gigli (1938) and the other with Jan Peerce*** (1946) (the latter led by Toscanini). Toti del Monte was incomparable in Butterfly (1939, with Gigli) since she actually sounds like a young girl. (There's also a marvelous version in Russian, of all things, with the great Ivan Kozlovsky as Pinkerton – definitely worth a listen.) When it comes to Turandot, there are two very famous commercial recordings with Birgit Nilsson (who sang several times in Raleigh); the version with Franco Corelli is far and away the more exciting of the two. Alas, none of these is available on YouTube, but all are worth seeking out.

The format of our tabulation is as before: work with embed, number of acts and info on the premiere, details of reworkings, and suggested video or audio performances from Y-T. Note that not every version of each opera has been recorded but there's plenty enough here in which to wallow, as someone once said. Enjoy!

PS Not enough time for an opera? Here's a Puccini oddity – the "Inno a Roma" (3:43, rec. 1937) sung by Gigli himself. Downright fascist, actually – but not as obnoxious as "Giovinezza" (3:34, rec. 1937) – mercifully not by Puccini, but also recorded, I regret to say, by the greatest tenor after Caruso…. (Talk about propaganda in the age of the New American Democracy….)

*For details, see https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12503544/
** Now owned by Universal
*** Before Peerce, Toscanini's "favorite tenor" (after Enrico Caruso) had been Aureliano Pertile (1885-1952)

Puccini Operas

Publisher's catalog, compiled by Dieter Schickling: http://barenreiter.epartnershub.com/Giacomo-Puccini-Catalogue-of-the-Works-5101582000.aspx

Le Villi, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana (in 1 act – premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme, 31 May 1884)
second version (in 2 acts – premiered at the Teatro Regio, 26 Dec 1884)
third version (in 2 acts – premiered at La Scala, 24 Jan 1885)
fourth version (in 2 acts – premiered at the Teatro dal Verme, 7 Nov 1889) 1:15:38 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVMpLI3kfG8 (conducted by Bruno Bartoletti)

Edgar, libretto by Ferdinando Fontana (in 4 acts – premiered at La Scala, 21 Apr 1889) 2:36:15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qecelZQmTgQ (original version, conducted by Yoram David)
second version (in 4 acts – premiered at the Teatro del Giglio, 5 Sep 1891)
third version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Comunale, 28 Jan 1892)
fourth version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Opera, 8 Jul 1905) 1:39:00 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmNcomY8brA (concert version conducted by Miguel A. Gómez-Martínez)

Manon Lescaut, libretto by Luigi Illica, Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva (in 4 acts – premiered at the Teatro Regio, 1 Feb 1893)
second version (in 4 acts – premiered at the Teatro Coccia, 21 Dec 1893) 2:00:58 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfkyb2WvApE (conducted by John Eliot Gardiner)

La bohème, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (in 4 acts – premiered at the Teatro Regio, 1 Feb 1896) 3:17:22 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3IEr3SQPx0 (conducted by Aldo Sisillo). (Also see the 1946 broadcast by Toscanini, who led the world premiere. It was published by RCA but is not on YouTube.)

Tosca, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Costanzi, 14 Jan 1900) 2:03:55 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLGkXg3j49s (conducted by Daniel Oren) (Also see the famous 1954 recording conducted by De Sabata 1:48:14 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkMx0CLWeRQ.)

Madama Butterfly, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (in 2 acts – premiered at La Scala, 17 Feb 1904)
second version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Grande, 28 May 1904)
third version (in 3 acts – premiered at Covent Garden, 10 Jul 1905)
fourth version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Opéra-Comique, 28 Dec 1906)
fifth version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Carcano, 9 Dec 1920) 2:53:58 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oV6jVXqRw8 (conducted by Riccardo Chailly)
(Also see the 1957 London broadcast of the 2-act version, conducted by Rudolf Kempe 2:05:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yD2tS6n7itY.)

La fanciulla del West, libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini (in 3 acts – premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, 10 Dec 1910)
second version (in 3 acts – premiered at La Scala, 29 December 1912) 2:10:02 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pDwwt9JOns&t=80s (conducted by Franz Welser-Möst)

La rondine, libretto by Giuseppe Adami (in 3 acts – premiered at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, 27 Mar 1917)
second version (in 3 acts – premiered at the Teatro Massimo, 10 Apr 1920)
third version (in 3 acts – possible premiere at the Teatro Verdi, 11 Apr 1924): 1:50:04 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WYnRuLBe2g (conducted by Emmanuel Villaume)
(orch, of the 3rd act compl. in 1994 by Lorenzo Ferrero, premiered at Teatro Regio, 22 Mar 1994 – not on Y-T)
See the following rough translation from https://allegrohd.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=376:la-rondine-opera-en-tres-actos-de-giacomo-puccini&catid=12&Itemid=107 for details: La Rondine has been bitingly and unfairly labeled "The poor man's traviata," and in fact a slight reading of the plot reveals his debt to this Verdi work, and even to the famous Johann Strauss II's The Bat. This opera has been unfairly underrated and always considered among Puccini's least successful and convincing works, alongside the early Edgar and Le Villi. In Italy, Puccini offered the work to his publisher Tito Ricordi who refused to buy it, so it was Ricordi's rival, Lorenzo Sonzogno, who obtained the right to give the first performance outside of Italy and moved the premiere to neutral Monegasque territory [Monaco]. At the Monte Carlo premiere in 1917 the initial reception by the public and the press was warm. However, despite the artistic value of the score, La rondine has been one of Puccini's least successful works. There is no definitive version of it, since Puccini was dissatisfied - something usual - with the result of his work and revised it many times, to the point of making three versions [1917, 1920 and 1921] with two completely different endings, although he died before deciding which one was going to be the final one. The second version premiered at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in 1920, while the third was not seen until 1994 in Turin, since a fire in the archives of Casa Sonzogno, caused by the Allied bombing during the war, destroyed parts of the score that had to be restored based on the surviving arrangements for piano and voice. The orchestration of the third version was finally finished in authentic Puccinian style by the Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero at the request of the Teatro Regio in Turin and later performed there on March 22, 1994. This opera is rarely performed, appearing in Operabase's statistics as No. 116 between 2005-2010, being the 42nd in Italy and the 10th in Puccini.

Il trittico (premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, 14 Dec 1918)
Il tabarro, libretto by Giuseppe Adami
Suor Angelica, libretto by Giovacchino Forzano
Gianni Schicchi, libretto by Giovacchino Forzano
All three: 3:06:23 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weqE1u-iAfE (conducted by Julian Reynolds)

Turandot, libretto by Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami (in 3 acts – incomplete at the time of Puccini's death,
completed by Franco Alfano: premiered at La Scala, 25 Apr 1926: 1:52:42 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8lYZTDHCi4&t=32s (conducted by Fernando Previtali; alas not with Nilsson but Corelli is present)
an alternative completion was commissioned from Luciano Berio in 2002: 22:04 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPblqEspFEw (conducted by Riccardo Chailly)