On our Way Back to Italy

We return to Italy to examine the work of perhaps the finest composer of them all, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).  His first major opera, Manon Lescaut (1893) was premiered one week before Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, brought down the curtain on Verdi’s magnificent career.  Let’s listen to Enrico Caruso sing “Non vidi mai.”

Puccini’s  next opera was the incredible La Boheme (1896), conducted by Arturo Toscanini in Milan.  We are including two arias.  The first is a remastered version of “Che gelida manina” by Caruso; the vocal was recorded in 1906, and the instrumentals were added in 2002 in Vienna.  The second is the duet that comes right after “Che gelida manina,” the lovely “O soave fanciulla.”

Puccini’s Tosca followed in 1900.  We are including the tenor aria “E lucevan le stelle,” recorded by Caruso in 1909.

The premiere of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was delayed until 1904 because of a near-fatal car accident in 1903.  The soprano aria from this opera is “Un bel di vedremo,” and it deals with the dreams of a young Japanese woman (Butterfly) who enters into an arranged “marriage” with a US Navel officer (Pinkerton).  She believes that one day his ship will sail into the harbor, and he will return to her.  Everyone else knows her dreams represent false hopes for a future that cannot be.  Butterfly gives birth to a son; but when Pinkerton returns, he returns with his American wife to get his son.  Rather than face life without either Pinkerton or her son, Butterfly chooses an honorable death (sepuku) just as Pinkerton is calling her name from outside the house.

We are adding a second piece of music from Madame Butterfly, the “Humming Chorus.”  Please pay close attention to the music from 0:45 to 0:55.  Can you recognize what Broadway musical used this strain of music?

As a footnote, in the film, Victor/Victoria (1983), Julie Andrews and James Garner go to the opera (as two men), and Andrews starts to weep during one of the arias.  The aria was “Un bel di vedremo.”

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West, 1910) was commissioned by the Met in New York and was conducted by Toscanini, who was then the musical director of the Met.  La rondine followed in 1917; then Il trittico, a work made up of three one-act operas: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.  Of the three, only the last opera has remained popular, mainly because of the aria “O mio babbino caro.” 

It is hard to believe but the critics have not been entirely kind to Puccini, dismissing his work as second rate when compared to others.  We couldn’t disagree more strenuously.  Not all of Puccini’s work is of a similar quality, but that could be said about most composers.  We think the criticism stems from the lush nature of Puccini’s melodies, especially when compared to the crisp, taut Verdi arias.  Both produced great bodies of work; however, the work is quite different.

We see that same difference when we compare the music of Victor Herbert to that of Sigmund Romberg.  Romberg’s melodies have the same lush sound as found in Puccini’s work; Herbert’s melodies, with the exception of “Kiss Me Again,” have the same crisp, taut quality found in Verdi’s music.