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21 march 2023

I guess I came to love opera mostly via Puccini, especially La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. I haven't been a fan long enough – only 15 years or so – to get tired of them. A lot of people seem initially to love Puccini and then hear him too often – to say nothing of the people who have to sing or play his music continuously to keep opera houses in business, a century after his death.

And then some fans may go around again to appreciate him, and then to tire again of the sameness of much of his music, and then to say what the hell: as alike as a lot of it sounds, it's very good. But there remains a gap between Puccini's continued popularity and the meh attitude of musicologists. Of the nine composers, from Handel to Strauss, who form the main material in Carolyn Abbate & Roger Parker's History of Opera, the authors note that Puccini alone has been "generally ignored in music histories" (xviii), as if he contributes nothing but box office.

And of course there's the possibly apocryphal trade of quips between Britten and Shostakovich, where one (it doesn't matter who) says to the other "Puccini … such wonderful operas, such awful music," and the other replies, "No, you're wrong: wonderful music but terrible operas." The only possibility that isn't funny is that they're both half wrong and the public is right: Puccini wrote wonderful operas with wonderful music.

Sylvain Fort, in his 2010 short biography for Actes Sud, concentrates on Puccini's aspérités, rough patches in his well-known life records and his indelible music. Fort thinks Puccini more of a transcendent genius than most critics do. If the typical music historian thinks of Puccini as a precursor of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Fort thinks of him as the heir to Verdi and Wagner. And this is a good approach if you write a book about Puccini. No sense in selling your subject short.

I am inclined to agree with Fort's assertion that Puccini is "sublime" – actually he says that in Puccini's operas death is sublime (92), and since most of them tend toward a death or two at their climax, it amounts to the same thing. Puccini is ravishing, and I agree that "il est fini le temps où faire pleurer les grand-mères dans les amphithéâtres était disqualifiant" (72): gone are the days when making the grandmothers cry in the opera house was a bad thing. I think that should be true because I am a sort of grandfather now and I cry through La Bohème every time I hear it.

But I'm not sure I subscribe to Fort's idea that Puccini provides "l'un des miroirs les plus sûrs et les plus beaux de nos questions et de nos inquiétudes" (72): one of the most accurate and beautiful reflections of our questions and our anxieties. For me the appeal of Puccini really is more about crying in the balcony: a full-on emotional assault that I get from other composers only intermittently.

That is not to disparage Puccini, just to say that he is not much of an intellectual, and I don't find his characters interesting. I must care about them, because I do cry, but I care about the way that their emotion invades them and sweeps them away. If the theme of La Bohème is simply mortality itself, maybe my assessment and Fort's converge. We are all going to die, and that is a very sad thing. The moment that Mimi shows up at Rodolfo's door, we know she is doomed so we cry for her and for ourselves in the process. It's not a cheap sentiment, but it's also not subtle.

I am also out of step with Fort's assessment of the operas. He says relatively little about La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. Just as Bohème is the most affecting of Puccini's operas, I think that Butterfly is the smartest, the work in which Puccini's frequent collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa provided a keen but simple dramatic situation and a sharp critique of colonial insouciance.

Fort concentrates on Tosca, and Tosca is certainly great, though the very artificiality he admires in it (its main characters being artists and its climax an ironic illusion) distances it a little, for me: which is to say I don't cry. But I agree with Fort that the early Manon Lescaut can be moving, and that the late Trittico is inventive and engaging.

I'd flat-out disagree on Puccini's other late operas, though. Fort thinks that La Fanciulla del West is a symphonic and dramatic masterpiece. I tend more to the critical consensus that Fanciulla is a creaky cowboy opera, or I guess maybe the creaky cowboy opera, there not being many others. Not many critics consider it a modernist landmark, and it's not as memorable to the ear as Puccini's other work.

By contrast, Fort dismisses La Rondine, which I find oddly lovely and haunting, though I agree that the story is too thin for its many complications. And then Turandot: for Fort, a towering achievement, but for my money a lot of Ping, Pang, and Pong to sit through just to hear a couple of famous arias.

No, the essence of Puccini is not the famous arias, though he wrote a lot of them. It is the quiet stuff; it is Rodolfo and Mimì in the third act of La Bohème. Well, they're talking quietly while Marcello and Musetta bicker, an essential contrast without which the scene might turn maudlin. It's winter; Mimì must leave Rodolfo; it isn't working. "Addio, senza rancor": farewell, no hard feelings. But neither one can bear to go. What about waiting till springtime?

Vuoi che aspettiam
la primavera ancor?
Nothing could be simpler or sadder.

Fort, Sylvain. Puccini. Arles: Actes Sud, 2010.