PUCCINI, MODERNISM, AND LA RONDINE

Widely touted as history’s most popular opera composer, Giacomo Puccini is not often thought of as a modernist in the way we think about Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, or Alban Berg. But of Puccini’s 12 operas (treating Il trittico as 3 operas rather than 1), 8 of them date after 1900, and the last 6 after Salome’s premier in 1905. Puccini attended the first performance of Salome in Vienna in 1906 — along with Der Mahler and Debussy –and it would be nonsensical to assume that the revolution brought by the Viennese School in tonality and by Debussy in harmony and orchestration would not have influenced Puccini profoundly.

Thus, it’s no surprise that La fanciulla del West — first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in late 1910 and conducted by Toscanini — would be very different from La boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca, the three operas that preceded it, and it would be no surprise that La rondine in 2017 would be very different still. Indeed, although La fanciulla was a great success at its premiere, it has not maintained that success, and the same can be said about La rondine: premiered in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917 during the First World War, the Swallow has been perhaps the least performed and least understood operas of Puccini’s mature phase, variously criticized as “Bad Lehar” (by Puccini’s own publisher Tito Riccordi); “Lacking in the melodic invention of his prior operas” (by his biographer Mosco Carner, “A Critical Biography” [1959]); and derivative of the music of his prior works and the plots of Traviata, Merry Widow, and Fledermaus.

In many ways, the criticisms are unfair. While no one can deny the plot similarities, we don’t criticize Puccini for the similarities between Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s later Manon Lescaut, nor do we criticize Mozart for Idomeneo (derivative of Metastasio) or Verdi for the similarities of his Otello to that of Rossini. In fact, the plot similarities to Traviata along with, the musical references to and grounding in Viennese operetta, can be seen in many ways as Puccini’s attempt to take Italian opera in a new direction, a direction first suggested by Verdi’s final masterpieces Otello and Falstaff and by the verismo works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and even Puccini himself, as we shall see.

A. Background.

Perhaps surprisingly to casual fans, Parsifal was one of Puccini’s favorite operas. Wagner’s allegory of spiritual loss and ultimate redemption resonated with Puccini, particularly during the writing of La rondine. His family had recently suffered a series of set-backs and tragedies when a serving girl (Doria) committed suicide after many months of harassment by Puccini’s wife Elvira, who suspected her (wrongly) of seducing her husband. The scandal led to criminal charges against Elvira and ultimately to a civil settlement with Doria’s relatives. It’s not much of a stretch to see Magda in La rondine as Doria, and her initial aria (“Chi il bel Sogno di Doretta”) as an encomium to the dreams of Doria that died with her. Similarly, the spiritual ennui that pervades Act 1 of La rondine, the cynicism of Magda’s guests and Prunier’s art, is similar to the opening of Parsifal and indeed the disillusion and desire for redemption and renewal depicted in modernist art such as Wozzeck, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Prufrock, and The Second Coming by Yeats. Magda as Mary Magdalene and the Swallow undeniably represents fertility and the possibility of renewal: the return of the swallows and the advent of Spring is a metaphor used by writers and artists since the Old Testament (the “bird of freedom” from Psalms), and the swallow is an important symbol in modernist literature, art, and music as, for example, in The Waste Land. To Elliot, “April is the cruelest month…”; La rondine begins in April during a financial crisis and amid the spiritual degradation of the bourgeoisie in Paris during the Second Empire; it moves in Act 3 to the Cote d’Azur and a return to Eden and innocence; but Magda’s dream — like that of Doria — is shattered when the letter from Ruggero’s mother reminds her that innocence cannot be regained, experience cannot be lost. When Prunier tells her that Rambaldo — the financier who keeps Magda, entices her with gold and jewelry [similar to the ruler in Doretta’s Dream], and is unconcerned about the financial crisis and the misery it will bring to working people — is willing to take her back, Magda and Lisette set off to Paris, the returning swallows bringing back not innocence but experience.

That Puccini and his librettist Adami were aware of and intentionally using these themes is made clear by both the text and the music. Magda as Mary Magdelene, the “Thirteenth Apostle,” was the inspiration for numerous fertility cults throughout history. Prunier the poet acts as a kind of Greek chorus in the opera and has lost his creativity, which has to be rekindled by Magda when Prunier cannot finish his poem about Doretta’s Dream. Ruggero is as much a rustic, a tabula rasa, as is Parsifal, and it’s interesting that he accepts Magda’s nom de plume “Paulette” without question, even though he met her as Magda just hours earlier in Act 1 and never refers to her as Magda through the end of the opera. The scenes in Bullier’s in Act 2, following closely the ennui and deprivation of Act 1, are reminiscent of Prufrock’s women who “come and go, talking of Michalangelo,” which follows the “overwhelming question,” and the anti-climactic resolution “Oh do not ask what is it; let us go and make our visit.” Puccini wryly nods at Richard Strauss, with several references in the text to Salome, and musical quotes from Strauss’ opera (including the clarinet obligato that is Salome’s leitmotif in the earlier opera). The heavy orchestration of Parsifal, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Tristan can be heard in Act 2, along with Tristan’s diminished 7th chord that starts Wagner’s opera with a bang.

Similar musical references to Debussy (use of pentatonic scales/melodies, prefiguring Act 2 of Turandot), Lehar and Johan Strauss (waltz), and even a habenera dance rhythm reminiscent of Carmen can be heard throughout the opera. The bi-tonality of Stravinsky, in particular the beginning of Pulcinella, permeates Act 2. Interestingly, much of Lysette’s music verges on the atonal, with abrupt key changes, unresolved cadences, and scales popularized by Scriabin and his Russian compatriots: whole tones, half-step whole-step, and minor thirds. Lysette in many ways is a parody of the traditional second soprano role in Viennese operetta: her humor, the “parlando” banter with Prunier, and her failed career on the stage in Nice parallels the loss suffered by Magda—and Doria—and unlike the happy ending typical of operetta, Lysette’s fate is to return to Paris and her role as Magda’s maid, and Magda to hers as Rambaldo’s kept woman.

Of course, the elephant in Magda’s drawing room and in the entire opera itself is WWI. Puccini was deeply affected by the war, and he blamed his inability to focus on his work and the delays in finishing La rondine on the horror of Ypres and the slaughter of an entire generation of young men in the trenches criss-crossing Europe. When the opera was finished and first produced in neutral Monaco in 1917, the war continued to rage, and no one attending opening night at the opera house in Monte Carlo would have the images of modern warfare far from their consciousness. Rambaldo would have been recognizable to them as one of the bankers making money off of the war, and the resignation of Magda and Lysette at the end of Act 3, Prunier’s lost inspiration, and the failed dreams of Magda, Doretta, and Lysette would have resonated with Puccini’s audience. Governments, whether democratic or kingdoms, and their politicians had failed their citizens, sending them to death by the millions and producing carnage and destruction never seen before and never imagined. The end of Act 3 of La rondine, like the end of Wozzeck and Prufrock, is indicative of the mood of a world in the midst of a psychotic episode that wouldn’t end until after WWII some 30 years later.

B. The Swallow as Autobiography.

In addition to its modernist tendencies, La rondine can be seen as Puccini’s first attempt at autobiography. In many ways, Prunier is similar to Puccini himself, and the composer undoubtedly enjoyed himself during his visits to Paris at Bol Bullier and Alfred Prunier’s restaurant on the Rue Duphot (the latter of which was frequented by Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt). In addition to Doria and the scandal of her death, the relationship between Magda and Prunier is reminiscent of many of Puccini’s female “muses” over the years. Unlike Verdi, who could churn out three masterpieces (La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Trovatore) in a little more than one year, Puccini labored over his operas and took almost seven years to write La rondine after completing La fanciula. Prunier too suffers from writer’s/composer’s block, and it takes his muse Magda to finish the great aria at the start of Act 1. Puccini often turned to his Magdas, including the English woman Sybil Seligman, over the years when he needed inspiration. Perhaps Prunier’s rescue of Magda and Lysette at the end of La rondine is Puccini’s attempt at absolution for his inability to save Doria from persecution by his wife.

Prunier as Puccini takes on further interest with the references to Salome in Acts 1 and 2. Puccini and his librettist were working on a possible treatment of their own version of Wilde’s/Strauss’ Salome, one perhaps as scandalous as the Strauss opera and Berg’s Lulu. It was a treatment of La Femme et le Pantin (“The Woman and the Puppet”) by Pierre Louys, which was given the name Conchita as a work in progress before abandoned by Puccini. Conchita would have been Puccini’s Salome; thus Magda’s reference to Lysette in Act 2 as Prunier’s Salome, and Prunier’s embarrassed response “Sieste pietosa” (“Be merciful”) can be seen as a reference to the failed plan to set Conchita and the Puppet to music. After Puccini gave up on the project, his publisher Riccordi assigned it to Zandonai, whose Conchita opened in Milan in 1911 but has only rarely been heard since.

C. La rondine’s Place in the Canon.

Although full of wonderful music and resonating with the modernistic tendencies of the times, La rondine has been largely ignored for the last 100 years. Angela Gheorgiu helped rekindle interest a few years ago with transcendent performances in New York at the Metropolitan and in San Francisco, and of course Island City Opera will remind the Bay Area of what a wonderful opera it is in early 2019, but unfortunately wider audiences and even Puccini’s devotees have been slow to embrace the opera. “Chi il bel Sogno di Doretta” (“Doretta’s Dream”) in Act 1 is one of the great soprano arias in all of Puccini, perhaps in all of the repertoire. It alone is reason enough to keep La rondine in the rotation. Perhaps the lack of similar great arias for the tenors, perhaps the difficulty of Magda’s role (numerous high “C’s”, participating and singing in every scene, etc.), are reasons the opera doesn’t get as much air time as Puccini’s other masterpieces. There’s also the hybrid provenance of the opera: originally intended as Viennese operetta in the manner of Lehar and Johan Strauss, Puccini and Adami changed it to a full, through-composed opera incorporating elements of operetta, vaudeville, English and American ballad opera, and even Gilbert & Sullivan. To the Austrians, La rondine is too much removed from operetta to be appealing; to the Italians, the opera had too much influence from the Germans to be acceptable. Puccini was excoriated by some of his contempories for “selling out” his Italian heritage and giving in to modern harmony and Germanic influence. The initial criticisms have never been forgotten, and even as sympathetic a biographer as Mosco Carner refers to La rondine as Puccini’s failed bird.

But even if only for historical reasons, La rondine deserves its place in the musical canon. The operas of Puccini after Butterfly — all of which post-date Salome — can be seen as the last, great hurrah of an Italian opera tradition commencing with the Florentine Camerata in the 1580’s and continuing through Monteverdi, Metastasio, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and the verismo composers, including Puccini. No opera written by an Italian after Turandot – Puccini’s last — continues to hold the stage. It can be argued that the confluence represented in La rondine of operetta, vaudeville, Wagner, Strauss, and Verdi stretched the art form to its limits, leaving no room for continued growth, unless Weill’s Threepenney Opera and the Broadway musicals of Gershwin and Cole Porter and their cinematic treatment by Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly are the offspring. It is not a stretch to see Porgy and Bess — written only a few years after La rondine — as the inheritor of a tradition of musical theater going back almost 400 years. When Bess sings “I loves you Porgy,” one can imagine Puccini — and Bellini and even Verdi — smiling in their graves as the audience weeps uncontrollably and leaps to its feet, demanding an encore, just as audiences did when they first heard Pagliacci’s “Vesti la guibba,” Butterfly’s “Un bel di,” and “Chi il bel Sogno di Doretta.”

–  William ‘Rock’ Hill

Mr. Hill is a partner in the Oakland-based law firm Donahue Fitzgerald LLP, a member of Island City Opera’s advisory board, and a frequent writer and lecturer on opera.