Patrick O'Connor

Opera’s Renegades

Puccini: A Biography


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Edgard Varese


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WHEN GIACOMO PUCCINI died in 1924, so did Italian opera. There have been dozens of Italian compsers since, of course, some of whose works have even been performed abroad – for instance, Zandonai’s I cavalieri di Ekebti, Dallapiccola’s II prigioniero and Rota’s I1 cappello di paglia di Firenze. But these are all minor works; the great line Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti-Verdi found its only twentieth-century son in Puccini. For decades, however, his operas were held in contempt by musicologists and historians; Joseph Kerman called Tosca a ‘shabby little shocker’. Only in the last thirty years has critical opinion turned around and recognised Puccini as a master of theatre and orchestra, someone who could please the public at large with works that have a good deal more to them than many would acknowledge.

In her introduction, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz writes that many of Puccini’s detractors object to the ‘sadism and gratuitous cruelty’ in his operas. Of his best-known heroines, four commit suicide (Tosca, Butterfly, Angelica and Lih), two die in misery (Manon and Mirni), and one is witness to the murder of her lover by her jealous husband (Giorgetta). The others aren’t exactly in clover either. Minnie, in La fanciulla del West, faces an uncertain future with a bandit whom she has just rescued from a lynch mob. Lauretta, in Gianni Schicchi, is the daughter of a forger and swindler, who has cheated her fiancC’s family. Magda in La Rondine is deserted by her lover when he finds out about her past. Finally, the bloodthirsty Turandot finds ‘love’ with the unknown Prince. Puccini died without solving the riddle of the final duet for this unattractive pair.

Phillips-Matz has spent much of her life in Italy, and she writes with a real sympathy for Puccini’s story, always bringing alive the different areas in which he lived, and his relationships with his family, the Church and the countryside. She makes no attempt to justify Puccini’s position in the history of opera, but writes of the comvoser almost as if she had known him. Indeed. his granddaughters, some of the singers who performed in the premieres of his operas, and the heirs of Ricordi, his publisher, and of Toscanini, his greatest contemporary interpreter, are all present in the narrative.

Puccini’s private life was as lurid as any of the plots provided for him by the dramatists and novelists who were his librettists. As a vouth and a student, he was wild, verging on the criminal. (No wonder he sympathised with Dick Johnson in The Girl of the Golden West.) With a teenage Ciend, he stole the organ pipes from a church and sold them for scrap metal in order to buy tobacco. With his fellow student at the Milan Conservatory, Arturo Buzzi-Peccia, he devised a simple musical code with which they cheated at cards. Throughout his life, Puccini was a serial adulterer, causing grief and eventually death.

Puccini was about twenty-five when he fell in love with the wife of one of his friends, Elvira Gemignani. She deserted her husband and children to live with Puccini, but their life together turned into a sort of inferno; they were constantly avoiding confrontations with her husband, who refused the idea of a divorce, and Elvira suffered hm depression and bouts of insane jealousy over Puccini’s real and imagined affairs. One long-lasting relationship was with a young teacher called Corinna. Puccini installed her in a house near his home in Torre del Lago. Elvira was so jealous that on one occasion, when she-had just missed catching Puccini and Corinna in Jagrante, or so she supposed, she ran in front of Corinna’s carriage and attacked it with her umbrella. The coachman drove his horses on and lefi Elvira lying in a ditch. On his return home, Puccini found Elvira in such a rage that she attacked him ‘with fists and fingernails … [and] he was left with bloody scratches all over his face’.

A young servant girl in the Puccini household aroused Elvira to such excesses that, not content with dismissing her, she pursued her, bombarding her with accusing letters and blackening”: her name in I the surrounding villages. The unfortunate girl committed suicide, and her fdyin sisted on an autopsy with witnesses to prove that she had died a virgin. Elvira was sued by the dead girl’s relatives, but she remained unrepentant. ‘For too long you have made me your victim,’ she wrote to Puccini, who was now her husband; and ‘you have always trampled on my kind and loving feelings for you.’ He should have set it to music.

During the First World War, Puccini’s favourite was a young German aristocrat, Baroness Pucn’ni Josephine von Stangel (who was suspected of espionage), and when Puccini abandoned her, it was with a shrug. When she asked for money, he commented: ‘When I think of the beautiful moments she gave me, it seems I have no right to be deaf to her plea.’ Yet he only gave her 5,000 lire.

Puccini loved the modern world of motor cars, speedboats and intrigue by telegram, and he probably made more money just from his three most successful operas – La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly – than Verdi did from his entire oeuvre. Puccini’s contemporaries asked, ‘Where is his Trstan? His Aida?’ There is no doubt that. as Puccini himself once put it, ‘There must be something for the organ-grinder’ – that is, a popular song somewhere in each score. By the beginning of the 1900s, that also meant something short enough to fit on one side of a single 78 disc. In his sixties Puccini composed the two biggest hits of his entire career, among the most often performed and recorded opera arias of all time, ‘0 rnio babbino cam’ from Gianni Schicchi, and ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot. As Phillips-Matz writes of this last opera, ‘Turandot falls short of what Puccini hoped to create … What might it have been?’

When Turandot was first performed at the Metropolitan in New York, two years after Puccini’s death, Edgard Varese was already living in the house on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Vdlage that he occupied for forty years. Unlike Puccini, Varese never attracted a popular following in his own lifetime, and his output was minute. Alan Clayson, whose previous biographies include lives of Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison and Jacques Brel, has written a racy, fanciful account of Varese’s career; it is clearly aimed at those who have come to the composer’s music through the enthusiasm of Frank Zappa, who wrote of Varese as ‘the idol of my youth’.

Varese was born in Paris, where he studied at the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum. His first major work, Bourgogne, was performed in Berlin in 1910. At the end of his life, he destroyed the only remaining copy of the score in the middle of the night. ‘Infanticide!’ his wife exclaimed. Clayson describes Varese as ‘my definition of an intellectual: someone who reads a lot and thinks a lot but does nothing’. Although sometimes he seems exasperated by Varbe’s personality, he describes the impact of pieces like Amdriques and Pokme Electronique very well. Varese’s admirer married life was haunted by his own clinical depression and paranoia. Louise, his wife, became, in Clayson’s words, ‘more like a hospital nurse’. Yet, at the age of seventy, Varese succeeded in creating an old-fashioned Parisian scandal with the premiere of Deserts. ‘A work composed by a lunatic’, concluded Le Monde; members of the audience had called for the composer to be shot.

Clayson’s evident enthusiasm for the music (if not the man), and his completely unpretentious style, make this an enjoyable study, even if much of Varese’s work remains an enigma. Clayson surmises that its influence has been widespread, over pop and alternative musicians – he points to Brian Eno, Throbbing Gristle, Ultravox and Cabaret Voltaire. In addition, he has a sense of humour as morbid as his subject’s. Discussing Varbe’s last work, Nocturnal, he asks: ‘Was he so near the edge of eternity now that it wasn’t worth getting the piano tuned?’

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