The operas of Puccini; or, how I learnt to stop worrying and love the schmaltz

One should never apologise for one’s tastes. I am not talking about extremes here: if one’s tastes run to murdering and dismembering random members of the public, say, then an apology is, I imagine, the very least that may be expected. No, I mean one’s tastes in reading, in films, in music: no matter how banal or undiscerning or unschooled one’s tastes may be, one is entitled to like or to dislike whatever one damn well wants. That must never be at issue.

But given this, I do not know why I feel I should apologise for enjoying Puccini. When I was loading some of my favourite music on to my i-Pad before going on holiday, there I was picking out from my CD collection La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, in full knowledge that there were CDs containing far greater music untouched on the shelves.

Generally, when we love something, we are quick to refute, or, at least, to refuse to acknowledge the validity of, damning criticism. I love Chaplin’s City Lights, for instance: when it is accused of being sentimental, I am quick to reject the charge, for “sentimentality” is a Bad Thing, and City Lights I know isn’t bad. Or when Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is accused of being melodramatic, I reject that criticism also, and for similar reasons. After all, I do not love these works with that postmodernist irony (is there any other kind of irony these days?) that rejoices knowingly in the work’s weakness: I love these works because I think they are good, and how could something be good if they are characterised by qualities I acknowledge to be bad? But with Puccini, it’s different. However one defines sentimentality and melodrama, I acknowledge La Bohème to be grotesquelysentimental, and Tosca to be absurdly melodramatic. And yet I wouldn’t be without either. And the worst of it is that I love these works not despite these qualities, but because of them.

One may add to these crimes of sentimentality and melodrama that of “manipulation”. Frankly, I have never understood why this should be regarded as so heinous a crime: I cannot think of a single work of art, no matter how great or exalted, that doesn’t manipulate the reader or the listener or the viewer in some way or other into feeling and experiencing certain things. But I suppose it is a serious flaw when the strings are pulled in too obvious or in too mechanical a manner. And even this, Puccini is guilty of. He revels in it. He is so good at pulling the strings, that he makes a show of it – he allows the audience to observe him doing it. When at the end of La Bohème, Rodolfo becomes aware of what everyone else in the room already knows – that his beloved Mimi is dead – the orchestra lets out three loud chords, like the pealing of funeral bells, and then launches with untrammeled passion into that big tune to which Mimi, only a few minutes earlier, had sung to him “There’s so much I’d like to tell you”. And as we realise she never will tell him, goddammit, we weep along with Rodolfo. We weep even as we see Puccini pulling the strings. Yes, we are being manipulated, but not only do we acknowledge it, we find ourselves happy to be complicit in the manipulation; and we continue weeping, quite unembarrassed by it all. And – you know what? – we feel all the better for it. At least, I do.

Those composers who continued composing in a Romantic vein even as modernism was developing and flourishing – Puccini, Strauss, Rachmaninov – were frequently “schmaltzy”. Perhaps we should deplore their music for being so, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I can’t. And neither, I know, can many other music lovers – vast numbers of them, across several generations now – whose tastes in all other respects are often immaculate.

So what conclusion can we draw from all this? That these works aren’t sentimental, or melodramatic, or manipulative? No, that won’t do: I am happy to concede that they are all three. Or that these qualities are not necessarily bad qualities? I have a problem there as well, since there are many works I can think of off the top of my head that I find unbearable for one or other of these reasons. The only other option I can think of is that these qualities are acceptable, and even enjoyable, under certain circumstances. But what these circumstances are, I frankly haven’t a clue.

Last night, unable to get to sleep, I put on La Bohème on my earphones, and was once again transported by the gorgeous voices of Victoria de los Angeles and of Jussi Bjoerling singing the most glorious and passionate of melodic lines, with the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, breaking the heart with every manipulative phrase. Yes, yes, I know – this music is everything its detractors claim it is. But I love it – and I ain’t going to apologise!

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I have an appreciation of Puccini, not just for his appeal to my own overly-romantic glands but more so for the major part he played in helping me to introduce not one but two ex-wives into the world of opera and to leave country & western music for background noise at a barbecue.

    I also have to thank the Metropolitan for the lavish and often amazing staging of the operas, be they Puccini or Wagner. You might be a little cool on the music but when the grand procession starts, it becomes a wonderland of sight and sound.

    Finally, one of my favorite experiences in the opera involved Tosca. Pavarotti was playing Cavaradossi in one of his later outings: he sang well but was hardly the accomplished acrobat on stage. When Cavaradossi was killed, Pavaratti expired, falling onto a pile of cushioned sacks … but not only was his death-fall clumsy, he also missed the mark and proceeded to roll down the pile and flop onto boards. Do you dare laugh at Pavarotti?

    But I think my favorite opera is Wagner’s Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg. Do others have a favorite opera?

    Reply

  2. I remember telling our boy once that the best operas are the three Fs – Figaro, Fidelio, and Falstaff. I still think that’s fair enough. It varies sometimes: sometimes Cosi Fan Tutte or Don Giovanni replaces Figaro, and sometimes Otello or Rigoletto replaces Falstaff. But the three Fs still represent all that I love best about the form. Throw in Boris Godunov, and you have my favourite operas.

    What – you want me to pick just one? OK – Le Nozze di Figaro it is. There are many personal associations with this. My first present to the lady who has now been married to me for almost 27 years (anniversary coming up shortly) was a recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. And shortly before we had our first child, we decided to have one last big night out together – we went to see Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden. And four years ago, we went to see the opera again in Covent Garden, ths time with the children. We can virtually measure out our lives with different performances of this opera as landmarks.

    As I reported in a couple of earlier posts, I have very ambivalent feelings about Wagner, but our lad is a fully paid-up Wagnerian, and Tannauser is a great favourite of his. His top favourite operas, though, are The Magic Flute and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

    I’d have loved to have heard Pavarotti live as Cavaradossi. The beauty of his voice was a miracle of nature.

    Reply

  3. Immaculate? Music does not need to be so pure. Music is free to speak to the emotions and when the composer does so successfully, I think we should celebrate. You say:

    “We weep even as we see Puccini pulling the strings. Yes, we are being manipulated, but not only do we acknowledge it, we find ourselves happy to be complicit in the manipulation; and we continue weeping, quite unembarrassed by it all. And – you know what? – we feel all the better for it. At least, I do.”

    I feel better too, and I think it is because Puccini expresses the feelings that we usually keep tamped down, under control. It is terrible when a young person dies and the funeral chords say so. We could refuse to look but we cannot not hear those chords or the final cry of Corragio.

    Reply

    • Music is free to speak to the emotions and when the composer does so successfully, I think we should celebrate.

      Absolutely!

      I think the issue with Puccini is that he allows us to see him pulling the strings. Indeed, he pulled the strings so well that seeing him pull the strings is part of what makes his works so enjoyable. And then we ask ourselves whether the emotions we experience can be real when we are aware that they have been so deliberately manufactured.

      I, for one, think that the emotions are real. What can they be otherwise? We may not like to admit that we can be touched so deeply by what is obviously showmanship, but, quite clearly, we are. Or, at least, i am! 🙂

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  4. “the feelings that we usually keep tamped down” – speak for yourself! I weep openly at every opportunity. I am weeping copiously right now! If only you could see me, you would feel so sorry for me. Pull yourself together, man.

    I am trying to imagine what combination of music and circumstance would cause me to weep at an opera. It is a puzzler. Perhaps is a broken spring in the seat were particularly sharp. I can say, empirically, that La Bohème does not do it.

    You are entirely correct – every note and word is some form of manipulation. It is all manipulation. Sentimentality and melodrama are just devices, so the question is what does the artist do with them? Puccini does a lot. I do not think any of us would like that last scene in La Bohème or the big end of Madama Butterfly to be less sentimental or melodramatic. They are awe-inspiring as is.

    I have a notion that part of the appeal of Puccini’s best melodrama is that the scale is human. A few unimportant people with big emotions. I am comparing him to the more grandiose side of Verdi, like Aida. Talk about melodrama. Verdi’s intimate side (I have La Traviata in mind) is at least as affecting as Puccini’s.

    Favorite operas: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives.

    Reply

    • I certainly wouldn’t want to see a single note changed in any of Puccini’s operas!

      I once heard a story (I can’t find it on the net, so it may be apocryphal) that when Puccini looked through the score of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (which was, at the time, the cutting edge of avant garde music) he commented that he had done all this in Act 2 of La Bohème. I do hope the story is true.

      Whatever it is Puccini does, he does it so damn well! I really don’t think he will ever go out of fashion.

      Reply

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