Puccini and the Pangs of Love

April 16, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

"The only music I can make is that of small things,'' the composer Giacomo Puccini once said of his work.

There was little false modesty in the man. Puccini himself knew he was no creator of grand canvases in the manner of Verdi or Wagner. Yet his music is unsurpassed as an expression of the emotional storms and stresses experienced by ordinary people. And so when the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Puccini's ''La Boheme'' opens next week, this modern master's poignant drama about the lives and loves of a band of Parisian Bohemians will once again touch the hearts of all who fall under its spell.

''La Boheme,'' wrote the critic Spike Hughes, ''is an opera for those who are in love, or those who, having grown old, remember what it is like to be in love -- which means that it is an opera for almost everybody. It is a simple story, so simple that it scarcely rates as more than an episode: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl are reunited as girl dies of consumption in boy's arms and the curtain falls. There is barely one instance of a genuinely dramatic situation in the four acts. And yet it is one of the most successful and enchanting operas ever written.''

A few moments ago I referred to Puccini as a ''modern master,'' though most critics usually place him at the end of the Romantic tradition of the 19th century. Perhaps that is because Puccini's genius was the creation of beautiful melodies, an art many ''modern'' composers seem to have lost interest in.

''La Boheme'' is full of beautiful tunes that have become so familiar most people no longer remember their origin as operatic arias. When Mimi recounts her life as a poor seamstress in ''Mi chiamano Mimi,'' when she and Rodolfo sing their rapturous love duet, ''O soave fanciulla,'' when the coquettish Musetta captivates Marcello in the aria ''Quando m'en vo,'' the music is so perfectly fitted to the character and situation that their outbursts have the naturalness and spontaneity of a jazz improvisation.

Puccini was a consummate writer of music for the human voice, however. Unlike Wagner, who made the orchestra equal to the singers in importance, Puccini insisted on the primacy of the singer.

If he wrote beautiful tunes, it was not because he was ''old-fashioned'' but because that was how he chose to express the inner lives of his characters, whose actions were driven by what the English critic Eric Hobsbawm called ''an unresigned and voluptuous welcome for the pains of love.''

Still, for years after Puccini's operas had become beloved by audiences the world over his music was looked on askance by ''serious'' critics and music scholars, whose ears had only recently learned to accommodate the harmonies of Wagner and late Verdi.

Ten years after ''La Boheme's'' first American performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1898, for example, a New York critic could complain that ''Puccini's music . . . seems lacking in the element of characterization, an element which is much more essential in comedy music than in tragic. Whether they are celebrating the careless pleasures of a Bohemian carouse or proclaiming the agonies of a consuming passion, it is all one to his singers. So soon as they drop the intervallic palaver which points the way of the new style toward bald melodrama they soar off in a shrieking cantalena, buoyed up by the unison strings and imperiled by strident brass until there is no relief except exhaustion.'' Another New York critic flailed it as ''foul in subject and fulminant and futile in its music.''

Puccini's Italian critics were even more scathing. After ''La Boheme's'' premier in 1896, at the Teatro Regio in Turin under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, the newspaper critic Carlo Bersezio dismissed it as sounding hurriedly written ''with very little labor of selection and polishing.''

Bersezio smugly predicted that '' 'La Boheme,' even as it leaves little impression on the minds of the audience will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theater.''

Of course, ''La Boheme'' went on to become one of most widely performed operas in history. Today it is considered to be the composer's masterpiece, and it speaks to us with a freshness and clarity that belie its birth nearly a century ago. Puccini may have written only of ''small things,'' but he nevertheless managed to produce poignant works of art which are unfailing in their ability to delight and enchant audiences the world over with their beauty and intense feeling.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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