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The Puccini Show! 6/14/24

It's Puccini week! Our favorite duo show of the year! I (Carole) get to sing all the music I wasn’t allowed to touch in school!!! I think it's fun for Elizabeth too, but you’ll have to ask her to get the nitty gritty details.

A few things I should mention of a factual historical nature before I start gushing about the music.

  1. This year, Puccini has been dead for 100 years! Many opera houses are celebrating, calling it Puccini’s “Centenary Celebration”. Seems like a strange thing to celebrate to me, but it gives me an excuse to sing more of his music, so I won’t question it too much.

  2. He was composing at the turn of the century in a brand new world with a brand new style.

  3. He is one of the pioneers of the verismo style of operatic composing. If you read my opera 101 post, you will have heard that term before! It is an Italian word for truth. The music lost the rigid formulas of the earlier eras (A,B, repeat A, etc). Now opera music was written in a more speech-like way with the music, rhythm in particular, more closely matching the inflection of the spoken word.

  4. Fun Fact: At the time he was writing, his music was considered “low-brow” and “common” due to his use of verismo. 

So come be uncultured swine with us and let's dive into Puccini!

What I love about his music is the characters and how the verismo style lends itself to a more natural style of acting and expressing the text. There were endless discussions in grad school with the more formulaic music about “why would the character repeat that text?” Answer: because that was the formula. The music had to go ABA before it could finish. But yet, as actors, we were supposed to find some deeper meaning in that repeated A section. Sometimes, you could find it, but mostly it was an invention of the 20th century being retroactively applied to earlier music and it made no sense.

Anyway… I started writing about every character included in this program, but this post was getting close to novel length. So instead, I am going to try and hit one character in each soprano voice type to get the full breadth of his writing style. Everything from here on out is 100% my opinion and interpretation so feel free and debate me if you don’t agree!

Quando m’en vo-We open with a famous number from La Boheme, Musetta’s one and only aria. I played Musetta at a summer program in Italy and I would joke that Act 2, where this aria appears, is her act, even though there is a significant chunk of time that passes before her entrance. But she steals the show. Musetta and Marcello have had an on and off relationship that we first see here, when Marcello is at the cafe with friends and Musetta walks in with her current lover, a poor old rich man named Alcindoro. Musetta decides she wants Marcello back and puts on a SHOW. Yes, she is at the cafe with another man, but the cast in this opera are performers, working women, and kept women. Musetta is doing what she has to to survive. She bounces from rich man to rich man, occasionally letting her heart get the better of her and ending up back with Marcello, a poor painter.

Ok, back to Act 2, her entrance. "Quando m’en vo", is supposed to be a show stopper. This woman is her flirting with every other man in that cafe. The music is intentionally sensual and dramatic. There are long lines of sound and then Musetta suddenly flies up to a high note before she drifts coyly back down to a lower register. In the text, she is saying how she can basically have any man she wants. They all stare as she walks by, she is so beautiful. The last lines she says are my favorite. She switches from a general “I am hot” to a very pointed “and you, you struggle with just the memory of me. You can’t get over me. Without me, you feel like you will die.”

Turns out, she is right. By the end of the scene she is back in Marcello’s arms and poor Alcindoro is long forgotten about. In the production I was in, Marcello was supposed to whisk Musetta off her feet and twirl her around. My Marcello could not figure out how to hold me without dropping me. It adventure! 

I could talk all day about Musetta. Her character development throughout the show is fascinating. And, I never had to learn an entrance because her theme comes back every time she is supposed to enter the stage, so that was easy for me!

Musetta loving on Alcindoro to make Marcello jealous

Ok, on to the next one. I am going to include o mio babbino from Gianni Schicchi in this post as I consider her to be the lightest of Puccini’s soprano writing (Musetta is a little fuller of a sound). This opera is an amazing ensemble show. Every character is necessary and there are very few arias that can be extracted from this show. If you like slapstick comedy, go see this show, it is hilarious. 

I love what Puccini did here. “O mio babbino” is sung by Lauretta, the title character’s daughter. She is a young girl of about 13 or 14 and the soubrette style writing aids in giving her some extra youthful charm, even when being sung by a 32 year old woman (me). This aria is one of the only things she sings in the whole show. She spends most of the show banished to the balcony to bird watch while her father, the lawyer, deals with a greedy family and scams them out of their inheritance. But wow, when she sings, it is beautiful. The music soars and flows with such grace. Except that it's all a teenage tantrum. The most beautiful tantrum ever created. She is in love with the neighbor boy (related to the greedy family mentioned above) and her dad doesn’t approve. So she begs her father to let her get married, and go buy the ring, and if he doesn’t, she will throw herself off the Ponte Vecchio bridge. 

Note: this is an actual bridge in Venice. It is now completely enclosed. Like a stone skyway. Is this because of Lauretta’s threats to jump off? Who knows, but I like to think that one aria had the power to change architecture in Italy.

Si, mi chiamano Mimi from La Boheme is next. This time, I get to sing the other female role! Mimi is arguably the lead, though when I was singing Musetta I was willing to debate this fact over a glass of wine in an Italian cafe. 

I chose to include Mimi because she is about as middle of the road as soprano voices come in Puccini’s writing. She is typically sung by a lyric soprano. That is a voice that is smooth like butter, or melted chocolate. It flows from note to note with ease and grace. Again Puccini chose a voice type that reflected the character he was writing for. Mimi is gentle, meek, and simple. She is a pretty and sweet girl who has had a lot of sadness in her life (and spoilers, if doesn't get much better in the opera)

Anyway, her aria. It's a lovely little intro to the character traits I mentioned above. The vocal line is fairly still, it doesn't move up and down very much at the beginning. There are lots of repeated notes and it's rather like Mimi is just talking instead of singing. What is she talking about? How she lives upstairs. She embroiders for a living. She prays. And in the morning, the first light of day fills her room and it's all hers to enjoy. When she talks about the dawn, the music swells and becomes much grander and more passionate. It's the moment we see the polite Mimi fall away and see her truly feel joy. For a character who ultimately sings a lot of sad music, this is a pretty amazing moment. And if you do it right, it allows the audience to see just how much she has lost by the tragic end of her story.

Now we move steadily heavier, more dramatic. Puccini is known for his dramatic soprano writing. These voices FILL an opera house. They are big, solid, and the sound waves crash over you. These voices are given lots of despair to sing about. The last half of our program is a little bit of a downer mood wise, but this music is so much fun to sing. It’s like all the angst I have ever felt just leaves my body as a wall of sound. Very therapeutic.

Senza mamma from Suor Angelica is a great example of this wall of sound. The opera is one act with only women in the cast as it takes place entirely in a convent. This opera is often paired with Gianni Schicchi and performed each as an act. It makes quite the contrast because where Gianni Schicchi is a slapstick comedy, Suor Angelica is a heartbreaking tragedy. The first part of the opera establishes the simple daily lives of the sisters at the convent. Prayers, food deliveries, discipline for minor infractions, etc. The women are joyful and the lifestyle could almost be considered idyllic. Suor Angelica (Italian for Sister Angelica) is a bit quiet until she is asked by the convent nurse to brew a potion for a sister who has been stung by a bee. Here we learn that Suor Angelica has extensive herbalism skills, a detail that seems minor but becomes very important later.

The sisters get a surprise visitor, known as La Principessa, the princess. This formidable woman has come to visit Suor Angelica and it is here where we learn the backstory of this otherwise guarded character. She comes from a wealthy family, the Principessa is her aunt. Suor Angelica was sent to join the convent after disgracing her family by having a child out of wedlock. The Principessa has come to tell Suor Angelica that her younger sister is getting married and will inherit Suor Angelica’s share of the family fortune.

After some pleading from Suor Angelica, the Principessa casually drops the bomb that Suor Angelica’s son (the out of wedlock baby) has died. The baby has been dead for 2 YEARS and the Principessa just tosses this information out like it's nothing. The family has totally forgotten and moved on.

Suor Angelica is devastated. As the Principessa leaves, Suor Angelica begins her aria, “senza mamma” (Without Mom). She mourns the loss of her child and grapples with the knowledge that her child has died never knowing he had a mother who loved him. It is a heartbreaking aria where she describes holding her child, his little arms crossed in death, the memory of kissing him, all these images of the child that she will never again see except in heaven. 

At this line, an idea takes hold in Suor Angelica. She can see her child again in heaven! Impatient to join him, she gathers herself after the aria and mixes an herbal poison for herself. The idea of holding her son again has consumed her and she drinks her tincture before realizing what she has done.

In the Catholic Church, suicide is considered a sin. And to die having not repented for your sins is a one way ticket to hell, not heaven. Suor Angelica realizes her mistake but it is too late. When I sang this role, Suor Angelica died on stage reaching toward heaven, towards the son she will now never see again. Then the lights cut to black. It is a scene that wrenches your heart out. And the music that accompanies it.. It is my opinion that it is some of Puccini’s best writing. The grief pours out in the music and you can’t help but be carried along with it. It is a hard sing, as you can’t let yourself get choked up or you won’t be able to finish the show. I always think of those backpacks filled with water that runners wear, with just a straw to your mouth to sip from. You have to store your emotions outside yourself and just sip them to be able to portray genuine grief without having it overwhelm you and affect your technique. Before performing this role, I thought the opera was fine, but really only good for school productions who have lots of female students and need enough roles to give them all experience performing. After I sang this role, I watched a production at a summer program and I sobbed from the first chords of the introduction all the way to the curtain call. I highly recommend that if you see this show, watch the Suor Angelica carefully. Her journey through this story is one of the most powerful in the operatic literature.

Carole as Suor Angelica in 2017 brewing up some poison.

There are so many more great arias on this program, but I’m going to save them for our next Puccini show. For this year, come and enjoy this absolute master of a composer’s work as he joins the “operas are all written by dead white guys from 100 years ago” club.

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