Article by James Naughtie, 1997
A grand way of looking at these operas is to imagine Puccini’s triple bill, Il Trittico, as in part a homage to Dante – three panels as you might see them on a church wall, each with an episode from the Divine Comedy, decorated for the stage. The scheme is usually incomplete nowadays, because the middle part, Suor Angelica, never quite succeeded and is not often heard but the gesture to Dante is there in the character of Gianni Schicchi and perhaps the spirit of his great work is there in the profound sense of wanting an escape from the everyday which characterises the operas. However, the moment you say it you feel a trapdoor opening – isn’t this simply Puccini doing what he always did, taking a shred of a plot, or a fascinating character and turning it into unashamed music theatre? Why complicate it all by bringing in Dante just because he created the figure of Schicchi in the streets of medieval Florence?
The reason is that in the short opera that bears his name there are glimmerings of something which is quite different form the wild melodrama of Tabarro, the source play Puccini described as ‘more than almost Grand Guignol’. The composer had only Turandot to come – and that was never finished – and you can easily feel at the end of Schicchi that he’s involved in some kind of transformation. Where it might have taken him in the end we don’t know, but in these operas he was changing.
The prince of realism, the verismo composer who could paint a Paris garret or a raucous café in music, seemed to be reaching for something else. In Schicchi, of course, there’s abundant realism in the comedy and the detailed setting … but also the sense of a struggle to escape from the world, in this case with death itself being the heart of the joke. The Divine Comedy was, after all, a journey and through the link across the years to Puccini’s twentieth-century creation is a slender one, it holds. In the comedy, dark places had to be negotiated, every life was fated to be an endless search. Though he used his own imagination, and clothed the characters in the garb that he had made with his own craft in his own time, Puccini was consciously playing with an idea that had come in a roundabout way from a truly heroic source in Dante. One of the results is surely that the grit of his earliest work, especially in Manon Lescaut and La Bohème, is being turned into something else.
An extravagant critic might say that this was the end of the verismo opera that had exerted such a powerful grip on those composers who could write easily in the direct style that it demanded. The writer Peter Conrad has suggested that when Puccini wrote the three one-act operas in this group he was abandoning realism. Abandoning is a strong word, too strong – but I don’t believe that you can watch Schicchi without being aware of a comedy that somehow lifts off the ground: this is more like Verdi’s Falstaff in spirit than it is like a buffo romp. The comparison with Falstaff is maybe over-kind (most comparisons to that opera are) and anyway Schicchi is a mere fragment – but the ease with which Puccini handles the farce that often attends death is so deft and so confident that this seems much more than the third panel of a triptych that is seldom seen complete.
A cynic might say that Schicchi is no more than it seems at first glance, a clever score that sets a vivid mood typical of Puccini and has a clutch of memorable tunes –‘Oh! Mio babbino caro’ being the best known, hummed by people who have never heard of the opera, let alone seen it, and appreciated by advertising companies who know a piece of passion when they hear it. To say that, however, would be to criticise, Puccini for simply being too good at what he did so well. Behind the display of theatrical confidence, and tunefulness there is more. It’s obvious in Il Tabarro, thought it never had the same success as Schicchi (to Puccini’s great disappointment).
Much of its power comes from the completeness of the one act, the feeling of compressed power in a score that doesn’t flag. This is Puccini, the proto-film composer, that sense of drive and control that has led so many people to wonder what would have happened had he lived to write in Hollywood. The music seems to have a direction to its energy. No stops and starts disrupt things in order to set up a showpiece for one of the characters; the hand of the composer never stops moving on to the next scene. The result is a melodrama in the streets of Paris which is stripped of some of the pantomime accoutrements which apparently adorned the play that Puccini plundered for his plot. Indeed, with Dante in mind it is now difficult to think of the Paris bargeman with the corpse hidden under the eponymous cloak as some kind of figure ushering the damned to the underworld. Death is described as a release. In the following opera, Suor Angelica, it is described as ‘una vita bella’, a beautiful new life. So there is more here than a horror story.
The characters are caught in a world from which they can’t escape a dark place of poverty and grinding work. When Giorgetta is brought face to face with the corpse of her lover Luigi under the cloak, the unending grimness of this life is turned into a moment of riveting horror. You sense that in these places it is never going to get any better.
So although it is easy to look at the three operas together as another clever piece of theatrical inventiveness by Puccini (one that Puccini’s publisher Ricordi didn’t want him to risk, and had to be done after his death) it’s worth thinking of old Dante hovering above them. Just because Puccini’s original notion of three pieces springing directly from the Divine Comedy wasn’t realised – because he became typically engrossed in more contemporary themes – there is no reason to expunge the inspiration that was there. Moreover, Turandot rather proves the point.
Puccini wrote the sketches for its climax just before his death in 1924, six years after the first night of Schicchi. In that time you can see how Puccini had changed: this is an opera that could hardly be farther away from the grainy texture of Bohème or La Fanciulla. Now he is operating on a different kind of stage, where life and death are almost mythologised… metaphor is embracing that which is real. It is not, of course, his best opera and there is a good case for saying that it is an attempt at a different style rather than a clever transformation. Either way, Turandot casts a friendly shadow backwards to Schicchi and Il Tabarro. They are of a piece.
Ricordi insisted that an evening of three one-act operas would flop. The audience wouldn’t like it. To some extent there was posthumous justification for his view, as Puccini may have admitted to himself when he contemplated the puzzling failure of Suor Angelica to be the success he expected. Holland Park seem also to concur with Ricordi’s view and have, for expediency’s sake dispensed with it. Yet these weren’t created as simple crowd pullers, however strong Puccini’s showman’s instinct. They were a step along the way to something that was never quite reached, but slipped away when the last fragments of Turandot were penned. And that step, in every bar, is Puccini’s.
James Naughtie presents Today on BBC Radio 4 and is a regular presenter of Opera on BBC Television and Radio 3