Puccini’s ‘enemy opera’

Article by George Hall

Following the successful premiere of La fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, in December 1910, Puccini was soon casting around for a suitable subject for his next opera – the most difficult element for him, it seems, in the entire creative process. In fact it would be seven years before his next opera, La rondine, reached the stage – the longest gap in his career.

As was his usual practice, at this period Puccini was spending a good deal of time attending important premieres of Fanciulla in order to promote the piece nationally and internationally by his presence. It was on one of these trips, to Vienna – where Puccini’s American opera had its first performance at the Court Opera on 24 October 1913 – that the germ for La rondine was planted.

In Vienna Puccini met the operetta composer Franz Lehár, creator of many successful works in the genre, notably The Merry Widow (1905).

He and Lehár were mutual fans, and it was through his Hungarian-born colleague that Puccini was introduced to Siegmund Eibenschütz and Heinrich Berté, directors of the Carltheater, one of Vienna’s leading operetta stages. They invited him to compose a work for their venue to a book by Alfred Maria Willner, who had already given Lehár major follow-up successes to The Merry Widow with The Count of Luxembourg (1909) and Gypsy Love (1910). The fee was substantial. Puccini was clearly intrigued.

Internationally, at this point, operetta was all the rage. It had initially evolved in Paris as a musically and dramatically lighter form of ‘opéra comique’ (opera with spoken dialogue), a genre which its first leading exponent – Jacques Offenbach – had decided was becoming altogether too serious for its own good. Satire and sexual innuendo were parts of the mix, and dance music was usually prominent. Moving on to Vienna (Johann Strauss II) and London (Gilbert & Sullivan), the form acquired distinctive local characteristics.

Nevertheless, and while it undoubtedly had its audience, operetta in Italy was considered beneath the dignity of a serious opera composer – though for commercial as well as artistic reasons such figures as Leoncavallo (initially with La reginetta delle rose, 1912) and Mascagni (, 1919) happily gave it a try.

Meanwhile Puccini’s relations with his regular publisher, Ricordi, were going through a bad patch following the death in 1912 of his long-term supporter Giulio, to be succeeded by Giulio’s son Tito, who was far less appreciative of Puccini’s talents; thus it was that an agreement was drawn up for the operetta leaving Ricordi entirely out of the equation.

When Willner’s first sketch for the new piece arrived, however, Puccini was dismayed. ‘It’s the usual slipshod, banal operetta’, he wrote to his Viennese agent in December 1913, ‘the usual contrast between East and West, ballroom festivities and opportunities for dancing, with no study of character and, in short, of dramatic interest (most serious of all). And so? An operetta is something I shall never do; a comic opera, yes, like Der Rosenkavalier, only more entertaining and more organic’. From this point onwards, therefore, the idea of writing an operetta in terms of a piece with separate numbers and spoken dialogue was dropped.

In the spring of 1914 an entirely different comic opera libretto in German – a collaboration between Willner and Heinz Reichert (another operetta specialist) – was delivered piecemeal to Puccini, who thereupon finally signed his contract. Meanwhile a new collaborator, the playwright and critic Giuseppe Adami – who would go on to work with the composer on Il tabarro and Turandot – came on board, charged with creating from Willner and Reichert’s text the Italian libretto Puccini would actually set to music. The composer began work, and by Christmas Day 1914 he had completed the first two acts; but by then a second, more substantial problem had loomed into view in the shape of the First World War.

That terrible conflict had begun at the end of July. Initially Italy was not involved, but by May 1915 Puccini’s homeland had joined the Allies and declared war on Austro-Hungary: his 30 year old son Tonio had also enlisted in the Italian army. But already the composer himself had been attacked for his failure to make the kind of anti-German gestures other artists were intent on: he had to defend himself from a tirade by the French writer Léon Daudet for not signing a protest against the German bombardment of Reims, for instance, as well as receiving equivalent international disapproval for not contributing – as Debussy, Elgar, Paderewski, Mascagni and others had done – to a volume compiled by the English writer Hall Caine in support of the King of the Belgians.

Meanwhile, his contract with the Viennese management stipulated that his new piece would be premiered in what was by now an enemy capital. At first, Eibenschütz and Berté refused to reconsider this, but following a meeting with the latter in neutral Switzerland an accommodation was reached that allowed Puccini to arrange the premiere wherever he pleased. He went on to complete the score in October 1915. A belated attempt to interest Ricordi in the work came to nothing, and La rondine remained the only one of Puccini’s major scores to be placed with another publisher.

In the end the opera’s first performance was given in Monte Carlo – a neutral location – on 27 March 1917. The first cast included soprano Gilda dalla Rizza as the Parisian courtesan Magda, the young lyric tenor Tito Schipa as the ingénu Ruggero, the French bass-baritone Gustave Huberdeau as Magda’s wealthy protector Rambaldo, Ines Maria Ferraris as Magda’s maid Lisette, and Francesco Dominici as Lisette’s poetic admirer Prunier; the distinguished Italian Gino Marinuzzi conducted.

Despite a short run, La rondine obtained a genuine success. There were follow-up productions in Bologna, Milan (both 1917), Rome and Naples (both 1918), and further afield in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro (both 1917), Vienna (1920), and New York (1928), as well as other centres; in many of these the public seemed to like the work more than did the critics.

After a while, however, La rondine seemed to run out of steam, and eventually it disappeared from the repertory, remaining a rarity until quite recently. Other than a radio broadcast, the belated UK premiere of the piece was given by Opera Viva at Fulham Town Hall in 1965. Opera North first staged it in 1994. The Royal Opera House ignored it until 1998, when they gave it a single concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall that was followed up in 2002 with a full production, while ENO, WNO and Scottish Opera have yet to succumb to the opera’s very real charms. Opera Holland Park, however – with its special commitment to the music of Puccini and his contemporaries – has already presented it twice before renewing its relationship with it this season.

It is not necessarily a comment on La rondine’s quality that Puccini himself made two sets of revisions to it – he made far more over the years in the case of Madama Butterfly. The second version was first heard at the Volksoper (not the Carltheater) in Vienna on 20 October 1920. Puccini and Adami had decided to move the period forward from the Second Empire to the present day. Prunier’s role was lowered from tenor to baritone, Lisette’s soprano part raised somewhat higher. The romanza ‘Parigi! è la città dei desideri’ was added in Act 1 to plant Ruggero more firmly in the audience’s consciousness: its origin was the song ‘Morire!’, which Puccini had composed in 1917 to words by Adami for a volume published by Ricordi in aid of the Italian Red Cross. There were more substantial changes to the third act.

This section came up for renewed attention in the opera’s third and final version (Teatro Massimo, Palermo, 20 April 1920). Much of the rest of the opera – including raising Prunier once again to the tenor register – reverted to the first edition, but there was a further substantial rewrite of Act 3.

Unfortunately, during the Second World War, the autograph manuscript and any other full scores of this edition were destroyed when the publisher Sonzogno was a victim of Allied bombing; more widely distributed, some vocal scores fortunately survived. Unless further material comes to light, however, it seems that we will never hear Puccini’s own third version as he conceived it orchestrally, though the contemporary Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero made a new orchestration which was premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin, in 1994, and was subsequently heard in Opera North’s production. Generally, though, Puccini’s first version of the score is the one most performed today, sometimes (as in Opera Holland Park’s production) with the addition of Ruggero’s additional romanza in the first act.

Whatever the edition, La rondine has considerable strengths and represents an outstanding example of Puccini’s late style: his skills in the deployment of complex and subtle harmony and both the richness and refinement of his orchestration are simply second to none. It’s impossible to deny that hints of the operetta origins of this commedia lirica show through in places, not least in the regular waltzes that give the score a heady fragrance and rhythmic élan entirely suited to the plot’s mostly Parisian milieu. Tempo di Walzer is a regular indication in all three acts, but you will also find Tempo di Polka in Act 1. Some commentators have also spotted dance rhythms (such as the one-step) more appropriate to Puccini’s period than the official mid-19th century of the original setting. The more dramatically and vocally lightweight second couple (here Prunier and Lisette) also recalls traditional operetta practice.

But no operetta composer – not even Puccini’s admired friend Lehár – ever adorned one of his scores with the sort of sophistication that makes La rondine such an entrancing aural experience. Writing about it to his English friend Sybil Seligman, Puccini himself aptly summed it up as ‘a light, sentimental opera with touches of comedy – but it’s agreeable, limpid, and easy to sing with a little waltz music and lively and fetching tunes’.

George Hall writes widely on classical music and opera for such publications as The Guardian, The Stage, BBC Music Magazine and Opera