A Tear-Jerker Ever

The “Piccola stagione lirica” at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico concluded yesterday afternoon with Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, first performed at Turin’s Teatro Regio in 1896, and an immediate hit which will live with us so long as we still retain the ability to love, to suffer and to feel.

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The event was presented by the Michel de Montaigne Association under its chairman Prof. Marcello Cherubini whose efforts have done so much to liven cultural life in our small community:

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(Prof Marcello Cherubini, Signora Simonetta Puccini and Sindaco Massimo Betti yesterday)

I’d mentioned Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème in a previous post. Just think how dogged with bad luck the Calabrian musician was. There was a minor tiff between the two composers; Leoncavallo said he’d shown HIS libretto, based on Henri Murger’s episodic novel, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, to Puccini and felt that it was Puccini who should have deferred to him in the composition of the opera. In the event, Puccini recruited two of his best librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, to write a script which, though not as closely adhering to the original, (many of the episodes in acts one and two don’t even appear in Murger’s novel, and the death of Mimi is a conflation of the death of Mimi and that of another consumptive, Francine), produces a far more operatically effective whole.

It’s no good saying that Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, which was actually first performed at the Teatro la Fenice di Venezia in 1897, after the première of Puccini’s opera of the same name, is closer to the text of the original novel, What counts is the dramatic quality of the music, and surely only the most die-hard Leoncavallo fan would rate the latter’s operatic effort higher than Puccini’s.

One simple proof is examining the way the audience’s tear ducts flow. Yes – that may be a somewhat elemental way of assessing emotional impact but I doubt that anyone who has listened to Leoncavallo’s version would come out without a dry eye in sight as is so often the case with Puccini.

The “Royal” Box and the (free) interval refreshments at theTeatro Accademico, Bagni di Lucca)

I am not ashamed to admit that, yesterday, I too succumbed to the odd tear, especially in the harrowing scene of Mimi’s death where music is suddenly forgotten and lines are declaimed instead.

How can all this happen in a production which had no orchestra to sustain and comment on the vocal lines, was produced on a small stage and was at a Sunday matinée?

It’s because Puccini writes music that transcends any limitation of instrumental forces, perhaps even singers, certainly production restrictions. He knows how to tug at one’s heart strings, he knows where to touch you where it hurts or delights the most. Only the most wretched kill-joy or rigid martinet of emotional control could object.

As it happened, there were two further factors that certainly helped in turning a little corner of Bagni di Lucca into a world of poverty, love, creation and hope in a Paris of the 1840’s. First, the absolute excellence of the singers. There was simply not a weak link, and even the amateur chorus from Ponsacco were superbly drilled. How is it possible to find singers like these to tour provincial theatres? Surely, because Italians are so discriminating when it comes to evaluating the solo voice that nothing less than excellent would do. I would single out Alessandra Meozzi as Mimi, and Angelo Fiori as Rodolfo and, of course, the indefatigable pianist, Marco Rimicci

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Second, it was the presence of Giacomo’s little granddaughter Simonetta, now a grand old lady, who thoroughly enjoyed the performance, met the artistes and who I was privileged to encounter again afterwards.

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For, in Bagni di Lucca, Giacomo Puccini isn’t just another ethereal musical figure who descends from his apollonian heaven to grace us with immortal melodies; he is someone very much with us: in the living minds of people who either knew him or who know those who knew him – in short, he is a completely human person whose presence is felt, someone graced with a divine gift, who loved a good crack, enjoyed his food, was a dab hand with the gun, had a passion for fast cars, was an irrepressible flirt and was, above all, the supreme and so sadly, last grand master of that astonishing phenomenon of this planet’s musical landscape, Italian opera.

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