Mon, Sep 08, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Puccini’s unfinished business

The composer suffered from academic neglect after his death as a result of his popular appeal, but conferences like the one held at the NTNU last week are trying to remedy the situation

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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That an academic conference on the operas of Puccini should take place in Taipei might at first sight seem unlikely. Last week saw one nonetheless, at the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU, 師範大學). The underlying reason was the presence in the Department of Music there of Professor of Musicology Lo Kii-Ming (羅基敏), and the current presence in Taiwan of her husband, the renowned opera and Puccini expert Juergen Maehder. In essence they organized the conference between them, they told me, even down to the design of the poster.

Based in his Puccini Research Center in Berlin, Maehder is celebrated for having discovered the first and longer version of Franco Alfano’s completion of Puccini’s unfinished final opera Turandot, the subject of the conference’s final session.

“Puccini studies are still in their infancy,” said Andrew Davis of the University of Houston. “Academics and critics alike are beginning to learn that just because a composer’s popular doesn’t mean he’s insignificant. The first ever symposium on Puccini was held as recently as 1983! Gershwin is experiencing a similar revival.”

When I arrived at the conference in last Thursday’s blistering heat, a mere ten students were sitting in the darkened Concert Hall while a DVD of Pavarotti in La Boheme was playing. One of them appeared to be asleep. But as the lights went up and the major participants began to arrive, things livened up, and some 35 people listened to a learned paper from Professor Lesley Wright of the University of Hawaii at Manoa on the early reception of La Boheme in Paris in the 1890s.

“The French critics didn’t want to like Puccini’s opera,” Wright told me. “It was set in Paris, but it was by an Italian! It was felt not to encapsulate the French ‘soul.’ But they capitulated. In a sense, audiences loved it, so they had to!

“I find my students are not as hostile to classical music as you might think,” she said when I questioned her on the level of interest in such things. “And if they do like it, they tend to like opera best. DVDs with their subtitles have done a lot to help. We live in a visual culture, after all, and opera is a partly visual art form. As for performances, in Hawaii we see around four a year, and one of them is almost always by Puccini. They know he’ll sell tickets — that’s probably the heart of the matter.”

Pedal points, tonic and dominant, unstable harmonies, cyclical form and the fragmentation of musical discourse — the language was frequently intimidating to the non-specialist. Richard Erkens, one of Maehder’s graduate students in Germany, gave a learned discourse on the repeated use of musical “memories” in a nowadays little-known opera on Christopher Columbus. He pointed out how such recurrences of thematic material, correctly known as “reminiscences” and used extensively by Puccini, had to be distinguished from Wagner’s more systematic leitmotifs.

But Maehder was always going to be the star of the proceedings. I’d met him before, at the National Symphony Orchestra’s Ring cycle in Taipei in 2006. This Puccini symposium, officially an International Musicological Conference on Giacomo Puccini and the Italian Opera of His Time, was partly being held to mark the 150th anniversary this year of the composer’s birth. Its specific dates, however, were not uninfluenced by last week’s performance of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) under Maehder’s old friend Martin Fischer-Dieskau, he said.

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