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

Mon, Sep 08, 2008 - Page 13

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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.

Juergen Maehder discovered the longer first version of Alfano’s completion of Turandot in 1979. It was in the archives of Puccini’s publisher Ricordi in Milan, but it had been wrongly catalogued. When he sat down to examine it, Maehder assumed it was the well-known completion that has been performed all over the world ever since Puccini died leaving his final opera unfinished in 1924. But he quickly saw that it contained some additional material. After further work, he established that this was Alfano’s original conclusion to the opera, but that it had been cut before the premiere on the insistence of the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who thought it was too long. Thus it was that Alfano’s original, fuller, completion finally came to light, and it has since been extensively performed, first in Berlin in 1982, then by the New York City Opera the following year, and then in Rome and Bonn in 1985.

Maehder’s knowledge of Puccini’s sketches for the end of Turandot is exhaustive. The composer died after a heart attack during surgery for throat cancer in Brussels. But he hadn’t expected to die, Maehder explained. Turandot, even though unfinished, was already being rehearsed, and one of Puccini’s last recorded remarks was to ask how the rehearsals were going. His sketches for the ending, therefore, were not intended for someone else, but for himself.

On one famous page, he wrote “from here on Tristan”, meaning that the big love duet with which the opera was going to conclude would be somewhat in the style of Wagner’s famous love duet in his Tristan und Isolde. It was probably Puccini’s private joke, addressed to himself, but it makes a fascinating comment on musical heredity nonetheless.

Maehder has even studied the paperclip markings left on Puccini’s manuscript notes. Paperclips in those days weren’t coated in plastic, so they rusted easily. Puccini lived close to the lake in Torre del Lago, and the climate there is notably humid. So the clips rusted quickly, and left a reverse impression on top of the page underneath. These marks have enabled Maehder to work out the exact sequence of the musical sketches — an example of academic close attention to detail if ever there was one.

Also discussed was the alternative ending to Turandot composed by Luciano Berio and first performed in 2002. Maehder proved somewhat skeptical about this, unsure if it was indeed all by Berio himself who, like Puccini, was also seriously ill with cancer at the time. But what is certain is that Berio also used the Puccini sketches extensively, even incorporating ideas and motifs neglected by Alfano.

All this talk of illness and uncompleted work obsessed me as I left. Do what you can while you can, I thought, whether it’s in the sunlight of Torre del Lago or elsewhere. Time gives us the gift of life, then passes on. Academic conferences are not always as academic as they seem.

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