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This volume of essays by different hands, published in conjunction with the latest Bard Music Festival, New York, offers ponderous weighing of such questions as the influence of the dramas of Henrik Ibsen on Puccini, or how many times the composer met Benito Mussolini.

Opera lovers who enjoy avoiding academic prose whenever possible may find most enticing a generously extended section of edited, translated, and annotated documents. These include Puccini’s own views of singers and conductors as well as the staging manual for Madama Butterfly used in 1906 by the French opera director Albert Carré (1852-1938) for its Paris premiere, after the failed Milan production of 1904. Another precious rarity here consists of excerpts from the volume Giacomo Puccini e l’opera internazionale (1912) by the Italian musicologist and critic Fausto Torrefranca (1883-1955), a text so vigorously deranged it might have been written by Gabriele D’Annunzio on crack cocaine. Torrefranca, in a section subheaded ‘Puccini’s femininity’, emits the view that compositionally, Puccini ‘appears to us like a sensual, silly young mother who, because she cannot quite find any kind and good words to say to her baby, caresses and kisses it while endlessly repeating some silly nonsense.’ Silly nonsense indeed.

Meanwhile, the composer himself, stringent and strictly un-maternal, dashed off fiery letters to friends and colleagues with objections to the highly emotional opera composer Leopoldo Mugnone (1858-1941), much esteemed by Verdi, and initially by Puccini, as a conductor. Either Mugnone’s talent had decayed, or the composer’s taste changed, for by October 1917 Puccini wrote: ‘Mugnone is truly deleterious: no finesse, no nuance, no souplesse, things so necessary for Rondine.’ In the same month, killing two performers with one stone, Puccini commented about Mugnone and soprano Maria Farneti (1877-1955): ‘The conductor is an elephant and the woman a sow!’

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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