“Gli arredi, festivi”
“Di’ tu se fedele”
Todd Wilander and the Chorus
“Bella sicome un angelo”
“So anch‘io la virtu magica”
“Percorrette le spiagge vicine”
the Men’s Chorus
“Qui di sposa eterna fede” … Verrano a te sull’aure”
Mr. Wilander and Ms. Squitieri
“Piange la madre estinta”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Akinboboye, Joseph Gárate, Laura Liebreich-Johnson, Carson Gilmore, and the Chorus
Sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento?”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Akinboboye, Mr.Gárate, Ms. Liebreich-Johnson, Mr. Gilmore, and the Chorus
Act II Finale: “Tallontana, sciagurato!”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Akinboboye, Mr.Gárate, Ms. Liebreich-Johnson, Mr. Gilmore, and the Chorus
Act II Excerpts
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Akinboboye,, with Julia Metzler, Christopher Hunter, DeJuan Carlos, Micah Howlitt, Dominic Delzompo, and the Chorus
“In un coupe?”
Mr. Wilander and Mr. Akinboboye
“Che faranno I vecchi miei”
Mr. Akinboboye, with David Childs, Thomas Hollow, Bill Ketchum, Mr. Gilmore, and the Men’s Chorus
Ms. Squitieri and the Women’s Chorus
“E lucevan le stelle”
The Chorus with Ms. Liebreich-Johnson, Ms. Metzler, Ms. Gillespie, and Mr. Gilmore
“Nella dolce carezza”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Wilander, and the Chorus
“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”
Ms. Squitieri, Mr. Wilander, Mr. Akinboboye, VanNessa Hulme, Mr. Gárate, and the Chorus
The nineteenth century began as a time of profound transition for Italian opera and flowered into an enormous artistic revolution to become what we today consider quintessential “Italian opera.” Beginning with the innovative musical and structural groundwork developed by Rossini, the form grew and was then transformed by Bellini and Donizetti, reaching perhaps its full maturity with Verdi and Puccini. Tonight we present works by three of these titans, each of whom influenced and inspired his successor, who then proceeded to enlarge the form in new ways, with Verdi and Puccini especially willing to defy tradition and break new ground. The three composers bear many similarities in the development of their careers, even given the slower rise to fame of Donizetti compared to Verdi and Puccini. All of them began their musical training in the churches of their small native towns, respectively Roncole, Bergamo, and Lucca, eventually making their way with the financial aid of influential supporters to further schooling in established music conservatories. All three devoted their careers largely to composing operas, and each was a gifted melodist who also realized the theatrical as well as the musical value of the chorus in opera. Perhaps above all in an art form that demands not only music but theater and the visual arts, they each became skillful and determined “men of the theater.” Verdi is famous for demanding the parolla scenica (dramatic word), but all three of them were relentless taskmasters of their librettists and were not above writing their own words for certain scenes if their librettists could not satisfy their demands. As the composers began to acquire more power, they were able to demand singers who were capable of fulfilling their artistic vision (although especially in the early careers of Donizetti and Verdi, several works failed initially because of incompetent or unsuitable casting). Verdi and Puccini also began to insist on the acting abilities of their performers, Verdi going so far as to tell his original Macbeth that if he really understood his character, the music would take care of itself. Although not necessarily presented in chronological order in the composers’ careers, our program includes both their early successes and their more mature work.
Nabucco was Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and his first great success, opening at La Scala in Milan in 1842. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of “Va, pensiero,” a chorus that has remained one of Verdi’s most beloved pieces. Unusually, the choruses were singled out for acclaim in the reviews of Nabucco. An early pupil and assistant of Verdi, Emanuele Muzio, wrote that following the immense popularity of Nabucco and I Lombardi, Verdi was known as “il padre del coro” (the father of the chorus). Verdi had a particular facility for vivifying the choruses in his operas. He treated the populace not just as decorative props who commented on the action, but frequently made them a central character – often the people oppressed by the power, wealth and tyranny of the leading characters. Verdi’s early career was quite difficult, professionally and emotionally. His first opera, Oberto, was a mild success, but his second, Un giorno di regno, was miserably received and canceled after only one performance. In the period between Oberto and the completion of Un giorno, Verdi suffered from financial difficulties and had one of the frequent bouts of ill health that would plague him throughout his life. Even worse, during these years, both of his children died very young, and he lost his beloved wife to rheumatic fever – hardly the ideal circumstances for creating a comic opera. In spite of his grief and his desire to abandon his career, the libretto for Nabucco inspired him to write his first great triumph. Verdi told the newspaper critic Stafford of the Daily Graphic in January, 1893, years after Nabucco’s premiere, of the difficult circumstances of its La Scala premiere: “The artists were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations to the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the Va, pensiero, but before they had got through half a dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church. The men had left off their work one by one, and they were sitting about on ladders and scaffolding listening! When the number was finished, they broke out into the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” That future included 75 performances at La Scala alone in the opera’s first year, followed by success throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. Its first two years alone saw more than 50 different productions, including a performance conducted in Vienna by Donizetti, who had championed the work even before its premiere.
Nabucco had another significant role to play in Verdi’s life. The La Scala star for whom he specifically wrote the role of Abigaille – perhaps the most exciting (and exacting) role in the opera – was Giuseppina Strepponi. Strepponi was a renowned singer at the time and an enthusiastic supporter of Nabucco, urging the management to give it a good position in the season. She was soon to become a friend and advisor, then Verdi’s mistress, and finally his wife of 38 years.
Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor) is based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon (referred to in the libretto as “Assyria”). It is set in Jerusalem and then Babylon during the reign of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 B.C., who destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon in 586 B.C.). As Nabucco begins, the Assyrian army is about to capture Jerusalem. Nabucco’s daughter Fenena is a captive of the Hebrews, who threaten to kill her if their city is taken. Fenena is in love with Ismaele, the nephew of the Jewish king, after rescuing him from imprisonment when he was Jerusalem’s ambassador to Assyria. Abigaille, Fenena’s sister, also loves Ismaele and threatens revenge on both of them for Ismaele’s rejection of her. After overcoming the Hebrews, Nabucco destroys their temple and takes them into captivity in Assyria. During Nabucco’s absence at other wars, Abigaille attempts to usurp the throne. Nabucco returns in time to thwart her plan, but is struck by lightning and driven out of his senses when he claims that he is god. Abigaille assumes the crown and plans with the Assyrian priests to have all the Hebrews executed (including Fenena, who has converted to their faith). Nabucco regains his sanity and reclaims power. Recognizing that their God is supreme, he releases the Hebrews from captivity and promises to erect a new temple, while the repentant Abigaille begs for forgiveness as she dies from the poison she has taken.
The first scene of Nabucco takes place in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The terrified Hebrews rush into the temple, bemoaning the final onslaught of the barbarian hordes led by Nabucco, the King of Assyria. They cry out for the festive decorations of the temple to be thrown down and shattered (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti”), as the family of Judah clothe themselves in mourning. The king of Assyria as the minister of God’s wrath is about to crush them. The terrible howling of the barbarous troops thunders in the temple of the Lord. The priests tell the young women to rend their white veils and cry out as they lift their arms in supplication, for the prayers from their innocent lips are like a pleasing fragrance rising to the Lord. Through them the fury of the fierce enemy horde will be rendered useless. The virgins pray that their great God, who flies on the wings of the winds and hurls thunderbolts through the quivering clouds, will destroy and scatter the Assyrian horde. The daughters of David will rejoice! They have sinned, but let their prayers find mercy in heaven and forgiveness for their sins. The Hebrews ask if the wicked will be allowed to cry out with bold-faced blasphemy: “Does the God of Israel hide Himself out of fear?” They entreat Him not to let His children fall prey to a madman who scorns His eternal power. Don’t allow the Assyrian outsider to sit on the throne of David among his false Assyrian idols.
In later years, Verdi claimed that La Scala’s producer Merelli forced Temistocle Solera’s libretto for Nabucco on him in spite of Verdi having determined to give up his career. As Verdi threw the manuscript onto a table, the libretto fell open at the page with the opening lines of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate,” inspired by Psalm 137 lamenting the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Unable to resist reading the rest of the libretto immediately, he then reread it several times that evening. Whether Verdi’s mythologizing in later life is true or not, the premiere audience vociferously insisted on an encore of Va, pensiero (in spite of the Austrians’ having banned encores in Italian theaters during the Austrian occupation, fearing any spontaneous political demonstrations). The chorus has remained one of the most beloved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus – described by the composer Rossini as a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors, and basses – resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves send their thoughts on golden wings (“Va, pensiero,”) to rest on the slopes and hills scented with the sweet air of their native land. Let them greet the banks of the Jordan and the fallen towers of Zion. O fatherland, so beautiful and so lost! O memory, so dear and so fatal! Why does the golden harp of the prophets hang mute on the willow? They ask for their memories to be rekindled in their hearts and speak to them of the time that has been. O, like Solomon, draw forth a song of cruel lamentation from their fates so their Lord may inspire them with the strength to endure.
Verdi suffered mightily under the censorship restrictions prevalent throughout the splintered kingdoms and provinces of Italy during his career, but no work was as fraught with ridiculous demands by the censors as Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), written to be performed at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1858. Based by librettist Antonio Somma on Gustave III, a play by the prominent French playwright Eugène Scribe, the original story tells of the assassination of Gustave III, the King of Sweden, in 1792. Political conspiracy and regicide were always explosive issues in such a tightly controlled society as the Kingdom of Naples, but numerous versions of the story had already been performed in the form of plays and ballets throughout Italy. Verdi had suffered at the hands of the Neapolitan censors in the past, notably in the case of Rigoletto in 1857,which he felt had been mangled out of all recognition. (Donizetti had moved to Paris partly because of his continual struggles with the Neapolitan censors.) Initially, a number of revisions to Un ballo were demanded, most of which Verdi had expected, and to which he felt he could accede. Unfortunately, it was not until he arrived in Naples to supervise the production that he was informed the censors had refused the libretto entirely and demanded wholesale changes which Verdi refused to countenance. (Among numerous and ludicrous demands, the censors not only insisted that the locale be moved from Sweden and that the protagonist not be a royal figure, but demanded the elimination of the masked ball entirely, as well as a crucial scene in which the conspirators drew lots to determine who would have the honor of being the assassin – two of the most important scenes in the entire work.) Verdi stood on his artistic honor and refused any further concessions, in spite of a lawsuit by the president of the Teatro San Carlo and official threats to imprison him in his hotel room and refuse him passage from Naples until he had agreed to permit a totally different script devised according to the censors’ wishes to be foisted onto Verdi’s score. Verdi countersued and was finally allowed to leave with his score in exchange for a promise to return to Naples to supervise a new production of Simon Boccanegra later in the year.
Having determined that a stage version of Scribe’s original Gustave III was already approved for production in Rome for the 1858 season, Verdi proceeded to make arrangements for Un ballo to premiere there the following year. Censorship issues again became problematic, especially since Rome was still part of the Papal States and hence usually presented both religious and political problems. However, Verdi pressed on and made changes that were considered absolutely necessary. (For this reason, many productions of the opera still adhere to the libretto as premiered in Rome, which changed the Swedish king Gustave to Riccardo, the Count of Warwick, “son of England.” As governor of colonial Massachusetts, apparently the Count of Warwick was distant enough in time and place to quell any fears of sparking a revolution in Rome.) In spite of the changes and a rehearsal process that left Verdi fretful and anxious about the production, Un ballo in maschera was a stunning success at its premiere in Rome in February, 1859, and Verdi himself was called to the stage for more than 20 bows.
The basic structure of Verdi and Somma’s work remained the same: Gustave/Riccardo is a much-loved and effective ruler, but he is warned by his faithful secretary Renato that there is a conspiracy against his life among disgruntled enemies. Riccardo refuses to live in fear and ignores the warnings. Riccardo is secretly in love with Renato’s wife Amelia, who returns his love, but neither of them is willing to betray Renato. However, Renato becomes aware of their love and mistakenly believes that Amelia and Riccardo have already betrayed him. Confronting Amelia, he refuses to believe her fidelity, and he joins with the conspirators in their plot to assassinate Riccardo. Drawing lots to see who will have the honor to strike Riccardo first, Renato is grimly satisfied that he is the lucky one, and they resolve to fulfill the plot at the masked ball which Riccardo is to give that night. Amelia attempts to warn Riccardo to leave the ball, but it is too late. As he is dying from wounds inflicted by Renato, Riccardo informs him that Amelia had remained faithful and tells his court that he forgives Renato and his co-conspirators.
In Act I, Scene 1, a Judge of the court has asked Riccardo to banish Ulrica, a local fortune-teller, but Riccardo’s page Oscar begs him not to do so, believing that Ulrica really can predict the future. Intrigued, Riccardo decides that he and some of his courtiers will visit her in disguise. Soon after he arrives at the fortune- teller’s hut in the next scene, he is startled to realize that his beloved Amelia has also come to consult the seeress at her private entrance. Ulrica orders all to leave, but Riccardo conceals himself and is stunned to hear that Amelia secretly loves him as well, wishing only to have the fortune-teller free her from her forbidden passion. When Ulrica readmits the others to the room, Riccardo steps forward in his disguise as a fisherman and insists that the medium tell him what his stars predict. He then launches into a sort of sea chanty which has little to do with the plot, but reinforces his disguise and emphasizes Riccardo’s own insouciance in the face of danger and adversity. He demands that Ulrica tell him if the waves wait for him faithfully, and if the woman he loves, dripping tears when saying goodbye to him, has betrayed his love. With his sails torn and his own soul in a tempest, he breaks through the furrows of the deadly waves to challenge a wrathful heaven and hell. The seeress must explore, must prophesy what events await him. Neither lightning nor the rage of the winds, neither death nor love, can keep him from the sea. On the agile ship which tosses him in its womb, when he awakens shaken in the shrieking storm, he repeats over and over amidst the thunder the sweet songs of his native land, which remind him of the kisses of their last farewell, and they rekindle the fires in his heart. Therefore she must voice her prophecy, say what he can expect from his fate – for terror will not pierce his spirits.
Domenico Gaetano Donizetti was born in Bergamo in 1797 to a poor family with no musical background, but he went on to become one of the most successful of 18th Century Italian bel canto composers. Early in his career, he wrote a variety of music such as church music, string quartets, and orchestral works, but interest in one of his early operas led to his devoting himself almost exclusively to composing operas, of which he wrote an astonishing number (over 70 in a short 12 years). Skilled in both serious opera such as his tragic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor, and comic opera such as Don Pasquale, La fille du regiment, and L’elisir d’amore, his works have held the world stage for almost 200 years. Beginning his trajectory in Rome, Naples, and Milan, he was soon to be an important force not only in Italy, but in Paris and Vienna, the two other important centers of his time.
One of Donizetti’s final works among his remarkable output and his last great success before his health began to fail him completely, Don Pasquale is not only among his most popular and enduring operas since its wildly successful 1843 Paris premiere, but among the handful of classic operatic comedies which continue to have wide appeal. Drawing on familiar characters of commedia dell’arte, the libretto by Giovanni Ruffini and Donizetti himself (who rewrote so much of Ruffini’s text that the librettist disavowed its authorship) is based directly on an earlier Italian opera, Ser Marcantonio. The plot has distinct similarities to Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (later the basis for Richard Strauss’s 1935 opera Die schweigsame frau), as well as numerous Italian commedia scenarios.
Don Pasquale is an aging, wealthy bachelor who is outraged that his nephew Ernesto wishes to marry for love rather than accept the suitable match which his uncle has arranged. Don Pasquale decides to take a bride for himself and disinherit Ernesto, and is aided in his plan (he thinks) by his old friend Dr. Malatesta, who suggests a marriage between Pasquale and his devout and beautiful “sister” (in reality Norina, the young woman whom Ernesto loves). Delighted by his good fortune, Pasquale enters into marriage (or so he believes, since Malatesta has orchestrated a fake ceremony). His new wife “Sofronia” (Norina’s alias) instantly turns into a hellish, extravagant shrew and makes Pasquale’s life miserable. Desperate to escape the marriage, Pasquale is bamboozled by a note that Norina has conveniently dropped, which details an assignation with another man in the garden of Pasquale’s house. Seeing an opportunity to free himself, he enlists Malatesta to help him catch the lovers and divorce Norina. Malatesta agrees – and tricks Pasquale into agreeing to allow Ernesto to marry his beloved and reinstate his nephew as his heir. Having secured Pasquale’s promise, Malatesta reveals Norina’s true identity, and Pasquale recognizes that he has been a foolish old man. Forgiving the lovers and his friend for their plot, Pasquale gives his blessing to the marriage and is relieved to be rid of his shrewish “wife.”
In the first scene of the opera, Dr. Malatesta arrives to tell Don Pasquale that he has found the perfect bride for him, and proceeds to describe the virtues of this paragon who is as beautiful as an angel (“Bella siccome un angelo,”) as fresh as a morning lily, with eyes that speak and laugh, a glance that conquers every heart, ebony hair, and an enchanting smile. Stoking the flames of Pasquale’s desire, Malatesta extols her innocent soul, her unparalleled modesty, and her sweet and loving kindness to the poor. Surely it was heaven that crafted this perfect creature who fills the heart with bliss.
We first meet Norina alone in her house reading aloud from a novel. “That glance pierced the knight’s heart, and he knelt and told her, ‘I am your cavalier,’ and there was in that glance such a taste of paradise that the knight Riccardo, completely conquered by love, swore that he would never turn his thoughts to another woman.” Norina is amused by the romantic novel and says she also knows the magic power of a glance (“So anch’io la virtù magica”) at the right time and place. She also knows how hearts burn on the slow fire of a brief, small smile. She likewise knows the effect of a deceitful tear, of a sudden languor. She knows the thousand methods of amorous frauds, the affectations and the easy arts to entice a heart. But she has an eccentric mind and is quick and vivacious. She likes to sparkle and to joke. If she flies into a fury, she can rarely hold back, but she is quick to change her indignation to a laugh. She has a capricious mind but an excellent heart!
In Act II, “Sofronia” has firmly established her rule in the house, and overridden Don Pasquale’s objections as a steady stream of gowns, hats and jewels arrive (accompanied by a mountain of bills). The coup de grâce, when Sofronia boxes her husband’s ears before going off to the theater in spite of his protests, has left Don Pasquale desolate and humiliated. Sofronia has also greatly increased the household staff and doubled their wages. The servants excitedly gossip about the domestic uproar and the interminable comings and goings (“Che interminabile andirivieni!”). Kept jumping by the constant ringing of bells to summon them, they can never get a moment’s peace. But nonetheless, it’s a grand house, and they marvel at the spending and squandering that is going on. No sooner is lunch finished than the master and mistress make another scene, with the husband insisting that the wife stay home, and the wife doing as she wishes, as she always overcomes his objections. And that nephew seems a piece of work! He doesn’t care for his uncle’s wishes either, and it appears the mistress dotes on the young man too fondly. The servants hush each other as they hear the nephew coming – they must stay quiet and appear as if everything is just as it should be.
Walter Scott was already an established poet with a worldwide following when he began publishing novels under a pseudonym in 1814. Scotland’s culture and history were of great interest throughout Europe at the time and Scott was to remain one of the most popular writers of fiction throughout Europe for almost 100 years. Numerous operas were based on his novels and poetry by composers ranging from Bizet to Rossini to Sir Arthur Sullivan (sans Gilbert). Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor had set the action in the 17th century after the Glorious Revolution in its first edition in 1819, but on its reissue in 1830 had changed the period to the early 18th century during the reign of Queen Anne. Prior to Donizetti’s taking it up, there had been at least three prior operas based on The Bride of Lammermoor (including one with a libretto in Danish by Hans Christian Andersen).
Lucia di Lammermoor’s libretto was the first of the eight libretti that Salvatore Cammarano was to write for Donizetti, not to mention four for Verdi (including the majority of Il trovatore) plus the scenario for Verdi’s long-planned but never realized King Lear. Cammarano retains the original period of the novel, but drastically changes the plot and numerous characters, retaining only the barest bones of Scott’s work. The opera was an immediate success at its premiere in Naples in 1835 and its fame quickly spread throughout the rest of Europe. It has remained Donizetti’s most enduring dramatic opera as well as providing an important career springboard for numerous sopranos because of the musical and dramatic challenges of the title role. Lucia cemented Donizetti’s importance in the world of opera at a crucial time in its development, its premiere following Bellini’s death by just three days and Rossini’s retirement a few years before.
The opera is set during the political turmoil in Scotland before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that overthrew James II (also King James VII in Scotland). However, James continued to fight for his throne from exile, and the turmoil between his loyalists and those who supported William and Mary continued in Scotland and elsewhere for several years until the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Among the combatants who sided with James in Scotland are Edgardo of Ravenswood and Enrico Ashton. However, they are bitter enemies because Enrico killed Edgardo’s father and seized control of Edgardo’s inheritance, and Edgardo has sworn eternal enmity to the Ashtons. The title character, Lucia Ashton, is a young woman already in a fragile emotional state due to the recent death of her mother and the demands by her brother Enrico that she marry the wealthy Lord Arturo Buckwood, whose support Enrico needs both for financial and political reasons. Edgardo had saved Lucia from a rampaging wild bull as she walked near her mother’s grave and they have fallen deeply in love with each other. She and Edgardo swear their eternal love and exchange rings before he leaves for France to attempt to help restore the deposed James. Over the months of his absence, Enrico and his henchman Normanno intercept Lucia’s letters to Edgardo and his letters to her. In order to persuade her to marry the wealthy and powerful Lord Arturo Bucklaw, who can prevent Enrico from being executed for his former support of James, they provide Lucia with a forged letter purporting to show that Edgardo has betrayed her for another love. The distraught Lucia is further urged by her teacher and confidant, Chaplain Raimondo, to sacrifice herself to save Enrico’s life and their family’s future. Lucia unwillingly gives her consent. On the wedding day, Edgardo bursts into the ceremony and is outraged at what he considers Lucia’s betrayal of their vows. He and Enrico vow to meet later to settle their dispute and Lucia is left devastated by the turn of events. On her wedding night, the fragile Lucia loses her mind and kills Arturo with his own sword in their bedchamber. She appears bloody and delirious before the shocked wedding guests and imagines that she is about to be married to her Edgardo before collapsing, almost lifeless after her ordeal. Edgardo has meanwhile decided that he cannot live without Lucia, whom he believes happily married, and has decided to throw himself on Enrico’s sword when they meet. However, when Raimondo brings Edgardo the tragic news that Lucia has died of a broken heart, Edgardo vows to join her in heaven as he stabs himself in the heart.
The captains of the guard at Ravenswood Castle order their soldiers to search around the castle for a mysterious man who has been seen each morning before dawn. It is feared that it is Edgardo Ravenswood, the former heir of Ravenswood and the mortal enemy of the Ashtons. They must scour the nearby shore (“Percorriamo le spiagge vicine”) and the vast ruins of the tower. They must throw off the veil of this vile mystery – their honor demands it! The execrable truth will shine like a flash of lightning amidst the clouds of horror.
Lucia has a secret rendezvous with Edgardo in the gardens of the castle, and he reveals that he must leave immediately for France to negotiate for Scotland’s future. He tells Lucia that he will first ask her brother Enrico for her hand and bring peace to their families. Lucia is terrified that Enrico will reject his offer, and Edgardo cannot contain his wrath at her family – first for depriving him of his father and inheritance, and now for keeping Lucia from him. He had vowed to revenge himself on the entire family, but then fell in love with Lucia. She begs him to calm himself and let love alone rule his heart. Edgardo entreats her to swear her faith as a bride (“Qui di sposa eterna fede”) before him and heaven. God sees and hears them – a loving heart is their temple and altar. Placing a ring on her finger, he says he unites his destiny with hers – he is her husband. Lucia responds that she is his wife as she gives him her own ring. They pledge that only the chill of death can extinguish the fire of their love. Edgardo says that for now they must part, and Lucia replies that her heart goes with him. She entreats him to send her his thoughts in a message from time to time, and she will nurture her fugitive life with hope.
Her ardent sighs will come to him on the breeze (“Verrano a te sull’aure”). He will hear her laments echo from the murmuring sea and think that she subsists on her cries and grief. Then he should cry a bitter tear over the ring she has given him as her pledge. Edgardo repeats her pledge and they bid each other farewell, as Edgardo reminds her that heaven has joined them together.
In Act II, Scene II, wedding guests have gathered for the marriage of Lucia and Lord Arturo Bucklaw. The despairing Lucia enters, supported by Raimondo and her companion Alisa. Ricardo reassures Arturo that she is crying only because of the loss of her recently deceased mother (“Piange la madre estinta.”) She shrinks away when her brother attempts to present her to her bridegroom, and her brother cautions her that he is doomed if she is careless. Arturo offers her the vows of his tender love as Raimondo presents them with the marriage contract. Arturo gladly signs as Lucia cries out to God, and Raimondo prays that God will strengthen the afflicted woman. Lucia says she goes to be sacrificed as Enrico urges her to sign. Having done so, she exclaims that she has written her own death sentence. Enrico sighs in relief, as Lucia feels icy, then burning up, crying she feels faint.
Suddenly the guests wonder at the crashing outside before they all exclaim in shock as Edgardo bursts into the room. Lucia practically swoons and Edgardo and Enrico can barely restrain their rage at each other as the guests hold them back from each other. Edgar asks who dares restrain him or thwart his anger (“Chi mi frena in tal momento?”). Lucia’s grief and fright prove her remorse! He sees that she is between life and death, like a wilting rose. He is defeated but moved – ingrate though she is, he loves her still! Enrico tries to break free of the guests restraining him from drawing his sword. Anguish rises in his heart for his miserable sister. She is of his blood and he has betrayed her! As she hangs between life and death, he can’t extinguish the remorse in his heart. Reviving, Lucia tells Alisa that she hoped that her fright would have ended her life, but death has not aided her – she still lives, to her torment. Heaven and earth have both betrayed her. She wants to weep but cannot; even tears have abandoned her. Raimondo is stunned by this terrible moment, as if dense clouds of terror hide the sun’s rays, and Alisa and the guests murmur that she hangs between life and death like a rose left unwatered – anyone not moved by Lucia’s plight must have the heart of a tiger in their breasts.
Arturo, Enrico, and his soldiers order Edgardo to leave (“Tallontana, sciagurato!”) or they will spill his wicked blood. Edgardo vows that he will die, but their blood will flow with his. Enrico asks how he dared enter the castle gates and Edgardo replies it was his fate and his right, since Lucia swore her faith to him. Raimondo tells him he must forget that tragic love for she belongs to another, as he shows Edgardo the signed marriage contract. Turning to Lucia and seeing she is trembling and confused, he demands that she answer – is this her signature? She groans that it is. Edgardo removes the ring she gave him, telling her to take it back to her perfidious heart, and demands that she return the ring he gave her. Edgardo stamps on his ring, declaring that she has betrayed both heaven and love. Accursed be the moment in which he fell in love with her. He should have fled from her iniquitous, abominable family! May God’s angry hand scatter them all. The guests are shocked at his insane daring as Arturo, Enrico, and the soldiers demand that he flee. They can suspend their fury at him for only a moment, but soon it will fall more violently and fiercely on his loathsome head. Edgardo throws down his sword and tells them to slaughter him. The massacre of his betrayed heart will be the best man to the marriage and the threshold covered in his blood will be a sweet sight for the wicked woman. She will go to the altar more happily, trampling on his bloodless remains. Lucia begs God to save Edgardo and to listen to her miserable lament in this violent moment. They are prayers born of her immense pain that no longer has any hope on earth. It is the final plea of her heart that now breathes forth from her lips. Raimondo urges Edgardo to steal away and honor Lucia’s marriage. He should live, and perhaps his pain will dim with heaven’s mercy. Enrico and his soldiers demand the traitor leave or the stain of his black outrage will be washed away with his blood! Raimondo and Alisa support Lucia as the soldiers force Edgardo out the door.
Born to a long line of musicians in the Tuscan town of Lucca in 1858, Giacomo Puccini’s father and an uncle were his early teachers. The family had a tradition of playing church music, but the younger Puccini turned to opera after he and some friends walked nearly ten miles to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s Aïda, which he said opened a new musical window for him. He was to repeatedly say later in life that he felt God had touched him on the shoulder once and promised him success, but only if he wrote music for the theater. After entering the conservatory in Milan, he was encouraged by his professor, the composer Ponchielli. Although Puccini’s first two operas, the one act Oberto and the full-length Edgar, were not successful, he persevered. Like Verdi with Nabucco, he achieved his first great success with his third opera, Manon Lescaut, first performed in 1893. The playwright and exacting music critic George Bernard Shaw proclaimed Puccini the heir to Verdi, and the comparison is worth noting. Like Verdi, Puccini demanded a great deal from his librettists, sometimes hiring and firing several for a project before he found what he wanted. He was keenly interested in the theatrical strengths of his libretti and searched far afield for plays and fiction which he could put to good use. Many of his operas were based on French plays and novels but also included work by Schiller (a favorite of Verdi’s). Two of his greatest successes, Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West, were based on plays by the American playwright and impresario David Belasco. (Except for his unwilling use of an American setting to replace Sweden in Un ballo in maschera, even the far-reaching Verdi had not drawn on American sources for his work.) Puccini was also to have as publisher for most of his career the firm of Ricordi, Verdi’s long-time publisher.
When La Bohème premiered in 1896 (under the baton of the young Arturo Toscanini), Puccini was already widely known in Italy. Although the opera did not receive great acclaim at its first performances in Torino and Rome, a production in Palermo in the same year was a wild success, and it reached as far as London and Los Angeles within another year. Along with Tosca and Madama Butterfly, La Bohème remains one of Puccini’s best-loved and most frequently-performed operas. These were followed by other notable works that are still staged: La fanciulla del West La Rondine, the trilogy Il Trittico (also premiered in New York), and his last opera, left unfinished at the time of his death at the age of 66, Turandot. A lifelong smoker, after months of health problems and a chronic sore throat, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. After consulting numerous specialists, Puccini agreed to undergo experimental radiation therapy in Brussels. He seemed to be recovering after days of grueling treatments and an operation but then suffered a heart attack. He died on February 29, 1924.
The libretto for La Bohème was the combined work of two well-known librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (also the librettists of Tosca and Madama Butterfly). The source was the French author Henri Murger’s novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life), which Murger and Théodore Barrière had adapted into a play in 1849. Murger’s original novel was really a number of vignettes about young “bohemian” artists living in Paris in the 1840’s. Like the play, the libretto centers on the young lovers Rodolfo and Mimi, but while the first and last acts of the opera are relatively true to the novel and play, the second and third acts are largely the creation of Giacosa and Illica.
In Act I, we are introduced to the young poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, and their young friends: the philosopher Colline and the musician Schaunard. As the young artists and intellectuals prepare to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Café Momus, Rodolfo stays behind to work. The young seamstress Mimi, who lives in the garret above Rodolfo’s, introduces herself and asks for his help lighting her candle. Attraction soon turns to declarations of mutual love, and the young couple go to join Rodolfo’s friends, including Marcello’s erstwhile love Musetta. Both couples join, then part for various reasons, until the consumptive Mimi returns at last to Rodolfo. They reminisce about their past love as the others go off to find medicine and warm clothes for Mimi, but it is too late. Rodolfo loses his Mimi once and for all.
As the curtain opens on Act II, it is still Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris. In spite of the bitter cold, it appears that every Parisian is out in the streets to celebrate. A huge crowd of soldiers, students, gendarmes, shopgirls, and sightseers throng the streets. The action centers on the busy Café Momus (an actual café that attracted such figures as Murger and Courbet during its heyday). The interior of the café is so full that waiters set up tables outside. Street vendors hawk their wares: Oranges, dates, hot chestnuts! Toys, crosses, nougats! What a crowd! What an uproar! Candy! Whipped cream and tarts! Coconut milk! Flowers for your beauties! Hold on to me – let’s get out of here! The waiters scurry around the café to the cries of Waiter! A glass! Some beer! A drink!
Schaunard complains that a vendor’s horn is out of tune and bargains with him, purchasing the horn and a pipe. Rodolfo and Mimi enter a hat shop and he buys her a pink bonnet. Mimi admires a coral necklace, but Rodolfo tells her he will buy her a more beautiful one when his rich uncle dies and he inherits money. Colline finds a seamstress to mend his ancient coat. He tells her that it is a bit old but of good quality and proceeds to distribute his many books among the pockets. Marcello is in the mood to enjoy himself and find someone. He begins to flirt with a young girl, but she runs away laughing. Schaunard is the first to arrive at the Café Momus. When Colline arrives, he shows Schaunard a rare book he has bought. They enter the café with Marcello, then emerge carrying a large table which they set up outdoors. Rodolfo and Mimi join the party, and Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his friends, saying he is a poet and she is poetry. Marcello asks her what Rodolfo has bought her, and she shows him her pink bonnet. As they each place orders with the waiter, the toy seller Parpignol arrives, crying out for all to see his wares. As the children crowd around him, admiring and clamoring for his toys, their mothers run after them, taking them by the hands while scolding them. As the children continue to beg, their mothers tell them it’s time to leave and go to bed.
Suddenly all eyes turn to watch Musetta, a beautiful coquette, entering with an older patron, Alcindoro, in tow. She’s come back! She looks on top of the world – what an elegant dress! Alcindoro complains that he’s like a porter running here and there. No! He can’t do it anymore. Noticing Marcello (her ex-lover), Musetta behaves shamelessly to get his attention. She insists on taking the table near the Bohemians, although Alcindoro finds it cold outside. Musetta teases and chastises her elderly patron as if he were a puppy. Smelling her plate, she tells the waiter it stinks of fried food and throws it on the ground. Alcindoro begs her to be quiet. Mimi admires Musetta’s lovely clothes and asks who she is. Telling Mimi that her name is Musetta, Marcello adds that her surname is Temptation. The others comment on Musetta’s antics, enjoying the stupendous comedy. Musetta becomes increasingly angry that Marcello pretends to ignore her and at his companions’ laughter and disparaging comments about her. And she has no one in hand but this old pelican!
Determined to make Marcello look at her, Musetta launches into a description of the effect she has on people when she walks alone (“Quando m’en vo”). She describes how people stop and gaze at her, and look again at all her beauty, from head to toe. Marcello bitterly tells the others to “tie me to the chair,” as Alcindoro tries to hush her. Musetta relishes the subtle yearning that escapes from their eyes, and their obvious behavior says they understand her hidden beauties. Such an outpouring of desire spinning round her makes her happy. Alcindoro is enraged at her scurrilous song. Mimi observes that the poor girl is completely in love with Marcello. Rodolfo explains to Mimi that they had been lovers, but the flirt abandoned him to have a better life. Colline and Schaunard observe Marcello falling into Musetta’s snare. Taunting Marcello, Musetta wonders that he who knows her, who remembers and is tormented by her, tries to avoid her. She knows very well that he doesn’t want to voice his anguish but feels like he is dying. Marcello tries to leave but is transfixed by her while his friends gossip and comment – the comedy is stupendous! Ignoring Alcindoro’s pleas, Musetta says she will do as she pleases, telling herself it’s time to free herself from the old man. She suddenly emits a shriek and tells Alcindoro that her shoe hurts – he must untie it, or break it, or tear it. There’s a shoe store nearby – hurry! She demands another pair – run, run, go! No sooner has Alcindoro rushed off than Musetta and Marcello fall into each other’s arms . . . until the café bill arrives. No one has enough money to pay. Musetta blithely tells the waiter to add it to Alcindoro’s bill. Suddenly the crowd cries that the army is returning, led by a military band, and rush off to greet it. There’s the drum major! More fierce than an ancient warrior! He looks like a general. There are the field engineers! The Bohemians hurry to join them as they command the waiters to give their bills to Alcindoro. They carry the shoeless Musetta with them – glory and honor to the Latin Quarter! The hapless Alcindoro is astonished to find that Musetta has disappeared – and stuck him with a large bill – as the curtain falls.
In the third act, Mimi and Musetta have left Rodolfo and Marcello and found wealthy protectors. Rodolfo and Marcello are in their studio as at the beginning of the opera, each attempting to work, but only able to chat. Marcello is stunned at Rodolfo’s news that he has seen Musetta in a carriage (“In un coupe?”). Rodolfo adds that she had a pair of horses and a liveried servant. She greeted him laughing, and at his asking her how her heart was, replied that either it was no longer beating or she didn’t feel it, thanks to the velvet that covered it. Marcello nonchalantly replies that he’s truly glad to hear it, but Rodolfo knows he’s pretending – Marcello laughs, but it’s gnawing at him. “Not beating! Good,” Marcello repeats, noting that he saw Mimi. She was in a carriage dressed like a queen. Hurrah! replies Rodolfo – he’s glad of that. Marcello isn’t fooled and comments that he’s a liar – he’s consumed by love. They urge each other to get back to work, but first Rodolfo throws down his awful pen, then Marcello curses his awful paintbrush. Rodolfo fears that Mimi will never return (“O Mimi, tu più non torni.”) Oh, beautiful days, tiny hands, her fragrant hair. Marcello doesn’t understand why, but his paintbrush keeps painting colors against his will. Rodolfo exclaims about Mimi’s snow-white neck. Oh, Mimi! How brief his youth! Marcello marvels that he wants to paint skies or landscapes or winter or spring, but he traces dark pupils and a saucy mouth, and again, out comes Musetta’s face. Rodolfo addresses the bonnet he bought Mimi on that first Christmas Eve, the little bonnet that she hid under the pillow when she left. The bonnet knew all their happiness – now death has come to his heart since love is dead. Marcello sees Musetta’s face, all its charm and all its tricks. While she is enjoying herself, his cowardly heart calls to her and waits for her. Rodolfo tries to break the spell, asking what time it is, and Marcello gladly responds that it’s time for yesterday’s lunch.
The American playwright and impresario David Belasco based his 1900 one-act play Madame Butterfly on an 1898 American short story of the same name by John Luther Long, which in turn was taken partly from the very successful 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti (another of whose semi-autobiographical novels was the basis for Lakmé). Belasco’s one-act play opened in London in 1900 after its success earlier that year in New York. Puccini was in London to supervise the London premiere of Tosca and saw the successful play while there. In spite of speaking little English, Puccini recognized its power and appreciated the simplicity of its plot, often striving for his operas to be understood without knowledge of the language in which they were written. The libretto by his frequent collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa diverged fairly strongly from the original short story and play, which treated Butterfly with little respect or understanding. Puccini also recognized the weaknesses of Belasco’s play and wanted his heroine to be truly heroic and tragic, which his librettists achieved. The basic plot, however, was fairly similar to the original. Butterfly is a 15-year old girl who has been forced into life as a geisha because of her family’s poverty. She enters into an arranged marriage with the American naval officer Pinkerton and believes that it is a real marriage. He leaves her for three years, during which she has their child and remains faithful to her husband in spite of poverty and her chances to make another match. On Pinkerton’s return, Butterfly is initially overjoyed that he has come back to her, but soon discovers that he has returned with an American wife and wishes to claim his child to take back to America. Butterfly submits and allows the child to go with him, using her father’s ceremonial sword to kill herself to protect her honor, as her father had done.
Given its beloved place in the repertoire, it’s noteworthy that its 1904 opening at La Scala in Milan was a total fiasco, drawing catcalls and derisive comments from the audience. Puccini immediately withdrew it for revisions, including expanding it from two acts to three, and its reappearance three months later in Brescia was a success. He continued to make revisions to it for a few years, and its 1907 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met’s first world premiere) with a starry cast including Geraldine Ferrar and Enrico Caruso was an enormous success. It has since remained a staple in theaters around the world along with Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca.
At the end of Act II, Butterfly hears the cannon announcing the return of Pinkerton’s ship and hastily strews the house with flowers from her garden, dressing in her bridal gown to welcome him. Although her servant and child fall asleep sitting beside her, Butterfly sits up all night awaiting his arrival, with the passage of the night indicated by the famous Humming Chorus. Although most contemporary productions no longer take an interval at this point, the Humming Chorus was actually the end of Act II. Such a remarkable act ending – no large ensemble scene, no thundering choruses – was a daring innovation on Puccini’s part.
Puccini went to New York for a 1907 Puccini festival and while there saw a revival of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West. The four-act melodrama had been an enormous success at its premiere in Philadelphia in 1905 and toured the country for several years as well as being made into four films between 1915 and 1938. Puccini had essentially taken a very long hiatus after Butterfly, mired in domestic problems and blocked by his inability to hit upon a story or libretto that captured his imagination and presented a new challenge. Belasco’s play, one of the first in the genre of “Westerns,” solved that problem, and Belasco worked closely with the composer on its initial production. To a libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, La fanciulla del West (which dropped the “Golden” of Belasco’s title) was commissioned and first performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910 starring Enrico Caruso. Its great success at its premiere was followed by acclaim throughout Europe for subsequent productions. Set in the California Gold Rush of 1849-1850, it is essentially a love triangle among Minnie, the proprietor of the Polka Saloon, the famous bandit Ramerrez disguised as Dick Johnson, and the local Sheriff Rance, who is doubly determined to capture Ramerrez for his crimes and to wrest Minnie from him.
The beginning of the first act is set in Minnie’s saloon, where the already gloomy bar is growing darker as evening approaches. Sheriff Rance is already there and soon the bar fills with miners coming home from their day’s work. A voice can be heard singing in the distance and the men begin to drop their card games and crowd into the main part of the bar. The singer wonders what his old folks are doing (“Che faranno i vecchi miei,”) so far away. Sad and alone, his old parents cry and wonder if he’ll ever return. The singer is Jake Wallace, the mining camp minstrel. The men drop their card games and crowd into the main part of the bar as Jake enters, singing about his mother, who wonders if he’ll ever return. Oh, how she weeps! Other miners chime in that she’s at her loom, weaving linen and grief into a shroud that will cover her later. Still others ask if their old dogs will recognize them after so long. Overcome by homesickness, one of them thinks of his house near the river, and all question if any of them will ever see their homes again, so far away.
Puccini began work on the first part of Il trittico in 1913 while he was still composing La rondine, although he began to consider the possibility of writing a trilogy of one-acts as early as 1904 because he relished the idea of the variety that such a format could provide. He originally intended each one-act to be based on a part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, although ultimately the only piece that was adapted from Dante was Gianni Schicchi. He retained his original idea for the form, however, with the brutality of Il tabarro embodying the Inferno, the heartbreaking Suor Angelica representing Purgatory, and the jaunty Gianni Schicchi standing for Paradise. On its completion in 1918, a friend suggested the idea of naming it after the three-sided Renaissance painting form of the triptych, hence the overall title Il trittico. Given the continuing effects of the war in Europe, Puccini was unable to present the work in Rome as originally planned and accepted the Metropolitan Opera’s offer to premiere it in New York, where it opened at the end of 1918 to a mixed reception. The trilogy has not gained the popularity of other Puccini works and in spite of the composer’s wish that the three pieces only be performed together, Gianni Schicchi remains the most popular of the three and is frequently performed by itself.
Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) is set to an original libretto by Giovacchino Forzano and takes place in a convent in 17th century Siena. Angelica has been in the convent for seven years and her only joy is found in the tending of her garden, where she grows flowers and medicinal plants with which she treats her fellow nuns’ various ailments. She claims to lack any desire for worldly things (such as the other sisters’ desires for sweets, pets, etc.), but they know that she secretly longs for news of her family. She is summoned from her garden to the convent’s parlor, where she is confronted by her aunt, a cold and forbidding Princess. The Princess informs her that her younger sister is to marry a young man who has generously overlooked the family shame of Angelica’s out of wedlock child and Angelica must sign over her inheritance. Angelica replies that she has sacrificed everything to God, but she can never forget her beloved child. The Princess coldly tells her that her child died of an illness two years before and, after obtaining the signature she has come for, heartlessly leaves her niece prostrate with grief on the floor of the parlor. The heartbroken Angelica imagines that she has a vision of her son in heaven. She makes a poisonous potion from her garden and drinks it, but then realizes she has committed the mortal sin of suicide and will never see her son in heaven. Begging the Virgin for mercy, she has a miraculous vision of the Virgin rendering her forgiveness and presenting her son, who runs to meet Angelica as she dies.
When the Princess has left Angelica and driven off in her carriage, the shattered young woman imagines her little son’s final hours. Without your mother (“Senza mamma,”) oh little boy, you died! Your lips, without my kisses, grew pale and cold. You closed your beautiful eyes! Unable to caress me, you arranged your little hands in a cross! And you died without knowing how much your mother loved you! Now that you are an angel in heaven, now you can see your mother. You can descend from heaven and I can feel you hover around me. You are here, you kiss me and caress me. Ah, tell me when can I see you in heaven? Oh, sweet end to my every sorrow, when can I rise to heaven? When will I be able to die? Tell your mother, beautiful creature, with a light twinkle of a star. Speak to me, my love! As the other nuns come into the parlor, one of them says the Virgin has granted Angelica’s prayers. They tell her that she should be happy, for the Virgin has rendered her mercy. Angelica replies that her mercy has come down from heaven and all of it shines! Now she sees her goal and she is happy. She is blessed, she is blessed, let them sing together! They are already singing in heaven – let them praise the Blessed Virgin. The other sisters go in to prayers as they continue to praise the Virgin and Angelica joins in their praise, for her mercy has come down from heaven.
Tosca was based on the 1887 French play La Tosca, written expressly for Sarah Bernhardt by Victorien Sardou. With a libretto by Puccini’s favored team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, Tosca premiered in Rome in 1900 following four years of labor (often contentious) by Puccini and his librettists. Amidst great political turmoil in Rome in 1800 as the Kingdom of Naples’ rule over Rome is endangered by Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the famous singer Floria Tosca and the painter Mario Cavaradossi find their love thwarted by the evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, who hopes to have Cavaradossi executed for revolutionary activities and to claim Tosca for himself. In order to save Cavaradossi from execution, Tosca agrees to give herself to Scarpia…but once she believes he has written the pardon he has promised, she stabs him and escapes with the safe conduct letter he has given her so that she and Cavaradossi can leave the country. Unbeknownst to her, Scarpia had actually ordered his henchmen to go ahead with Cavaradossi’s execution. When she discovers that Cavaradossi has actually been executed, and with the authorities about to arrest her for Scarpia’s murder, she throws herself to her death from the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.
In the final act of the opera, Cavaradossi is found alone in his cell, with only an hour before he is to face the firing squad. He fondly recalls an earlier meeting with Tosca. The stars were shining (“E lucevan le stelle”) and the grounds by his studio smelled sweet. The door to his garden squeaked and steps skimmed lightly over the sand. Then she entered – fragrant, falling into his arms. Oh sweet kisses, oh languid caresses, while trembling he watched her beautiful figure as she unfastened her garments. Now his dream of love has vanished forever. Time has fled and he dies in despair. And never has he loved life so much!
On a trip to Vienna in 1912, on the heels of the success of La fanciulla del West, Puccini was offered a large sum by an Austrian publisher to write a light opera in the Viennese style. At first Puccini refused, but the persistent producers increased their offer and Puccini agreed, insisting however that he would not write an operetta but a “lyrical comedy.” The onset of World War I caused the cancellation of the contract, but Puccini decided to proceed with the libretto which had been translated for him into Italian by Giuseppe Adami (also Puccini’s librettist for Il tabarro and Turandot, as well as Puccini’s biographer after his death). La rondine (The Swallow) was a success at its premiere in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917, but subsequent Italian productions floundered and the opera has remained one of Puccini’s least-produced mature works (although in recent years there has been a revival of interest in it).
Magda de Civry is a beautiful demimondaine maintained in luxury in 1850’s Paris by the banker Rambaldo Fernández. Ruggero, the son of an old friend of Rambaldo on his first visit to Paris, arrives with a letter of introduction. Unaware of her relationship with Rambaldo, Ruggero falls in love with Magda, who leaves Rambaldo to live with Ruggero on the Riviera. After several months of happiness, Ruggero writes to his family to obtain their permission to marry Magda. When he shows her a letter from his mother rejoicing in her son’s newfound love and urging him to bring Magda to meet them, Magda confesses her past to Ruggero. She tells him that she was willing to remain his mistress, but his family would never be able to accept her as a wife. Despite his desperate pleas and her love for him, Magda insists on leaving him so that he can make a suitable marriage, and she returns to her life in Paris with Rambaldo.
In Act II, disguised as a young working class woman, Magda has followed Ruggero to Bullier’s ballroom, where flower girls offer their wares (“Fiori freschi!”). The young crowd of students, artists, actresses, and tourists try to attract the attention of the waiters to get drinks and argue about who will pay. A number of the grisettes (young working women) have things on their mind besides dancing and proclaim their various attractions to the passing men. Some of the patrons are already dancing in the garden as other young couples flirt and pair off, and young men try to persuade reluctant young women to join them on the balcony or in the garden. “Without you, life would be too bitter, but with you, life may be too expensive!” Some of them beg for a kiss, as others vow to drink until the break of day. Rivers of champagne flow as the revelers toast youth and eternal laughter. As some young ladies pursue one young man and hope that he is rich, others approach Ruggero, who shows no interest. They begin to mock him sitting alone, so gloomy and depressed. He’s a lily, a mimosa, timid and not bothering to give them a smile or a look. Maddened by his silence, they demand to know his name, to no avail. He must be a prince that travels incognito. Abandoning him, one lady asks her friend for a little powder – she has a red nose!
Unaware of her true identity, Ruggero asks Magda to dance with him. They sing of the sweet caress of the dance (“Nella dolce carezza”) where they can close their eyes and dream. Everything seems far away and nothing can disturb them, the past seeming to vanish. The other dancers join in. What can torment them when love makes them happy, when they share one heart, when their kisses burn with equal ardor? They sing of mad kisses, trembling and vibrant, that are the life of lovers. “Give me life in your kiss, and live to kiss me!” Magda and Ruggero sing of their sweet intoxication, their enchantment, their eternal dream. The others delight in the soft perfume of the April night, the air full of spring and yearning.
Although Magda’s friend, the rather supercilious poet-musician Prunier, claims to have lofty standards for his desired mate, he is actually in love with Magda’s maid, Lisette, whom he has brought to Bullier’s (dressed in Magda’s clothes, which she regularly borrows without her mistress’ knowledge). Lisette is sure she recognizes Magda, who pretends to be a working woman named Paulette. Unaware of this underplay, Ruggero leads the two couples in a toast. He drinks to Magda’s fresh smile (“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”) and her deep gaze, to her lips when they say his name. Magda says her heart is conquered, and he replies that he has given her his heart, his tenderness, his sweet love. She must guard his heart jealously, for it will always be hers. Magda says that all her dreams are coming true! If only she can hope! Prunier and Lisette declare their love as well: Prunier, because each of her kisses is a verse, Lisette, because his words are like embroidery. As the two couples sing of their love for each other (and their very different views of love), the other patrons surreptitiously join them, enjoying their vows of love and bringing garlands of flowers with which to festoon the young lovers.