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A Springtime Reading List for Opera Lovers (Part I)

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With springtime comes a bounty of new books for Operavores. In the first of two posts, we consider new books on urban history and a much-maligned composer’s modernity.

Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City • By Stephane Kirkland

Those pining for the “chestnuts in blossom” and “warm embrace” of April in Paris will enjoy curling up with Stephane Kirkland’s Paris Reborn: Napoléon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City (St. Martin’s Press). Charles Garnier’s opulent, gilded 1875 Opéra takes pride of place on the cover of this suavely written and meticulously researched study of Paris’s transformation in the 19th century from a stinking, sometimes dangerous labyrinth of a town to the matchless Ville lumière we know and love today.

Though opera plays a minor role in Kirkland’s book, Berlioz and Verdi make cameo appearances, Offenbach a more substantial one, and the volume offers intriguing particulars on the political and social concerns that spurred urban planning in Paris. For example, it was the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini’s attempt on Napoléon III’s life in 1858 that made the building of a new opera house a priority: the attack, Kirkland writes, “reminded everyone that the [Opéra Le Peletier]… was inadequate in many ways, not least in ensuring the security of important guests.” (The Opéra Le Peletier, which burned down in 1873, hosted the world premieres of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Verdi’s Don Carlos, and many other major works.)

Paris Reborn does not shrink from considering the often “despotic” and “socially regressive” tenets that drove Parisian urban policy. And it reminds us that like the Opéra Bastille, which was part of François Mitterrand’s grands projets, the Opéra Garnier graces its city because statesmen of the day saw opera as a crucial part of any civilized society. We in the Operavore community might do well to pass along Paris Reborn to our local elected officials.

Recondite Harmony: Essays on Puccini’s Operas • By Deborah Burton

Early in Deborah Burton’s Recondite Harmony: Essays on Puccini’s Operas (Pendragon Press), the author quotes Roger Parker’s pronouncement that “Puccini represents a last outpost against the rigors of music theory.” While the past decade or so has brought a number of penetrating studies of his operas, including Michele Girardi’s Puccini: His International Art and Andrew Davis’s Il trittico, Turandot, and Puccini’s Late Style, the Tuscan master remains to a large degree a victim of his own success. Scorned by those in thrall to grand narratives about musical “progress,” Puccini nonetheless enjoyed the esteem of his fellow composers. Of La fanciulla del West, Webern wrote to Schoenberg in 1918: “A score that sounds original in every way… Every measure astonishing.”

Burton, a professor at Boston University and the curator of the superb Fanciulla 100 website, digs into Puccini’s use of harmony in dense volume that offers a general introduction to his musical techniques, in-depth essays and plot summaries for each of his ten operas, and an ample bibliography. Puccini, she notes, is difficult to pin down because he left behind no broad statement of aesthetic principles and sometimes contradicted himself. He told one interviewer that he was “not a Wagnerian” but another that he was a stealth “Germanophile.” (The latter confession seems more candid: as Burton observes, many of Puccini’s operas make meaningful allusions to Tristan and other Wagner scores.)

Non-specialists are likely to find much of the material in Recondite Harmony gnarly: the analysis of Madama Butterfly’s jarring ending, for example, in which a single unresolved note “opens a door to atonality—in today’s sense—and is quite possibly the first opera to take this step.” But there is also much of interest for general readers, including a look at the reasons why Puccini and his librettists first considered having Tosca live at opera’s end, and insightful remarks on the musical and dramatic motifs that make the three apparently disjointed panels of Il trittico a coherent whole. Above all, Burton elucidates the intricate musical craftsmanship behind some the most loved operas in the repertory—works that, like Prince Calaf in Turandot, hide many a mystery deep within their hearts.