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Making a new case for Puccini

William Berger champions the Italian opera composer, a dull man whose big heart has grown out of fashion.

January 01, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

ANYONE heading to Los Angeles Opera's revival of its Robert Wilson-directed "Madame Butterfly" this month might want to check out a new paperback for insights into the composer, his works and productions such as Wilson's.

William Berger, author of "Verdi With a Vengeance" and "Wagner Without Fear," has now turned his considerable, easygoing attention to the man who sustains almost every opera company in the world. The result is "Puccini Without Excuses" (Vintage).

"Without Puccini," Berger writes, "there is no opera; without opera, the world is an even drearier place than the evening news would have us think."

Given Puccini's popularity, you might think no one would have to make a case for the late 19th and early 20th century Italian master. But as was true for the longest time of Puccini's great predecessor Verdi, Berger had to face critical and intellectual disdain for a composer who had such a knack for writing memorable melodies.

"At this point, Verdi is taken seriously," the author said recently by phone from his home in New York. "But what really struck me with Puccini was that when you read articles and program notes and so forth, the dialogue seems to have been frozen 100 years ago.

"We still read about Puccini as if we had to decide whether it's better to use melody or atonality -- as a political issue, as it was in 1910. Or does an aria stop the action? It was a big issue at that time. Who cares? Now we enjoy Handel operas, and there's no action to stop."

Besides, it's not true, Berger said, that Puccini is as easy to appreciate as he ever was.

"For two reasons: one, we're emotionally repressed, and two, we're kind of ADD.

"The ideas are fast and quick in Puccini in a way they're not in Wagner," Berger explained. "There are subtleties in Wagner, but you can have a complete experience of the 'Ring' the first time.

"Even in 'Tristan,' you know that stuff's going on. But it's underlined. Even if you're tone deaf, you know something else is going on.

"That's not true of 'Boheme.' The whole thing has changed 180 degrees."

A native Angeleno, Berger, 44, worked at San Francisco Opera from 1978 to 1984 as a record buyer and translator, among other posts, and has since become a lecturer and regular host for New York Public Radio.

His book includes a biographical sketch of Puccini, a summary and analysis of the operas, a list and critique of recordings, a fascinating glossary of musical terms and a look at productions and Puccini-inspired spinoffs such as Jonathan Larson's rock opera, "Rent."

" 'Rent' is very striking," he said. "You like it or you don't. I'm not getting into 'Rent'-bashing. It has a lot of seamlessness for a rock musical. It's very well entwined, characters coming in and out."

As for Wilson's minimalist, Japanese-theater-inspired production of "Madame Butterfly," Berger has positive but mixed feelings.

"I'm not just a Robert Wilson fan," he said. "I've got a few swipes in my book too. But it made everyone really concentrate on Butterfly the individual. It took away the japonaiserie. It was a healthy development in the history of opera production but not a format for how we need to do them all in the future."

For Berger, making judgments is easy. It was harder to write the biography, he said.

"Puccini didn't lead a particularly interesting life. His life is interesting on a human, not on an epic level like his operas. So I parallel-track him with some other people, so we get a context."

One of those other people is conductor Arturo Toscanini, who led the premieres of "Boheme," "The Girl of the Golden West" and "Turandot." Another is influential poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who became famous -- or rather, infamous -- as a passionate, over-the-top advocate for Italian militarism and eventually embarrassed even Mussolini, who had stolen as much as he could from him.

"Who knows or cares about D'Annunzio today? But compare Puccini with what D'Annunzio was doing. People say Puccini's operas are soft and sentimental, which are code words for 'effeminate.' And they are. Well, fine. But compare that to what was considered admirably male and what that led to."


Seeking the bigger picture

BERGER expands on his ideas in essays that place the composer in a wider northern versus southern Mediterranean cultural context or survey the way Hollywood uses Puccini's music.

"One reviewer called the 'Myth of Tosca' chapter 'narcotizing,' " Berger said. "All I'm trying to do there is show that there are multiple layers of interpretation in Puccini, that it's not all surface and that we as Americans and in an Americanized world have filters for this art that we don't even suspect."

One filter, he writes, is the way American films treat operatic music.

"Systematically going through the way opera is used in mainstream Hollywood movies, you see that there's something going on there. There's code. That is part of this structure of how we interpret things through an American cultural filter that I think we cannot not look at.

"If you grew up and every time you hear a little snippet of Italian opera in a movie it means something deviant and subversive is going on, you're not going to be able to unpack this stuff. That's an important part of looking at this."

It also tells us a little about the problem of marketing opera in the U.S. today, he said.

"You've got the opera experts here. They're off, they're not connected, not even trying to be. And you've got the arts marketing people over there, running around saying, 'Culture is good for you. You'll like it.'

"But nobody is looking at what is standing between people and this art.

"When the Met is trying to find someone who will sponsor their broadcasts, why would Budweiser want to do this? There are reasons. Let's look at them."

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