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Three Arias

November 12, 2023: Angel Blue, soprano; Bryan Wagorn, piano

Chi il bel sogno

While in Vienna in 1913 for a performance of La fanciulla del West, Puccini was invited to compose an operetta for the Carltheater. He agreed in principle but insisted on a through-composed comic opera rather than an operetta which would have had spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. By the time he had set Giuseppe Adamo’s Italian version of A. M. Willner and Heinz Reichert’s German libretto, however, Italy had entered World War I. The contract with Vienna had to be revised, and La rondine (The swallow) was ultimately launched in neutral Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. Revisions for Bologna, Rome, and Vienna failed to secure the opera’s success and regrettably this elegant work with its part Viennese, part Parisian flair and waltz rhythms remains Puccini’s least-known mature work.

The story, similar to La traviata, involves Magda de Civry, a high-society courtesan who falls in love with the earnest but naive Ruggero. When he eventually gets his mother’s consent to their marriage, the heartbroken Magda feels compelled to reveal her past and leaves him to return to her old life—like a swallow returning to its nest. The opera’s most famous aria occurs in Act I before they have even met: At a party at her house, Magda is the only one who takes poet Prunier’s idea of true love seriously. When he begins to tell his unfinished story about Doretta, who spurned a king’s ransom for love—“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (Doretta’s beautiful dream)—Magda takes over its completion, recounting how Doretta falls deeply in love with a student. The aria’s pathos and floating melodic lines always evoke an emotional response.

How fitting that Angel Blue presents “Chi il bel sogno” this afternoon in anticipation of her starring role in this spring’s revival of La rondine at the Met.

Vissi d’arte

Composed in 1898–99, Tosca is based on a dramatic play by Victorien Sardou with a libretto by Luigo Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Puccini’s theatrical instincts proved correct when, having had his way with changes to the libretto and having ignored his publisher’s wish for a transcendental love duet in Act III, Tosca played to full houses for twenty evenings beginning January 14, 1900, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Though critical reviews were mixed, Tosca’s success was sealed after performances conducted by Toscanini two months later at Milan’s La Scala.

The tragic plot concerns the popular opera singer Floria Tosca and her lover Mario Cavaradossi, a painter who assists fugitive freedom fighter Cesare Angelotti. The evil chief of police, Baron Scarpia, and his agents track down and torture Cavaradossi, leading Tosca to make a deal to save his life—Scarpia will arrange a fake execution in exchange for her favors. As soon as he has penned the safe-conduct papers she kills him. But Scarpia has deceived her, and when Cavaradossi is actually shot and killed, she leaps from the parapet to her own death.

Tosca sings “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for art) in Act II just after Scarpia has proposed his cruel bargain. She addresses God movingly, asking why he is treating her thus when she has dedicated herself to music, love, and religious observance. Scarpia is unmoved, and Tosca is forced to give in, setting up the final tragedy. Puccini almost did not include the aria, fearing that it would interrupt the dramatic flow, but audiences remain forever grateful that in the end he kept this beautiful showstopper.

O mio babbino caro

Puccini completed his first comic opera, Gianni Schicchi, in February 1918 as the third of a series of one-act operas, preceded by the tragic Il tabarro (1916) and the mystic Suor Angelica (1917). Under the title Il trittico (The triptych), these operas premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918, followed less than a month later by a production in Rome. According to popular success but against Puccini’s wishes, the triptych was soon broken up, with Gianni Schicchi receiving the lion’s share of performances.

Composing Gianni Schicchi had gone particularly quickly because Puccini was on familiar territory with an Italian subject and he was thrilled to be working on a comedy for the first time and also to be reaching back to medieval times and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante referred to Gianni Schicci only briefly and without humor in Cantos XXV and XXX of the Inferno as a “goblin” who cheated Buoso Donati’s relatives (Dante’s wife was a Donati) out of an inheritance. It was left to librettist Giovacchino Forzano and Puccini 600 years later to turn these scandalous events into a comedy—a brilliant if slightly ghastly one at that.

Aside from the shenanigans with a body not even cold, there are the threats of chopped-off hands if the criminal scheme were uncovered. As a counterbalance there are the heartfelt arias for the initially thwarted lovers—such as Lauretta’s extremely popular “O mio babbino caro.” In her brief lyrical outpouring she begs her father, Gianni Schicchi, to help Rinuccio’s family recover some of the money that the just-deceased Buoso Donati has left to the church instead of to them—otherwise the couple will not be allowed to marry. Her heartfelt plea—one of the world’s favorite arias—melts his and the audience’s heart.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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