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  • Defining Italianness:The Opera That Made Puccini
  • Alexandra Wilson (bio)

On February 1, 1923, Giacomo Puccini attended a gala performance of Manon Lescaut at La Scala. This was no ordinary revival: it was intended to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the work's premiere. The opera, in a revised, "definitive" version, was the centerpiece of the 1922–23 season, receiving seventeen performances—more than any other work.1 For the gala performance the theater was sold out, the performers excelled themselves, and the audience called Puccini to the stage countless times. After the opera, the Puccinis, together with the conductor Arturo Toscanini, retired to the elegant Ristorante Cova, where a banquet was laid on for three hundred guests; entertainment was provided by young ladies who danced to the minuet from act 2 of Manon Lescaut.2 Puccini was moved at the affection shown by the Milanese for his opera, feeling it to be some recompense for the ill-treatment the La Scala audience had paid him at the premiere of Madama Butterfly in 1904.3

The anniversary performance of Manon Lescaut must surely have prompted the composer—along with many in the audience—to reflect on how his compositional style had developed over the thirty years since the opera's premiere. Indeed, this was a question that subscribers to the Ricordi house journal, Musica d'oggi, had debated over the previous summer. The journal had conducted an opinion poll, inviting readers to nominate their favorite operas by Ricordi's two most successful and profitable composers, Verdi and Puccini, and to indicate reasons for their preference. A total of 234 responses were submitted by readers from all over Italy—a figure evidently far exceeding the editor's expectations—and a selection was published in the August–September issue.4 The opera that received the highest number of endorsements was La bohème, which, with forty-eight votes, emerged five ahead of the most popular Verdi opera, Aida. Next place, however, went to Manon Lescaut (thirty-seven votes), which beat the second most popular Verdi opera, Falstaff, by some distance and gained more than twice as many votes as either Tosca or Madama Butterfly.5 While such figures are hardly a reliable indicator of public opinion, the reasons Musica d'oggi readers gave for their choices are nevertheless illuminating. [End Page 82]

Those who nominated Manon Lescaut as their preferred Puccini opera cited its melodic qualities, the elegance of its instrumental writing, and, most of all, its freshness, spontaneity, and honesty—the fact that "it best reveals the artistic personality of the Lucchese maestro."6 One reader's reasons were—to our eyes—somewhat more chauvinistic: "I do not hesitate in proclaiming Manon the most robust and moving opera, in which the celebrated maestro has gushed forth all the treasures of his great inspiration, creating music that is purely Italian, free from the ideological infiltration of Debussy and Strauss . . . so apparent in La fanciulla del West."7

A sense emerges from the Musica d'oggi poll that, from the perspective of the early 1920s, Italian audiences perceived Manon Lescaut to represent in some sense a "pure," "genuinely Italian" Puccini. Such comments came at a time when the composer's recent musical output was being discussed in rather different terms. Most recently, his one-act opera Gianni Schicchi had proved popular with audiences and critics alike, but the reception of its sister operas, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica, had been significantly less favorable. Puccini's other works of the 1910s had prompted more anxiety still: La rondine had been roundly dismissed as a misguided foray into operetta, while La fanciulla del West was attacked for its perceived foreign and "modernist" influences.8 As the comment from the Musica d'oggi poll cited above demonstrates, such issues continued to trouble Italian listeners more than a decade after La fanciulla's premiere.

By the time of the Manon Lescaut anniversary revival, then, a sense was emerging among critics and audiences that Puccini's oeuvre could be divided into two "manners." A second, post-1910 style, harmonically adventurous and perceived to be explicitly influenced by foreign models, was contrasted unfavorably with an earlier style that had...


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