- Franco Alfano: Transcending Turandot
Until recently, the lives and works of fin-de-siècle Italian composers have garnered little scholarly attention. The enduring historical narrative of late-nineteenth-century Italian musical decline, the lapsing of most works from the repertory, and the destruction of primary source material during World War II have all helped to discourage musicologists from undertaking study of these composers in the most comprehensive of academic forms, the monograph. Even Puccini, the most enduringly successful of his generation, has received this honor only in the last twenty years, with the volumes of Michele Girardi (Giacomo Puccini. L'arte internazionale di un musicista italiano [Venice: Marsilio, 1995]), Julian Budden (Puccini: His Life and Works [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002]), and Alexandra Wilson (The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007]), providing stimulating models for approaching Italian fin-de-siècle repertory from analytical, biographical, and cultural perspectives.
A welcome exception to this rule is found in the work of author Konrad Dryden, who during the last decade has produced monographs on the late-nineteenth-century Italian opera composers Riccardo Zandonai (Riccardo Zandonai: A Biography [New York: Peter Lang, 1999]) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (Leoncavallo: Life and Works [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007]), and who now offers a third: a study of Franco Alfano, nowadays best known for [End Page 112] his completion of Puccini's Turandot. In this "first fully-documented monograph" (p. xv) of Alfano's life and work, Dryden promises a study that will shift attention from the completion of Turandot (the composer's "least interesting effort," p. xvi) onto the composer's other works and activities. As Dryden points out in his introduction, Alfano not only wrote a substantial body of operas, but was "a superb crafter of finely wrought art songs … a gifted concert pianist, and the director of a string of Italian music conservatories (Bologna, Turin, and Pesaro), when not serving as artistic director of Palermo's Teatro Massimo or doubling as stage director" (p. xiii). The titles of Dryden's fifteen chapters, furthermore, remind us that Alfano lived and worked through radical changes in Italian cultural life (chapters include "Mussolini and Balzac (1927)," "Metropolitan Opera Premiere (1928)," and "Wartime Phoenix (1942–47)"). From the post-Unification era to the rise of Fascism, two world wars—one whose fighting traversed the length of the peninsula—and new opportunities afforded by global transportation and technologies such as sound recording: How did a composer of this generation negotiate these intense and changing cultural and aesthetic demands? Such a study inherently promises rich insights into such questions.
Dryden's methodological approach, however, accentuates the details of the composer's career rather than broader interactions with his cultural context. Choosing "to present a chronicle based on letters and documents wherever and whenever possible" (p. xv), Dryden has consulted primary sources in an impressive array of archives spanning Europe and the Americas, and in this volume many unknown documents are brought to light. But a methodology through which the historical account is derived from the testaments of the composer and his circle, to the almost complete exclusion of other sources, naturally results in some problematic narrative features. Most obviously, the broader historical and cultural context to Alfano's life and career is barely present in Dryden's account. The impact of World War I goes almost entirely unmentioned, as do the sweeping political changes of the century's first turbulent decades. Even Alfano's correspondence, numerous meetings with, and financial assistance from Mussolini are detailed without background or analysis. Most disappointing of all, the impact of the era's far-reaching political and cultural developments on Alfano's aesthetics and musical style remains entirely unexplored.
What is more, Dryden's reliance on primary sources produced by Alfano and his acquaintances, and on the opinions therein, results in a narrative that admits solely of Alfano's own reading of events, to the exclusion of other interpretations. A lack of awareness of alternative...