Conductor
Acclaim
Pacing Puccini
"Well, just what is the correct tempo?" I remember, as a teenage music student, asking that question of my tyrannical eighty-year-old piano teacher, who answered calmly, "The tempo where you play it correctly." I am quite sure that I have not always followed her advice, but I am equally sure that, as far as piano solos are concerned, she was correct. Because it is most often dictated by mechanical means -- i.e., an instrument -- tempo in Bach and Beethoven is open to all sorts of "correctness." Tempo in opera, specifically Italian opera and even more specifically Puccini, is another matter. It involves not only instrumental writing but the human elements and variables of the voice and the mechanics of the theater. These are quite different animals, which is one reason some conductors who begin their careers on the concert podium are sometimes less successful in opera.

Alas, all too often, "strait-jacketing" comes into play. The term refers to learning music exactly as it is written -- nothing more, nothing less. The note values are all taken literally, the metronome markings (a hot-button topic if ever there was one) strictly observed. One must always remember that a singer and conductor are generally forced to wear musical clothes designed for others. When we try to fit into these various suits, the fit is usually off, since no two voices, two theaters or two sets of physical or emotional performance circumstances are ever alike.

Starting with Verdi in his middle period and culminating with Benjamin Britten, composers made it very clear exactly how they wanted their music to be interpreted through various devices such as tenuto marks (i.e. long marks over notes that are not accents but serve to be sure the note gets its due and then some) or written indications of how to phrase and interpret the score (words such as sostenuto, sostenendo -- frequently used by Puccini), seldom leaving the dramatic and musical interpretation up to the artist. And markings such as ritenuto, rallentando, stringendo, etc., are always interesting in Puccini, although the novice can forget these are progressive verb tenses -- getting slower, getting faster, etc. But these must all be adapted in order to fit the live theatrical experience.

Could anyone but the most timid of tenors take literally the sixteenth-note high B-natural in Calàf's "Nessun dorma," and could any conductor condemn a singer for not doing so? This is music aimed at an audience that has paid for a theatrical experience.

Within a certain time frame or phrase, the theatrical variables take on their own lives. I cannot imagine, for example, the unaccompanied bars of Rodolfo and Marcello's conversation in Act I of La Bohème being delivered exactly as written, with each note equal to the one before it. In instrumental terms, it would be unfathomable for the clarinet in the last act of Tosca to play the introduction to "E lucevan le stelle" all in one tempo. One of my favorite passages in Madama Butterfly is the tenor arioso "Dovunque al mondo" in Act I. The tempo marking is allegro sostenuto con spirito, and in virtually every modern recording of this masterwork the sostenuto is interpreted as slow and the con spirito becomes senza spirito. Pinkerton, the quintessential ugly American in this opera, often ends up singing this credo as if it were a romantic ballad. But in reality, if one does the music "with spirit," phrasing the text one to a bar, rather than the three to a bar one usually hears, we get the swagger and arrogance of the self-assured American male. This is easily accomplished by holding the word "mondo" its full value, releasing with energy and realizing the text "lo yankee vagabondo," set to eighth notes, as an aggressive, self-centered toss-off. If the one-stress-to-a-bar feeling becomes lost in a waltz, the swagger is gone, and the character becomes soup.

In the short duet between Marcello and Mimì in Act III of La Bohème, Puccini indicates within three minutes andante, con anima, poco affrettando, rallentando, ritenuto, a tempo, ritenuto again, sostenendo molto, stentato molto, rallentando, tempo primo, poco affrettando, rallentando again, a tempo, rallentando yet again, ritenuto, rallentando once more, andante mosso, poco affrettando, rallentando (sic), a tempo, lento. The magical part is that the composer has told us what to do, but the interpretation of these markings is up to the conductor and singer. To ignore them is folly, to take them literally is shortsighted, but to interpret them and make them one's own within the context of the moment and situation makes a true artist and a true singer of Puccini.

In my days as an assistant conductor, I was lucky to work often with one of opera's most educated conductors, Nicola Rescigno, a man who on the first day of rehearsal had thought of everything. When the subject of tempo came up, he said, "My dear, your tempo is your interpretation." Tullio Serafin, in his memoirs, talks about Puccini's insistence on a particular tempo for the tenor aria "Ch'ella mi creda" in La Fanciulla del West. He demanded that the tempo be very slow and sound like an organ for this highly charged, almost religious moment, and he gave a metronome marking to show what it might be. When we hear of something like this from the horse's mouth, we have to take it seriously. But it is important to remember that the opera was written for Enrico Caruso, who had an instrument of uncommon breadth. In subsequent performances of this aria by, say, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Mario Del Monaco or Plácido Domingo, one cannot expect these phenomenal singers to have Caruso's technique; they have their own, and the tempo must be altered to suit each one's strengths. It is a conductor's duty to divine the spirit of the tempo marking and to make the tempo be his and the singer's "interpretation," not a replication of an evening in 1910. Besides, metronome markings, done of necessity outside of a live performance and out of context, invariably fail to reflect the realities of the composition, well meant as they may have been by the composer or his assistant who notated them.

Puccini came along at an odd time in musical history. I suppose he is technically part of the verismo school of composition, which almost demands that a lot of music be sung in as close as possible to real time -- especially in the sections that seem to be morphed recitatives reminiscent of previous eras of Italian opera. There are places in Puccini's oeuvre where he disregards tempo altogether: in the death of Butterfly, the timpani just play a steady pattern, over which the rest of the orchestra plays at its own tempo, timed to the stage and action. Doing this exactly as notated would be ridiculous. Puccini has taken us closer to real-time theater, while retaining the lyrical gifts that make him ever popular today.

Tempo in opera is also affected by the fact that the music represents individuals "talking." No two people feel the same at any given time, and in a duet, a contrast of emotion between two characters frequently necessitates tempo variation between them. In La Rondine, a wayward child among Puccini's creations, the final scene contains a reading of a letter from Ruggero's mother explaining that Magda will be welcomed into the family. As Magda reads this letter, Ruggero comments and encourages her to read further. Were this dialogue to be sung literally, in the notated tempo, Ruggero would put the audience and Magda to sleep with lack of interest. Of course he must speak in his own tempo, as he is in a positive place, emotionally, and she in a negative one. When Pinkerton and Sharpless discuss attitudes toward marriage in the section "Amore o grillo," their tempos must diverge to express the fact that Pinkerton is again being cavalier and Sharpless wary. To presume to make them sing to the exact same beat would be either to make Sharpless insensitive or to dilute the rashness of Pinkerton. And yet there is no indication by Puccini as to any variation. A conductor's essential job in the theater is the living and acting of all the roles in an opera.

Trying to come up with a workable tempo in Puccini requires attention to another aspect of the text -- poetry. Since the opera libretto was often referred to as "the poem" by composers, and this verse-writing most often included end rhymes, we find ourselves, in the brilliant Mozart-da Ponte operas, for example, always seeking the complement for the rhyme set into motion at the end of a previous line of text. The inevitability of a rhyme, once the first of the complementary words has been uttered, can't be neglected. Yet often an aria or recitative goes for naught, because this important milepost has been forgotten. I liken the effect to a nuclear reaction: once the atom has been split, the result is a foregone conclusion. I remember a beautiful example of perfect rhyming and the tempo to make it work from James Levine and Renata Scotto, in Lauretta's plea to Gianni Schicchi. The instant Miss Scotto, a master of wordplay, says "mi piace, è bello, bello," the inevitability of the rhyme "a comperar l'anello" is realized, because Maestro Levine leads us to its conclusion with his choice of tempo. The rhythm and the pacing to accommodate it lie totally within the poetic idiom, not necessarily the notes and tempo marking.

Phrasing of music, Puccini's in particular, is basically a matter of rhythm, and rhythm is simply the ability to keep a good balance: when one spends note values, one must repay them. How this is done is very individual in the bel canto school and even in some classical circles. But the ability to know where a phrase ends and where one actually begins is the true test of rhythm. Say, for example, you know a phrase is going to take sixteen beats, and your inner clock says that those beats are going to take a total of ten seconds. What you do within those ten seconds in the bel canto period is very much your affair. Puccini dictates where the time is taken, and the artist is then left to repay the rhythmical debt somehow. This leads many times to an imbalance, when a conductor or singer wants to do even more than is indicated. The phrasing thus becomes distorted, and the audience senses that something is amiss. Some critics praise such bad rhythmical planning as "revelatory." I contend that good music-making will always be revelatory without distorting the situation, music or character. Alas, what these revelations often do is remove the drama from the text and award it to the conductor, whose sole job it is to make the piece sound natural to the audience and feel natural to those onstage.

Many observers today think of the pairing of Toscanini and Puccini as Toscanini versus Puccini. It is well known that Toscanini made many suggestions and orchestration changes to the scores of Puccini, La Fanciulla del West being an extreme example. But this is the obligation of any good conductor leading a world premiere.

Toscanini has often been criticized for his 1946 recording of La Bohème (the world premiere of which he conducted); in my youth, he was unfavorably compared to Thomas Beecham and, later, to Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan. He was taken to task for fast tempos and driven phrasing, as well as for the cast and acoustic of the recording, taken from live performances. On further listening, and with many performances of this opera under my belt, my admiration for his conducting has grown geometrically. This is a conductor of detail but also one of a broad vision, inclined toward giant steps, not minutiae. The recordings by the other conductors I mentioned, despite their luxury casts, do not live up to this precedent. When Toscanini plays that treacherous first bar, one is certain one is hearing a performance of the piece that is "correct," for it has the end in sight and takes a straight line to get there.

As beautiful as many revered performances are, and as interested as I am in their sonic virtues, I am uninterested in characters who fail to spring to life. What interests me is observing these personages acting through the situation of the moment, not via a conductor's wallowing in orchestral and vocal sounds. In our phonographic age, with bad orchestras sounding decent and eccentric musicians "interpreting" and distorting tempo and rhythm, we have been able to make things unnatural to a point where we consider them natural. Again, listen to Toscanini's Act III duet from La Bohème: these characters under his leadership speak to one another and never sing to one another. They live and breathe and converse. This, for me, is the essence of Puccini and, frankly, of all opera.
Stephen Lord, Opera News
Back to List
Back to Top