Michael Tanner

Problem piece

Like many artists, Puccini seems happiest when creating beings whom he can proceed to subject to torture, while encouraging compassion and grief on the part of spectators. In this respect he is most like the God whom he had been brought up to believe in. Happiness, for him, is always the temporary condition which makes pain more vivid. He is good at creating fleeting comedy, so that when the mood darkens we sense how much deeper he is being. In Gianni Schicchi he makes us laugh all the way to the end only because of an omnipresent corpse, so that the piece is macabre as much as it’s merry. That all means that Puccini was not ideally placed to write an operetta, in which no one takes anything seriously and they all dance through the night and don’t have a daytime life to speak of.

No wonder he had even more trouble than usual knocking La Rondine into shape, and not only because of the advent of the collapse of the civilisation he knew while he was writing it. His basic problem was the matter of tone, and the main interest the work has is that he never solved it, so the piece remains a problem for listeners, too: how much should we care about these characters? The one who has the toughest luck is the hero Ruggero, an innocent who comes to Paris, sings a song in the city’s honour, falls in love with one of its typically flighty female inhabitants, and loses her because she is ashamed of her past. Puccini wasn’t able to give this figure any character we can grasp or care about, which means a hole in the centre of La Rondine.

The Swallow herself is more fully drawn, fully enough in fact for her renunciation of Ruggero on grounds of her unworthiness to seem absurd, but not more fully than that.

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