Which Puccini? It's a Nice Quandary

May 13, 2009

I should always have such problems. In planning a broadcast of Opera Columbus's recent production of Puccini's Turandot, I found myself with about ninety minutes of leftover air time. Usually I try to play a lot of the new release aria CDs, and lately there have been some sensational titles from Christine Brewer, Marcel Alvarez, Elina Garanca, Juan Diego Florez and more. But for Turandot I thought, this is Puccini's last opera. Why not play his first? Le Villi is based on the same tale that found its way into the ballet world as "Giselle." Lots of water sprites (willis) who entice men to their "watery graves." Men tend to be stupid in opera and ballet, and can't swim. Puccini's Le Villi is seldom performed and the composer himself didn't mention it much. But there is a sensational recording made about thirty years ago with Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Tito Gobbi and Loren Maazel no less. You can't fault that line-up. Before considering Le Villi I had thought of Gianni Schicchi, Puccini's only comedy: "O mio babbino caro" and all that. And we had a wonderful recording of that, too, also with Domingo, Gobbi and Maazel. I know Gianni Schicchi quite well, and I love every note. There's not a wasted sixteenth rest. It's fun to listen to and in just under one hour it flies by. Automatic winner for the radio audience, most of whom will be able to hum parts of it already. Le Villi was unfamiliar and - okay here it is - undistinguished. If Scotto, Domingo and Gobbi can't cement this piece into the repertoire, who could? There's a terrific soprano aria. There's also about 15 minutes of spoken narration in Italian, not good for radio in Columbus, Ohio. To be fair, this could easily be cut in the broadcast. Presenting Le Villi would have been more interesting and more useful and would have given the audience something they had never heard, in  a sensational performance. (And something few would need to hear again). So I leaned toward Le Villi. Presenting Gianni Schicchi would have given the audience lots of chuckles,  great tunes, a sensational performance and probably would keep them listening, such is Puccini's fluid, comic momentum. Do I want to be interesting and useful or do I want to be entertaining? It's like dating...to go all the way or not? (If you shake your head over this, you didn't go to Catholic schools.) Am I a musician or a broadcaster? An opera historian and curator or an entertainer? I decided to be an entertainer.  Gianni Schicchi it is. Le villi is worth hearing. Call me up on the phone and I'll send you a copy.