The Case for Puccini

The history of Italian opera throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was directly tied to the fortunes of the publishing house founded in 1808 by Giovanni Ricordi. Casa Ricordi of Milan issued the work of composers of Italian opera from Rossini through Puccini to Luigi Nono and continued its efforts until the firm was acquired in 1994 by Bertelsmann (BMG). Bertelsmann’s pursuit of immediate profit took precedence over the cultural pride and long-term investment that had characterized the old Ricordi company; the restructured BMG Ricordi largely stopped publishing contemporary music. True, commercial interests had also been important for the earlier generations of the family. Yet Giulio Ricordi was able to tolerate the fiascos and partial successes of the young Giacomo Puccini during the 1880s because he believed the composer would ultimately develop a voice that would bring honor to Italian culture and lire to the company’s purse.

Ricordi’s investment was richly rewarded by the royalties from Puccini performances. By the early 1970s, however, their copyrights on the three most frequently performed Puccini operas—La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904)—had expired, and with them a significant source of income. Taking account of recent efforts to produce critical editions of nineteenth-century Italian operas, especially the works of Rossini and Verdi, Ricordi decided to undertake a similar program for Puccini, and they asked me in the mid-1970s to edit Madama Butterfly. When I tried to give myself a crash course in scholarly work on the composer, there was practically nowhere to go. Two pioneering books about Puccini had recently been published in English, and there were several editions of Puccini letters, but no one had apparently thought about musical sources, let alone documented the complex interaction between Puccini and his librettists. Critical studies rarely went beyond the level of program notes.

I tried to compare the printed score of Butterfly with Puccini’s autograph manuscript, preserved in the Ricordi archives in Milan, but I soon recognized how futile this was. Madama Butterfly, as I learned to formulate the problem a decade later, after the appearance of Jerome McGann’s treatise on textual criticism, must be seen as the product of a variety of collaborators. Unlike Italian operas from Rossini through Verdi’s Aida (1871), where the manuscript in the composer’s own writing remains our best source, Puccini’s works were subject to a more complex process of development, in which the composer was actively engaged but which he did not fully control. With Puccini’s blessing, editors, librettists, conductors, and other collaborators helped to bring the work into print. When the readings of the autograph manuscript differ significantly from the printed edition, therefore, which should we believe is the composer’s definitive work? A musical score cannot be treated as an example of postmodern ambiguity: rehearsal time costs money.

The first act of Butterfly, for example, begins with a bustling fugue. In Puccini’s autograph manuscript and in the original vocal …

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