So much has been written about Puccini operas. Here, mere observations from someone privileged to play in the pit now and then.
One way or another, certain Puccini operas were a happy, early discovery. Sets of long-playing recordings yielded countless musically and emotionally satisfying hours (and were the reason to obtain a coveted record-changer, as there was nothing like this beauty on Amazon.com in those days). By the time I began attending performances — once in a great while at the Metropolitan Opera, more frequently at other, more local, venues that compensated with enthusiasm what was lacking in finesse — I realized that I knew this music very well. Hearing it performed live was like revisiting a beloved old friend.
Nothing compares to playing Puccini operas beneath the stage.
As my studies continued, it seemed a logical progression to find myself in orchestras that would accompany, among many other works, some of those selfsame Puccini operas. I have written “logical”, but that does not begin to describe the excitement of actually beginning to play those scores and getting inside the textures that, until then, had been experienced as a woven-together whole. Passages I had thought to be quite familiar yielded unanticipated riches, far beyond the expected, once I was a part of the puzzle myself; orchestral voices were suddenly revealed that had been out of my opera-going earshot. When opera accompaniment became a regular component of my professional life, things began to stand out in even higher relief. Moving down to the orchestra pit, farther away from the singers, being confined to an intimate space with particular acoustic qualities — this put the entire composition and all of its elements into a different perspective.
Bass drum an unsung hero of Puccini operas
After the fact I came to find that some scholars and serious-minded amateurs have devoted themselves to every note of the entire group of operas by Puccini and thus had turned up the evidence that the composer, a master of color in combination with his other characteristics of genius, made particular use of percussion instruments to achieve his expressive goals. A heartfelt critique of Puccini’s dramaturgical shortcomings as posted on OPERA-L concludes with this ode to his use of the bass drum:
That instance was, as they say, news to me. I doubt if it would ever be noticed except by studying the score of La Fanciulla del West. Playing Tosca again recently reminded me of something similar but audible, I believe, only to the ear of one seated in the orchestra pit. What I would truly like to indulge in is a reminiscence of the first time I realized, many years ago while working on Madama Butterfly, that Puccini treated the bass drum (such as this one from Amazon.com) like a melodic instrument — giving not an accent, not a percussive outburst nor an exclamation point to the delicate beginning of a phrase, but the sheerest emphasis imaginable. How many members of how many audiences, how many listeners following their favorite recordings have never heard, and will never hear, such a bit of auditory alchemy? Among the innumerable joys afforded by Puccini operas, I am able to count having received (and receiving over and over again) this priceless split-second thrill that the master insisted on including, distinctly indicated in the score for those who see it (and faithfully carry it out) and presented like a gift to the relative few who chance to hear it.
A beautiful example of the drama (here the quiet type) and color Puccini is known for, in an excerpt from Madama Butterfly, the Humming Chorus: