Books for the News, Music, Publicity

A tribute to Puccini and Patti Smith

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Did anyone else watch Patti Smith on the Colbert Report Monday night? We’re Luddites without a TV, we admit, and this pales in comparison to her insanely gracious impromptu live appearance with the Tiny Cover Band at Columbia College in Chicago, but. . . . Sigh. Ms. Smith. May all of our cultural heroes continue to inspire with such ferocity. Speaking of: if you haven’t read Just Kids yet, why are you waiting? In the book’s opening, Robert Mapplethorpe is dying—going, going—and then (heart wrenches): gone. Smith wakes up, knowing and undone, to “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca: “I have lived for love, I have lived for art.”
I admit to having read Just Kids three times over within 72 hours of purchase. I admit to my own repeated listening to the music that informs the work, Smith’s own life: Puccini; Tim Hardin; an awkward, failed reevaluation of the Doors; Radio Ethiopia again and again. But the Puccini—there must be something in the air.
One-hundred years ago, this past Friday, Puccini’s la Faniculla del West (adapted from David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West) premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. From the New York Times‘s recent centenary commemoration:

Toscanini was in the pit; Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato sang the leads; and Puccini, alone in his box, surveyed the scene. That is, until the end of Act I, when the composer and cast appeared on stage for 14 curtain calls. Similar pandemonium broke out at the end of the other two acts.

Last seen at the Met in 1993, the opera returned for its centennial on Monday night, just as Patti Smith sat down with Stephen Colbert (the opera seria: a contemporary adaptation?). The Times noted the opera, revived from the 1991 production, as “still too little known and misunderstood.” Ah, grace. Mapplethorpe.
Don’t get us wrong. The review is really commenting on the opera’s loyal following and this particularly powerful restaging. But to be misunderstood (young Smith and Mapplethorpe as tramps in Washington Square inadvertently posing for tourists’ photographs as “artists”) is its own special something. And we’re here to offer some understanding.
Annie J. Randall and Rosalind Gray Davis’s Puccini and The Girl: History and Reception of The Girl of the Golden West is the first book to explore the opera, which became the earliest work by a major European composer to receive an American premiere when it opened at the Met in 1910. The authors mine musical materials, newspaper accounts, and rare illustrations and behind-the-scenes photographs to tell the full story of the opera’s production and reception. In terms of brushing up on your Puccini in time to appreciate the powerful reappearance of this heralded work, Puccini and the Girl shouldn’t be overlooked.
But another Times article about the centenary revival says it best:
For the blessings and challenges it has brought us, let’s have, in the immortal phrase from Fanciulla, a ‘whiskey per tutti’ in honor of Puccini’s American opera and the progressive spirit it represents.
Cheers. For Patti and Robert, and The Girl, too: