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Golden-Age Thinking: Updated Stagings of Gianni Schicchi and the Popular Historical Imagination



Since 2000 a notable trend has emerged in the way in which Italian comic operas by composers from Donizetti to Puccini are staged. In British and American productions, such works are consistently updated to the mid-twentieth century, usually the 1950s. This article explores what such stagings – and their implied intertextual references to wider representations of the era in popular culture – can tell us about the reception of opera today and the ways in which opera is used to create romanticised notions of historical time. Specifically, the article considers the implications for Puccini historiography of updating Gianni Schicchi, an opera whose Renaissance setting might at first glance seem essential. Considering changing attitudes towards historicism from the nineteenth century to the present, the article proposes that ‘retro’ mid-twentieth-century stagings of Gianni Schicchi compel us to hear the opera itself in new ways and to rethink deeply ingrained assumptions about Puccini's place in music history.



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1 Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris (Gravier Productions/Mediapro), 2011.

2 Allison, John, ‘Los Angeles’, Opera 59 (2008), 1345–7, at 1345. Further strands of autobiographical reflexivity are self-evident here, with Allen evoking the city where he grew up and which he has done so much to construct in the popular imagination: a New York that he calls, in his voice-over to the opening sequence of Manhattan (1979), ‘still a town that existed in black and white’.

3 A further consciously ‘filmic’ element to this production was the way in which the opera was preceded by old-fashioned ‘credits’ featuring mock Italian names, projected onto a screen.

4 Widely cited, for example, at: (accessed 3 December 2012). There are numerous operatic references in Allen's films, from characters attending the opera (Manon Lescaut in Hannah and Her Sisters; Der fliegende Holländer in Manhattan Murder Mystery), through operatic excerpts in Allen's soundtracks (Match Point), to Allen's own performance as a former opera director in To Rome with Love.

5 A case in point would be Tannhäuser. The Metropolitan Opera kept a pastiche Medieval production by Otto Schenk in its repertory until 2004, but this was itself a historical document, having first been performed in 1978. Tim Albery's 2010–11 production for the Royal Opera was more typical of early twenty-first-century trends, being described as ‘fashionably evok[ing] in an abstract manner the ravages of a modern eastern European war zone’. Rupert Christiansen, ‘Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Review’, The Telegraph,, 13 December 2010 (accessed 3 December 2012).

6 Slater's L'elisir was first performed at Opera North in 2000 and revived in 2007, subsequently transferring to Welsh National Opera (2003 and 2009). Pelly's production (a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris) was revived in 2009 and 2012; Arden's in 2011. Miller's production was seen in Stockholm (2004) and New York (2006) before being staged in London.

7 Revived 2003 and 2007–8.

8 Carsen's was a co-production with Milan's Teatro alla Scala.

9 For instance, Bartlett Sher's 2012 production of L'elisir d'amore for the Metropolitan Opera, set in 1836, and Franco Zeffirelli's Renaissance-style production of Falstaff (1964), given at the Met as recently as 2005.

10 As exemplified by Annabel Arden's 2004 Glyndebourne production; Arden also adopted this strategy for her 2012 Welsh National Opera production of La Bohème.

11 Examples of the late twentieth-century fascination with 1900s to 1920s Italy include film adaptations of Forster's A Room with a View (1985) and Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), James's The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Von Arnim's The Enchanted April (as Enchanted April) (1992); as well as Granada Television's much celebrated adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1981).

12 Jones's production was revived in 2009 and 2011, on the latter occasion as part of the complete Il trittico.

13 Similar difficulties with ‘composed’ settings arise for works by Puccini's contemporary Richard Strauss, particularly Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella, which are rarely shifted from 1740s and 1860s Vienna, respectively.

14 About a low-budget 2012 production of La fanciulla del West performed in a London pub, with the action relocated to an internet café in Soho frequented by East European immigrants, Rupert Christiansen wrote: ‘It might sound like a smart concept, but the problem is that rather than making the melodramatic plot more credible, it has the effect of making it seem even more camp and ludicrous not least when Minnie rides in on a Vespa to rescue Dick from an underground car-park assassination.’ Christiansen, ‘La fanciulla del West, Opera UpClose, and La traviata, Merry Opera Company, review’, The Telegraph, 10 February 2012 (accessed 16 January 2013).

15 See, for instance, David McVicar's gritty contemporary staging for Glyndebourne (2000, revived 2003 and 2012). Perennially popular traditional stagings include the Royal Opera's 1974 John Copley production designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman, which has been revived at Covent Garden over twenty times.

16 These include instances of Tuscan dialect, the use of typically Tuscan folk poetic forms (stornelli), and references to numerous historical figures and local landmarks – even if the librettist Giovacchino Forzano got his facts wrong and some of the latter had not been built by 1299. See Niccolai, Michela, ‘Da Firenze a New York: Considerazioni sulla mise-en-scène del Gianni Schicchi di Puccini’, Hortus Musicus, 11 (2002), 82–4, and Grover-Friedlander, Michal, Operatic Afterlives (New York, 2011), 86.

17 ‘Il bozzetto Schicchi per me è bellissimo, è vero 1200’. Puccini, letter to Tito Ricordi, 21 August 1918, cited in Gara, Eugenio, Carteggi pucciniani (Milan, 1958), 465.

18 See Sutcliffe, Tom, Believing in Opera (London, 1996) and Levin, David J., Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky (Chicago, 2007).

19 Abbate, Carolyn, In Search of Opera (Princeton and Oxford, 2001), x.

20 Bernheimer, Martin, ‘New York’, Opera 58 (2007), 837–43, at 839.

21 The first series of Blackadder, which recounts the exploits of the scheming anti-hero Edmund Blackadder and his dimwit servant Baldrick, was set in 1485 (The Black Adder, 1983). Subsequent series – Blackadder II (1986), Blackadder the Third (1987) and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) – transported the characters to the Elizabethan era, the Regency period and the First World War, respectively. Recent mass-market Medieval fantasies include A Knight's Tale (2001), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Beowulf (2007). For further reading on filmic medievalism, see Fink, Laurie A. and Shichtman, Martin B., Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film (Baltimore, 2010).

22 As Tom Sutcliffe observes, ‘Theatre is subject to cyclical fashions, and very imitative.… If something in the theatre succeeds it will be copied.’ Sutcliffe, Believing in Opera, 98.

23 There have been occasional exceptions. A 2012 production by the Canadian Opera Company staged Gianni Schicchi in the present.

24 For further reading on this topic, see Hibberd, Sarah, French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, 2009) and Eichner, Barbara, History in Mighty Sounds: Musical Constructions of German Identity (Woodbridge, 2012).

25 See my The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity (Cambridge, 2007), especially Chapter 6, ‘The Italian Composer as Internationalist’, 155–84.

26 The liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti ruled Italy five times between 1892 and 1921, and his name has come to be particularly associated with the period from the 1890s to the First World War, years that saw the rise of the Italian middle classes. This was a time marked, on the one hand, by unprecedented prosperity, leisure opportunities and technological progress and, on the other, by growing agrarian unrest and urban uprisings. The ‘unheroic’ values of the prevailing bourgeoisie were staunchly opposed by a generation of young right-wing intellectuals who came to maturity around the turn of the century and who craved a new, violent style of Italian nationalism.

27 Other Dante operas from this period include Luigi Mancinelli's Paolo e Francesca (1907), Franco Leoni's Francesca da Rimini (1913) and an opera of the same name by Riccardo Zandonai (1914). There was also a vogue in Italy in the 1910s for Dante-inspired films, such as Adolfo Padovan's Inferno (1911). On the political and cultural appropriation of Dante, see Audeh, Aida and Havely, Nicholas, eds., Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century: Nationality, Identity, and Appropriation (Oxford, 2012) and Braida, Antonella and Calè, Luisa, eds., Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2007).

28 Elizabeth E. Guffey points to ‘a unique post-war tendency: a popular thirst for the recovery of earlier, and yet still modern, periods at an ever-accelerating rate’. Guffey, , Retro: The Culture of Revival (London, 2006), 8.

29 Ibid., 15.

30 Ibid., 10.

31 See, for instance, the BBC/HBO production Rome (2005/2007) and the BBC/CBC/Showtime production The Tudors (2007–10).

32 Guffey, Retro, 14.

33 Reynolds, Simon, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past (London, 2011), xxi.

34 Guffey, Retro, 9; Reynolds, Retromania, 277.

35 Idealised perceptions of the 1950s are debunked in Mann, Jessica, The Fifties Mystique (London, 2012). Mann focuses in particular upon the harsh realities of life for most British women during the decade.

36 (accessed 20 August 2012).

37 Raphael Samuel, writing in 1994, argued that: ‘Americana, another contemporary growing point in “retro”, is also distinctively masculine.’ Samuel, , Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, 2nd rev. edn. (London and New York, 2012), 99. Over the intervening nineteen years, however, this has changed, with the emergence of a feminised, 1950s housewife brand of Americana being central to the ‘retro’ trend.

38 Pidduck, Julianne, Contemporary Costume Film: Space, Place and the Past (London, 2004), 3.

39 Examples of such films include Far from Heaven (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), the pastiche Down with Love (2003), Dreamgirls (2006), Revolutionary Road (2008), A Single Man (2009) and An Education (2009), together with the recent television series Mad Men (2007–present) and The Hour (2011–present). There have also been several recent remakes of mid-twentieth-century films, among them Ocean's Eleven (1960/2001) and Alfie (1966/2004). As represented in popular culture, the early 1960s is often hard to distinguish from the previous decade in its style of dress.

40 Examples of recent films about ‘golden-age’ cinema or its stars include The Aviator (2006), My Week with Marilyn (2011), Hitchcock (2013) and Olivier Dahan's forthcoming Grace of Monaco.

41 The ‘Carry On’ films were a series of British comedies made at Pinewood Studies between 1958 and 1978 (with a one-off revival of the format in 1992). The films, which mock British institutions or parody other film genres, contain elements of farce and innuendo, influenced by the bawdy humour of traditional British seaside postcards. Akin to repertory theatre, the films used a recurring cast in stock roles, including Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Sidney James, Charles Hawtrey and Joan Sims.

42 The second series of Fawlty Towers dates from 1979 and might seem somewhat late for my purposes, but as noted below, Jones's production is only ostensibly set in the 1950s and offers hints in its design towards later decades. Fawlty Towers itself offers a knowing commentary on earlier styles of post-war comedy.

43 (accessed 24 October 2012). Interestingly, Pelly has said that he did not intend the production to be set in the 1950s: ‘I think of it as the contemporary countryside. Everyone says it's set in the 1950s because of the scooters, the Vespas, but we thought Vespa=Italy, not 1950s.’ (accessed 24 October 2012). As well as reminding us that opera productions may convey meanings that override their directors' intentions, this comment highlights the fact that the 1950s are merely standing in for the present, a point to which I shall return.

44 The resemblance between Allen's production and Monicelli's film (released for Anglo-American audiences as Big Deal on Madonna Street) was immediately observed by the reviewer for the New York Times. Anthony Tommasini, ‘Puccini with a Sprinkling of Woody Allen Whimsy’, New York Times, 7 September 2008, (accessed 27 February 2013).

45 See my ‘Killing Time: Contemporary Representations of Opera in British Culture’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 19 (2007), 249–70.

46 Puccini's own attitude towards such sentimentality is complicated, particularly in the later works where he seems to offer a veiled critique of sentimentality and its changing cultural status. See my ‘Modernism and the Machine Woman in Puccini's Turandot’, Music & Letters, 86 (2005), 432–51.

47 Lambert, Constant, ‘Puccini, a Vindication’, MILO, 1 (1929), 911, at 9.

48 Franklin, Peter, ‘Between the Wars: Traditions, Modernisms, and the “little people from the suburbs”’, in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, ed. Cook, Nicholas and Pople, Anthony (Cambridge, 2004), 186209, at 202–3.

49 Flinn, Caryl, ‘Embracing Kitsch: Werner Schroeter, Music, and The Bomber Pilot’, in Film Music: Critical Approaches, ed. Donnelly, K.J. (New York, 2001), 130.

50 On the ‘eroticism’ of Puccini's music, see Weissmann, Adolf, Der klingende Garten, Impressionen über das Erotische in der Musik (Regensburg, 1920).

51 Annabel Arden, for instance, when introducing a new production of La Bohème for Welsh National Opera in 2012, spoke of her initial reticence about directing the opera because of her horror of being ‘manipulated’ emotionally, a leitmotif in hostile Puccini reception. Annabel Arden in Conversation, ‘Love to Death: Transforming Opera’ Conference, Cardiff University, 1 June 2012.

52 In Midnight in Paris, Gertrude Stein reads aloud a passage from the novel Gil Pender is writing, which is set in a nostalgia shop: ‘“Out Of The Past” was the name of the store and its products consisted of memories. What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.’

53 See my The Puccini Problem, Chapter 6.

54 Adorno, Theodor, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Hullot-Kentor, Robert (London and New York, 2002), 313–14.

55 I borrow this term from Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 95.

56 This production transferred to the San Francisco Opera in 2009.

57 Girardi, Michele, Puccini: His International Art, trans. Basini, Laura (Chicago and London, 2000), 432.

58 Sutcliffe, Believing in Opera, 72.

59 Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 51–5. As Samuel has observed (56), ‘The appetite for modernization – with its opposition between the old and dirty and the new and clean – was to be found, during the 1950s, in every department of national life.’

60 Samuel argues that ‘Retrochic … involves not an obsession with the past but an indifference to it: only when history has ceased to matter can it be treated as a sport’. Ibid., 95.

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