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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Commercial union

The tour organised so well by Travel for the Arts was based in the mediaeval walled city of Lucca, the birthplace of Puccini. This delightful spot abounds in hospitality, fresh water, sunshine, fine olive oil, and bicycles. Each evening we ventured to Torre del Lago Puccini, the site of one of his villas and the temporary stage of the annual opera festival. The proud Tuscans of Lucca are called Lucchesi and must not be confused with the lucciole, the lubricious women of the night who ply their trade along the Roman Via Aurelia which lies between Pisa and Viareggio. In fact, our driver said that many of the semi-naked creatures were transvestites and one shudders to contemplate how and with what reactions punters discover this. These very furtive commercial unions, happening well after midnight as I dozed on the journey back to the hotel each evening, led me to obvious parallels in the operas I saw.

Teenage kicksMadama Butterfly has an asymmetric transaction in which Butterfly sacrifices tradition and honour not realising Pinkerton’s sinful expediency. She is fifteen at the time of her ‘marriage’ at the beginning of the opera and during the last act she is eighteen with a three-year old-child. Suspension of disbelief is a sine qua non in performance if the soprano has mellowed beyond her salad days. Pinkerton’s Yankee double standards are exposed by his newly acquired ‘real’ wife Kate who alone has the courage to face Butterfly. The entrustment of her son to Kate and her subsequent suicide confirm our sympathy for Butterfly and her unequal bargain. We reserve none for Pinkerton who cries out in anguish at the final curtain but allows it to hide us from his guilt. Manon Lescaut is also fifteen at the start of her opera but is of lesser purity than Butterfly. She abandons rapidly the plans devised for her to enter a convent and, enraptured by love, absconds with the hero prestissimo. Quite soon she barters her body for the jewels of a mature, wealthy man and, accused of stealing these same baubles, is then transported in the literal rather than the metaphorical sense to penal Louisiana. I have no pity for her as her wilfulness is incorrigible. In the production at Torre del Lago Puccini her hero, Des Grieux, was a gangling weed and as he was clasped to the singer’s ample, matronly bosom, suspension of disbelief was impossible.

Love and deathMimi in La Bohème swaps her ardent love in a cold garret for the warmth of a rich bed but dies of consumption anyway. The opera is perfection but for the need to accept that Rodolfo and Mimi part when she ails because he cannot afford to care for her. In an echo of the Manon story she finds an older patron but returns to her true love to die. What sort of caddish deviant takes in a girl coughing blood for sexual gratification? Turandot, more psychotically, peddles her maidenhead for correct answers to three riddles. This seems an important, if imbalanced, exchange but the climax of this opera is Liù’s ultimate deal when she stabs herself rather than disclose Calaf’s true name. The suicide aria, if sung by someone such as Angela Gheorghiu, alas not present here, is the literal swan song of the opera and of Puccini’s oeuvre.

Summer nightsIn total there were not just commercial unions but diverse bargains, several suicides, and lingering deaths. As a bonus during the Manon death scene in the desert (sic) of Louisiana a cat found a quiet moment to howl devilishly behind stage to great effect. In Turandot an extra fainted and another bounded energetically across stage, baffling slightly the eponymous soprano, in order to administer first-aid to his colleague. The performances were adequate, the audiences chic and noisy, and the heat just sufferable. It mattered not a jot – the music was gorgeous and suspension of disbelief a matter of detail. And the Tuscan oil was extra virgin even if all the heroines weren’t.