Giacomo Puccini: Edgar (Milan 1889)

Edited by Linda Fairtile (2008)

NR 139541

In April 1889, audiences at the Teatro alla Scala witnessed the first full-length opera by a young composer who would soon set the musical world on fire. Giacomo Puccini’s Edgar received only three performances in its first season, and subsequent revivals presented the work in abbreviated form. Its fourth act suppressed and the remaining three heavily revised, Edgar is now a rarity on the operatic stage. With the recent appearance of heretofore unavailable documents, however, it has become possible to restore Edgar to its original four-act length, enabling modern audiences to experience this important early work on the grand scale that Puccini conceived for it.

Yet an exact reconstruction of a single, specific “moment” in the opera’s early performing history may not be feasible. Although a number of early manuscripts have survived, the most significant source for the original performing version of Edgar continues to elude us. It is virtually certain that Puccini’s autograph score does not transmit what was heard at the opera’s prima assoluta at La Scala in April 1889. For one thing, while the role of Tigrana was composed for a mezzo-soprano, it was first performed by the soprano Romilda Pantaleoni, a late substitute for the indisposed Giulia Novelli. Puccini had quickly rewritten Tigrana’s part to suit Pantaleoni’s voice, but not in the autograph score, which still places the role in mezzo-soprano range. Rather, he probably annotated the copyist’s manuscript that had been prepared for use by the opera’s first conductor, Franco Faccio. It is this score, now lost, that would likely have documented Edgar as it was performed at La Scala in 1889.

Attempting to reconstruct the Scala version of Edgar from the surviving sources is an exercise in cautious speculation, and the result can only be a close approximation of what was experienced at its earliest performances. While the autograph score is indispensable to this undertaking, it cannot be the sole musical foundation, owing to its outdated rendition of Tigrana’s vocal part. Therefore, the reconstruction draws upon a later source for her and all other vocal lines: the four-act piano-vocal score published in the final weeks of 1889. This score was prepared shortly after the Scala production, and while it contains numerous cuts and other revisions made after the initial performances, it also places Tigrana’s part in the soprano range that suited Pantaleoni’s voice. In order to avoid musical inconsistencies, the reconstruction relies on the 1889 score for all vocal parts except in those passages that are unique to the autograph.

The autograph score, which serves as the principal source for both Edgar’s overall musical structure and its orchestral fabric, is a complex document requiring extensive interpretation. It is usually dismissed as having been too heavily revised to provide meaningful information about the opera’s original text. And yet, much of what appears to be revision is actually evidence of creation: the young Puccini’s efforts to orchestrate Edgar often produced rewritten passages that document changes of heart prior to the opera’s completion. In such cases, the original notation is not as significant as the final result, which indicates the composer’s preferred reading. By ignoring intermediate markings that bear the hallmarks of work-in-progress, it is possible to discern a layer of “finished” material that likely predates the opera’s first performance.

At the same time that it bears witness to the creation of Edgar, the autograph score also documents its post-Scala revision. Writing shortly after the opera’s third and final Milanese performance, the publisher Giulio Ricordi urged Puccini to make numerous modifications directly in his own score, rather than in the copyist’s manuscript used for the Scala production. By complying with Ricordi’s directive Puccini added another layer of complexity to the autograph. These changes, having originated after (or possibly during) the Scala performances, are not included in the reconstructed score. Identifying and isolating them from Puccini’s original layer of notation was one of the most difficult aspects of editing this opera.

Fortunately, there are visual clues in the autograph that help distinguish Puccini’s revisions from the in-progress orchestrational changes that he made at an earlier stage of the opera’s genesis. In the majority of places where he revised his score, he marked it to call attention to the modification, and in some cases also added verbal instructions. Many times, a second set of notations in another hand appear in response to Puccini’s, most likely part of a long-distance dialogue between the composer and a Ricordi editor who was preparing a revised score of Edgar. Although many of these notations have been erased or heavily crossed out, and had to be painstakingly reconstructed, the brief exchanges provide invaluable information about the opera’s revision history.

In addition to its multiple layers of notation, the very structure of the Edgar autograph presents editorial challenges. Although it is now bound in four volumes, it is actually constructed of numerous fascicles of varying sizes. In a few places, including Frank’s aria in Act 1, unusually tidy musical notation and a unique page numbering sequence suggest that replacement fascicles may have been inserted at a later date. In the absence of older sources, these must be accepted as the earliest available version of the passages in question, even though they may not originate with the Scala production. More significantly, several pages are entirely missing from both Act 2 and Act 3 of the autograph. In these cases, the corresponding sections of the 1889 piano-vocal score were used as the basis for a plausible reconstruction of the orchestration following the model of the surrounding measures.

While the Edgar autograph seems to lack only a few pages, it is the sole musical source for lengthy passages in each of the opera’s four acts. These segments were cut by Puccini at some point between the Scala production in April 1889 and the publication of the piano-vocal score at the end of that year. As a result, there is no other source available for comparison or clarification when questions arise about Puccini’s notation in the autograph score. This problem is especially acute with regard to the closing moments of Act 2, in a scene that continued to trouble Puccini as late as the opera’s final revision in 1905. The so-called “Flemish Hymn,” a patriotic ensemble sung by Edgar, Frank, and the chorus, breaks off abruptly and then restarts. Upon closer examination, it appears that Puccini provided two different versions of this number, in two different keys. Neither, however, matches its counterpart in the 1889 piano-vocal score.

Finally, aspects of Puccini’s orchestral writing in the Edgar autograph present their own set of difficulties for the editor. Perhaps most challenging is his often contradictory notation of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation in instruments playing the same or similar musical material. At times this inconsistency seems to result from haste, but in many cases the conflicts appear to be intentional, perhaps to compensate for the different acoustical properties of the instrumental families. In one instance, Puccini actually adds a verbal note to confirm the simultaneous assignment of pianissimo to one group of instruments and fortissimo to another. Unfortunately, such specificity is atypical, and it is more often the case that the editor must decide which inconsistencies to take at face value.

A reconstruction of the original performing version of Edgar illustrates, perhaps more than any other Puccini opera, that a single musical source cannot provide all the information that is needed. Moreover, when one of the opera’s principal sources is as complex as the Edgar autograph, compromises must inevitably be made.

Yet, all that notwithstanding, the reconstruction of the score of the four-act Edgar from rediscovered documents is without doubt one of the most exciting musicological events of recent memory, and offers us a stunning opportunity to hear for the first time some remarkable music by a young composer who was still experimenting, and seeking his own, highly distinctive, compositional voice.