A short look at Puccini: the man and his works



Kultur is very good at making available European television series such as "In the Footsteps of ..." famous composers. Since I will be giving a Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning class this semester at Keene State College on Puccini, I hastened to view "In the Footsteps of Puccini" and found it a nice little 50-minute introduction to the man, his life and his works.

The English narration is dubbed over the original French and Italian dialogue but not distractingly so. It starts with Puccini’s boyhood and his family’s having played in the band of his hometown, Lucca, for generations. The narration includes his much quoted 20-mile walk to hear "Aida" but admits the story was probably made up by the composer later in life. (Verdi too was notorious for preferring a good story to the truth!)

The short running time is split nicely between Puccini’s personal life and his operas. Three of his works are glossed over or not even named at all -- a fault that a mere mention of these works would have easily remedied. The shameful story of his wife’s insane jealousy over a young domestic is told. (Indeed there is an entire film, "Puccini," devoted to that story with Robert Stephens as Puccini. It can also be found on the Kultur label.)

There are many scenes from those operas that are included, as well as scenes from a silent home movie made by Puccini himself. But why the producers of this film decided to stretch them horizontally and make Munchkins out of the people thereon is quite beyond me. Are they so afraid of keeping the picture in the proper ratio? Will someone please look into this?

At any rate, this is a very good introduction to its subject and anyone interested in opera in general should own this set. Little by little, I will be reporting on other entries in this "Footsteps" series.

-- More and more writers have complained, at least on Amazon.com, how far downhill the "Midsomer Murders" series has gone since the departure of John Nettles in the lead role. My readers can see these comments if they will. But I have other reasons for giving a somewhat sour report on Series 23, recently released by Acorn Media as a boxed set of three DVDs.

Among the more annoying clichés of televised murder mysteries is having a character look into the camera and say "What are you doing here?" or "How nice to see you" before being separated from life in one way or another. Of course, later in the episode the viewer sees in a flashback who that person was; but if a camera is like a third person narrator, it should see all. Otherwise it is a cheap trick.

Well, such an incident happens in each of the three stories in Set 23. It is just another step backwards from original story telling.

The next flaw is having a victim standing in a particular place at a particular time so that a piece of masonry can be dropped on him or some variation on that. It stretches credulity even more if the victim chooses to come out to that very spot at just the right time. Well, in "The Dark Rider" episode of Set 23, this nonsense happens three times!

I doubt if any director will give up showing only the back of somebody watching a potential victim entering a house doing something in some enclosure or outside (and so on); or having the murder come up from behind a chair in which the victim is sitting with the camera showing the former just up to the neck. Well, it easier than being original.

So if the scripts have reached the point where the writers do not think out the details of the plot, the series becomes a parody of itself.

Still, I must admit to enjoying the show, even with the faults mentioned, and even if Neil Dudgeon will never -- and indeed should not -- be just like his predecessor.

The last episode, "Death and the Divas," has the usual hard-to-keep-track-of number of suspects, but it glows with the fine acting of Sinead Cusack and Harriet Walter.

Each episode runs 93 minutes and there are subtitles.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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