Bard Music Festival puts the spotlight on Puccini

(Frank C. Bangs | Library of Congress)

(Frank C. Bangs | Library of Congress)

As the centerpiece of Bard’s incomparably rich SummerScape programming, “Giacomo Puccini and his World” continues the college’s annual ritual of focusing on the life, work, times and overall cultural/musical narrative of a single great composer. The Bard Music Festival takes a 360-degree multidisciplinary view, situating the creative output of the popular Italian opera composer in many historical and critical contexts and featuring performances of work by his influences, contemporaries and rivals. “Puccini and his World” integrates 11 concerts with lectures, panel discussions and expert commentary spread over the first two weekends in August.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is the first Italian composer upon whom Bard has trained its perceptive lens, joining such other recent subjects as Franz Schubert, Jean Sibelius, Alban Berg and Carlos Chavez. Musical greatness alone does not seem to be Bard’s primary criterion of selection, but rather something more like genius and historical resonance. A complicated figure whose story is a paradox of popular success and the loss and gradual regaining of critical esteem, Puccini makes a perfect choice.

Puccini’s classics include La BohèmeMadama Butterfly and Tosca, as well as Manon LescautLa Fanciulla del West and Turandot – all of which remain staples of the repertory. Situated at the advent of Modernism, his work represents both the popular apex and the beginning of the decline of his own chosen form. His critical reception is a case study in the turbulence and upheaval of Modernism and the First World War. According to conductor Vittorio Gui, founder of Italy’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Puccini was both “the most beloved and the most despised” of all composers.

In addition to a generous sampling of Puccini’s own music, including his early opera Le Villi and less-familiar orchestral and chamber works, music by many of his countrymen will be heard. These include his predecessors, such as Alfredo Catalani and Arrigo Boito; his primary teacher, Amilcare Ponchielli; and his rival opera composers, Ermanno Wolf–Ferrari, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pietro Mascagni and Ferruccio Busoni among them.

Weekend One presents “Puccini and Italian Musical Culture” (August 5 through 7). Through operatic excerpts and more, this cluster of concerts and discussions examines the ways in which Italians perceived their newly unified homeland in the comparatively peaceful half-century between the Risorgimento (the Italian unification movement of the 19th century) and the First World War. “Puccini and Italian Musical Culture” comprises five programs: “Opera, Politics and the Italian”; “Sons of Bach, Sons of Palestrina”; “The Symphonic and the Operatic”; “The Search for a Successor: Opera after Verdi”; and “Realism and Fantasy: New Directions in Opera.”

There will be a free, open-to-the-public panel discussion on the topic of “Puccini: The Man and the Reputation” on Saturday, August 6, from 10 a.m. until noon at Olin Hall. There will be another free panel discussion entitled, “Defining the Italian: The Role of Music,” in Olin Hall on Sunday morning, August 7, from 10 until 12 o’clock.

Between weekends, on Thursday, August 11, the Spiegeltent will host a Spaghetti Western Festival, featuring music by Americans living in Italy and Italians whose music has permeated US culture, from David Lang to Ennio Morricone.

Weekend Two (August 12 through 14) is titled “Beyond Verismo” (Realism) and features “Futurism, Popular Culture and Technology”; “Reinventing the Past”; “Music and Fascism in Italy”; “Italian Choral Music since Palestrina”; “After Puccini”; and The Turandot Project. There will be a free, open-to-the-public panel discussion on the topic of “Artists, Intellectuals and Mussolini” on Saturday, August 13, from 10 a.m. until noon at Olin Hall.

Now in his 23rd year as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, festival co-founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein will lead the ensemble in all three of its Bard Music Festival appearances. This year’s festival also introduces The Orchestra Now (TON); currently in its inaugural season, this unique graduate training orchestra will perform in three programs, one of them under Botstein’s leadership. As in previous seasons, choral works will feature the Bard Festival Chorale directed by James Bagwell, and this year’s vocal and chamber programs boast an impressive roster of guest artists. These include 2015 Grammy nominee Talise Trevigne, who played the title role of Iris, SummerScape 2016’s mainstage opera production, and baritone Louis Otey, star of last season’s hit revival of The Wreckers.

For time and ticket information regarding the 11 concerts and numerous supporting events, call (845) 758-7900 visit


Bard Music Festival’s “Giacomo Puccini and His World,” August 5-14, Bard College, Annandale;

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