by Franco Leoni: an appreciation

by John Mucci

L'Oracolo is an opera by Franco Leoni, not much heard since 1915, when it was successfully given for a number of years at the Metropolitan Opera. The success was due almost entirely to the performance of Antonio Scotti, out-Scarpaing himself as the villain, Chim-Fen.

The work itself has that sweet oddness to it that will polarize critics—especially those who are addicted to immediately telling you what other opera it sounds like, usually as an unfavorable comparison, and then deride the piece from there because the Met hasn't performed it for 65 years. I am an advocate—as I am sure many of you are—of finding something that interests you, researching it from as many angles as you can, and then making up your own mind.

With L'Oracolo , I was initially interested in its story—Chinatown, San Francisco of 1900; just after the Boxer Rebellion, with the menace of Tong wars and gangs cheek by jowl with decent, honest people who want to live their life well despite the prejudice surrounding them. Seemed like a great idea for an opera. Further study revealed that it was based on a play that was based on a story, neither of which had much to do with each other.

Leoni studied with Ponchielli, as did Puccini, and from there the finger points to Leoni as an inferior version of Butterfly's creator. How these blinkard ideas come about is not worth the research to discover, but Leoni is as much an individual voice as Zandonai, Wolf-Ferrari, Alfano, Giordano, and Mascagni. The fashion of comparing everyone to Puccini is unfair; I like his music as much as any operaphile, but he isn't all there is. His nature was to be brief, and so are his melodies, his operas, his relationships. He was a true hunter! As such you have to take his impatience with a grain of salt.

So when I see that a critic called L'Oracolo "watered down Puccini" it annoys me. The opera is an intense study in greed, love, evil, action and revenge. What more can you want? The style is Leoni's. It has elements in the score that Puccini would never have thought of. And if you compare the dates of L'Oracolo (1905) to Puccini's American story (1910) and his Chinese story (1928), the question is who is influencing whom? I admit, that's a moot point. But there are passages in L'Oracolo that sound very much like passages in later operas, and no one points them out as anyone being influenced by Leoni! It simply shows how futile it is sometimes to point out so-called "influences". (For example, I keep hearing Massenet in Richard Strauss—does anyone else? Yet after all, when Strauss was conducting opera all over Europe, he conducted a fair amount of Massenet.)

I can tell you right off the bat why no one produces L'Oracolo any longer.

  1. The soprano role isn't big enough. Maybe if it were on a double bill with Suor Angelica it could come off well (it's really a good idea, programming wise, though).
  2. It needs a very good villain who can act. That's why Scotti made such a hit with it in 1915.
  3. It needs a producer and director who can give it the spectacle it needs.

Other than that, it isn't any more difficult than Gianni Schicchi (which ain't easy, I'll admit). But it needs a PRODUCTION. It is a show that is terrific accompaniment to a visual feast. It needs the squalor and spectacular pageantry of 1900 Chinatown, with San Francisco fog, back alleys, running water in drains, squalling vendors, a claustrophobic feeling of tension and an in-your-face feeling that these people are all on top of one another. Most importantly, there needs to be a central procession of the New Year's Dragon —a parade not to be missed in New York, and I bet as awesome in San Francisco. It needs the children's chorus and the vendor's chorus—maybe not as long as the contadini in Pagliacci, but ever so more action-oriented. And finally, there are two hatchet murders on stage! Even Tosca can't beat that one. There's enough action to satisfy anyone; and I admit that the way most directors would deal with it is to keep everything as boringly stiff as possible. That will not work in this show.

Some of the objections to the opera have been—besides that it sounds like Puccini, badly—is that it is too much action in too short a space, the love interest is squashed hopelessly, and it's action is muddled. We begin and end with a cock crowing at dawn, and only 50 minutes have passed in between.

All this is brushed aside if the actors really sell it, and audiences accept it as a 19th century potboiler. There's plenty of subtleties in the score, and plenty of Grand Guignol. What a great mix, in my book.

One thing that is of interest: the score and the libretto do not always agree on the action or the lyrics. I am posting a new version that is a conflation of the action and a best choice of lyrics from the score. But the score does not have very much action indicated at all. Even the main climactic moments are missing verbally—only there musically. For one who is used to Alban Berg, whose music is keyed to actions on the second beat of a triplet, for example, it is a bit odd to have a whole score without stage directions.

It begins with three blows of a Gran'Cassa, an Italian version of the staff strokes hit at the beginning of classic French plays, redolent of Commedia dell'Arte all over Europe. It says eloquently that "this is going to be a tale told in the old manner." This is not verismo. Then a cock crows. Then Chinese men are heard playing (an authentic) gambling game, and only then does the music start. No romantic overture, no sinfonia; I think it's a marvellous idea. A quick theme in A minor brings the villain Chim-Fen to view, and we see the town through his eyes. I want to say, we see the town waking up, but everyone seems to have been up all night anyhow. The orientale themes that come up one after the other are not authentic Chinese melodies—but they are very much so an Italian's idea of Chinese flavor, and it works perfectly.

Antonio Scotti as Chim Fen in L'Oracolo
In David Choo's dissertation on L'Oracolo he speaks of what "Orientalism" in music meant in the 19th/20th centuries. Certain cues said to a Western audience that this was an "other" culture. Such musical devices were known since time immemorial, sometimes are based on the authentic item from the other culture, sometimes not. Open fifths, pentatonic scales, dotted eighth rhythms (almost a la Schottische), and unison melodies are all thought of as saying "Orient" to a Western audience. The use of gongs, temple blocks, and tamtams is of course a giveaway, whether the source material is authentically oriental or not. It's a trope, and as such can be very effective. Remember the audience is not meant to be Chinese, and this is not a Chinese opera—think of how different that would be. Covent Garden wouldn't even read through the score.

There is a brilliance in the orchestration, a certain cockiness that even Puccini doesn't normally have. Strings and brasses abound, bursting through after simple declarative figures. The vocal score is very simple to play. It doesn't take any liberties with time signatures or much that says 'exotic' from a technical point of view. The entire opera is in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, with some compounds of those in 9/8 and 12/8. It seems to have only three key signatures, C, B-flat, F, and A, (and their relative minors) with one number in G-flat at the end. It is rather a comforting feeling, seeing such chaos of a plot bound into such a simple format.

Puccini was deeply affected by his heroines—he said so—building each opera around one luminous female character. A simple formula. This opera isn't like that. We see the dealings of a poor, low-life man named Chim-Fe who lies, cheats, and steals at every turn. He doesn't ever have a solo like Iago to tell us why he's so wicked, and indeed he's not terribly clever in what he does. He wants to steal a fan, and fails, he wants to run off with a woman, and fails; he wants to appear a hero and fails, but he has a certain spunkiness in him that makes him almost an anti-hero.

The heroine is not really one-dimensional, but the dimensions we see are uni-focused. Ah-Joe is her name, and she sings from her balcony at the rising of the sun (a sort of pre-Sondheim Green Finch and Linnet Bird), and sings in the ensemble during the fortune-telling scene, and then has a gorgeous number after her lover has been hatcheted to death across the street, believe it or not. After the horror of his murder is discovered, Ah-Joe doesn't belt out a Tosca, or Minnie or even Turandot-like cannon-roar of horror or disapproval. She very quietly sings to him and in piano, allows us to hear her soul dissolving before our very eyes without any histrionics at all. It's very, very creepy and effective. In the only recording out there, with Joan Sutherland, she gives it a little too much, I think, but looking at the score, I know how I'd stage it, and it would be aimed at really bringing shivers up your spine. It is somewhat reminiscent of the last scene with Liu in Turandot, but the crowd is much more restrained and supportive.

All in all, I thought the recording distributed by the Musical Heritage Society was excellent; very beautifully recorded by Decca. Bonynge conducts superbly, and brings a lot to the piece. I am baffled at his cutting the last three measures—it couldn't have hurt anything to put them in—and I was curiously disappointed in La Stupenda. Her voice was simply not as good as I'd heard it in other recordings. This was made in 1977, and I can't explain it. She sounds as though she has a cold.

Ah-Joe's hymn to the sun was recorded earlier by Dorothy Warenskjold for her television program in the 1950s, and that is also on CD, conducted by no less than Carmen Dragon. It points up another odd assertion about this opera. In Choo's dissertation, he says that the opera failed to take hold because there was no one real aria to hold on to, and that the piece was so through-composed that there was no chance for the audience to applaud. In Warenskjold's recording, she sings Ah-Joe's aria exquisitely, and, as the score says, it ends on a D-flat augmented chord—which in the opera leads to her lover's entrance. When the cutoff comes at the end of that most suspended of chords, one is left hanging, leaving the impression that the score was so integrated that it couldn' be separated from what happened next. But it's quite obvious that it resolves itself on an F major chord in the next measure, and would have appeared to be very finished. Why did they end it on such a suspension, for no reason when taken out of context? Even in Turandot, "Nessun Dorma"— sometimes the only reason why the whole opera is performed—the aria does not end, but continues on with the scene. Can you imagine an audience putting up with that?? Yes, M. Domingo has finished the aria, and now let us continue, and you can applaud him at the end of the opera, where he will share his curtain call with Ms. Voigt. Uh-huh.

The music for the dragon's entrance during the New Year's Day parade is glorious. With a children's chorus and adult choir as well as principals singing, it's quite a nice ensemble. What would make it perfect, of course, is if it were produced well so that it became the focal point of the opera: the lovers are trying to make contact, the parents are divided between the parade and watching them; the villain is seeing all of this and decides his action (again, a little like Iago during the Act III ensemble in Verdi's Otello) and takes it, boldly while everyone's attention is off him—he kidnaps Ah-Joe's nephew and will use him as blackmail to try to get her hand in marriage.

The opera was described as "quick flashes of scenes" —and indeed that is one reason why so many critics have found it too difficult to believe, and that it's too episodic, and the time frame doesn't seem to make any sense. But there are certain cesuras in the action that to me say there needs to be light changes to express time passing - certainly a foggy day and then a sunset, so that the last scene should take place almost at dawn the next morning. There is plenty of music to cover such changes; I can imagine the present-day directors just having a bare stage, waiting for that damn music to stop so we can get this stupid thing over with. (Sorry: it's the way they seem to be directing these days.) In any case, these quick flashes do have some cohesiveness. There is a scene in the first part in which the villain and the uncle have a rather strange conversation sitting against the building on a bench, while a policeman walks by. In the last scene, after the uncle has killed Chim-Fen with a hatchet (I would no doubt be sure it was the same one that Chim-Fen used to kill his rival), he props up the body and sings the same song to it as he sang in the beginning—the orchestration is different. And the same policeman walks by. This is preceded by a long scene accompanied by four cellos, sung by a bass, and is superbly effective. Again, he is talking little by little about killing Chim-Fen, as he knows everything, and it should be another of those creepy moments that would make the opera an enjoyable, if a little gruesome, experience.

There are many other subtleties of the score that are worth pointing out; perhaps the only one here I'd say is the expressionist device of having the maddened Ah-Joe appear in the last scene only as a disembodied voice, with a cri-de-coeur for her lover, just as a foghorn booms out. (She does not cry out Peter Grimes! although she might...) This happens three times, twice as a separate event (i.e. in silence), but once during her uncle's last number, it comes again, almost unheard, as the bottom layer of sound.

So while you may wish to believe the old critics and the old reviews and feel this is not the kind of story for you, remember that I truly believe opera is something that can transcend all the piddling arts out there. If you don't judge it like an episode of Law and Order, you can immerse yourself in the most enormously high passions down to the vilest motives with this little work. I am very pleased with the recording (and at such a reasonable price) and encourage you all to listen to it, as it has a great deal to offer.

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