Puccini emerged into the twentieth century music world as the “King of Verismo,” not through the conducting background of Mascagni or through the skilled compositional ability of Giordano, but as a master of theater. Puccini wrote solely for the operatic stage and he understood the dramatic intensity and melodic poignancy of real life subject matter. Critics have sometimes dismissed his work as overly impassioned, melodramatic, and sentimental. The composer himself proclaimed, “The only music I can make is that of small things,” although he admired the grander stylistic abilities of Verdi and Wagner. Despite that admiration, Puccini chose to concentrate on life’s familiar bittersweet passions and intense emotional storms.
Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy and descended from a long line of musicians, conductors, and composers. It was assumed he would inherit the talent and interest to continue in his family’s chosen craft. At the tender age of six years, upon his father’s premature death, he fell heir to the position of choir master and organist at San Martino Church and professor of music at Collegio Ponziano. However, plans to preserve these posts for the young Puccini may as well have been canceled the day he hiked thirteen miles to the city of Pisa to witness a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s latest work, Aida. He determined his own future at that moment, falling completely under the spell of opera, never to recover.
A stipend from a wealthy great-uncle and a scholarship from Queen Margherita herself supported Puccini in his education at the music conservatory in Milan. The great composers Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli taught the young musician; Ponchielli eventually encouraging Puccini’s participation in a one-act opera competition sponsored by the publishing house of Sonzogno. Friends of Ponchielli even provided the libretto. Unfortunately, Puccini’s first opera, La Villi , didn’t take the prize. However, the powerful critic/librettist, Arrigo Boito, raised funds for its performance before appreciative audiences at La Scala and Ricordi published the score. The modest success bolstered Puccini’s confidence, but provided little compensation. A second opera, Edgar , failed as the result of a poor libretto.
As Puccini acquired substantial wealth, he took on the persona which accompanied him throughout the rest of his life as the “grand seigneur.” He built a reputation as a dedicated game hunter, collector of cars and motor boats, and a great romantic figure. “I am almost always in love!,” he declared, and defined himself as “a mighty hunter of wild fowl, operatic librettos and attractive women.” His appreciation and compassion for women abounds in the substance of his operatic heroines, their valiant struggles and, most often, melancholy demise. He created these elegant, three-dimensional characters with the material of sweet and haunting melody. The innocent Mimi, embattled Tosca, abandoned Butterfly, embittered Turandot – each one a fascinating study in feminine psychology, each the perfect counterpart to an equally interesting tenor role. Puccini’s own stormy relationship with Elvira Gemignani evoked a certain horror in fans and attracted something of a lurid interest from the general public. A married woman, she eloped with the composer and they were not married until some time after her husband’s death. Seemingly an uninteresting and strangely unchallenging partner, she is said to have limited Puccini intellectually and emotionally, inexplicably cutting him off from most personal relationships with friends and other artists.
Eventually, she embroiled the household in scandal, hounding a young maid unmercifully with accusations of a liaison with her husband. The girl committed suicide and Elvira was jailed for five months. The Puccinis separated, then reconciled, but their relationship was forever damaged. Puccini fought hard to keep his difficult private life private, against impossible odds. “What a subject for an opera!,” one social columnist exclaimed. During this tragic episode, despite his obvious emotional turmoil, the composer completed the opera La Fanciulla del West , which met with immediate acclaim.
In general, Puccini seems to have lived in artistic isolation. Even a productive relationship with Arturo Toscanini blew hot and cold. In one comic exchange, Puccini forgot he and Toscanini were currently estranged and sent a Christmas pannetone. Realizing the error, Puccini wired Toscanini with an explanation:
PANNETONE SENT BY MISTAKE, PUCCINI.
Toscanini immediately replied:
PANNETONE EATEN BY MISTAKE, TOSCANINI.
It was Toscanini who conducted the famous opening night of Madama Butterfly , which ran in its original form for that one performance only. After serious reworking, including changing the basic framework from two acts to three and replacing some objectionable arias with more melodic ones, Butterfly triumphed in a new opening under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.
In the single decade before his death, Puccini completed La Rondine , and the trilogy of Il Tabarro , Suor Angelica andGianni Schicchi . He was in the process of finishing Turandot , the opera he considered his crowning achievement, when a persistent throat ailment was diagnosed as cancer. He died a few days after surgery and completion of the work was left to colleague, Franco Alfano. Shortly before his death, Puccini wrote that the music audience had lost its taste for melody and tolerated music devoid of logic and sensibility. He predicted “the end of opera” and, in fact, Turandot , was the last opera to rank as an internationally accepted standard repertory piece. No one since Puccini has enjoyed such a following.
Courtesy Arizona Opera Virtual Opera House