Born on 22 December 1858, Giacomo Puccini was one of seven children born to Michele and Albino Puccini. His full name was Giacomo Antonia Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. Giacomo’s great, great, grandfather had established a local musical dynasty in Lucca, Tuscany. His descendants all studied music in Bologna and the family were well known throughout northern Italy as competent composers.
Giacomo Puccini began his career by joining a local cathedral choir and later became its substitute organist; and, when not needed in the cathedral, played in small local churches. In Pisa, in 1876, the eighteen-year-old Giacomo saw Giuseppe Verdi’s Aide for the first time and instantly decided he had found his vocation. In 1880 he studied at the Milan Conservatory and after three years gained his diploma. In the same year he entered his work, Le Villi, in a one-act opera competition but the judges found it unworthy.
Arrigo Boito, composer/librettist, and friend, funded the premiere of Le Villi at Milan’s Verme Theatre. First performed on 31 May 1880, its striking melody, drama and power were well received. The music publisher Giulio Ricordi offered to buy the copyright on the condition Puccini added a second act. Ricordi also commissioned a new opera to be performed at Milan’s La Scala (abbreviation for the Teatro Alla Scala Opera House).
Around this time Puccini started living with Elvira Gemignani, a married woman. To avoid the ensuing scandal, he left Lucca and moved to Monza near Milan. Following the death of Elvira’s husband, the couple married. In 1890 Puccini and Elvira’s son, Antonio was born and the family moved first to Milan, then later to Torre del Lago, a tiny fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli, where they lived until 1921.
Puccini’s second opera Edgar was premiered in 1889 but was poorly received. So, Ricordi sent his protégée to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany to see and listen to Wagner’s comedy, Dir Meistsinger von Nürnberg. They both knew that after two failures, Puccini’s next attempt had to be better. Puccini learned a great deal at Bayreuth and returned with plans for his third opera Manon Lescaut. It was premiered in the Teatro Regio, Turin (1893); and was a massive success.
The Middle Period
Puccini’s next four operas were La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West, the middle period of his career. La Bohème, a four act opera based upon Henri Murger’s book La Vie de Bohème (1851), was premiered in Turin in 1896 and proved hugely popular.
Tosca, based on a play by the same name by Victorien Sardou, was premiered on the 14 January 1900 at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome. The opera, set in Rome, had taken Puccini four years to adapt from the wordy French play into an opera, but, being an instant success, was time well-spent.
Madama Butterfly took even longer to complete because of a bout of illness, but when it was premiered at La Scala on 17 February 1904 it was poorly received. Puccini withdrew the two-act opera, revised it and then re-presented it in Brescia in Italy, and Paris. It soon became a favourite.
La Fanciulla del West, or The Girl of the Golden West, was Puccini’s seventh opera; considered as the last of his middle stage by some, the first of his latter stage by others. Based on a David Belasco play, the opera was premiered on 10 December 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and was a great success.
During a night-time journey from Lucca to Torre del Lago on 25 February 1903, Puccini’s car careered off the road. Elvira and Antonio were flung out practically unscathed, while the family chauffeur suffered a severe fracture in his right leg. Puccini was pinned beneath the car; his right leg was also fractured but, more worryingly, the car was pressing against his chest and he was unable to move. A local doctor, on hand nearby, saved the composer’s life. The injuries took months to mend; added to which Puccini discovered that he had a form of diabetes.
Puccini’s eighth opera La Rondine was completed in 1916. However, his friend and musical publisher had died in 1912; and so Puccini was dealing with Ricordi’s son, Tilo. But Tilo rejected La Rondine. Puccini’s only option was to go to Tilo’s rival, Lorenzo Sonzogno, who arranged for a performance in Monaco.
For his ninth opera, Puccini studied works by Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky, and from these came II Trittico (The Triptych), a collection of three individual one-act operas entitled:
1. II Tabarro (The Cloak), a violent melodrama set on a barge on Paris’s River Seine;
2. Sour Angelica, set in a convent near Siena in the late seventeenth century; a story of religious redemption (reputably Puccini’s favourite of the three); and
3. Gianni Schicchi, set in Florence in 1299, a farcical tale of greed and conniving; it proved to be among the most popular of Puccini’s works. It was premiered on 14 December 1918 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Once all three had been premiered, the opera companies separated the three, and had them performed individually; the third being the most popular.
The Last Opera
Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, set in Ancient China, was based on a fable of the same name. But Puccini was to die before he had finished the work.
Puccini had been a lifelong chain smoker of cigarettes and cigars, and during the latter part of 1923 complained of chronic sore throats. The diagnosis was throat cancer. His doctor did not tell Puccini or his wife, but told their son Antonia. Puccini went to Brussels for treatment, but complications arose, and uncontrollable bleeding led to a heart attack the following day.
A Sad Goodbye
On 29 November 1924, Giacomo Puccini died, aged 66.
His tenth and last opera, Turandot, was premiered posthumously on 25 April 1926 at La Scala, Milan. Arturo Toscanini conducted. In the middle of Act Three; the orchestra stopped. Toscanini laid down his baton and turned to the audience and said the opera was at an end because the maestro had died at that point. The curtain was slowly lowered.
Stella A Milner