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Puccini and il Verismo
Puccini was born in Lucca on the 22nd of December 1858, he was the last of the
great Italian composers. Puccini, along with his brother Michele, who died young, were the fifth generation of a family of professional musicians and composers, living and working in and around Lucca, Tuscany Italy. All the previous generations of Puccini's were basically church composers and organists at Lucca's Cathedral - San Martino.
When Giacomo was just six years old his father died, he took over the position of choir master
and organist at San Martino Church. It was expected that Giacomo follow in the path of his
ancestors and therefore continue the long family tradition, however one night in 1876 all that
changed, when he and a friend walked all of thirteen miles to the city of Pisa to see a
production of Verdi's Aida. From this moment on Giacomo knew that his true passion would
only ever be opera and opera only.
In 1880, Puccini completed his studies at the Pacini Institute in Lucca, he had just finished
composing a mass, Messa di Gloria the fact that he wrote this encouraged his great-uncle
to help support his musical education, also a scholarship was granted from Queen Margherita.
Thereby allowing the young composer to enrol at Milan's Conservatorio, Milan and its famous
Teatro alla Scala was the place to be for all young up and coming composers.
For three years (1880 -1883) Giacomo continued his studies at the Conservatorio Reale under
Bazzini and Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda, he there composed as a leaving exercise
an orchestral piece, Capriccio sinfonico, this was performed by the students orchestra and
achieved great success at its performance.
It foretold the gifts that were to be - of operas blending intense emotion and theatricality
with tender lyricism, colourful orchestration and a rich vocal line. Meanwhile the music publishing firm of Edoardo Sonzogno announced the first of severalcompetitions for a one-act opera (Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana was discovered in this way in 1889) Puccini then still a pupil of the Conservatorio, decided with Ponchielli's encouragement to take part in it. Ponchielli introduced Giacomo to a young librettist and journalist named Ferninando Fontana, who suggested to the young composer that it might be
an idea to compose an opera around the story Le Villi (the Witches). This a legend of brides,
who have been deserted by their lovers, they then are turned into spectres, dancing the
loved one to death. Subjects such as this were very popular in Italy at this time, especially
after the German romantic operas of Weber, and early Wagner, at a party, the result of the
competition was announced early in 1884, Puccini's name was not even mentioned,
unfortunately Puccini didn't win, however the opera was produced successfully in 1884 at Milan.
At the party many influential people from the world of music were present. Puccini was invited to entertain by playing the piano and singing from the opera. He was given such praise, that it was decided to stage the work at the Teatro dal Verme, where it was first given on the
31st May 1884, it achieved an immense success.The result was that the great Milanese music publisher, Giulio Ricordi, acquired the rights of Le Villi and on his advice Puccini expanded the opera into two acts. Ricordi commissioned from Puccini a new opera, again with the young Fontana as the librettist.This was the beginning a life-long association of Giacomo Puccini and Ricordi, in whom he found a fatherly friend and wise guide.
The new opera, was to be called Edgar, based on a drama by Alfred de Musset it was a subject
wholly unsuited to Puccini's gifts. Its first performance (Milan, La Scala, 25Th April 1889) failed dismally, Puccini rewrote its four acts into three (Ferrara, 1892) and again made revisions in 1901 and 1905, but the opera has
not survived, in the composer's words it was a "cantonata" - "a blunder".
During the work on Edgar Puccini's association with Elvira Gemignani starts, she is married to
a Lucchese business man, in 1886 she gave birth to his only son, Antonio, Italy then having
rigid Catholic rules, a divorce was out of the question, so it was not until the death of Elvira's
husband in 1904 that the two could be legally married in church.
After the world success of Massenet's Manon first given in Paris 1884; based on the famous
autobiographical novel by the Abbé Prévost, Puccini decided to choose the same subject for
his next opera, Manon Lescaut.
This was the first time Puccini had taken an active part in a libretto alongside five librettists
no less, firstly there was Leoncavallo, then Praga and Oliva and finally Illica and Giacosa,
with Ricordi advising them all and Puccini at the controls: the libretto of an opera was as
important as its musical setting to Puccini.
The plot and the characters of Manon Lescaut he felt were well suited to his particular genius,
as there were so many names associated with the opera. Manon Lescaut was published without
the names of the librettists, most unusual to say the least.
The first performance of the opera was given in Turin 1st Feb, overnight Puccini's name became
known all over Italy and the world.
Whilst Puccini was still working on Manon Lescaut, (1891) he bought a house in the small
village of Torre del Lago by the side the lake Massaciùccoli, Giacomo loved to go shooting
waterfowl and this was the ideal place, the rest of his operas with the exception of
Turandot, were composed at Torre del Lago.
For Puccini's next three operas La Bohème, Tosca and Madama
Butterfly, he had the librettists Illica and Giacosa. There was
always a set division of labour between the two. Illica would look
after the scenario and invent picturesque details while Giacosa
would look after the poetic side and the versification of the
prose text. There were terrible arguments between the librettists
and composer, who was known to be a hard task master.
Giacosa threatened to resign a number of times, but in the end Puccini won, for he knew what would make the most impact on stage.
From the merest hint in Prévost's novel, Puccini developed the embarkation scene of Manon Lescaut,
a most unique scene in all opera, he invented the spine-chilling man hunt in La Fanciulla del West,
and created the character of the slave girl Liù and the scene of her suicide in Turandot.
Added to this, Puccini had the gift of inventing a liquescent, melting melody, the morbidezza of
the typically Puccinian cantilena is irresistible in its effect; there is his magisterial treatment of the
singing voice and there is his masterly exploitation of harmonic, rhythmic and Orchestral devises.
Technically he always kept abreast of the innovations of his time, with Wagner, Debussy and
Stravinsky as his main guides.
It is the accumulation of such gifts which makes Puccini the most important Italian opera composer
since Verdi. Puccini heroines are nearly always more important than his heroes -- seven of his
twelve stage works are called after the name of the heroine.
La Bohème was first performed in Turin 1st Feb 1896: it was not well received by the critics who
had come expecting an opera in the rich romantic vein of Manon Lescaut, whereas the new work was
for the most part a light conversational style of opera, touching on realism. For many musicians of
today the opera that ranks as the composer's masterpiece. Tosca, first performed in Rome on
14th Jan 1900 was Puccini's first excursion into pure verismo.
This was a short-lived movement in Italian opera initiated by Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana
and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Verismo was mainly produced as a reaction against the mythological
music-dramas of Wagner. Tosca has been called a shabby little shocker, the fact, however
remains that it is music theatre par excellence and that Puccini was able to pour an astonishing
amount of sheer lyricism into Sardou's melodrama.
In Madama Butterfly (Milano 17th Feb 1904) based on David Balasco's one-act play after a magazine
story by John Luther Long, which in its turn is based on a real incident, Puccini was most strongly
attracted by the character of the heroine, the very image of a typically Puccinian 'little woman'
with most intense feeling; and the exotic atmosphere fascinated him. It's the first opera of his in
which he used authentic folk tunes; (Japanese) the first performance at La Scala was a fiasco almost
unique in the annals of opera and we are now certain that it was engineered by Puccini's many rivals.
After revision in which the second and final act was divided into two parts, with an interval between,
and various other cuts and alterations, Madama Butterfly achieved an enormous success at
Brescia a few months later in May 1904.
In January 1909 there occurred a great tragedy in the Puccini household the consequences
of which affected the composer to such a extent that for some time to come his creative power
and desire to work was seriously impaired.
Their maid Dora, completely unnerved and made distraught by the persecution of Puccini's
wife who suspected her, wrongly, of being the composer's mistress, committed suicide.
After his latest opera, Puccini wanted to turn his back on tragédie larmoyante and attempt
something of a harder more virile fibre such as he had done in Tosca. This he found in Belasco's
wild west melodrama, The girl of the golden west, which plays among the miners in the Californian
gold rush round 1849. Its mixture of stark realism and sentimentality appealed to the composer,
and since the opera takes place in America it was appropriately first produced at the
Metropolitan N.Y in December 1910. Caruso and Destinn sang the leading roles and Toscanini
conducted, it was a success with the public but not with the critics. In all technical respects,
notably in its Dubussian harmony and Straussian Orchestration, the opera is a masterpiece in
which Puccini also made pointed use of American and Native American tunes.
But it lacks sufficient lyrical incandescence, which is probably the reason that outside
Italy it has never established itself in the regular repertory.
Serious differences with Giulio Ricordi's son Tito, who after his father's death in 1912 became
head of the great publishing firm, was the chief reason for Puccini accepting the offer of two
Viennese theatre directors to write an operetta for them.
The first subject submitted to him he rejected out of hand, but another subject was turned into
an acceptable libretto by Giuseppe Adami, a young playwright and the work was called La Rondine
(the Swallows) Monte Carlo 27th March 1917. The fact, however, that the libretto hovers uneasily
between opera and operetta impeded Puccini's invention and with the exception of the waltz music
in act 2, there is little in La Rondine to hold the attention. Yet perfectionist as he was, Puccini
treated the score with the same technical excellence he displayed in his other operas.
In the following opera Trittico NY 14th December 1918 - Rome 11th January 1919 Puccini adopted
the scheme of the Parisian Grand Guignol in which on one evening a horrific episode was followed
by a sentimental tragedy and ended with a comedy or farce. Il tabarro, the first of Puccini's
triptych, has a libretto adapted by Adami from Didier Gold's La Houppelande, while Suor Angelica
and Gianni Schicchi have a libretti by Giovacchino Forzano who developed the comedy from a few
lines in Canto XXX of the inferno in Dante's Divina Commedia. The most frequently played of these
three one-act operas is Gianni Schicchi which displays a quite unsuspected vis comica in Puccini
and provides a parallel with Verdi's Falstaff.
Latterly il Tabarro has come into its own, for it is most remarkable for its sombre atmosphere
painting and concentrated drama. occasional productions of the entire Trittico, as was always
Puccini's wish, have proved the theatrical viability of his conception.
Puccini had now arrived at the point where he wanted to strike out on new paths, and the result
of this change of direction was Turandot, first performed in Milano 25th April 1926. Turandot is
based on fable of Carlo Gozzi adapted for him by Adami and Renato Simoni. This opera is totally
different from all the operas Puccini had written before and represents his greatest masterpiece in
which are combined the heroic Turandot, Calaf, the lyrical - sentimental Liú, the comic - grotesque
the three masks who go back to the ancient commedia dell'arte and the exotic.
The wide range and diversity of Puccini's operatic vision is defined by La Bohème at one end
and Turandot at the other. Puccini died of cancer of the throat in Brussels on 29th November 1924.
Thus he left the unfinished Turandot, there were just the two last scenes of the
opera to complete, they were completed from his sketches by Franco Alfano.
At the first performance of Turandot (La Scala) Maestro Toscanini laid down his baton when the opera reached the death of Liú, this was
as far as Puccini had reached. The next evening the opera was played with
Puccini ranks as one of the greatest opera composers of all time alongside Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. He is usually regarded as the master verismo composer, although few of his operas are in fact truly verismo works in the mould set by Mascagni.
They are more lyrical and eclectic in style than his contemporaries, his operas blend intense emotion
and theatricality with tender lyricism, colourful orchestration, and a rich vocal line. Puccini was
influenced by Verdi, and later by Wagner, Debussy and even Lehár and Stravinsky although
Puccini's work lacks the grandeur achieved by Verdi.
Puccini once said "The only music I can compose is that of little things".
Many consider him second only to Verdi amongst the Italian composers who lived after Rossini.