Giacomo Puccini, Lucca and its Musicians

In recent years, also thanks to contemporary music experiences, the cultural world has focused its attention on what seems to be Puccini's main gift, his ability to create a highly engaging theatrical work through the use of intimist elements borrowed from Crepuscolarismo. Making no specific reference to historical periods, Puccini universalises the meaning of the opera, thus creating the prototype of film show or television show. Puccini was an exceptional showman, he knew how to express this sense of images through music which is eclectic and consumer but also vital and fluent. It is precisely the ease with which his music can be “consumed” that marks Puccini's modernity.

The present study opens with a short background on Puccini's hometown, Lucca , one of the most important cities in the history of music, and continues with an analysis of his life and work within the European operatic context.

This book is inspired by a previous one written by me, Giacomo Puccini, l'intimismo fatto spettacolo, published by Edizioni dell'Erba, Fucecchio (Firenze), 1993. My thanks are due to Aldemaro Toni who first gave me the opportunity to devote my studies to Puccini, to Chiara Calabrese for her useful suggestions, and to Helen Askham for some help in revising the English.

Puccini today
Lucca and its musicians
Luigi Boccherini
Paganini and Catalani - Istituto Boccherini and Teatro del Giglio
The Puccini family and the young Giacomo
The style of Puccini
Major works: shrewdness and genius
Puccini and Postmodernism

Puccini today

Why Puccini and Postmodernism? Puccini was an interesting case study until the 1950s when audiences acclaimed him but critics were rather sceptical as to the actual quality of his music. Today the debate on “the Puccini case” seems definitely to have come to an end, partly due to the so-called Postmodern culture which has something in common with the great composer.
Turning intimism into drama. In recent years the cultural world, thanks in part to the experience of contemporary composers such as Bussotti, has highlighted what seems to be Puccini's main characteristic, namely, the ability to turn intimistic elements, connected to the Crepuscolarismo movement, into an emotionally absorbing drama. The lack of connection with a specific historical moment universalises the drama, creating the prototype of a film or TV show (as Stravinsky said), therefore anticipating contemporary aspects.
Going beyond genres. Although it is true that Puccini is rather larmoyant (he always includes at least one moving scene), it is also true that nowadays what we call Neo-Romanticism, or the culture of the lightness of being , shows exactly the same characteristics. Undoubtedly Puccini cleverly exploited the theatrical medium, largely anticipating today's studies on mass communication. His music, which also includes everyday (musical) elements, is eclectic but it is precisely this aspect, together with the fact that it goes beyond genres, that makes Puccini's music highly contemporary.
A new perspective places Puccini within postmodern culture. Puccini anticipated Postmodernism from various points of view, his music goes beyond the modern culture which characterised the western world up to the 1970s and therefore seems to be in perfect harmony with the sentimental eclecticism of Postmodernism. There is also an element of novelty in the recent revelations about his private life (a secret son) and especially in the reflections on his operas, in terms of a general re-evaluation of those like Butterfly and La rondine , in which the traditional melodramatic form is much lighter because of that same eclectic nature which characterises the majority of contemporary art forms.
Systems of significance. Puccini – partly consciously and partly unconsciously – distanced himself from the formal aspects of a lofty epic melodrama, to satisfy the needs of an audience aspiring more and more to a new kind of catharsis, a modern purification. Puccini's operas deal with modern epic and Puccini, in order to make them contemporary, simplified the rules of Romantic opera, making it lighter and up-to-date through elementary systems of significance. The time when Puccini was working was the time of the repertoire, of constant reference to works and composers of the cherished past; from Puccini's time onwards there would be a gradual distancing between high-culture art and audience. Avant-garde music would develop within its own little corner, in a kind of exile which would preserve it from banal and vulgar elements but, by preventing it from undergoing the beneficial influence of everyday life, would place it on a purely technical and formal level. Puccini chose a different route. He chose communication, though at a high price, as it was neither easy nor fast. Schoenberg used to say that at a time of mass, consumer culture, art becomes a kind of “message in a bottle” thrown into the mare magnum of the consumer society by an artist who is more and more isolated. Puccini, on the other hand, demonstrated that a positive relationship with the audience was (still) possible, as shown by the fact that in the 1980s and 90s many composers started to write for the music theatre again, and not just Berio, Nono and Bussotti who have always done so, but also Donatoni, Togni, Clementi, Pennisi and Gorli, i.e., traditionally instrumental composers, as well as Corghi, Gentilucci, Giani Luporini and almost all the composers of the following generation (from Sciarrino to Vacchi and many more). A true host of composers who, in accordance with postmodern culture, have re-established the relationship with the audience through music theatre, telling a story and trying to find more communicative forms – though preserving the diversity of languages – placing at the centre of their work a renewed faith in the expressive power of music (and of image), in the same way as Puccini did. This also explains why Puccini's music has often been plundered, and for some of the so-called “neo-romantic” composers we talk about Puccinian remake.

Puccini's women

Inner solitude. Unfaithful and hypersensitive, Puccini had several rather complex love affairs. Having idealised love, he was permanently disillusioned and his moving female characters, much hated by Elvira, were imbued with his own anxiety about love. His relationship with Elvira, though intermittently, was fundamental to Puccini's psychological condition and the way in which he dealt with the heroines of his operas who, in terms of some emotional aspects, derived precisely from the relationship between the Maestro and his wife. It is well-known that when Flaubert was asked from whom he had got inspiration for the character of Madame Bovary he replied “Madame Bovary is me”, could similarly have been said by Puccini as regards the women in his operas. Furthermore, the theme of solitude, dealt with by Puccini, is undoubtedly very modern.

The relationship with Elvira and Corinna. The relationship with Elvira gradually became difficult, they often quarrelled, and things got even worse when Elvira discovered that he was having an affair with Corinna, “an unworthy and vulgar prostitute” as Giulio Ricordi called her. Corinna was a young student whom Puccini had met at a performance of Tosca in Turin in 1900. Their relationship went on for three years and was interrupted by Puccini's car accident in 1903. After the accident, in which he broke a leg, Puccini moved to his villa in Abetone and his relationship with Elvira improved. Moreover, the death of Narciso Geminiani, Elvira's husband, allowed them to get married on 3 January 1904.

Doria and Giulia Manfredi. Shortly after, another woman, Doria Manfredi, employed as a maid at Puccini's villa in Torre del Lago, once again spoilt their relationship. The affair ended in tragedy as Doria, publicly accused by Elvira of being a “prostitute”, committed suicide in 1909 (her family reported raised criminal proceedings against Elvira, she was found guilty and Puccini had to pay 12,000 lire in order to prevent her imprisonment). This event shocked the community of Torre del Lago. Puccini was in Rome where he was overseeing a production of Butterfly , and his friend Caselli wrote to him, “Stay in Rome, there is a bad atmosphere here, Signora Elvira should not have been so hard… do not leave Rome in haste.” In reality Doria Manfredi's story is much more complex. It seems that Puccini had a long lasting affair with her cousin, the young Giulia (born in 1889), which started in 1908 and lasted until his death. Presumably Elvira had noticed something and thought Doria was Giacomo's lover while in reality Doria was simply covering up his relationship with her cousin. There are letters which demonstrate that they were having an affair and they used to arrange their meetings at the cancellino di mezzo (the middle gate) during hunting. From the relationship with Giulia (who died in 1976 aged 87) Antonio was born in 1923. Nadia (born in 1946) is Antonio's daughter and therefore Puccini's granddaughter (today a gentle housewife in her sixties, married to Fabio Di Sacco) and there also seems to be a great-grandchild of Puccini as Nadia has a child.

The secret son. The mystery of Antonio, son of Puccini and Giulia, (bearing the same name as the son born from his relationship with Elvira) was revealed by a box of documents preserved in Nadia's house, a box in which the film director Paolo Benvenuti also discovered some photographs and a film shot in 1914 by Giovacchino Forzano (who was the founder of the Cosmopolitan film studios in Tirrenia).

Sybil Seligman. In 1904 Puccini went to London to attend performances of Manon Lescaut and Tosca , and met Sybil, a woman belonging to a family of musicians and wife of a banker. She became a wonderful friend and confidante. When Puccini was at the Institut la Couronne in Brussels, were he was being treated by Dr Ledoux for throat cancer, Sybil gave Giacomo a cushion on which his death mask was later placed in the Puccini Museum in Torre del Lago.

Lucca and its musicians

The city of Lucca deserves a fundamental place in the history of music, on account of its musical tradition deeply rooted in ancient times. There is mention of a singing school based in Lucca , dating back to as early as the ninth century. Some of the manuscripts preserved in the Biblioteca Capitolare belong to that period, among them, the Codex Carolinus (c. 787). Other interesting texts belong to the twelfth century, including the famous treatise on polyphony called Summa musicae artis . The presence in Lucca of the minstrel Ruggetto da Lucca, of Provençal origin, between 1200 and 1230, is evidence of the fact that during the Middle Ages Lucca was under the influence of secular French song. There are also records of professional musicians working in Lucca at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and creating corporations for the performance of fanfare on religious and civil occasions. The famous Codice di Lucca , a manuscript of the beginning of the fifteenth century, now preserved in the Archivio di Stato , is one of the fundamental sources of Italian Ars Nova . The fifteenth century, in Lucca , was characterised by the work of Johannes Hothby (b 1410; d 1487) who was Maestro di cappella in the cathedral of San Martino between 1467 and 1468, and who laid the foundation of the future development of polyphonic music in the city. This period saw the construction of an extraordinary number of organs, including the organ of the cathedral where the organists in that period were important musicians such as Ludovico da Milano, Nicola Malvezzi and Jacopo Corfini.
Giuseppe Guami (b Lucca , 1542; d Lucca , 1612) was the best exponent of a family of Lucchese musicians which included his brother Giuseppe. The Dorati family was another important family of musicians, and the first to make a reputation for himself was Nicolao ( b Lucca , 1513; d Lucca , 1593) who, between 1557 and 1593, was Maestro of the newly created Cappella Palatina which consisted of five singer-players. This chapel was later directed by musicians such as Alessandro Ghivizzani, Bernardino Roncaglia, Lorenzo Gregori, Giuseppe Montuoli and Francesco Geminiani (b Lucca, 1687; d Dublin, 1762) violinist and composer, one of the first Lucchese musicians to become internationally renowned thanks to his treatises, concerti grossi and sonatas. His Art of Playing the Violin (London 1740) was the first violin method ever to be published. Francesco Gasparini ( b Camaiore, nr. Lucca , 1668; d Rome , 1727) composer, pupil of Corelli and Pasquini, wrote many operas, oratorios, cantatas and church music. Among his contemporaries was the above mentioned Lorenzo Gregori (b Lucca , 1663; d Lucca , 1749) who brought the concerto grosso form to perfection. Francesco Barsanti (b Lucca , 1690; d London , 1776), a highly respected musician, a friend of Geminiani and composer of a number of quite interesting Concerti grossi is also worthy of mention.
Between 1600 and 1700 the oratorios were performed at the church of Santa Maria Corteorlandini (in 1765 Luigi Boccherini composed two oratorios which were probably performed there between Christmas and Epiphany), while the church of Gli Angeli Custodi was in charge of the organisation of the Sacre Veglie (the evenings preceding sacred festivals ) which took place every two years during the festivities organised for the general election, called Tasche (ballot-boxes), when the Great Council of the Republic was elected. In this occasion, for three days, a theatrical performance was held in the Palazzo dei Signori. Some Academies had their own theatre, like the Accademia dei Freddi and the Accademia degli Accesi , and many more were built in the outskirts of the city (e.g. at Camigliano and Marlia). Another important musical event took place during the festivities of Santa Croce (13-14th September), which is still the city's most important religious event, dedicated to the Volto Santo (holy countenance), the magnificent wood statue preserved in the cathedral. During these festivities operas and ballets were held at the Teatro Pubblico (today, the Teatro del Giglio ). The grand finale took place on the evening of 13 September when there were fireworks and a procession in which the authorities of the town, the local aristocracy and representatives from the communes and castles subject to the Republic of Lucca took part, and which ended up in the cathedral where a Mottettone (Great Motet) for eight voices was performed. The Mottettone was always composed by a Lucchese composer (among the most famous there is one composed by Giacomo Puccini Snr., which was performed for several years, one by his son Antonio and one by Michele Puccini composed in 1845). It seems that all the musicians who took part in the performance received a sum of money and in 1767 there was such a crowd of musicians on the platform that it was impossible for them to play. The following year the Maestro di cappella Giacomo Puccini Snr. decided that no more that sixty-two musicians would be allowed to play. Revelling was very popular at Carnival time when, especially during the eighteenth century, masked dances and drama performances took place.

Luigi Boccherini

Luigi Boccherini (b Lucca , 1743; d Madrid , 1805) was a very gifted composer who is probably mainly known for the famous minuet from a String Quintet in E. He was the first composer to inject a special grace into music and move away from virtuosity and showmanship in favour of music as music having its own intrinsic value. Although a prolific composer a trunk of his work and manuscripts were destroyed in a fire in Madrid in 1936 during the civil war. There remains 20 symphonies, 11 cello concertos, 91 string quartets, 154 quintets, and the arrangements for guitar of some of them, sonatas, 60 trios and much church music. The son of a cellist and double bass player, Boccherini became a virtuoso cellist under his father's tutelage, and made his début at the age of thirteen at the Monastery of San Domenico, in August, and then at the Monastery of San Micheletto, in September at the end of the festivities of Santa Croce.
Boccherini was a prolific author of chamber works, and he wrote many quartets, quintets and symphonies which sprang from an extraordinary creative power combining harmonic adventurousness with melodic profundity. Being one of the first composers of quartets he also established the first famous string quartet in which he played with the violinists Pietro Nardini (from Livorno) and Filippo Manfredi (from Lucca), and the viola player Giovanni Giuseppe Cambini (also from Livorno). Around 1766 he embarked on a tour of France and Spain with the virtuoso Filippo Manfredi (b Lucca, 1729; d Lucca, 1777) and in 1797 he moved on to Madrid where he came under the patronage of the Infante Don Luis, younger brother of the king. After Don Luis's death he was granted a pension by the king of Spain but he found a new patron in the person of Friedrich Wilhelm, soon to become king of Prussia. At the same time he was composer to the Benavente-Osuna family in Madrid . When both of these sources of patronage came to an end, Lucien Bonaparte became his new patron for a time. Boccherini also wrote La Clementina , a kind of opera with dialogue and musical pieces, to the libretto of the poet Ramon de la Cruz; and the Stabat Mater, his masterpiece according to many, of which he made two versions. The first, (1781), for soprano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, was written primarily for the taste of the Court of Don Luis (at that time exiled in the Asturias ). The second, (1800), for two sopranos, one tenor and strings, was written in accordance with the taste of the time which, even in church music, required the full sonority of opera. While the first version remained unpublished until a few years ago, this second version became popular immediately and was considered the best example of a Stabat Mater together with the one by Pergolesi. Boccherini's remains were moved from Madrid to the Basilica di San Francesco in Lucca in 1927, their recent exhumation and the scientific studies following it, resulted in a very interesting cast of Boccherini's face now preserved in the Istituto Musicale “L. Boccherini” .

Paganini and Catalani - Istituto Boccherini and Teatro del Giglio

In 1799, during the French occupation, the ancient Republic of Lucca was given by Napoleon Bonaparte to his sister Elisa and her husband Felice Baciocchi and became a Principality. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Niccolò Paganini was first violinist and conductor of the orchestra of the Cappella Palatina at Elisa Baciocchi's court. In the same period Domenico Quilici (b Lucca , 1757; d Lucca , 1831), who belonged to a family of musicians and was a prolific composer of sacred music and operas, founded a private music school which became a publicly run school in 1812. In 1835 Giovanni Pacini (b Catania , 1796; d Pescia, nr. Lucca, 1867) composer and teacher, well known author of operas (he composed ninety in all, mostly in the Rossini comic manner, except for Saffo), founded a music school in Viareggio which was then moved to Lucca in 1842 and, at his death, acquired his name which it kept until 1943, the year of the bicentenary of the birth of Luigi Boccherini, when the school was dedicated to the great cellist and composer. Among his students were his nephew Giacomo and Alfredo Catalani (b Lucca , 1854; d Milan , 1893) who composed a number of operas of which La Wally (1892) was the best and most popular. In 1872, for just one year, Fortunato Magi was director of the Musical Institute, and was followed by illustrious musicians such as Gaetano Luporini (b Lucca , 1865; d 1948), Sebastiano Caltabiano (b 1899; d 1987), Enzo Borlenghi ( b Riva del Garda 1908; d Viareggio 1995) ,Gaetano Giani Luporini (b Lucca , 1936; grandson of Gaetano Luporini Snr.). The present director is Renzo Cresti (cf. www.boccherini.it ).
Another important institution connected with the musical life of the city was the old Teatro Pubblico which was inaugurated in 1675 but fell into disuse during the Napoleonic period. It was then reconstructed under the Bourbons and re-opened in 1819 with the name Teatro del Giglio . It has always been, and still is, the most important theatre in the city, where the opera, concert and theatre seasons take place. It was in this Theatre that Rossini's William Tell , in France a failure, had its successful Italian prèmiere in 1831, and it was here that the French tenor Louis Duprez was to substitute the traditional tenor's falsetto with a ringing top C from the chest register, a revolutionary innovation.

The Puccini family and the young Giacomo 

The first Puccini to make a reputation as a composer was Giacomo Snr. (b Celle , a tiny mountain village about 30 km . from Lucca , 1712; d Lucca , 1781) celebrated composer of sacred music, Maestro of the Cappella Palatina and cathedral organist. His son, Antonio Benedetto (b Lucca , 1747; d Lucca , 1832), inherited his father's appointments. He married Caterina Tesei of Bologna and their son Domenico Vincenzo (b Lucca , 1772; d Lucca , 1815) was the first member of the Puccinis to turn his attention to the theatrical style often to be found also in sacred music. Domenico's son, Michele (b Lucca , 1813; d Lucca , 1864), was a composer, violinist and teacher. In 1852 he was appointed director of the Musical Institute. Michele had two sons, Domenico Michele (b Lucca, 1864; d Rio de Janeiro, 1891), a pianist and voice teacher who died in Rio de Janeiro while still young, and the famous Giacomo who was born in Lucca, in Corte San Lorenzo, on 22 December 1858 and died in Brussels on 29 November 1924. Giacomo's mother, Albina Magi, was the sister of Fortunato Magi (b Lucca , 1839 ; d Venice , 1882) who was a teacher of organ, harmony, counterpoint and composition at the Musical Institute.
Giacomo was not a child prodigy. He was a poor student, even in music - until his teacher introduced him to opera. His passion for opera fuelled his drive to study hard. Giacomo was the fifth of seven children (five daughters and two sons). He started studying under the guidance of his maternal uncle, Fortunato Magi, and later under Carlo Angeloni who taught him the operatic repertoire of Giuseppe Verdi. Giacomo became so fond of Verdi that he walked from Lucca to Pisa to see Aida in 1876. As a student, Giacomo was rather indolent and restless, two aspects of his personality which characterised his whole life. He was organist at various churches in Lucca , and in the country parishes of Mutigliano and Pescaglia. In particular, he used to play the piano in tourist resorts, in order to earn money for cigarettes and to pay for his regular visits to brothels. He also performed for the guests at the brothel in Via della Dogana in Lucca , which gave him a bad reputation with the respectable people of the town. He was tormented by the idea of women all through his life, thus inviting psychoanalytical interpretations of his female characters, particularly because of his love/hate attitude to the heroines of his operas.

Melancholy: under the sign of Capricorn. Born under the sign of nostalgic sadness and pessimistic anxiety Puccini was a Saturnian, accompanied all through his life by a vague hypochondria and a painful sense of duty, but it is also true that melancholy is one of the main Romantic themes, therefore Puccini's malaise is the equivalent of the ennui which from Schubert onwards marked the nineteenth century and, at the end of it, developed in the mood typical of the Crepuscolare school of poetry. Carducci's poem Nostalgia is dated 1874, and the decadent mal de vivre coexisted with the Verismo movement. Puccini borrowed many of the major characteristics of both Crepuscolarismo and Verismo with which he imbued his operas, unconsciously giving life to the poetics of the ordinary , transfigured by a moving sound.

In 1880 he took his diploma at the Musical Institute with a mass for four voices and orchestra (published in 1951 with the title Messa di Gloria), including a motet and a Credo he had written in 1878 for the celebrations for San Paolino, the city's patron saint. The choice of the mass form already shows his interest in operatic music, because even though this is a liturgical composition, it is highly theatrical, and reveals his inclination towards theatrical music. In order to have a career as an opera composer he had to get out of Lucca, just as eight years earlier Catalani had made his way to Paris. Giacomo decided to enrol at the Conservatory of Milan, where he started taking lessons from the well known composer and violinist Antonio Bazzini in December 1880. He took his diploma in 1883 with a composition entitled Capriccio Sinfonico which had considerable success, gaining the favour of the most influential critic of the Milan musical world, Filippo Filippi who reviewed it in a newspaper called Perseveranza. He praised the “homogeneous style, free of uncertainties and confusion” of the work, which is characterised by a dramatic dynamism which flows with melancholic sensuality. These are all traits to be found in Puccini's later work.
Puccini was strongly attracted to some of the stylistic traits in Carmen , such as the fluency of the libretto and the adaptation of the dramatic movement to the development of the plot, the continuous juxtaposition of the happy and the melancholy, the colourful orchestration, the definition of harmonies through voice. The agility and liveliness of Parisian Operetta attracted also Puccini's attention, their stories told with soft, sensual voices and lively, lulling rhythms. Puccini was thus inspired on one hand by French music but also, and most important, by Verdi's mature work on the other. Verdi's example, characterised by formal unity and vocal purity, was only partly absorbed by Puccini, who was attracted to a more spectacular concept, both formally complex and musically enveloping.

The style of Puccini 

In 1883 the publisher Sonzogno organised a one-act opera competition. Ponchielli, under whose guidance Puccini had studied at the Conservatory in Milan , sensing his pupil's operatic potentiality, persuaded him to enter the competition and introduced him to the poet Fontana who wrote the libretto for Le Villi (The Willis). The competition was won by Zuelli and Mapelli. Although rejected by the jury, Puccini's work was performed, thanks to the help of some of his friends, including Boito and the publisher Giulio Ricordi with whom he bagan a long lasting collaboration. The first performance of Le Villi at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 31 May 1884, proved to be a colossal success. Mascagni, who had shared his lodging with Puccini in Milan for a period of time, was one of the double bass players in the orchestra. In this early work Puccini already shows his melodic technique built on a phrasing based on initial thematic ideas, that is constantly going back to the starting point (an easily memorised phrasing).
Le Villi. After his mother's death, under whose influence he had grown up, Giacomo's need to fill the emotional gap left by this loss led him to look for the support of a woman able to replace his mother's love and authority. He started an affair with Elvira Bonturi, the wife of his Lucchese friend Narciso Geminiani and the mother of two children, thus plunging himself into a complex relationship which satisfied his sense that love implied punishment. Anna, the protagonist of Le Villi, is the first of Puccini's characters to be punished for the sin of love, followed by Fidelia in Edgar who is stabbed to death. Love towards women was unconsciously felt by Puccini both as the betrayal of a mother's love and as an incestuous feeling. The joy of this first success was marred for Giacomo by the death of his mother, to whom he was very much attached. Faraway from home in Milan and in search of consolation, he flung himself into the arms of a handsome married young woman, Elvira Bonturi.
Edgar, his second Opera was completed in 1888 and first performed in Milan on 21 April 1889 at La Scala , the theatre where Verdi's Otello was performed for the first time on December 1887. Edgar is an opera full of fine musical ideas but composed to a poor, melodramatic libretto which hampered its success. In this initial phase of his career, Puccini is still under the influence of a naturalistic concept of opera typical of the nineteenth century, with characters moulded on the example of Bizet's Carmen, the result being a realistic musical interpretation which he later abandoned in favour of a style in which singing constitutes the framework of the opera, and where Carmen 's realistic approach and the flexible articulation of Otello are maintained, but adapted to the requirements of a theatrical rhetoric aimed at making entertainment out of sentimental anxieties.

Major works: shrewdness and genius

Blessed with a natural capacity of assimilation which allowed him to absorb the musical languages of his own time with ease, Puccini synthesised them into a form which though not particularly original, appeared to be extremely flexible, up-to-date and full of touches of genius. Instinctively cultured and possessing the traditional and very Italian sense of melody and theatre, Puccini was able to create exactly what his public wanted. He adapted librettos and music to their taste, carried out an empirical but effective analysis of the way people wanted to hear opera and what they liked, and studied receptive, emotional and involvement mechanisms. Puccini's public was made up of lower middle class people, who were generally illiterate and self-centred, sentimental and lazy. Rather cunningly however he did not address daily minutiae of their lives directly, but universalised them by referring to expressive categories (such as pathos, everyday feelings, the yearning search for love etc.) rather than to specific historical elements, hence the dramatic superiority of his works and the everlasting success compared with those of his Verismo colleagues. It seems that the ingenuous Catalani on his death bed (therefore with no hidden purpose) understood the speculative character of Puccini's sentimentalism and confided to Toscanini, “That man isn't sincere”.
Manon Lescaut. In the isolated village of Torre del Lago , only 20 km. from Lucca, Puccini found in his own words, “Turris eburnean, Paradiso, Eden ”. In two rooms in a tatty old house on the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli , he breathed life into the feverish love story of Manon and the Chevalier Des Grieux. Manon, first performed in Turin at the Teatro Regio on 1 February 1893, confirmed Puccini as a musician capable of producing that languor, that soothing tenderness which the public was looking for. Manon 's libretto, based on Prévost's novel, was the work of a group which included Leoncavallo, Praga, Oliva, Ricordi, Illica, Giacosa and an extremely meticulous Puccini. This shows the importance that the libretto was acquiring in the eyes of the musician in Italian theatre, and Puccini, even when he started working with Illica and Giacosa, and later with Adami, personally contributed to both the general structure of the libretto and the actual writing of the lines. Most of the librettos were adaptations from novels or plays, mainly French, as the historical novel was more developed in France than in Italy . Operatic adaptations from famous novels guaranteed success, being based on an already widely known text. Manon dies in Des Grieux's arms, the longed-for freedom idealistically ends in death. Wagner's Tristan und Isolde had long before demonstrated that death was the only sublimation of love and that suffering could be sweet, but in Puccini, passion is joined with tenderness, heroic fervour is replaced by courtesy, and rebellion by submissiveness, so that the highly dramatic mood of early Romanticism is replaced by the vague sadness typical of Crepuscolarismo. Puccini's cantilena springs from trite, commonplace devices. Commercial musical forms can be found everywhere in his works, from marches to hymns, form dances to pastiche . Puccini knew that only through the exploitation of these popular forms could his operas acquire an immediate impact. A few clear melodic ideas, proceeding almost automatically, characterise the whole structure of his compositions where a simple, fluent movement of voice and orchestra, with the melody going from voice to instruments, creates a kind of leitmotif which neither develops nor acquires dramatic significance.

La Bohème. Much encouraged by the result of Manon , an absolute triumph, Puccini flung himself into his work with renewed enthusiasm. He chose as his next subject Henri Murger's Scene de la vie de bohème (1847) and his identification with this world populated by penniless artists and pretty seamstresses was total, and intimately connected with his own firsthand experiences as a student. The public adored Mimì. The popularity of the opera liberated Puccini from all financial preoccupations. Bohème, first performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1896, with Toscanini as conductor, is a masterpiece of characterisation, sentiment and craftsmanship. The short and agile articulation of the four acts, the perfect correspondence between libretto and musical structure, the skilful movement from cantabile to rapid declamation, the tendency to depict particular moments (such as the blazing fireplace, the snowflakes, etc.) with music; these are all positive aspects peculiar to Bohème, supported by successfull technical devices such as the use of the augmented fifth which produces a pleasant discord and confers a vaguely sad and tragic mood, made even more vague by “impressionistic” orchestration. The libretto is based on a text which had already attracted Leoncavallo's interest. Fifteen months after the première of Bohème in Turin , Leoncavallo's opera, Bohème, was performed. It suffered in comparison with Puccini's and caused the rupture of their friendship. The decision to base the libretto on the play, rather than on the novel written by Murger, demonstrates Puccini's wish to emphasise the passive and pathetic aspects of Mimì's character, perfectly reflected in the music, with the intention of moving an audience, passively sitting in the theatre, to cathartic tears. (A few years earlier De Amicis had done something similar with his book Cuore , and later the minor Crepuscolarismo poets did the same thing).
There are often said to be autobiographical elements in Bohème linked to the composer's student days in Milan (1880-83). Those who know Lucca however recognize immediately the arrival of the milk-sellers at the city gates as glimpse of lucchese life a century ago. And appropriately they head towards San Michele, the epicentre of lucchese life.
La Bohème , act III, The Enfer Gate “tall houses and February fog”
Peasant women: - “butter and cheese... poultry and eggs” (they pay and customs guards let them pass) - “Which way are you going?”
- “To san Michele!”
Tosca. If Bohème was at the root of the quarrel between Puccini and Leoncavallo, it was Tosca that caused the rupture with Franchetti who had thought of setting Sardou's play to music before Puccini did. Puccini's repeated choice of a realistic subject was due to an unavowed wish to compete with those musicians who had won great success thanks to the so-called Verismo style of their Operas, such as Giordano with Malavita, Mascagni with Cavalleria rusticana and Leocavallo with Pagliacci. Tosca , an opera in three acts to the libretto by Illica and Giacosa, was produced in Rome at the Teatro Costanzi on 14 January 1900. Tosca is less sentimental and sweet than Mimì, less tender and willing to sacrifice herself than Manon. She is a well depicted character, the protagonist of a passionate and adventurous story where things run so fast that it is impossible to present the psychological aspects of individual characters who are instead given a specific role from the beginning, namely the woman lover, the man lover and the evil man. The music does not develop, but is built upon a series of evocative repetitions which constantly guide the audience. Puccini exploits this technique with its repeated forms widely. This is what Mahler, who had already conducted Le Villi and would later conduct Madama Butterfly, wrote about Tosca to his wife, in a letter of 1903: “Before the execution I got up and went away. There is no need to say that here Puccini once again demonstrates his great mastery, on the other hand anyone can do an excellent orchestration nowadays.” Thus, although admitting Puccini's ability and shrewdness, Mahler also draws attention to the bad taste of the torture scene, the cross on the breast, the candles next to the corpse and so on, a mixture of heterogeneous ideas and images which the conductor and composer Leibowitz saw as anticipating Alban Berg's theatre. Puccini was a perfectionist. He set high standards for himself and everyone else involved in his operas. He worked tirelessly with the sopranos who played his heroines. "He went over the music step by step, phrase by phrase," recalled Maria Jeritza, Puccini's favourite Tosca. "He moulded me. I was his creation."
Madama Butterfly . Puccini travelled a lot, partly to supervise the productions of his operas in the most important cities in Europe, and partly because he was restless, and eternally on the look-out for new subjects to set to music. He saw the play of Madama Butterfly in London , The girl of the Golden West in New York and Gozzi's Turandot drama in Berlin. After the tragic history of Tosca , Puccini began to look for a more serene subject. He studied various subjects, including some of D'Annunzio's, but in the end he chose David Belasco's play Madama Butterfly . The work was a failure at its Milan première on 12 February 1904, but Puccini re-cast it in three acts for the performance at the Teatro Grande, Brescia, three months later, on 28 May, where it was acclaimed as a triumph. The years preceding the creation of this “Japanese tragedy” were tormented. On 27 January 1901 Verdi died and though there had been no real feeling of friendship between the two, and although Puccini had hardly mentioned Verdi in his letters and diaries, he was seriously affected by the news of his death. In 1902 Puccini's love affair with a lady called Corinna caused a family crisis and a crisis in his relationship with the moralistic Giulio Ricordi. In 1903 he had a serious car accident. During his convalescence, he completed Madama Butterfly on 27 December and seven days later in a civil ceremony he married Elvira Bonturi, whose husband had died that very same night Puccini had his accident.
The failure of the Milan première was mainly due to Tito Ricordi's dull staging. The Opera was criticised by several musicians and described as “indecent” by Busoni and “absurd” by Pizzetti. As is often the case in Puccini, the setting of the opera is shown right at its opening, casting the story in an unreal atmosphere, depicting an unlikely and far too domestic Japan. Ornamental exoticism becomes a form of escapism, damaging the musical character of the opera which is built on winding melodic lines, similar to the sensual curves of Art Nouveau. Melody springs from recitative; repeated notes expand into intervals producing entrancing short melodic phrases which bring to mind Tchaikovsky's morbid sensuality. These short phrases are supported by an orchestration which is a kind of musical pointillisme. At the beginning of the twentieth century Puccini had to face continuous comparison with European opera, in particular with the works of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy. The Futurists, and musicians such as Malipiero and Casella were developing musical concepts which were quite different from Crepuscolarismo and Verismo and their music soon became decidedly anti-romantic. Puccini started thinking about a subject taken from Oscar Wilde (to compete with Strauss whose Salomè was having exceptional success) and once again he thought of a subject taken from D'Annunzio, but fortunately he rejected both. In the meantime his operas were being performed all over the world and he undertook a number of journeys to supervise various productions.
La fanciulla del West. After seeing the American melodrama by Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West, in New York in 1907, he decided to set the libretto by Zanganini to music, which caused Illica to put an end to their collaboration. Puccini's new opera was first performed at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York on 10 December 1910, and the Italian première took place in Rome the following year. This work clearly shows Puccini's wish to respond to his unpopularity with the new musical culture and to be abreast of the times, especially if we consider the importance given to the orchestra. From the point of view of harmony it is less trite than some of his previous operas. There are only a few repeated melodies, and the phrasing varies from the colloquial to more lyrical moments. Though still widely exploiting the mood typical of Crepuscolarismo and realism, Puccini modified the en rose sort of sentimentalism, melodrama and D'Annunzio-type excess. He reduced all these aspects without eliding them, and his modernity is based precisely on this eclecticism, on his ability to transform even less significant or bad taste details, into an involving experience both from the spectacular and from the emotional point of view. Here is what Stravinsky said of La fanciulla del West: “An equestrian opera extraordinarily suited to television, with a sheriff and professional Indians like the Indians who parade in Santa Fe .” Thus Puccini, making use of sentiment to create entertainment, anticipated TV movies. For Puccini it became more and more difficult to find a subject for a new opera and the difficulty increased after the death, in 1912, of Giulio Ricordi who had advised and guided him, albeit paternalistically and with an eye to business. On June 1915 Italy joined World War One and at first Puccini sympathised with Germany , until he realised that this could damage his position, since fervent nationalists such as Toscanini and D'Annunzio might obstruct performance of his Operas.
La rondine. Soldiers were dying in trenches and the average uncommitted Italian was looking for ways to escape from and blur the crude reality of war, and Puccini satisfied his public. Written in the early years of the war and first performed in Montecarlo on 27 March 1917, La rondine (The Swallow) is an extreme example of Puccini's detachment from the reality of his own times. There are no round characters in La rondine , and the music is euphonic and lacks creative power, all of which are negative aspects also to be found in the one-act operas of Il trittico (The Tryptich), Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and Gianni Schicchi, produced in New York at the Metropolitan Theatre in December 1918, and at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, in January of the following year.
Il tabarro is characterised by a gloomy atmosphere created by repetition. The lack of melodic inventiveness is also to be found in Suor Angelica but here Puccini wisely chose not to use Gregorian chant and other antique forms, thus avoiding pastiche , and produced more daring modulations through the exploitation of harmonic techniques characterised by fourths.
Gianni Schicchi is built around the bourgeois myth of inheritance. Here again Puccini exploited commercial forms to which the public was always glad to respond.
Turandot. These later works greatly suffer from this latent commercialism, particularly noticeable in the lack of melodic originality. Puccini was conscious of this, and when he started working on Turandot in 1920, he said he wanted to create it “with modern brains”, that is by avoiding commercial music and artificial sentimentalism. He knew Carlo Gozzi's Turandot , or at least he knew the opera in three acts by Busoni written to his own libretto after Gozzi. Puccini's work based on Gozzi's tale was slowed down by several uncertainties and at his death on 29 November 1924, the work was left unfinished at the death of Liù. At the suggestion of Toscanini, who conducted the première at La Scala on 25 April 1926, the work was completed by Franco Alfano using Puccini's sketches (in 2002 Luciano Berio rewrote the final part.). Gozzi's tales were rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, and given an anti-romantic interpretation by Prokof'ev and, by Malipiero in Italy , but sentimental elements are still to be found in Puccini's interpretation, especially in the character of Liù, and in the depiction of the setting. The only aspect of this work with a more objective approach is the comic-grotesque element of the three masks, a kind of small chorus who converse in short phrasing based on pentatonic scales. Once again Puccini makes use of commercial popular music and pathos in the character of Liù, who was created by Puccini himself and totally absent in Gozzi's work. Characterised by fluent melody which is almost too cleverly beguiling, this opera, with its elegant harmony and orchestration, was outstanding in the national context but appeared already outdated in European terms. The use of orchestral continuo , parallel fifths and the variety of timbres had already been used, at an international level, in the previous century. The musical structure of Turandot is vaguely reminiscent of the oratorio form, with its broad choral symphonic pieces leading to the melodic expansion, the latter being the only true sublimation of the feelings of the individual characters.
An inveterate smoker, Puccini died of heart failure in Bruxelles, on 29 november 1924, after an operation for throat cancer. In 1926, Puccini's mortal remains were brought from Milan to Torre del Lago, where he was laid to rest in the Villa Puccini, which looks out over the lake, there in the place from which he had drawn so much of his inspiration.
Villa Puccini. The landscaped piazza in front of the Villa Puccini was constructed shortly after the composer's death. It was here that the first season in honour of Puccini's operas took place in 1930, on that occasion Mascagni conducted Bohème . In 1968 the Puccini Festival moved to a new site on reclaimed land to the north of the harbour. Every year, in July and in August, the Puccini Festival offers fine performances of the composer's masterpieces. Puccini wrote in a letter to Giovacchino Forzano, in November 1924: “I always come out here and take a boat to go and shoot snipes /…/ but once I would like to come here and listen to one of my operas in the open air.” In Lucca , in piazza Cittadella , in front of Puccini's native house, the Maestro is portrayed on an armachair while smoking a cigarette, with a natural posture. The bonze statue, by Vito Tongiani, was commissioned for the 70th anniversary of Puccini's death, on 29 november 1994.

Puccini and Postmodernism

Postmodernis, here, is a synonym for multiplicity and show business, marketing and mass art, and a metaphor for a hectic drawing on the past and for the impossibility of achieving unity. This modernity can be found in Puccini's stylistically eclectic works of more questionable taste and form. It was thanks to French opera that Puccini learned how to combine show business and intimism, adopting a morbid and intriguing sensibility. The autobiographical element is expressed through repressed emotions resulting in a fragile poetry. Puccini's captivating melodic lines, on the other hand, are aimed at building up a clear cut theatrical dynamics and the intimacy of the sound draws the audience into the mechanisms of the mis-en-scène.
Puccini's operas are characterised by a crepuscolare sensibility. His characters are afflicted by a sought for melancholy and timeless tender sorrow, the atmosphere is rarefied, the settings clichéd and the elegiac rhythm leads to cathartic tears. Puccini makes theatre out of emotions through a sad cantilena expressing ennui . By avoiding desolate, tragic tones, he infuses a reassuring relief, a sweet melancholy until the final purification obtained by the sacrifice of the female protagonist. There has never been anyone better able than Puccini to make the audience responsible for the action on stage, through their emotional involvement.
In the way they express the collective imagination, Puccini's operas are very close to cinema art, a complex art born after he died, whose hybrid materials acquire an extraordinary significance. The music is often tautological in order to stimulate an emotional reaction which on one hand emphasises the rhetorical aspects and on the other metabolises them, creating a fundamental connection between art and life. Opera opens itself to a collective space, to all sorts of external elements, very different in nature from the opera form but possessing their own powerful language. Thus, in this process of intellectual and cultural popularisation, the opera has found public approval. Such is Puccini's art, in that it establishes a true common ground with its audience, through contact with everyday life, which constitutes its essence, with everyday language, spoken by ordinary people, where modernity is simbolised by the spectacular which springs from crepuscolare intimism and universalises it.


Le Villi (The Willis) opera-ballet in one act to the libretto by F. Fontana based on folk-legend (prod. Milan, Teatro del Verme , 31 May 1884). Rev. version in two acts (prod. Turin, Teatro Regio, 26 December 1884)

Edgar opera in four acts to the libretto by F. Fontana after A. De Musset's verse-drama La Coupe et ses lèvres (1832), (prod. Milan, Teatro all Scala, 21 April 1889)

Manon Lescaut opera in four acts after Prévost's novel Manon Lescaut (1731), to the libretto by R. Leoncavallo, M Praga, D. Oliva, L. Illica, G. Giacosa, G. Ricordi and G. Puccini (prod. Turin, Teatro Regio, 1 February 1893)

La Bohème (Bohemian Life) opera in four acts to the libretto by L. Illica and G. Giacosa, based on Murger and Barrière's play La vie de Bohème after Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1847-9), (prod. Turin, Teatro Regio, 1 February 1896)

Tosca opera in three acts to the libretto by L. Illica and G. Giacosa based on Sardou's play La Tosca (1887), (prod. Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 14 January 1900)

Madama Butterfly, Japanese tragedy in two acts to the libretto by L. Illica and G. Giacosa based on Belasco's play (1900) which in turn was taken from a story by J. L. Long (prod. Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 17 February 1904). New version in three acts (prod. Brescia, Teatro Grande, 28 May 1904)

La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) opera in three acts to the libretto by G. Civinini and C. Zangarini based on Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West (1905), (prod. New York, Metropolitan theatre, 10 December 1910; first perf. in Italy: Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 12 June 1911)

La rondine (The Swallow) opera in three acts to the libretto by G. Adami translated from the German libretto by A. M. Willner and H. Reichert (prod. Montecarlo, 27 March 1917)

Il Trittico (The Triptych) set of three one-act operas comprising Il tabarro (The Cloak) to the libretto by G. Adami after D. Gold; Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) to the libretto by G. Forzano; Gianni Schicchi to the libretto by G. Forzano; (prod. New York, Metropolitan Theatre, 14 December 1918; first perf. in Italy: Rome, Teatro Costanzi, 11 January 1919).

Turandot, (his last work, the final scene being completed by F. Alfano), opera in three acts to the libretto by G. Adami and R. Simoni after C. Gozzi (prod. Milan, Teatro alla Scala, 25 April 1926).

From Renzo Cresti, Puccini e il Postmoderno, English Version by Chiara Calabrese (Edizioni dell'Erba, Fucecchio 2007) and from Renzo Cresti, Giacomo Puccini, Lucca and its Musicians, Maria Pacini Fazzi, Lucca 1998, traslated by Chiara Calabrese

Renzo Cresti - sito ufficiale