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Giacomo Puccini is best known as an opera composer, but he also wrote a handful of choral, solo vocal, and instrumental music. While he incorporates various styles and mimics different cultures, Puccini’s compositional voice is clearly present in his work. From a musical family in Lucca, he left the world with some of its favorite and most performed operas. He was proud and controlling of his art, noting every stage direction in his scores. His operas audiences range from Paris and Rome to Beijing and Nagasaki to California of the Old West in The United States.
Giacomo Puccini (full name Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria) was born on 22 December 1858 in Lucca, Tuscany. He was the fifth of seven children born into a musical family. Puccini came from a long line of musicians, mostly organists and church composers, stretching back to his great-great-grandfather’s time. His mother wanted him to continue the family tradition and sent him to the Instituto Musicale in Lucca. There, his teacher, Carlo Angeloni, gave Puccini his drive for music. Puccini learned piano and organ and travelled to Pisa in 1876 where he saw a performance ofVerdi’s Aïda.This performance is what inspired Puccini to become an opera composer, following in the footsteps of Verdi.
Before leaving Lucca for Milan, Puccini wrote his Messa di Gloria (Mass of Glory), at 18 years old. Its intention was to serve as a musical tribute to his family’s musical legacy. It was nearly forgotten until Dante del Fiorentino, an American priest researching for a book about Puccini in 1951 came across it. A Mass for tenor, baritone, and bass solos, choir, and orchestra, it was first performed in the United States in July 1952 in Chicago. It was revived in Europe later that year. The reviews of the performances in Lucca in 1880 were very similar to the revival over 70 years later, with the newspapers praising the clarity and evenness of the work.
Puccni’s next topic for an opera was Manon Lescaut. Already a successful opera by Jules Massenet, under the titleManon, Puccini began working with a libretto by Domenico Oliva. The libretto would be rewritten by the composer and Ricordi with help from Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa. In the end the published score credited no librettist, a rarity in opera.Manon Lescaut was a major success, Puccini’s first. It is where he found his own compositional style, making him internationally famous.
Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first mature opera. He began work on the opera after Massenet’s was already an established success, which he would later do withLa bohème, his friend Leoncavallo having written his own version of that story already. However,Manon and Manon Lescaut are still in the regular operatic repertoire and Leoncavallo’sLa bohème is an obscure work. It took two years to compose and five librettists to bringManon Lescaut to the stage. It was premiered 1 February 1893 in Turin. It contains the well-known numbers of Donna non vidi mai,sung by the tenor Des Grieux, the orchestral Intermezzo before Act III, and Manon’sTutto dunque è finito. It was a major success for the 35 year old Puccini.
1896’s La bohème was the first of three operas with libretti from Illica and Giacosa. It is a gritty, realistic tale with an impressionist orchestral score. It was conducted at its premiere by Arturo Toscanini, himself beginning an illustrious career. While not an immediate success at its premiere,La bohème was soon produced around the world and is still widely performed today.
David Belasco’s play, Madame Butterfly, was turned into an opera by Puccini with his established librettist team of Illica and Giacosa. It was premiered in Milan in 1904 and was a failure. Despite a stellar cast and a company confident of success, the audience was disruptive throughout. Calls of “That’s from Bohème!” and “Butterfly’s pregnant!” as well as cat calls and other obscenities were heard from the Italian audience. Puccini cancelled the remainder of the run, at a great loss. He reworked the score, changing it from two acts to three and it was represented in Brescia as a great success. The tenor Pinkerton, with arias likeDovunque al mondo and Addio fiorito asil, is completely absent from the second act, leaving the opera to be atour de force for the soprano, especially with her famous second act aria,Un bel dì vedremo. She is the most developed of Puccini’s soprano characters, growing from a shy 15 year old to a vulnerable woman who kills herself in front of her husband.
Puccini’s Il trittico is three operas for a single evening. It contains the dark tale of infidelity and murder,Il tabarro, the tragedy Suor Angelica, and the comedyGianni Schicchi. The trilogy was presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and are still widely performed, either all three together or paired with other short works.
Turandot is the last opera by Puccini, though it was left unfinished by the composer. It is set in Ancient Peking, an exotic locale for the times. At its premiere in 1926, Toscanini stopped the performance where Puccini’s original score ran out of music. The last two scenes have been completed, from sketches, by Franco Alfano, allowing complete performances of the opera. Aged 65, Puccini died of a heart attack, on 29 November 1924, while undergoing cancer treatments.
Puccini’s place in the operatic world cannot be overstated. He is the third most performed opera composer in the world over the past 5 years, behind Verdi and Mozart, both of whom have a larger output to pull from.La bohème is the third most performed opera afterLa traviata and Carmen, with Tosca and Madama Butterflyalso in the top ten. He was also a man of excess and luxury, enjoying rich food, women, and fast cars. He is rightfully called the successor to Verdi as the king of Italian Opera, bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
After these two successes, Puccini was able to build himself a mansion at Torre del Lago near Florence. There he began his next project, based on Victorien Sardou’s playLa Tosca. Puccini’s Tosca was premiered in Rome in 1900, filled with some of the best-known arias in opera. Though it is one Puccini’s most popular works, at the time it divided the critics. One called it “a cheap shocker”.
Another four years passed and the third collaboration with Illica and Giacosa premiered. Puccini saw David Belasco’sMadame Butterfly in London and while he did not speak English, Puccini understood enough of the drama to want to set it to music. Striving to avoid repeating himself, Puccini’s score is filled with an exotic atmosphere with authentic Japanese folk tunes and the opera is a show piece for the skills of the soprano heroine. Due to a plan by his rivals, the premiere in Milan was a failure, but a reworked version was successful in Brescia later in 1904.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York premiered Puccini’s next work, The Girl of the Golden Westin 1910. Set in California during the 1849 gold rush, the opera’s premiere featured Toscanini conducting and Enrico Caruso as the lead Dick Johnson. It has never achieved the success of the trilogy preceding it, but it is still of high quality. This was followed by Puccini’s second failure. He received a request for something akin to a Viennese operetta:La rondine was premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917. A story of a courtesan that leaves the man she loves because of her past, it is filled with waltzes but also many typical Puccini traits.s.
Puccini left Lucca to study with Antonio Bazzini at the conservatory in Milan. There he also studied with Amilcare Ponchielli, composer ofLa Gioconda. A one-act opera competition was announced in 1883 by the publishers Edoardo Sonzogno and Puccini was encouraged by Ponchielli to enter, which resulted in his first operaLe Villi. The libretto was by a journalist named Ferdinando Fontana. The opera did not win: in fact, it was not even mentioned when the prizes were awarded in 1884. Not long after, Puccini attended a party with many influential people present, including the prolific librettist Arrigo Boito. Puccini was asked to sing sections of his opera. This encounter led to the opportunity to produceLe Villi at the Teatro dal Verme in May 1884, which in turn led Verdi’s publisher Ricordi to acquire the rights to Puccini’s opera. He would remain with Ricordi for the rest of his career.
Ricordi commissioned a new opera from Puccini: Edgar took him 5 years to compose. Upon its premiere at La Scala in Milan, it was a failure. What did come out of the experience was Puccini’s relationship with Elvira Gemignani. Gemignani was married and unable to get a divorce in Italy. The affair led to the birth of Puccini’s son in 1886 and the couple married after the death of her first husband in 1904.