Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858 in the Tuscan village of Lucca, Italy. While he came from a long line of musicians, he was the first in his family to become involved in secular rather than church music. He first encountered opera when he walked seven hours to sneak into a performance of Aida. Recognized early in life for his musical talent, he studied composition formally for several years while living a Bohemian existence reminiscent of the characters in La bohème. During these years he developed close friendships with two other composers who were also to have a lasting impact on the direction opera was to take after Verdi – Leoncavallo and Mascagni – and he shared a room with the latter for a number of years.
Though he occasionally wrote other forms of music, Puccini is known almost exclusively today for his operas, numbering twelve in all. He began his career with Le Villi in 1884, which he initially entered in a contest sponsored by the publishing house of Sonzogno. Losing that contest may have been the luckiest break of his life, for it brought him in touch with the rival publisher Giulio Ricordi, who was to play a critical role in shepherding Puccini’s career. While Le Villi is rarely performed today, it was popular enough to mark Puccini as a composer to be watched. In the words of one critic, “We honestly believe that Puccini may be the composer for whom Italy has been waiting for some time.”
About this time, Puccini began a relationship with Elvira, the woman whom he would eventually marry. At that time, however, she was still a married woman, a fact which did not prevent the two from living together and having a child. Following the death of Elvira’s estranged husband the two did eventually marry, but throughout Puccini’s life he would be linked romantically with numerous other women.
Puccini’s next opera, Edgar (1889), was somewhat a step backward, as some beautiful music was overshadowed by an awkward libretto. The composer, however, turned this into a valuable learning experience, and throughout his life he demonstrated an obsessive concern with finding the best subjects for his future operatic projects. One biographer has commented that he rarely read a book or attended a play unless he was examining it as a potential subject for a future opera. The downside of this concern was a vast number of abortive projects, perhaps explaining Puccini’s relatively small operatic output; of his dozen operas, four consist of a single act each.
Puccini’s first lasting triumph came in 1893 with Manon Lescaut. The audience especially loved the tenor arias which established the style that was to mark much of his later music, in which a free-flowing melody follows the text rather than having the text fit into pre-determined musical patterns.
Puccini followed this success with an even greater one in La bohème (1896), based on an episodic novel about the free lives of a group of starving artists. In addition to its appealing story, this opera represented a major step forward in Puccini’s technique, as he placed less emphasis on solo aria and more on a seamless narrative supported by the music.
Following this triumph, Puccini set his sights on Tosca. He had first become interested in the play in 1889, and in 1890 he saw a performance with the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. Though he knew virtually no French, he felt the power of the drama, though he did not immediately follow up on the idea of adapting it as an opera. This talent for feeling the impact of a drama without understanding the words was to be exhibited later in his career as well, as he was able to sense the potential of both Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West despite the fact that he understood very little English.
The story of Puccini’s acquiring the rights to the story of Tosca is somewhat clouded in controversy. According to one popular account, Ricordi originally assigned the libretto to Alberto Franchetti, but when he heard of Puccini’s interest, he tricked Franchetti by convincing him that the story was not refined enough for him, only to offer Puccini the project as soon as Franchetti relinquished it. While late in life Franchetti made this accusation, even claiming that some of the music of the first act was his, this story is contradicted by other accounts, which suggest that Franchetti himself abandoned the project because he did not feel that he could compose music for such a melodramatic subject. Today, most historians consider Franchetti’s claim a case of sour grapes. It is hard to believe today, but before the opera was written, many people doubted the potential of the melodramatic tragedy as the subject for an opera. One of Puccini’s librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa, remarked that whereas La bohème was all poetry and no plot, Tosca was all plot and no poetry.
The opera had its world premiere in Rome (the city in which it was set) on January 14, 1900. While critical response was lukewarm, the public loved it, and it soon took its place in the repertoire.
During a visit to England, Puccini, who was always in search of a new work to adapt, attended a performance of American playwright David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly, and while few biographers accept at face value Belasco’s account of Puccini embracing him after the show and begging for the rights to the story, it is true that the composer immediately began thinking of how he could adapt this drama. The opera had its premiere in 1904, and after it underwent some significant revisions, it also took its place in the repertoire.
With Puccini’s reputation firmly established, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West, 1910) was another triumph, though due to its more complex style of composition, it has unfortunately never achieved the lasting popular appeal of the three operas which preceded it. It was during this time that Puccini experienced a horrific tragedy, one that would haunt him the rest of his life. Knowing his penchant for pretty young women, Elvira openly accused him of carrying on an affair with Doria Manfredi, the couple’s teen-aged maid. Her repeated hysterical accusations eventually drove the young women to suicide, following which an autopsy revealed that the young woman was still a virgin. Only a generous financial settlement with the girl’s family kept Elvira from serving prison time for slander. Though not guilty of this particular incident, Puccini realized that his previous affairs were the cause if Elvira’s jealousy and that he therefore was at least partially responsible for the girl’s death. Many critics have seen the focus on the theme of redemption in La fanciulla as an expression of Puccini’s own longing for forgiveness.
Based on his friendship with Franz Lehar, Puccini then considered composing a Viennese-style operetta, but writing songs joined by spoken dialogue was not Puccini’s style, and while La rondine (1917) has some features of operetta, it is nevertheless an opera. A year later this was followed by Il trittico, a compilation of three one-act operas: Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi (his one purely comic opera), and Il tabarro. Turandot, an ambitious mythological work expressing the redemptive power of love, was to be Puccini’s crowning achievement, but his neglect of his health, in particular his chain smoking, caught up with him, and he died in 1924, leaving the third act incomplete. Franco Alfano dutifully used Puccini’s sketches to complete the score. It was first performed in 1926, though as a memorial to Puccini, the conductor Toscanini chose to omit Alfano’s conclusion at the world premiere, stopping with Liù’s death and proclaiming, “Here the maestro put down his pen.”