Puccini's Life & Works
Italian opera supremo whose brilliantly orchestrated tragedies propelled the art-form into modernity.
(1858 - 1924)
Early Life and Career
Giacomo Puccini was the greatest composer of Italian opera after Giuseppe Verdi. He took the form into the 20th century, writing a series of works that include four of the most popular operas of all time: La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Puccini's family had been church musicians in the city of Lucca for generations. Following his father's death, Giacomo studied music with his uncle, and walked all the way to Pisa to see Verdi's Aida in 1876. It became the defining moment of his early life: from then on, he knew he wanted to become an opera composer.
Puccini acquired funding to allow him to study at the Milan Conservatoire, where his teachers included Amilcare Ponchielli, the renowned composer of La Gioconda. He composed his first opera, Le villi ('The Fairies') for the Sonzogno Competition in 1883. Though he did not win, an 1884 staging of the work attracted the attention of the leading publisher Giulio Ricordi. His second opera, Edgar, made little impact at its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in 1889. But Ricordi kept faith with the composer and was rewarded with the success of Manon Lescaut, Puccini's third opera, in 1893.
Despite strong competition from Massenet's earlier work on the same subject, Puccini's version went on to enjoy an international reputation and ensured his financial security. By this time Puccini had a number of significant rivals in the Italian opera scene. Among them were Pietro Mascagni, his former flatmate, whose Cavalleria rusticana ignited the verismo(realist) movement in Italian opera in 1890, and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who won a similar success with Pagliacci in 1892.
In Puccini's only comedy, Gianni Schicchi is asked to fix a will on behalf of a family so that they inherit, but instead makes himself and his daughter the sole beneficiaries.
A glimpse of pure sunlight in the greedy comedy of Gianni Schicchi, 'O mio babbino caro ('Oh, my adored father') is sung by Schicchi's daughter, Lauretta.
Premiered by Toscanini in 1896, La Bohème overflows with sublime melodies, sumptuously orchestrated, and quickly became the hottest opera ticket in town.
La fanciulla del West
Tickets for the grand Metropolitan Opera premiere of 'The Golden Girl of the West' changed hands on the black market for as much as $150 - which back in 1910 was a small fortune!
Incredibly the La Scala premiere of the radiantly lovely Madama Butterfly was met by jeers, whistles and farmyard noises - the whole thing had been organised by Puccini's jealous musical rivals!
Manon Lescaut secured Puccini's international reputation. George Bernard Shaw was in raptures: 'Puccini now looks more like the heir to Verdi than any of his rivals!'
Tosca caused a sensation at its 1900 Rome premiere, and not just for the music. There was a bomb-scare in the front rows of the stalls before the opera had barely got underway.
Brutal Orientalist drama in which Calaf avoids execution and wins the hand of the ice-cold Princess of Peking having successfully answered three riddles.
Brought to a new audience by the 1990s stadium phenomenon of the Three Tenors, 'Nessun Dorma' is the most famous aria from Turandot.
Masterpieces and Highlights
With his next work, Puccini outpaced them both. La bohème's story of young artists living hand-to-mouth in 1830s Paris was not so distant from the composer's own student experiences in Milan. The emotional authenticity of his music, which dramatises the details of the action and the characters' minutest emotions, touched audiences at the first performance in 1896 and has continued to do so ever since. Next, he turned his attention to an operatic thriller. Tosca (1900) tells a hard-hitting story of intrigue and torture set in the political unrest of Rome in 1800. The eponymous heroine stabs the ruthless police chief Scarpia while trying to save both herself and her lover. Puccini ratchets up the tension from the start, maintaining his hold on audiences through the violent, modernist impact of his harmony and orchestration.
Although it is now among Puccini's best-loved works, the premiere of Madama Butterfly at La Scala in 1904 was a disaster, disrupted by a vocal minority hostile to Puccini's music. He instantly withdrew the opera and it triumphed three months later in a revised form. Its tragic story of a Japanese geisha betrayed by a visiting American sailor is given heartfelt treatment in Puccini's melodies, with the exotic touches of his score delicately depicting the work's Nagasaki setting.
Things took a darker turn for the composer in 1904. He was involved in a serious car accident and there was a major public scandal involving his wife and a suicidal servant girl who was rumoured to have had a relationship with the composer. Audiences had to wait six years for Puccini's next opera, La fanciulla del West ('The Girl of the Golden West' 1910), commissioned and premiered by the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Long neglected, the opera is now achieving the popularity it deserves. It has an epic quality ideally suited to its Californian setting, and a breadth and scale all its own.
During the First World War Puccini produced two major works. The bittersweet romance La rondine ('The Swallow', 1917), tells of the doomed relationship between a courtesan and an innocent young man. Il trittico ('Triptych', 1918) is a set of three one-act operas. The dark drama of Il tabarro ('The Cloak') contrasts with the pastel-shaded sorrow of the tragic nun depicted in Suor Angelica ('Sister Angelica'), and the rumbustious ensemble comedy of Gianni Schicchi reveals a new and unexpected side to Puccini's art.
Late Works and Death
In all these works he continued to develop an ever more sophisticated musical language, while never losing sight of the lyricism that had characterised Italian opera for centuries. Puccini's final opera, Turandot, shows perhaps the greatest development. He chose as his subject an ancient fairy tale set in Peking. Its characters are a Chinese princess who rejects all suitors and has them executed, an unknown prince who finally answers her fatal riddles, and a self-sacrificing slave-girl, Liù, who loves the prince from afar. Puccini used authentic Chinese melodies in the opera, just as he had drawn on Japanese ones in Madama Butterfly.
While composing Turandot, Puccini felt that his powers were at their height. The work is indeed his grandest structure, drawing on the resources of a vast orchestra and giving a major role to the chorus. But the composer's health was failing. He had been a lifelong smoker, and was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1923, travelling to Brussels for pioneering radiation therapy. Puccini survived an operation but his heart failed during his recovery. At his death in 1924, he had completed the bulk of Turandot, but the opera's final duet only existed as sketches.
At the work's 1926 premiere in Milan, conductor Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton at the point where the composer had ceased work. Later, however, a completion by Puccini's younger colleague Franco Alfano came to be accepted as the piece's standard ending, although the avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio composed an alternative conclusion in 2002. It is Puccini's arias that create his music's immediate appeal. But other aspects of his scores - their vivid harmony, superb orchestration and skilful structure - have helped underpin his reputation as one of the most sophisticated as well as the most popular of all opera composers.