xxxxxThe Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, born into a family with a long history of musical achievement, gained fame with his Manon Lescaut, produced in 1893. This was followed by four operas which became popular the world over and have remained so ever since. La Bohème was first performed in 1896, Tosca and Madame Butterfly in the early years of the 20th century, and Turandot, unfinished at his death, in 1926. His other works included The Golden Girl of the West, produced in 1910, and the farce Gianni Schicchi, third in a trilogy of one-act operas entitled Il Trittico. His great success was due in large part to his uncanny feeling for the stage. He balanced scenes of high emotion with moments of contemplation and tenderness, and his love stories, both romantic and tragic, became noted for their beautiful, haunting melodies, captured in arias such as One fine day in Madame Butterfly, O my beloved father in Gianni Schicchi, and None May Sleep in Turandot. He retained the traditional vocal style associated with his fellow composer Guiseppe Verdi, but at the same time he fused drama with music, using the orchestra to play a major part in supporting and shaping the story unfolding on stage. His works, notably Tosca, were also known for their realistic style (known as verismo in Italian), and their exotic settings added to their appeal. In the early part of his career Puccini was greatly supported by the well-known music publisher Giulio Ricordi, and the world premieres of his major works, including La Bohème, Madame Butterfly and Turandot, were conducted by the up-and-coming Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. Puccini died of throat cancer in Brussels, but he was eventually buried at Torre del Lago, a small fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli, where he had lived with his mistress since the early 1890s, and where he had composed much of the music which brought him international fame.

GIACOMO PUCCINI  1858 - 1924

(Va, Vb, Vc, E7, G5)


Puccini: by the Italian artist Arturo Rietti (1863-1943), 1906 – Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan. Bonturi: date and photographer unknown. Toscanini: by the Italian artist Arturo Rietti (1863-1943) – Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan.

xxxxxThe Italian Giacomo Puccini, born into a family with a long history of music, was one of the greatest opera composers of all time. His works, noted for their free-flowing melody and dramatic content, included La Bohème, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and Turandot, begun in 1921 but left unfinished at his death. Since their production these four operas in particular have remained firm favourites with the opera-going public, and are performed the world over.

xxxxxBorn in Lucca, Tuscany, Puccini was the last in a long line of family musicians who served as choirmasters and organists at the city’s Cathedral of San Martino. As a child, in fact, he showed no special aptitude in music, but the family were determined that he follow in the footsteps of his forebears. His father died in 1863, when Puccini was five years old, but the family was assisted financially by a small pension from the city council. The young Puccini was taught music by his maternal uncle Fortunato Magi, and then attended the Musical Institute at Lucca. He was playing the organ at San Martino by the age of fourteen, and, five years later, as family tradition would have it, was acting as choirmaster and organist, and beginning to produce his own compositions. In the meantime, however, his interest had been aroused in another direction. In 1876 he had trekked thirteen miles to the city of Pisa to attend a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida. It proved a turning point in his life. He was inspired by the music and the grandeur of the production, and became firmly convinced that his future lay as an opera composer.

xxxxxHis Messa di Gloria, composed in 1880 and providing early indication of his powers of dramatic orchestration, marked the end of his family’s long association with church music in Lucca. In that year, with financial aid from family members and a scholarship from Queen Margherita of Italy, he was able to attend the musical conservatory at Milan. Hexspent the next three years studying composition, and it was during that time that he was encouraged in his chosen career by one of the teachers, the Italian opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886), remembered above all for his opera La Gioconda of 1876. And it was while at the conservatory that he produced his first major work, a dramatic legend entitled Le Villi (The Fairies). Entered into a competition for a one-act opera, it failed to win the prize, but it so impressed his friends that, with their assistance, it was staged at Milan’s Verme Theatre in 1884. Remarkable for its melody, dramatic effect, and the significant role played by the orchestra, it was hailed as the work of a genius, and brought him to the notice of the established music publisher Giulio Ricordi (1840-1912), a man who turned out to be a life-long friend and supporter.

xxxxxOn the strength of this success, Ricordi provided him with a monthly stipend and commissioned a second opera. Puccini at once set to work, and his lyrical drama Edgar was staged at La Scala, Milan, in 1889. It was, in fact, a dismal failure, due in large part to a weak story and a poor libretto, but Ricardo continued to support his young protégé, instructing him to “find a good subject and a good librettist”. Puccini was close to despair, but he took his advice. After a lengthy search, his next major work, Manon Lescaut, was written by two talented librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, and their work did justice to the musical score and the subject matter. Premiered at Turin in 1893, the opera was a huge success, and within a few years was being performed as far afield as St. Petersburg, Rio de Janeiro and Philadelphia. It brought Puccini international fame, and in Italy he was seen as a worthy successor to Verdi - praise enough.

xxxxxManon Lescaut was followed by one of his most successful and enduring works, La Bohème. Staged in the same city in 1896, it received a cool reception on its first night, but soon came to be regarded as one of the most romantic operas ever composed, remembered above all for its wealth of lyrical moments. And Puccini’s fame and fortune was further extended four years later with his dramatic Tosca, a work noted for its verismo (down to earth style), and acclaimed for the natural beauty of its melody and its tense drama of passion, revenge and treachery, so brilliantly captured by its orchestration. It quickly took its place on the repertoire of all the major opera houses. Andxit was in 1900, while in London, that Puccini saw and was greatly impressed by the play Madame Butterfly, the work of the American producer and impresario David Belasco (1853-1931). He put much effort into his own, operatic version, but its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in 1904, was a total disaster and labelled a fiasco. “Those cannibals,” Puccini complained bitterly, “didn’t listen to a note”. But the fault lay with the length of the two acts. He quickly shortened the first, and divided the second into two parts, and within a matter of months the opera was hailed as a great success, comparable in standard to his earlier works.

xxxxxBy then, Puccini was enjoying the fruits of his labour. In 1900 he built a villa at Torre del Lago, close to Lucca, a small fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli where he had lived with his mistress, a married woman named Elvira Bonturi, since 1891. There he led the life of a country gentleman, hunting, fishing, and spending a fortune on a collection of cars and motor boats. He said himself that he was the “mighty hunter of wild fowl, operatic librettos and attractive women” - and, it must be added, not necessarily in that order! He visited Argentina in 1905 and the United States two years later and was given a warm reception in both countries.

xxxxxBut the early years of the 20th century were not without their sadness and distress. He was badly injured in a car crash in 1903 (having to spend 8 months in a wheel chair), his librettist Giacosa died three years later, and Ricordi, his friend and father-figure, in 1912. In the meantime Puccini was embroiled in a domestic scandal, brought about by Elvira (by then his wife), and this involved him in a sordid court case. It did not seriously affect his own standing with the public, but it caused him much anguish at the time.


xxxxxPuccini’s later works included The Girl of the Golden West (another play by Belasco) - set in California during the gold-rush there - and the light-hearted La Rondine. The first, staged at the Metropolitan, New York, in 1910, was a huge success, despite its lack of set-piece arias, but the second, produced seven years later at Monte Carlo, made no lasting impression. Nor did his next work, a trilogy of one-act operas under the title Il Trittico, first performed in 1918. The melodrama The Cloak, and the sentimental tragedy Sister Angelica, are seldom shown, but the third, a scintillating farce entitled Gianni Schicchi, did survive and is quite often performed, noted especially for its beautiful aria O my beloved father. Puccini’s last work and one which he planned as his crowning achievement, was Turandot, a cruel, passionate story based on a Persian legend. Considered by some to be his finest opera, it was unfinished when he died in 1924, and was completed by the addition of two scenes by the Italian composer Franco Alfano (1875-1954). It had its premiere at La Scala, Milan, in 1926 and was well received.

xxxxxDuring his final years, while working on Turando, Puccini suffered from depression, brought on by doubts about his ability and his marked decline in health. He died in Brussels of a heart attack, five days after undergoing an operation for throat cancer. He was buried in Milan, but his remains were later taken for burial at Torre del Lago - his “paradise on earth” - where his villa has become a museum dedicated to his life and work. The best known and the best loved opera composer of his day, a solemn funeral service was held for him at La Scala, Milan, the opera house which had played such an important part in his meteoric rise to fame.

xxxxxPuccini was a master of the theatre and therein lay his greatness. He had an uncanny feeling for the stage, and brought to it high points of emotional drama balanced by unforgettable moments of contemplation and tenderness. His tragic love stories, woven around the likes of the innocent Mimi, the abandoned Butterfly or the troubled Tosca, were notable for their beautiful and haunting melodies, and their exotic settings added to their appeal. His operas might well be seen as rather too dramatic, passionate and sentimental, but they aroused emotions that touched the hearts of his audience and brought him international success. This he achieved by retaining the traditional vocal style associated with Verdi but, at the same time, fusing music and drama together in the mode of Richard Wagner. As a master of orchestration, he made every note, every chord, every instrument play a part in supporting and shaping the story unfolding on stage. The result was theatre magic. And contributing to this magic was a string of arias, be it Your tiny hand is frozen from La Bohème, One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly, or None shall sleep from Turandot, that are known and loved the world over.

xxxxxIncidentally, Puccini was born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Seconda Maria Puccini! The earlier members of his family were Giacomo Puccini (1712-1781), his son Antonio Puccini (1747- 1832), his grandson Domenico Puccini (1771-1815), and his great-grandson Michele Puccini (1813- 1864), Puccini’s father. ……

xxxxx…… Edgarxwas based on a verse drama by the French writer Alfred de Musset. Manon Lescaut, was based on the celebrated novel by the French writer Abbé Prévost, and, with the title Manon, had been produced as an opera by the French composer Jules Massenet in 1884. La Bohème was based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by the French novelist Henri Murger (1822-1861). Tosca was based on La Tosca, a play by the French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), and Turandot was based on a fable of the same name, written by the Italian writer Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806). ……

xxxxx…… Asxnoted above, Puccini’s life was not without its own drama. His life with Elvira Bonturi (1860-1930) (illustrated), his mistress as from 1884, was often tempestuous, and came to a head in 1908 when she accused him of having a sexual relationship with a maid servant named Doria Manfredi. This was later proved to be false, but in the meantime she persecuted the young woman and eventually drove her to suicide in January 1909. The Manfredi family brought charges against Elvira. She was sentenced to five months imprisonment, and the action was only dropped after Puccini agreed to pay a handsome settlement. Their marriage survived (they had married in 1904 following the death of her husband), but from then on Puccini led his own life. ……

xxxxx…… It was during Puccini’s rise to fame, between the production of his The Wills and Manon Lescaut, that Italy’s other great opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, staged his last two works, Otello in 1887 and Falstaff in 1893. He and Puccini were never close friends.

xxxxxThe Italian musician Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who became one of the greatest and best known conductors of the 20th century, conducted the world premieres of La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, and The Golden Girl in the West. Following Puccini’s death he was chosen to conduct the first performance of the opera Turandot, a work which, as we have seen, had been left unfinished and had been completed by the Italian composer Franco Alfano. Premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1926, it is recorded that Toscanini, as a singular mark of respect to the great composer, chose to stop the performance on reaching the end of Puccini’s score. This was a fitting tribute, but it would seem that the two men did not always see eye to eye. On one such occasion, Puccini, forgetting that they were not on the best of terms, sent his conductor a panettone, a sweet bread loaf, as a Christmas gift. Realising his mistake, he then sent a wire with the message “Panettone sent by mistake, Puccini”. Back came the reply: “Panettone eaten by mistake, Toscanini”!

xxxxxPuccini’s one-act opera Gianni Schicchi is often performed as a double bill with an opera of similar length, such as Cavalleria rusticana or Pagliacci, works produced by two Italian composers of this time who knew Puccini well. The passionate drama Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) of 1890 was produced in Rome by the Italian Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). It is noted for its verismo or true-to-life style, and for its beautiful melody known as the “Easter Hymn”. It is his only claim to fame today, but he wrote 17 operas or operettas in all, as well as orchestral works, piano pieces and songs, and he was immensely popular during his career, as a conductor as well as a composer. Two operas which were particularly successful during his day were L’amico Fritze, produced in 1891, and Iris, set in Japan and first performed in 1898.

xxxxxThe tragedy Pagliacci (The Strolling Players) was the work of the Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919). Premiered in Milan in 1892, it too was a down-to-earth drama. It is particularly remembered today for its aria Vesti la giubba, often translated into English as On with the Motley. Among his other operas were I Medici and Chatterton, but these, and his own version of La Bohème, produced in 1897, did not achieve lasting fame. Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana often make up a double bill, known popularly as “cav and pag”.



Arturo Toscanini,

Pietro Mascagni and

Ruggero Leoncavello