Puccini is considered by many to be the greatest Italian Composer after Verdi born in 1858 and dying at the age of 66. He did not write as many Operas as other composers but the quality shone with many of his Opera’s being current staple popular Operas at the well-known Opera houses such as La Scala Milan, Teatro La Fenice and the Verona Opera Festival.
His first Opera Le Villi was written in collaboration with Fontana for a competition in 1883. Although it did not win it was staged in Milan and then purchased and revised by the music publishers Ricordi for a performance at La Milan Scala in 1885.
In 1889 the collaboration continued for the Opera Edgar which was performed in 1889 but was pulled after just 3 performances after a weak response from the audience at La Scala Milan. His publisher Ricordi publically supported Puccini and criticised Fontana. Puccini reduced and revised the Opera and whilst it was received well in Ferrara, Spain and Turin it never really took off.
Indeed without the support of Ricordi the Opera Edgar could have been the end of his career for Puccini. He had previously eloped with his married piano student in 1884 and as a result Ricordi was put under pressure to drop him. Riccordi said that the publishing company would stand by him as long as he was successful putting the business interests first. When Edgar was not a success the pressure was on for Puccini to deliver.
Luckily the next Opera was Manon Lescaut Opera which led to him being called “The Heir to Verdi” by George Bernard Shaw, and to being considered the rising Italian composer of his generation.
Manon Lescaut was an unqualified success when presented at the Teatro Region in Turin in 1893, despite the developmental omens not being good with Puccini changing his mind frequently about its structure meaning that he cycled through 5 different librettists. Interesting is that the final 2 librettists who worked together of Manon Lescaut also worked on 3 of his other greatest works La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly and so were clearly a winning formula.
La Boheme premiered in Turin in 1896, and was an instant success being performed in many of the leading opera houses of Europe including London. It remains one of the most frequently performed Italian Operas ever.
However La Boheme was controversial before its launch as another composer Leoncavallo was already writing on an Opera around the same theme based on Murgers work. Leoncavallo tried to stop Puccini composing La Boheme as he had started first, but Puccini responded stating that the people would decide which was best. Despite starting the composers second Puccini’s Opera was performed first and Leoncavallos Opera never really had a chance.
Tosca (1900) was the follow up Opera and was Puccini’s first attempt at a more realistic Opera under the genre of Verismo. Many felt it had been influenced by Wagner as Puccini used the technique of using specific musical signatures for specific characters or emotions.
Next up was Madame Butterfly in February 1904 though the premiere was not received at all well at La Scala Opera House as rehearsals had been inadequate and at one point when the lead singer Storchio’s kimono lifted the audience booed and shouted their displeasure at her and suggesting that she was pregnant (referring to her affair with the conductor Toscanini). Puccini pulled the performance schedule immediately and revised Madame Butterfly for follow on performances in May in America, Paris, London and Buenos Aires.
However Puccini was still not happy and revised it again in 1907 to create what is called the “standard version” and the version most performed nowadays. Del West, The Girl of the Golden West, was premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
This was the very first time an Opera had a world premiere there. Whilst it was a success it was also criticised for not having enough stand-alone Arias and not being adapted to the American “tone”.
Having said that it was also applauded for its Italian harmonies and one of its Arias, Ch’ella mi creda, has become one of the most famous Arias ever, famously sung by Italian soldiers in the 1st World War to keep their spirits up.
In 1912 Puccini’s long term publisher Ricordi died and his son who took over the business did not support Puccini in the same way his father had.
La Rondine was originally commissioned for the Carl Theatre in Vienna but the 1st World War put an end to that and so it was premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917 instead. Ricordi’s son Tito had rejected the piece and so it was published by Sonzogno.
Originally it was written as an Operetto but Puccini took out all of the spoken word making it much closer to an Opera and revised it several times but it never reached the success of previous of Puccini’s Operas.
In 1918 Il Trittico was also premiered in New York. This was a different style of three 1 act Operas each revolving around death.
Turandot, Puccini’s final opera, was sadly not finished before he died in 1924 as a result of a heart attack following an operation for his throat cancer. As a result the last 2 scenes were written by Alfano based on notes left by Puccini. One of the most well-known Opera arias in in Turandot, the Nessun Dorma.
It is believed that Puccini’s personal life influenced the development of the character Liu, a slave girl who commits suicide in Turandot. In 1909 Puccini’s wife Elvira had publicly accused one of their maids of having an affair with Puccini.
The maid Doria committed suicide from the shame and yet an autopsy declared that she had died a virgin. Elvira was prosecuted by her family for slander and was sentenced to go to prison for 5 months, only saved by Puccini making a payment to the Manfredi family.
The irony is that Puccini and Elvira started their relationship as an affair and were only able to marry in 1904, after having had a son in 1886, when Elvira’s husband was killed by a husband of one of his mistresses.
He was described as an unrepentant womaniser, though Puccini himself had also had various affairs during his marriage to Elvira.