[While growing up in New Delhi, India, I was used to hearing music pervade the household, whatever the season – be it during the Capital’s colorful springs, hot summers, wet monsoons, cool autumns or cold winters. Even as a pre-teenager, I recall our trusted gramophone being primed with 78 rpm recordings issued by His Masters Voice (HMV) of famous Western Classical musicians – instrumentalists and operatic singers – filling our drawing room with the lush unforgettable music of their world-renowned performances.
That was mainly due to my parents’ abiding love of music – Mummy’s bent was for listening to piano compositions, Daddy’s proclivity lay elsewhere – in operatic arias! In my blog posts beginning January 2015 I have devoted quite a number of hours writing about my favorite pianists and their unforgettable performances, so it’s about time that I turn to the human voice as portrayed so marvelously in the world of opera. ]
Today, I am taking the 93rd death anniversary on November the 29th of my best loved opera composer, Giacomo Puccini, to celebrate his Madama Butterfly that premiered in Milan, Italy on February 17, 1904.
Puccini was the last descendant of a family that for two centuries had provided the musical directors of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca. Puccini initially dedicated himself to music, therefore, not as a personal vocation but as a family profession. He was orphaned at the age of five by the death of his father, and the municipality of Lucca supported the family with a small pension and kept the position of cathedral organist open for Giacomo until he came of age. He first studied music with two of his father’s former pupils, and he played the organ in small local churches. A performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, which he saw in Pisa in 1876, convinced him that his true vocation was opera. In the autumn of 1880 he went to study at the Milan Conservatory, where his principal teachers were Antonio Bazzini, a famous violinist and composer of chamber music, and Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of the opera La gioconda.
On July 16, 1883, he received his diploma and presented as his graduation composition Capriccio sinfonico, an instrumental work that attracted the attention of influential musical circles in Milan. In the same year, he entered Le villi in a competition for one-act operas. The judges did not think Le villi worthy of consideration, but a group of friends, led by the composer-librettist Arrigo Boito, subsidized its production, and its premiere took place with immense success at Milan’s Verme Theatre on May 31, 1884. Le villi was remarkable for its dramatic power, its operatic melody, and, revealing the influence of Richard Wagner’s works, the important role played by the orchestra. The music publisher Giulio Ricordi immediately acquired the copyright, with the stipulation that the opera be expanded to two acts. He also commissioned Puccini to write a new opera for La Scala and gave him a monthly stipend: thus began Puccini’s lifelong association with Giulio Ricordi, who was to become a staunch friend and counselor.
After the death of his mother, Puccini fled from Lucca with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani. They lived at first in Monza, near Milan, where a son, Antonio, was born. In 1890 they moved to Milan, and in 1891 to Torre del Lago, a fishing village on Lake Massaciuccoli in Tuscany. This home was to become Puccini’s refuge from life, and he remained there until three years before his death, when he moved to Viareggio.
In 1908, Puccini devoted himself to La Fanciulla.del West (The Girl of the Golden West.) Its premiere took place at the Metropolitan in New York City on December 10, 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. It was a great triumph, but he admitted that “writing an opera is difficult.”However, he really didn’t understand contemporary events, such as World War I. In 1917 at Monte-Carlo in Monaco, Puccini’s opera La rondine was first performed and then quickly forgotten.
Always interested in contemporary operatic compositions, Puccini studied the works of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. From this study emerged Il trittico (The Triptych; New York City, 1918), three stylistically individual one-act operas—the melodramatic Il tabarro (The Cloak), the sentimental Suor Angelica, and the comic Gianni Schicchi.
His last opera, Turandot, is the only Italian opera in the Impressionistic style. Puccini did not complete it, as he was suffering from cancer of the throat. He was ordered to Brussels for surgery, and a few days afterward died with the incomplete score in his hands.
Solemn funeral services were held for Puccini at La Scala in Milan, and his body was taken to Torre del Lago, which became the Puccini Pantheon. Shortly afterward, Elvira and Antonio were also buried there. The Puccini house became a museum and an archive.
The majority of Puccini’s operas illustrate a theme defined in Il tabarro: “Chi ha vissuto per amore, per amore si morì” (“He who has lived for love, has died for love”). This theme is played out in the fate of his heroines—women who are devoted body and soul to their lovers, are tormented by feelings of guilt, and are punished by the infliction of pain until in the end they are destroyed. In his treatment of this theme, Puccini combines compassion and pity for his heroines with a strong streak of sadism: hence the strong emotional appeal but also the restricted scope of the Puccinian type of opera.
Each Puccini opera has its distinctive ambience. With an unfailing instinct for balanced dramatic structure, Puccini knew that an opera is not all action, movement, and conflict; it must also contain moments of repose, contemplation, and lyricism. For such moments he invented an original type of melody, passionate and radiant, yet marked by an underlying morbidity; examples are the “farewell” and “death” arias that also reflect the persistent melancholy from which he suffered in his personal life.
Puccini’s approach to dramatic composition is expressed in his own words: “The basis of an opera is its subject and its treatment.” His conception of diatonic melody is rooted in the tradition of 19th-century Italian opera, but his harmonic and orchestral style indicate that he was also aware of contemporary developments, notably the work of the Impressionists and of Stravinsky. Though he allowed the orchestra a more active role, he upheld the traditional vocal style of Italian opera, in which the singers carry the burden of the music. In many ways a typical fin de siècle artist, Puccini nevertheless can be ranked as the greatest exponent of operatic realism.
Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s opera in three acts (originally two acts) (Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa) premiered at La Scala opera house in Milan on February 17, 1904. The work is one of the most frequently performed of all operas.
Puccini and his librettists, Illica and Giacosa, took steps to introduce an element of realism into the new opera. Illica even traveled to Nagasaki to investigate local color, while Puccini set about researching Japanese music. His music for the opera reflects what he had learned and even makes a few direct references to the Japanese songs he had been exposed to. To delineate the American characters, Puccini often used a bluff forthright manner of expression, and he occasionally worked in bits of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
For all his care in composing the opera, Puccini was stunned at its reception on his home turf. The opening-night audience openly jeered, booed and hissed throughout the performance. Madama Butterfly’s Japanese theme was mocked, and its tragic heroine was derided as a secondhand copy of Mimì from La Bohème. Nevertheless, he and his librettists began extensive revisions. The new Madama Butterfly, which reached the stage in Brescia, Italy, on May 28, 1904, was a great success. Two more revisions would follow, in 1905 and 1906, before the opera reached its definitive form. All versions included “One Fine Day,” which remains one of the best-known arias in the soprano repertoire. Listen to it here sung on a Victor recording of September 20, 1922 by none other than Amelita Galli-Curci – Un bel di vedremo.
Afterword: While a student in London University (1948-51) I spent one summer holidaying in Italy and took the opportunity of visiting Viareggio, Lucca and Torre del Lago Puccini. The experience of following in the great composer’s footsteps was overwhelming and fortified my commitment to taking every opportunity while abroad to listen to his captivating and enduring operas.
References: Brittanica; My Diary
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