Today is the birthday (1858) of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, Italian composer whose operas are generally seen as standards. While his early work was rooted in traditional late-19th-century romantic Italian opera, he successfully developed his work in the realistic verismo style, of which he became one of the leading exponents.
Puccini was born Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini in Lucca in Tuscany. He was one of nine children of Michele Puccini and Albina Magi. The Puccini family was established in Lucca as a local musical dynasty by Puccini’s great-great grandfather – also named Giacomo (1712–1781). This first Giacomo Puccini was maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Antonio Puccini, and then by Antonio’s son Domenico, and Domenico’s son Michele (father of the subject of this article). Each of these men studied music at Bologna, and some took additional musical studies elsewhere. Domenico Puccini studied for a time under Giovanni Paisiello. Each composed music for the church. In addition, Domenico composed several operas, and Michele composed one opera. Puccini’s father Michele enjoyed a reputation throughout northern Italy, and his funeral was an occasion of public mourning, at which the then-famed composer Giovanni Pacini conducted a Requiem.
With the Puccini family having occupied the position of maestro di cappella for 124 years (1740–1864) by the time of Michele’s death, it was anticipated that Michele’s son Giacomo would occupy that position as well when he was old enough. However, when Michele Puccini died in 1864, his son Giacomo was only six years old, and thus not capable of taking over his father’s job. As a child, he nevertheless participated in the musical life of the Cattedrale di San Martino, as a member of the boys’ choir and later as a substitute organist.
Puccini was given a general education at the seminary of San Michele in Lucca, and then at the seminary of the cathedral. One of Puccini’s uncles, Fortunato Magi, supervised his musical education. Puccini got a diploma from the Pacini School of Music in Lucca in 1880, having studied there with his uncle Fortunato, and later with Carlo Angeloni, who had also instructed Alfredo Catalani. A grant from the Italian Queen Margherita, and assistance from another uncle, Nicholas Cerù, provided the funds necessary for Puccini to continue his studies at the Milan Conservatory, where he studied composition with Stefano Ronchetti-Monteviti, Amilcare Ponchielli, and Antonio Bazzini. Puccini studied at the conservatory for three years. In 1880, at the age of 21, Puccini composed his Mass, which marks the culmination of his family’s long association with church music in his native Lucca.
Puccini wrote an orchestral piece called the Capriccio sinfonica as a thesis composition for the Milan Conservatory. Puccini’s teachers Ponchielli and Bazzini were impressed by the work, and it was performed at a student concert at the conservatory. Puccini’s work was favorably reviewed in the Milanese publication Perseveranza, and thus Puccini began to build a reputation as a young composer of promise in Milanese music circles.
To run through Puccini’s life and career would, I fear, be otiose; his operas have lasting fame and popularity. Rather, I will take a somewhat quirky personal glimpse at Turandot, an enduring favorite with audiences, not least because of the 3rd act climactic aria nessun dorma, which has become the quintessence of classic operatic tenor mode – rather overdone these days.
I’ll start with a quote from a critic, just to underscore my dislike for the breed. Michael Tanner writes in The Spectator in 2013:
Turandot is an irredeemable work, a terrible end to a career that had included three indisputable masterpieces and three less evident ones, counting Il Trittico as one. Any operatic composer who gets to the stage, as Puccini had, of searching through one play or novel after another, dissatisfied with any subject he is offered, should almost certainly give up.
This very much reminds me of Joseph Kerman who said, “Nobody would deny that dramatic potential can be found in this tale. Puccini, however, did not find it; his music does nothing to rationalize the legend or illuminate the characters,” and “while Turandot is more suave musically than Tosca, dramatically it is a good deal more depraved.” Hurrah for Sir Thomas Beecham who once remarked that anything that Joseph Kerman said about Puccini “can safely be ignored.”
I’m not going to claim that Turandot is perfect: it is not. But it is musically more challenging than most of Puccini’s other works, and the tale itself is much darker and more profound than the critics allow. Though Puccini’s first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play, Turandot, Puccini’s work is more closely based on the earlier text Turandot by Carlo Gozzi. The original story of Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan) comes from the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties), the work of 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. The opera’s story, however, is set in China and involves Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die.
The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. The first performance was held at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 25 April 1926 and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. This performance included only Puccini’s music and not Alfano’s additions. As tribute to Puccini, Toscanini laid down his baton at the end of Puccini’s composition, and the first performance of the opera as completed by Alfano came the following night, 26 April. A newspaper report published the day before the premiere states that Puccini himself gave Toscanini the suggestion to stop the opera performance at the final notes composed by Puccini:
A few weeks before his death, after having made Toscanini listen to the opera, Puccini exclaimed: “If I don’t succeed in finishing it, at this point someone will come to the footlights and will say: ‘The author composed until here, and then he died.'” Arturo Toscanini related Puccini’s words with great emotion, and, with the swift agreement of Puccini’s family and the publishers, decided that the evening of the first performance, the opera would appear as the author left it, with the anguish of being unable to finish.
The opera is, indeed, anguished in theme – and continues so in its performance history.
Act 3 troubles the critics a great deal, and, sadly, many reduce it to a kind of hormonal muddle instead of the climax of a complex tale, entwined with Puccini’s own life. If you don’t know the tale you’ll have to look it up – sorry. The first component that worries the critics is the torture and death of the slave girl Liù, who kills herself rather than reveal the prince’s name under Turandot’s brutal treatment. Many critics find this subplot needlessly callous. But this component may well be tangentially related to Puccini’s life. In 1909, Puccini’s wife Elvira publicly accused Doria Manfredi, a maid working for the Puccini family, of having an affair with the composer. After being publicly accused of adultery, Doria Manfredi committed suicide. An autopsy determined, however, that Doria had died a virgin, refuting the allegations made against her. Elvira Puccini was prosecuted for slander, and was sentenced to more than five months in prison, although a payment to the Manfredi family by Puccini spared Elvira from having to serve the sentence. Puccini was certainly a philanderer, but in this case he was innocent. Yet he still thought of himself as the indirect cause of Doria’s death – partly because Elvira’s accusations were fair, but misdirected.
Act 3 is somewhat disjointed perhaps because Puccini was not able to finish it as he intended, and Alfano’s work, though based on Puccini’s sketches may not rise to the challenges of a complex ending. Alfano picks up the story after Liù’s death with Calaf’s rough attempt to seduce Turandot followed by him revealing his name, thus giving her the choice to love him in return or execute him. Eventually her icy heart melts and she admits that she knows his true name – it is “Love.” The critics tend to laugh off the ending as hormones at work, but I disagree. Calaf shows his honor by giving Turandot a way out, even though he has answered her riddles, and when she fails to guess his name, tells her flat out, proving that he would rather die than not be loved by her in return. Turandot, for her part, confesses that her iciness and hardness of heart towards Calaf, are components of her passionate heart, the reverse side of which is love. She might as well have had Freud speak her words for her. It’s really not Puccini’s fault if the critics can’t see the richness.
There’s also a certain oddity in setting Turandot in China because it’s really a Persian tale that had run through the hands of French, German, and Italian interpreters before Puccini used it. Nonetheless Puccini made some inspired compositional choices in using Chinese melodies for certain themes. The classic case is his use of the 18th century song 茉莉花 (“Jasmine Flower”), sung here by Song Zuying:
Here it is in La sui monti:
For most of the 20th century, for one reason or another, Turandot was not performed in China, and yet now is regaled as the national opera. Some critics claim it was banned by the People’s Republic because it cast China in a bad light. They don’t know what they are talking about, as usual. Things are never that simple in China. True, it did not see the light of day in China until the 1990’s, but this was not because of an outright ban, but because successive applications to produce it were turned down, each time for a different reason. Sure there was a sense that the opera was unfair to “modern” China underneath it all, but various influential Chinese also objected to the brutality, sexuality, and so forth. A 2008 production in Beijing marked Puccini’s 150th birthday, featuring a new ending written by Hao Weiya, based on Puccini’s sketches. It departs from Alfano’s ending chiefly in making Turandot’s change of heart a direct consequence of Liù’s suicide rather than of Calaf’s ardor – much more in keeping with Chinese sentiment.
Nessun dorma got a huge boost when Luciano Pavarotti’s recording became the theme song of the 1990 FIFA world cup in Italy. Here is a youthful Pavarotti onstage:
Puccini’s native Lucca is home to a well known cuisine. Here is a lucchese rabbit stew with olives. Italians routinely have pasta as a first course and meat dishes, such as this one, as a second course. So you can serve it with crusty bread. I’ll leave you to it as to quantities.
Coniglio con le olive alla lucchese
1 rabbit, cut in 8 pieces
2 (or more) shallots, peeled and chopped
extra virgin olive oil
Italian black olives
juice of a lemon
Sauté the shallots in a heavy skillet in olive oil until they are translucent. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set them aside.
Brown the rabbit pieces in the olive oil on all sides, over high heat. Return the shallots and add white wine to cover, plus lemon juice, nutmeg (freshly grated if possible), and olives. I sometimes add in grated lemon zest for an extra punch. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 35-40 minutes. During this time the sauce should reduce and thicken. Add more wine if it gets too dry.