The beginner’s guide to Puccini

Known as one of Italy’s finest opera composers, Puccini‘s works have stood the test of time, with some of his compositions being regarded as some of the best in the genre, including Madam Butterfly, Tosca and La bohème.

Find out a bit more about him here…

Originating from the Italian literary movement of the same name from circa 1875-early 1900s, verismo translates to ‘realism’. This post-Romantic movement portraying the world in greater realism meant subject matters that would not have previously thought of as being fit for literature were now written about, including the lives of the poor. Also known as naturalism, this genre does away with epic quests and mythological beasts, centring instead on ‘human’ drama – illness, lost loves and marital problems.

As such, many of Puccini’s plots were taken from successful plays or novellas, instead of folktales and mythology (such as Madam Butterfly, which was based on a 1898 short story, in turn based on a semi-autobiographical French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti).

Puccini was arguably the most famous verismo composer, with Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Giordano being close contenders for the top spot.

An introduction to Madam Butterfly

Described as ‘the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi’, Puccini is one of the most famous names in opera, having works cited regularly among the best operas of all time.

Born in 1858 into a musical dynasty, Giacomo Antonio Domenioco Michele Secondo Maria Puccini had a formal eduction in music from a young age, and had composed his first opera at the age of 25, Le Villi.

Whilst his first few operas were well received, he first received critical success with Manon Lescaut in 1893, working with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. This relationship led to Puccini’s greatest successes, with the following three operas usually considered the most famous: La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Puccini continued composing until his death, leaving his final work, Turandot, unfinished. Despite this, the aria Nessun Dorma is considered one of the most famous arias in the repertoire, being performed by opera singers around the world, including famously performed by the renowned Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo), a recording that outsold all other classical recordings worldwide.

Learn more about Nessun Dorma in our Tenor Roles article

Puccini first met Arturo Toscanini when the young conductor took on the premiere of La bohème in Turin, premiering several of his operas, including La fanciulla del West and the premiere of Turandot, Puccini’s unfinished opera.

Their relationship continued to the end of Puccini’s life, with Toscanini conducting the first run of Turandot, Puccini’s final work. In the opening night, when the point was reached where Puccini had left the work uncompleted, Toscanini dropped the baton, stopping the performance. He turned to the audience, saying ‘This is the end of the opera, because the Maestro died here’. The orchestra then played the Funeral March, leaving the shell-shocked audience to never find out La bohème’s ending – a touching tribute to his collaborator.

Whilst Puccini’s productions were, on the whole, hugely successful both critically and with audiences, that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing throughout his career – often, surprisingly, his most famous operas suffered struggles in their early days.

Puccini’s La bohème was premiered in 1896, and quickly became popular throughout Italy – until Ruggero Leoncavallo also produced an opera titled La bohème, similarly based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. As it happened, Leoncavallo had disputed Puccini on the basis of the opera, asking Puccini to defer the work to him, as he had already completed the libretto. Whilst Leoncavallo’s version was critically well received after its debut in 1897, within 10 years Puccini’s version had become the better regarded of the two operas, and Leoncavallo’s version is hardly known in modern repertoire.

Madam Butterfly, now one of the most famous operas in the world, premiered in 1904 at La Scala, Milan. Despite a notably big-named cast, the premiere was poorly received – the opera was under-rehearsed, with Puccini not having completed the work until rehearsals were due to have begun. Additionally, the layout was critiqued, leading to Puccini thoroughly revising parts of the opera. Months later, this more successful version of Madam Butterfly, still performed in opera houses today, was debuted in Brescia, where it was universally praised, leading to the popularity we now know.

It’s no surprise that Puccini captured the verismo operatic tradition so well, his personal life was a ready-made opera! Puccini wasn’t exactly a fan of monogamy, instead living a life from scandal to scandal, affair to affair. Beginning in 1884, Puccini started a relationship with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, who soon became pregnant, compounding problems in an already unhappy marriage for Elvira.

Soon Elvira gave birth to their son Antonio in 1886, but it was only when Elvira’s husband was killed (due to an affair HE was having) in 1904, that Puccini and Elvira could wed. If only that were the end of Puccini’s relationship problems…

Puccini often had affairs even when married to Elvira, often with famous singers in his productions, even going so far as to ‘fall in love’ with Blanke Lendvai when attending the Madam Butterfly opening in Budapest, 1906. This affair continued until 1911, when Lendvai as substituted for Josephine van Stangel, which continued for another 6 years.

Elvira later accused a maid on Puccini’s estate of having an affair, which led to the maid committing suicide. Later found to be illegitimate claims, Elvira was prosecuted for slander, and narrowly avoided having to go to jail. Never a dull day at the Puccini household!

 

Puccini’s Madam Butterfly is on at the London Coliseum from 26 Feb – 17 Apr 2020. Find out more and book your London opera tickets below.