by Neville Cohn
Violent sex, rowdy, late-night booze-ups with his card playing mates, driving powerful cars – and expensive motor boats – at breakneck speed as well as composing some of the most loved operas in the repertoire. This was Puccini. But when little Giacomo came into the world in the Italian town of Lucca 150 years ago on 22 December 1858, he was destined for a life as church musician as five generations of Puccinis had been before him in their home town. But the young Giacomo was to achieve much greater things.
He wasn’t an attractive personality; he was self-centred in the extreme – and he certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. He’d often say in later life: “I am a mighty hunter of wild fowl, beautiful women and good libretti”.
His huge opinion of himself armoured him against many vicissitudes although he was shaken by the negative response of the audience at the premiere of Madame Butterfly which bombed big time. Ever-feisty, he exchanged insults with outraged opera goers who hissed and booed at the first ever airing of that most loved of tear-jerkers. The critics also clobbered it. So, with the sounds of that first night audience’s booing and hissing ringing in his ears, Puccini made some adjustments to the score. And when it was mounted at Brescia shortly afterwards, it was a triumphant success with many arias encored and, in the quaint fashion of the time, the composer coming on stage at the end of each encore to share the applause with the singers. Butterfly’s hold on audiences everywhere has never wavered since.
This became a pattern: his operas given the thumbs down by audiences and critics at their first airings but finding overwhelming acceptance in the long term.
Paradoxically, his Fanciulla del West was a stunning success at a glittering first night at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera with fans and critics alike extolling an opera set in the Wild West and starring Enrico Caruso in his first and only cowboy role. But this opera about a poker game in which the stakes are a man’s honour and a woman’s body has never found a firm and honoured place in either the repertoire or the affections of opera-goers, perhaps because it lacks the rich stream of melody that makes most of his other operas so cherished. Perth opera lovers can experience this rarity at the Maj next year.
To this day, however, productions of La Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca have been licences for printing money. It made a fortune for Puccini (and his publisher Ricordi who bankrolled his genius client until he hit the jackpot) who would use it to buy big-boys’ toys like souped-up motorboats in which he’d roar around Italian lakes.
Puccini seldom needed to wait for inspiration. And when it came, he would drop whatever he was doing – perhaps a noisy drinks party – go to his room and, with drunken revelry in the background, write arias for his heroines. It was on such an occasion that he repaired to his room at a nearby inn to write the last notes of Mimi’s death scene in La Boheme, noting afterwards “I had to get up, and while standing there in the middle of the room, I cried like a child. It was like seeing a daughter die.” Then he went to join his sozzled, carousing mates and hit the turps.
Boheme was wildly successful and Puccini used some of the proceeds to buy himself a yacht which he called Mimi I – and hundreds of new babies around the world were called Mimi.
Puccini was not particularly liked by his fellow composers. Would envy have been part of this? Probably.
His operas were sneered at by the likes of Gabriel Faure. That great French composer of some of the finest songs in the repertoire, dismissed La Boheme as “dreadful” and sneered at Puccini’s work in general as “a kind of soup in which every style from every country gets all mixed up.” Shostakovich said “he wrote marvellous operas but terrible music” – and Stravinsky called Butterfly “treacly violin music”. And an eminent critic called Tosca “a shabby little shocker” .
But as the money rolled in from opera goers who seemed never to have enough of his music, Puccini laughed all the way to the bank. Before he hit the operatic jackpot, though, Puccini had to put up with the endless complaints of Elvira, first his mistress (she was married at the time and in the strictly Catholic Italy of the time, divorce was not an option) and later, after her husband died, Puccini’s wife. Endlessly, in their early years, she nagged her lover pointing out that Mascagni and Leoncavallo were making fortunes from their respective one-act goldmines – Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci – while he wasn’t. He certainly made up for lost time with Tosca, Butterfly and Boheme which made them wealthy.
As she grew older and less glamorous, Elvira became increasingly infuriated by Puccini’s dalliances and accused their domestic servant Doria Manfredi quite wrongly of having an affair with Giacomo. Doria was so devastated by these unfounded accusations that she killed herself. Elvira almost landed in jail after Doria’s family had Elvira charged but Puccini bought off the family with thousands of lire.
During his student days, young Giacomo earned some income by playing the organ at church services – and the piano in taverns and brothels. But as he would often say, “early on God touched me with a finger and said ‘write for the theatre and ONLY the theatre’”. There’s no doubt that the Lord gave the young Puccini very good advice because when it came to theatre, his instincts were almost invariably unerring.
Unlike many, lesser composers who weren’t fussy about the libretti they set to music, Puccini’s endless searches for perfect texts often prompted fiery encounters between composer and wordsmiths, driving Puccini to distraction and his librettists to prostration. But when the words were to Puccini’s satisfaction, what magic flowed from his pen. His music manuscripts, incidentally, were incredibly untidy and only very few music editors were capable of translating his scrawls into readable notation – and in this there was a parallel with Beethoven’s manuscripts which are fantastically untidy as well.
It was throat cancer that killed him. He’d been a heavy smoker most of his life. He endured agonizing medical treatments which precipitated a fatal heart attack, dying before completing Turandot.
His legacy lives on in the form of innumerable recordings and regular mountings of his operas th