Personalities | Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century | Opera

1858–1924, Italian

Puccini’s unerring instinct for strong melody and evocative harmony, coupled with his ability to bring to life passionate and sensual relationships, has made him one the most popular of opera composers. Puccini brought Italian opera into the twentieth century, synthesizing music and drama in a symphonic idiom, but retaining the voice as the focal point.

Early Life in Lucca

Puccini was born on 22 December 1858 in Lucca, in the north-west of Italy. He was the fifth generation of a family of composers. Michele Puccini, Giacomo’s father, was held in such esteem that Pacini and Mercadante, two of Italy’s leading composers, spoke at his funeral. Puccini studied music first with his uncle in Lucca and then, with support from both a bachelor relation and a royal bursary from Queen Margherita, at the conservatory in Milan. There, he was taught by Antonio Bazzini and Amilcare Ponchielli, who regarded him as an able, though not particularly diligent, student. In 1883 Puccini entered a competition run by the publishing firm Sonzogno. Le villi (‘The Willis’), written to a libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, was neither selected nor deemed worthy of mention – officially due to its near-illegibility. Fontana, however, was not prepared to give up on the work and raised funds for a performance at the Teatro dal Verme.

The production was a great success and encouraged Giulio Ricordi, the third generation of the famous publishing dynasty, to sign up the young composer. Puccini’s pleasure at this accomplishment was shattered by the death of his mother in July. Albina had been an untiring support to her son and he felt her loss keenly.

The Fight for Fame and Fortune

Ricordi was quick to commission a new work from Puccini and Fontana, but they did not respond with such alacrity. Fontana’s work on the libretto faltered and Puccini had responsibilities towards his family and had begun an affair with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani. It was not until April 1889 that Edgar was premiered at La Scala – and it was a disaster.

The essential problem of Edgar was that Puccini’s dramatic and musical nature was out of sympathy with Fontana’s text. There seemed to be no easy solution, however, and the genesis of Puccini’s next work, Manon Lescaut, was tortuous. When the opera finally reached completion it was a sensation, catapulting Puccini to fame and fortune after its 1893 premiere. The doubts that had persisted about his future were now completely resolved and he became a man of comfort and leisure, disinclined to work except when it completely suited him. Ricordi had several potential subjects lined up for the new toast of Italy: a scenario along the lines of Cavalleria rusticana with Giovanni Verga and several ideas with Luigi Illica, including the germs of Tosca. Illica had been involved in Manon Lescaut, but his relationship with Puccini was not an easy one.

Maturity and Mastery

Ricordi showed his perspicacity by engaging Giuseppe...

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