Earlier this fall I saw two works by Giacomo Puccini at the Met Opera. First, what I thought of as an old standard, La Boheme, in a surprisingly fresh and charming production. Then, La Fanciulla del West, which I remembered as dull but which turned out to be really interesting musically. Reflecting on these operas, I realized I didn’t know very much about Puccini’s life, so I did some reading.
Puccini was born in 1858 in Lucca. For generations his family had been organists and composers linked to Lucca’s main cathedral. Giacomo was expected to follow in this tradition and though initially an indifferent student, by the age of 14 he was an organist at the cathedral. The story goes that after seeing a production of Aida in Pisa in 1876, he developed a passion for composing, threw himself into his studies and was admitted to the Conservatory in Milan in 1880. (In those years he lived with Pietro Mascagni in a form of gayly artistic poverty which one can imagine as the source for the backdrop of La Boheme.) His first opera was La Villi, which had a mixed reception with the public but brought him to the attention of the music publisher Giulio Ricordi who commissioned new operas from Puccini and supported him financially. Puccini’s first major success was Manon Lescaut, followed by the “big three” operas: La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Later would come La Fanciulla, Il Trittico and eventually Turandot. He died in 1924 in Brussels after treatment for throat cancer. Puccini had become famous and financially secure. He had travelled the world to see productions of his operas but his favorite place would remain his house at Torre del Lago, near Viareggio, where his remains are today.
The most interesting biographical info regards his personal life which was somewhat operatic in its drama. In 1904 he married Elvira Gemignani with whom he had been in a relationship since 1884 – when their affair started she was married to someone else. Of course, Giacomo was involved with other women and Elvira was unhappy and jealous. In 1909 she publicly accused a servant, Doria, of having an affair with her husband. Doria, distraught, committed suicide and then it was proven that she was a virgin… Her family brought charges of slander against Elvira, who was sent away to Milan by Giacomo. Elvira was tried but in the interim Giacomo took her back and paid off Doria’s family and the charges were dropped. Sound like the plot of an opera?
There are two things which mark the pre-Lenten days of Carnevale: masks and sweets specific to this time of year. These dolci are part of the climate of excess and partying that precedes the period of abstinence and repentance of Lent. Recipes tend to be from the popular tradition, that is, fairly simple with easily available and cheap ingredients. While there are a few sweets that are baked, such as the Tuscan schiacciata – a (usually) white cake, often orange-scented – fried dolci are really the symbol of this time of year. Every region has variations on this theme, from Alto Adige to Sicily. Throughout the country, similar sweets have different names. The two most common styles are rectangular-shaped dough that is fried and dusted with powdered sugar (frappe, chiacchiere, bugie, crostoli) and balls of dough, sometimes filled, that are then fried (castagnole.) Sounds dull, but when they’re good, they’re very, very good and worth every caloric bite!
In December most households in Italy set up their presepe, or nativity scene. The basic parts are the stable or manger, with figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the donkey and the ox. Many people expand the scene with depictions of village life, the shepherds and the three wise men. Traditionally the presepe is set up on December 8th and taken down after the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The first recreations of nativity scenes date back to early medieval times with the “father” of the presepe commonly considered St. Francis of Assisi who set up such a nativity scene in 1223 in order to represent the Christmas story visually for the great majority of people who could not read. There are many carved nativity scenes that are famous in art history such as the one by Arnolfo da Cambio (1289) in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The city often associated with the presepe is Naples where artists and artisans have a history dating to Baroque times of creating detailed and fantastical carved representations of the nativity. Some examples of Neapolitan nativity figures can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum until January 7th.
The moka stove-top coffee pot is the standard in almost all Italian households for making coffee. It is instantly recognizable for its octagonal shape, usually aluminium, and black bakelite handle. It was first conceived of in 1933 by Alfonso Bialetti who was inspired by watching his wife do laundry in a machine called a lisciveuse that used the same concept of heating water and forcing it through a tube. In the moka, water is put into the bottom of the coffee pot, then a filter, which fits into this bottom, is filled with finely ground coffee and the empty top is screwed onto the bottom of the pot. As the water heats, it is forced through the coffee filter and, under pressure, it slowly fills the top part of the pot with a strong brew similar to espresso, often also with a crema. The moka comes in different sizes, the two-cup pot probably being the most common. This common kitchen object is an icon of Italian industrial design and is featured in the collections of museums world-wide.