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?