“Beethoven’s Ninth made the [Best of 2010] list ... with an ‘Ode to Joy’ finale that brought down the house.”
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
‘Musetta’s Waltz’ (La Bohème, 1896)
‘Humming Chorus’ (Madama Butterfly, 1904)
‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (Gianni Schicchi, 1918)
“Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals.”
— George Bernard Shaw
“No composer communicates more directly with an audience than Puccini. Indeed, for many years he has remained a victim of his own popularity; hence the resistance to his music in academic circles. Be it remembered, however, that Verdi's melodies were once dismissed as barrel-organ fodder.”
— Julian Budden
Puccini: His Life and Works, 2002
Giacomo Puccini was born to a musical family in Lucca. A Puccini man had served as maestro di cappella at Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca for 124 years, beginning with Giacomo’s great-great-grandfather and ending with his father, who died when Giacomo was 6 years old. He received musical training, including service in choirs and some substitute organist work at the cathedral. A royal grant and support from an uncle enabled Giacomo to continue his formal training at the Milan Conservatory.
His first composition, an orchestral piece for a thesis competition at the conservatory, was well-received, and his reputation as a young composer to watch began to grow. He was 26 when his first opera, Le Villi, had its premiere and was enough of a success for the music publisher Casa Ricordi to purchase the rights.
His second opera, Edgar, did not fare so well. Reception was indifferent, and the production closed after the third performance. Critical reviews were not supportive, but Ricordi published a defense in Milanese newspapers, suggesting that a weak libretto was at fault. Several revisions shortened the work, and the public reception improved when it was reintroduced.
Puccini was determined to write the libretto for his third, Manon Lescaut, but Ricordi counseled against that idea. He continued making changes to the structure of the opera, exhausting librettists (at least five worked on the project) before settling on two — Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa — who saw the work through to completion. It premiered in February 1893, coincidentally within a week of Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera. Illica and Giacosa collaborated on the next three operas, which would secure Puccini’s reputation for creating opera in the verismo (realistic) style: La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. His relationship with librettists would remain difficult throughout his career, with Ricordi often intervening to negotiate and counsel.
George Bernard Shaw was far from the only critic who suggested that Puccini was the obvious heir-apparent to Verdi. A century or so later, statistics bear that out. According to Operabase, which gathers statistics from the world’s opera houses, three of Puccini’s operas were among the 10 most frequently performed in the world for the 2015-16 season: La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. They ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth behind Verdi’s La Traviata, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Bizet’s Carmen, with 3,131, and 2,694, and 2,641 performances worldwide, respectively, for the season.
‘Musetta’s Waltz’ (from La Bohème)
First performance: Turin, 1896, with Arturo Toscanini conducting; Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
La Bohème opens on Christmas eve in the Paris garret of four starving artists, ca. 1830. Marcello paints. Rodolfo, the poet, gazes out the window. Coline, the philosopher, has been unable to pawn some books. They are all freezing, but relief arrives. Schaunard, the musician, has finished a strange gig and is newly solvent: They will all dine at Cafe Momus. Three of them leave; Rodolfo remains to finish a writing project and will join them in a bit.
A knock at the door. It’s Mimi, a young seamstress and embroiderer who lives in the building. Her candle has blown out, and she needs a match. She feels faint, Rodolfo offers her a chair, and after resting a bit, she begins to leave but cannot find her key. As they search for it, a gust of wind blows out both their candles. In the dark, they sing about their lives and soon discover they are falling in love. The three companions shout for Rodolfo, and he and Mimi leave to join them for dinner, singing tenderly of their love. At the cafe, they meet Marcello’s former sweetheart Musetta, who is dining with a wealthy older man. She reaches out to Marcello by singing a risqué song (“Musetta’s Waltz”). Marcello and Musetta get back together, and the Bohemian party leaves after dinner, sticking the older man with the bill.
Hard times return in Act III, the following February. Mimi is terribly ill, coughing, shivering — and weeping because Rudolfo has left her the night before. She seeks out Marcello in the tavern where he is living. Rodolfo is asleep inside, Marcello says, but they soon hear Rodolfo coming. Mimi hides. As Rodolfo speaks with Marcello, the truth comes out: Rodolfo is still very much in love with Mimi, but feigned annoyance with Mimi in hopes she might find a better-funded suitor who can get her proper medical care. A fit of coughing gives Mimi away. The couple talk of parting ways, but their love is too strong for that. Meantime, Marcello and Musetta are quarreling.
Several months later, in Act IV, the original four Bohemian artists are back in their garret. Marcello and Rodolfo are not creating much art. They mostly talk of Musetta and Mimi, who have left them for wealthier men. Then Musetta appears with Mimi, who was wandering in the street after leaving her wealthy patron. Mimi is pale, noticeably weak, and in need of medicine. The friends spring into action. Schaunard and Coline leave to pawn Coline’s overcoat. Marcello and Musetta leave to sell Musetta’s jewelry. Left alone, Adolfo and Mimi recount their life together and celebrate the small items of their story — candles, keys, a pink bonnet. The friends return with medicine. Mimi feels a bit better but falls asleep. Schaunard discovers that Mimi has died. Adolfo, distraught, rushes to the bedside.
Quando m’en vo’,
Quando m’en vo’ soletta per la via
la gente sosta e mira...
e la bellezza mia tutta ricerca in me,
ricerca in me
Da capo a piè.
Ed assaporo allor la bramosia
sottil che dagli occhi traspira
e dai palesi vezzi intender sa
alle occulte beltà.
Così l’effluvio del desìo tutta m’aggira,
felice mi fa!
E tu che sai, che memori e ti struggi,
da me tanto rifuggi?
le angoscie tue non le vuoi dir,
non le vuoi dir, so ben,
ma ti senti morir!
When I walk
When I walk alone in the street
People stop and stare at me
And everyone looks at my beauty,
Looks at me
From head to foot.
And then I relish the sly yearning
Which escapes from their eyes
And which is able to perceive
My most hidden beauties.
Thus the scent of desire is all around me,
And it makes me happy!
And you who know, who remember and yearn,
You shrink from me?
I know it very well:
You do not want to express your anguish,
I know so well that you do not want to express it
but you feel as if you are dying!
‘Humming Chorus’ (from Madama Butterfly)
First performance: February 17, 1904, at La Scala; Libretto: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Puccini would revise Madama Butterfly four times after the initial version, which had a disastrous premiere due largely to inadequate rehearsal (Puccini was late in finishing the work). He completed the fifth version, now the standard version, more than four years after the original premiere. It is the story of Cio-Cio-san (Japanese for “Butterfly”), a 15-year old Japanese geisha who is married and abandoned by Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, U.S. Navy. Pinkerton has no intention of marriage for the long term. He plans to find a proper American wife and leave Butterfly in Japan, with its low-threshold divorce laws. In her youthful excitement, Butterfly abandons traditional Japanese religion and converts to Christianity. After the marriage ceremony, her friends and family abandon her, particularly her uncle Bonze, who curses her. Pinkerton soon leaves Japan.
Three years later, in Act II, Pinkerton has not returned. Butterfly waits for him and will not listen to her maid Suzuki nor to the marriage broker Goro, who wants to arrange a new marriage for her. Sharpless, the American consul, arrives with a letter from Pinkerton and reads through the part where Pinkerton says he is about to return. Butterfly is overjoyed and too excited to bother with the rest of the letter. She introduces Sharpless to Pinkerton’s three-year-old son, and Sharpless agrees to tell Pinkerton about the child. From her house on a hill, Butterfly can see Pinkerton’s ship arriving. She and Suzuki decorate the house for his arrival.
Act III follows without intermission, though a pensive, melancholy “Humming Chorus” is performed offstage. Suzuki and the child are asleep, but Butterfly has maintained her vigil through the night. The wordless humming continues until dawn. Sharpless arrives at the house, accompanied by Pinkerton and his American wife Kate. They plan to adopt and raise the child. News of their marriage was in the part of the letter that Sharpless was unable to read. Suzuki receives them. Pinkerton admits his cowardice, and it falls to Suzuki to break the news to Butterfly.
Butterfly, distraught, agrees to give up her little son if Pinkerton himself will agree to see her. She prays to traditional Japanese gods, puts a blindfold on her son and a small American flag in his hands, goes behind a screen and cuts her throat with her father’s ceremonial knife. Pinkerton rushes in, but is too late to save her.
‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (from Gianni Schicchi)
First performance: New York, December 14, 1918, at the Metropolitan Opera; Libretto: Giovacchino Forzano
Gianni Schicchi was part of a larger operatic work Il trittico (The Triptych), which had its premiere in the United States. Il trittico included three separate one-act operas related by a common theme: the concealment of a death. It opens with the violent and gritty Il tabarro, set on a barge in the Seine in Paris, ca. 1910. Next is Suor Angelica, a religious, redemptive, sweet story set in a convent near Sienna in the 17th century, said to be Puccini’s favorite of the three. The triptych closes with Gianni Schicchi [SKEE-kee], Puccini’s only comic opera, a social satire of greedy plotting and faux grief.
Gianni Schicchi opens just after the death of Buoso Donati, a wealthy man. Relatives have gathered in Donati’s bedroom. The smell of inheritance is in the air, as is the stench of competitive grieving, although word on the street is that Donati has left his fortune to a monastery. The relatives start rifling through the room, searching for the last will and testament that will be their ticket to riches. Rinuccio, a nephew of one of Donati’s cousins, finds it. He uses it as leverage to gain the family’s permission to marry Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi. (Consensus: Sure, go ahead and marry her as long as we’re all taken care of.) A quick reading of the will confirms their worst fears: The monks will get it all. Rinuccio sends a messenger to summon Schicchi, who soon arrives with Lauretta.
Schicchi sizes up the situation and adopts a cynical, exaggerated, mocking undertaker tone, expressing the hope that their grief will be eased by a large inheritance. The “grieving” Donatis express reservations about a Donati relative marrying the dowry-less daughter of a social climber like Schicchi. Rinuccio’s mother explains that there will be no inheritance and orders Schicchi and Lauretta to leave. Rinuccio and Lauretta plead with their parents, and Lauretta sings “O mio babbino caro,” which melts her father’s heart.
The assembly concocts an elaborate scheme to forge a new will. Schicchi dresses up as the deceased Donati, whose body is removed and the bed remade. A doctor arrives and leaves, led to believe that he has performed a resurrection. A notary is sent for so that old Donati can remake his will. The relatives divvy up the estate, except for the most valuable house and mills. The penalty for forgery in 13th-century Florence, Schicchi reminds the relatives, is a severed hand and banishment. The notary arrives with witnesses, and Schicchi dictates the will, giving agreed-upon pieces to everyone. But he leaves the most valuable portion of the estate “to my good friend Gianni Schicchi.” The relatives, wary of severed hands and banishment, control their rage and can only sit by silently. They wait until the notary and witnesses have left and then turn on Schicchi, who manages to chase them away and grab a little more loot.
The story is based on the 30th Canto of Dante’s Inferno, which is, in turn, based on Buoso Donati, an actual Florentine citizen, part of whose great house still stands in the city. In Dante’s telling, Schicchi is condemned to the eighth circle of hell. At the end of the opera, as the lovebirds Rinuccio and Lauretta look back on their first kiss, Schicchi turns and addresses the audience:
“Could [Buoso Donati]’s wealth have gone to better ends than this? But for this prank, I have been condemned to the Inferno. So be it. But with all due respect to the great father Dante, if you have been amused this evening, grant me extenuating circumstances!”
O mio babbino caro,
mi piace, è bello, bello.
Vo’andare in Porta Rossa
a comperar l’anello!
Sì, sì, ci voglio andare!
e se l’amassi indarno,
andrei sul Ponte Vecchio,
ma per buttarmi in Arno!
Mi struggo e mi tormento!
O Dio, vorrei morir!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
Babbo, pietà, pietà!
Oh my dear papa,
I love him, he is handsome, handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy the ring!
Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if I loved him in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio,
but to throw myself in the Arno!
I am anguished and tormented!
Oh God, I’d want to die!
Papa, have pity, have pity!
Papa, have pity, have pity!