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The Case for Puccini


The history of Italian opera throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was directly tied to the fortunes of the publishing house founded in 1808 by Giovanni Ricordi. Casa Ricordi of Milan issued the work of composers of Italian opera from Rossini through Puccini to Luigi Nono and continued its efforts until the firm was acquired in 1994 by Bertelsmann (BMG). Bertelsmann’s pursuit of immediate profit took precedence over the cultural pride and long-term investment that had characterized the old Ricordi company; the restructured BMG Ricordi largely stopped publishing contemporary music. True, commercial interests had also been important for the earlier generations of the family. Yet Giulio Ricordi was able to tolerate the fiascos and partial successes of the young Giacomo Puccini during the 1880s because he believed the composer would ultimately develop a voice that would bring honor to Italian culture and lire to the company’s purse.

Ricordi’s investment was richly rewarded by the royalties from Puccini performances. By the early 1970s, however, their copyrights on the three most frequently performed Puccini operas—La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904)—had expired, and with them a significant source of income. Taking account of recent efforts to produce critical editions of nineteenth-century Italian operas, especially the works of Rossini and Verdi, Ricordi decided to undertake a similar program for Puccini, and they asked me in the mid-1970s to edit Madama Butterfly. When I tried to give myself a crash course in scholarly work on the composer, there was practically nowhere to go. Two pioneering books about Puccini had recently been published in English,1 and there were several editions of Puccini letters, but no one had apparently thought about musical sources, let alone documented the complex interaction between Puccini and his librettists. Critical studies rarely went beyond the level of program notes.

I tried to compare the printed score of Butterfly with Puccini’s autograph manuscript, preserved in the Ricordi archives in Milan, but I soon recognized how futile this was. Madama Butterfly, as I learned to formulate the problem a decade later, after the appearance of Jerome McGann’s treatise on textual criticism,2 must be seen as the product of a variety of collaborators. Unlike Italian operas from Rossini through Verdi’s Aida (1871), where the manuscript in the composer’s own writing remains our best source, Puccini’s works were subject to a more complex process of development, in which the composer was actively engaged but which he did not fully control. With Puccini’s blessing, editors, librettists, conductors, and other collaborators helped to bring the work into print. When the readings of the autograph manuscript differ significantly from the printed edition, therefore, which should we believe is the composer’s definitive work? A musical score cannot be treated as an example of postmodern ambiguity: rehearsal time costs money.

The first act of Butterfly, for example, begins with a bustling fugue. In Puccini’s autograph manuscript and in the original vocal score, the first two notes are always slurred. When the orchestral score was published, however, the articulation was changed in the strings. Someone—we don’t know who—decided that slurring the first two notes on a single upbow and reserving a downbow for the third note, which falls on the downbeat, would sound like a weak attack, and so the slurs were replaced with a pair of staccatos, and the two notes were marked with a downbow and an upbow. While that may be a reasonable choice, no parallel changes were made in the doubling winds. Thus, the printed score gives the opening notes as staccato in the strings and slurred in the winds. Did Puccini or anyone else realize this? Should the contradictory readings be allowed to stand?

When Butterfly’s servant, Suzuki, prays to the Japanese gods at the beginning of the second act, her melody in D minor rocks gently between A and G. The preceding measure resembles a battleground in Puccini’s manuscript. After staring at it for hours, I realized that the composer called on one of the horns to descend from A to G, anticipating the melody of Suzuki’s prayer, but no edition of Butterfly has ever included that G. Did Ricordi make a mistake, which went unnoticed, or did Puccini remove this genial detail? There was no way to know. Nor in the critical climate surrounding Puccini in the 1970s did anyone think such questions important.

The situation has changed dramatically today. Although some critics continue to resist the allure of Puccini’s operas, the arrogance and intolerance that characterized much “informed” opinion before the 1970s has largely evaporated.3 Not only do La Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly, and Turandot (unfinished at Puccini’s death in 1924) flourish on the world’s stages, but opera houses are more likely than ever to program revivals of Manon Lescaut (1893), La fanciulla del West (1910), La rondine (1917), and Il trittico (1918), and even to produce Edgar (1889) and Le Villi (1884). Between Rent and Baz Luhrmann’s recent La Bohème, Puccini’s Bohemians have been up and down Broadway, as have various derivatives of Butterfly.

Instead of accepting critical theories that define operatic drama from a Wagnerian perspective, new scholarly work looks more closely at Puccini’s operas themselves. What emerges is a view of Puccini as having a keen dramatic sensibility, not at all a composer of shameless sentimentality. Puccini’s music and acutely theatrical timing revivify the late-nineteenth-century melodrama of Victorien Sardou and David Belasco, much as Rossini reanimates the theater of Voltaire, and Verdi that of Victor Hugo. Puccini’s melodic language is sumptuous but hardly ever coarse; in each opera he carefully develops a discrete number of musical ideas. He never presents an idea at random, not even the reprise of “E lucevan le stelle“—“When the stars were brightly shining”—at the end of Tosca; no audience fails to understand its emotional resonance. The composer’s carefully wrought orchestral texture often resembles that of chamber music, especially in the more experimental works of the 1910s, among them La fanciulla del West and Il trittico. His basically tonal harmonic language is inflected throughout in ways that show knowledge of his contemporaries in France (Massenet and Debussy) and Germany (Wagner and Strauss), but it remains deeply personal. The recent appearance of three books in English offers an opportu-nity to reflect on the man and what he accomplished.


Giacomo Puccini was the last in a family of Tuscan musicians stretching back to the early eighteenth century. They settled in Lucca, where Giacomo was born in 1858. His early life parallels Verdi’s: an excellent young musician is destined for local ecclesiastical service; well-to-do supporters make it possible for him to receive training in Milan; some youthful operas have a mixed reception; then a big success (Nabucco, Manon Lescaut) opens the way to the future. Throughout his career, Puccini, like Verdi, remained intensely loyal to his geographical and cultural roots. From the early 1890s his private life centered around his property in Torre del Lago, and he never abandoned its simple pleasures: hunting, cards, quiet camaraderie. Verdi the farmer discussing hydraulic projects, Puccini the hunter, his rifle and game birds proudly displayed; both composers cultivated these images, while genuinely enjoying provincial life.

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz has writ-ten a biography of Puccini with much anecdotal detail, some colorful, some tedious. She has traced Puccini’s movements, sought out primary sources where possible, and over the past forty years interviewed many of those who knew him directly, friends, relatives, and fellow artists, most of whom have emphasized the composer’s humanity and modesty. She is not always sufficiently selective: scouring auction catalogs for letters can be worthwhile, but Puccini’s effort to help a young corporal get a job in “some regimental office” adds little. Yet one savors the anecdote told by Arturo Buzzi-Peccia, a friend from Puccini’s student days, claiming that he and Puccini cheated at cards “by humming a melody that was in fact a code that corresponded to the values of the cards they held.”

When it comes to documenting Puccini’s intimate life, Phillips-Matz is unrivaled.4 There is much to tell. In the mid-1880s he fell in love with one of his piano students, Elvira Bonturi, the wife of a grocer and traveling salesman, Narciso Gemignani, with whom she already had two children. By 1886, pregnant with Puccini’s son Tonio, Elvira left her husband and children to join the composer. They married after her husband’s death and remained together throughout Puccini’s life, although their relationship was never easy. Burdened with Elvira’s consuming jealousy, the composer nonetheless had a series of relationships with other women. The Turinese “Corinna,” with whom Puccini was involved from 1900 to 1903, remains shadowy. It seems peculiar that no one has succeeded in identifying her, particularly since their affair ended with her threatening legal action against him for refusing to marry her.

In October 1904, during a trip to London, he met Sybil Seligman, wife of a London banker, with whom he had (according to Sybil’s sister) an intense but brief sexual relationship that was followed by a lifelong friendship. Selections from Puccini’s letters to Sybil, many about artistic matters, were published by her son in English translation in 1938, but the originals—some owned by an Australian collector—remain unavailable. There was no more than casual affection between Puccini and his serving girl, Doria Manfredi, but Elvira’s vociferous claim that the girl was a whore drove Doria to suicide (an autopsy established that she was a virgin).

While Phillips-Matz presents little new information about Elvira, Corinna, Sybil, or Doria, she is the first to quote from Puccini’s correspondence with two other women, Margit Vészi, a Hungarian writer, whom he encountered around 1912, and the singer Rose Ader, whom he met in 1921, writing to her in over one hundred letters Phillips-Matz describes as “all very passionate.” She also quotes liberally—in English translation—from the letters of Puccini to Toscanini, now in the New York Public Library.5 These letters (which describe, for example, how he “filled out” the final scene of Fanciulla with choruses) draw us closer to Puccini the composer, who alone justifies a biographer’s efforts. More thoughtful attention to documents of this kind and to Puccini’s other artistic relationships would have improved Phillips-Matz’s book.

Julian Budden and Michele Girardi, without neglecting the composer’s biography, concentrate their attention principally on his operas.6 What, they both ask, was a composer to do after Aida? The evolving musical language that had defined Italian opera from the 1810s through the early 1870s had played itself out. Verdi himself filled the operatic gap between Aida in 1871 and Otello in 1887 (followed in 1893 by Falstaff) with revisions of earlier works (Simon Boccanegra in 1881 and the Italian Don Carlo in 1884). Of the generation of composers who matured during the 1860s and 1870s, the most prominent were Amilcare Ponchielli and the Verdi librettist Arrigo Boito, known primarily as a composer for his often-revised Mefistofele (1868, 1875, 1881). Boito’s efforts to invent a new style alert to influences from north of the Alps soon languished, along with the entire musical faction that, under the banner of scapigliatura (“bohemianism”), hoped to rejuvenate Italian musical culture. Ponchielli’s art also looked north, especially in his La gioconda of 1876 (usually performed in its definitive 1880 version). The post-Wagnerian atmosphere that gradually pervaded Italy after the 1871 performances of Lohengrin in Bologna, however, offered little space for the techniques of French grand opera on display in Ponchielli: spectacular staging, divertissements (especially the “Dance of the Hours”), a strong choral presence, and a relatively fluid approach to musical form.

  1. 1

    Mosco Carner, Puccini: A Critical Biography (Knopf, 1959; third edition, Holmes and Meier, 1992), and William Ashbrook, The Operas of Puccini (Oxford University Press, 1968; reprinted by Cornell University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1983).

  3. 3

    Largely, but not completely: in the “New and Revised Edition” of his Opera as Drama (University of California Press, 1988), Joseph Kerman defends his 1956 judgments (Tosca: “that shabby little shocker”; Turandot: “café-music banality”) against criticism by Mosco Carner and Peter Conrad (see pp. x–xiv).

  4. 4

    The same could be said of her Verdi: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1993).

  5. 5

    Most were published in the original Italian in Eugenio Gara’s Carteggi pucciniani (Milan: Ricordi, 1958).

  6. 6

    Girardi’s biography is a revision of a book originally published in Italian as Giacomo Puccini: L’arte internazionale di un musicista italiano (Venice: Marsilio, 1995).

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