No composer of opera has assaulted hearts and provoked tears more readily than Giacomo Puccini. For millions Puccini’s music is Italian opera. Who in the world doesn’t know that no one shall sleep until the final whistle blows? How many movies have borrowed ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi? Who hasn’t heard that Mimì’s tiny hand was frozen? And Tosca, Madam Butterfly and Turandot, Puccini’s final unfinished masterpiece, are just about the only 20th-century operas to have worked their way into the regular repertoire of any opera house that cares about its reputation.
As for Puccini’s reputation, it was established from the very outset. With a little help from some influential friends, the young composer from Lucca, heir to a long family line of musicians, made a mark in Milan in May 1884 with his very first opera, Le villi (The Fairies). ‘I have heard the composer Puccini well spoken of…’ wrote Verdi to a friend. ‘He follows the modern tendencies, which is natural, but he adheres to melody, which is neither modern nor antique. The symphonic element, however, appears to be predominant in him.’
Was it Arrigo Boito, the librettist for Verdi’s two last masterpieces Otello and Falstaff, or the publisher Giulio Ricordi who told the composer about the triumphant first night of Puccini’s first opera Le villi? It hardly matters, for at a stroke of his pen the Grand Old Man of Italian opera had acknowledged his successor. And with his customary acuity Verdi noted what made the younger man so different from himself. In a word it was Wagner – the orchestra taking the lead role in an opera. For Verdi, singing was where the opera began; with Puccini the drama began to move off stage and into the pit.
However, not at the beginning. Puccini’s first three operas, Le villi, the disastrous Edgar and Manon Lescaut, in which the composer first gets into his own stride, are all recognisably written in the great 19th-century Italian tradition in which the voice predominates. And, as Verdi observed, melody predominates too. In Manon’s final aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ Puccini writes an achingly beautiful tune for his soprano and sets a pattern that he will continue throughout his career. For Tosca there is ‘Vissi d’arte’, for Cio-Cio-San in Madam Butterfly ‘Un bel dì’ and ‘Signore Ascolta’ for Liù in Turandot. These arias speak to us directly about feelings that are so obviously human – despair, regret, and hope. They are not Verdi’s arias, great secular prayers in search of grace, but the pouring out of emotion at a moment of personal crisis incorporated into music that vaults over reason and logic and heads straight for the heart.
For all this, there is something oddly morbid about how the composer and his librettists treat their heroines. Manon and Mimì die, while Tosca, Cio-Cio-San and Liù commit suicide. Only Minnie in La fanciulla del West rides off into the sunset; and who really believes that Turandot will make Calaf a dutiful wife when the curtain falls on Turandot? Indeed, it is difficult not to feel disturbed in the middle act of Tosca when Scarpia tortures the eponymous heroine with the sound of her lover on the rack off stage. Of course the heroine then kills the villain and of course the heroine dies. That’s the narrative tradition that underpins Italian opera from the early 19th century, but Puccini undermines these dramatic conventions. His music encourages us to confuse them with the real thing so that later, much later, we may reflect on the evident inequalities of men and women in this particular musical world. And if we do is that perhaps as the composer intended it to be?
It’s a moot point, but maybe these operas are really on the side of women living in a world made and managed by men. In the first version of Madam Butterfly which was greeted with derision at its premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1904 – when the heroine’s kimono slipped open they shouted ‘See Butterfly is pregnant’ – the attack on American cultural imperialism is both more marked and clearly identified with the exercise of masculine authority than in the composer’s revision. In Act I, Pinkerton openly mocks Japanese customs with Sharpless while ‘Addio fiorito asil’, that final act aria which does so much to soften our fury at his behaviour to Butterfly, was only added after the first night fiasco in Milan.
When he composed Madam Butterfly Puccini had discovered how to make his audience believe in what they saw and heard on stage. And it was by using those very symphonic skills that had worried Verdi that he had become so adroit at blurring the line between operatic conventions and the ‘real thing’. By the time that he came to write La bohème Puccini had discovered how to smudge the division between recitative and aria, setting his libretto in a conversational style with the orchestra filling in the feelings. Four years later when, in 1900, the composer completed Tosca, he had mastered the art of bending Wagner’s treatment of the orchestra to his Italian tradition, moving the drama from stage to pit.
In Act I of Madam Butterfly Pinkerton is identified with a triumphant version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and carefully contrasted with a more gentle theme for Sharpless, the bullish American naval officer versus the all-too-humane consul who bridges two cultures. And if you want to understand the power that Turandot wields, then listen not just to the words of her great aria ‘In questa Reggia’ but to the ascending key changes to the phrase that begins on the line ‘quel grido e quella morte’, Calaf and the princess each outbidding the other until they reach a high C as the aria becomes a duet. For once man and woman are competing on equal terms. Here, perhaps, in what should have been Puccini’s masterpiece, his music and his theme meet magnificently.