Giacomo Puccini
Tosca and Turandot

Born: 22 December 1858, in Lucca
Died: 29 November 1924, in Brussels

{Biography} {Tosca} {Turandot}

Biography

Puccini came from a very long line of composers going back to his great-great-grandfather.  His father died when he was five, so his early music lessons were from his uncle and the local conservatory in Lucca.  He sang as a choirboy and was serving as an organist by the age of 14.  He was on his way to being an adequate musician at the purely provincial level when he heard a performance of Aida, in Pisa, at the age of 18 (opera in Lucca itself was no great shakes).  That was it!  He was going to be an opera composer. 

He began study at the Milan Conservatory in 1880, at the age of 21, and stayed for three years.  One of  his teachers was Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886), know today for his opera La Gioconda.  The year he graduated, Puccini entered a competition with his first opera, the one-act Le Villi (later expanded to two acts).  Although the opera failed to place in the competition, it was performed the following year in Milan and thereby came to the attention of the influential music publisher Giulio Ricordi.  Thus began an extremely important relationship for Puccini.  Ricordi paid the composer a monthly stipend and commissioned a new opera.  This was the work Edgar, premiered at La Scala in 1889 but never proving popular. 

Success was to come with Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, first performed in Turin in 1893.  That Puccini chose to set this tale at all was an impressive demonstration of his confidence, for Massenet’s Manon, also based on the famous novel by Abbé Prévost, was less than a decade old and already a brilliant treatment of the story.  Puccini’s opera has never held the place in the repertoire that Massenet’s has, but it is a lovely work and is still performed today.  More importantly, it provided the long-desired financial success for Puccini, enabling him to repay Ricordi’s advances, buy a new home (the villa at Torre del Lago that is now a Puccini museum), and live comfortably thereafter. 

1896 saw the next opera, La bohème (“The Bohemian”), premiered in Turin with Toscanini conducting.  Today it is amusing to learn that this staggeringly popular story of starving artists (a subject Puccini knew from personal experience) was not an instant success.  Also curious is that Mahler, one of the most important conductors of the day, preferred the Bohème composed by Leoncavallo over Puccini’s opera (did you even know that Leoncavallo, famous for his opera Pagliacci, even wrote a La boheme?).  By the way, if you want to see an excellent production of Puccini’s work, see the Zeffirelli staging at the Met, still going strong after 36 years. 

Bohème was the first of the big three Puccini operas, the ones that are performed more than any other of his works and that help make him one of the big five in the opera repertory today (the others being Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss).  Tosca (1900) was the second (see the discussion below), and Madama Butterfly (1904) the third, this last one delayed by a serious auto accident Puccini suffered in 1903.  Butterfly, which premiered at La Scala, was also not a success at first (again hard to believe, but true). 

Personal woes intervened before Puccini’s next opera as well.  Not the most faithful of husbands, Puccini was thought by his wife to be having an affair with their maid.  Puccini’s wife harrassed the poor woman to the point of suicide; an autopsy confirmed her virginity; her family sued Puccini’s wife for “gross defamation of character;” though guilty, she was eventually able to avoid a prison sentence.  This tragic story reads like a bad opera plot but is unfortunately true. 

Opinions are divided about Puccini’s remaining operas:  La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West,” premiered at the Met under Toscanini in 1910); La rondine (1917, Monte Carlo); Il trittico (a triptych of three one-acts—Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi—first performed at the Met in 1918); and the unfinished Turandot (see below).  Some think the new directions Puccini was exploring in Turandot represent his strongest work, combining the harmony of Debussy and the orchestration of Strauss, and a good friend of mine who is extremely knowledgeable about opera considers La fanciulla to be Puccini’s masterpiece.  But none of the later operas rivals the big three in terms of overall popularity. 

Tosca

Tosca is my absolute favorite Puccini opera, and given that its subject matter includes murder, treachery, lust, cruelty, corruption, torture, sexual coercion, and suicide, I’m not sure what that says about me.  But I’m not the only one enthralled by this fast-paced thriller, and Puccini sweeps us along in his evocation of the drama, brilliantly held together by recurring motives presented in new guises—yes, he was indeed influenced by Wagnerian leitmotifs. 

The story comes from a play by Victorien Sardou, written in 1887 as a vehicle for the famous Sarah Bernhardt.  Puccini saw Bernhardt perform the role in Florence in 1895, but he had already identified the play many years earlier as perfect for his needs.  The operatic rights were acquired first by Alberto Franchetti (no, I hadn’t heard of him either, and I’m a musicologist) but then (fortunately for all of us) turned over to Puccini, with Sardou’s approval.  The librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the same team Puccini used for Bohème and Butterfly, and it’s generally agreed that the opera is better than the play.  The opera premiered in 1900 in Rome, which was fitting given that it is set in that city. 

The action takes place on 17/18 June 1800, a time of turmoil in Rome (note the adherence to the Classical stipulation of dramatic action within a twenty-four hour period).  After having been in the hands of the French (who are the good guys in the opera, as they are in favor of democracy), Rome is now under the control of a coalition of Neapolitans, Austrians, Russians, and British (these are all the bad guys).  The opera opens inside the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, with three powerful chords drawn from the whole tone scale and associated throughout the work with the evil Sicilian Baron Vitello Scarpia, the malevolent Chief of Police.  The first person we see is Cesare Angelotti, who had served as a consul in the short-lived Roman republic and has just escaped from the Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was imprisoned on Scarpia’s orders.  He rushes into the church and hides in one of the side chapels. 

Mario Cavaradossi, an artist, comes to the church to work on a painting of Mary Magdalene.  Angelotti reveals himself, but their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Floria Tosca, a diva who is having an affair with Cavaradossi (Angelotti is back in hiding by the time Tosca appears).  Tosca and Cavaradossi arrange to meet later that evening, and she goes away.  A cannon shot indicates that Angelotti’s escape has been discovered, so Cavaradossi and Angelotti leave in order to hide Angelotti in a well in Cavaradossi’s garden.  The church’s Sacristan enters with the news that Napoleon has suffered a defeat in the Battle of Marengo, and the populace (chorus!) enters in celebration.  Scarpia and his cronies arrive in the midst of this (very dramatically, with Scarpia’s chordal progression interrupting everything else).  Scarpia orders a Te Deum in thanks for the military victory, and his thugs discover evidence that Angelotti was hiding in the church.  Tosca returns to tell Cavaradossi of a change in plans for the evening and encounters Scarpia, who incites her jealousy of an unknown (and non-existent) rival for Cavaradossi’s affections.  She leaves, trailed by Scarpia’s minions, while the chorus sings our Te Deum against Scarpia’s musings on his plans to capture Angelotti and his desire for Tosca—a powerful end to Act I.  Puccini, by the way, did careful research into the liturgy appropriate for the time and place when he was writing this final section of the act. 

Act II brings us to Scarpia’s apartment in the Villa Farnese.  Scarpia’s men have been unable to find Angelotti and have arrested Cavaradossi instead.  Scarpia interrogates Cavaradossi, and at one point opens a window through which is heard a cantata being sung offstage by chorus and Tosca in celebration for Napoleon’s defeat.  When the window is closed, the sound is dramatically cut off.  And then that’s it for the chorus in this opera. 

Cavaradossi refuses to betray Angelotti, so he is hauled off to be tortured.  By this time Tosca has finished her performance and has joined Scarpia; she cannot bear the sounds of her lover being tortured (good tenors do this very realistically) and tells Scarpia where Angelotti is hidden.  Cavaradossi is released, but berates Tosca, and a messanger enters with the news that the Battle of Marengo was, in fact, won by Napoleon.  Cavaradossi bursts into a tribute to liberty—this is not a good idea in front of a despicable despot—so Scarpia arrests him again and sends him off to prison to be shot at dawn. 

Scarpia then offers Tosca a deal: if she will sleep with him, he’ll free Cavaradossi.  This prompts her glorious aria “Vissi d’arte.”  “I lived for art,” she sings, what has she done to deserve this?  An underling enters with the news that Angelotti has killed himself.  Tosca agrees to Scarpia’s conditions, though he tells her that they must carry out a mock execution so that everyone else is fooled.  She demands a safe conduct, and as Scarpia writes it (to an incredibly poignant orchestral accompaniment), she spies a knife and gets hold of it.  When Scarpia finishes writing and comes to embrace her, she stabs him (you go, girl!) and he dies.  Tosca wrests the safe conduct from his grasp, places candles by his head and a crucifix on his chest, sings in a monotone (or often speaks) the words “and before him all Rome trembled” (E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma—words added by Puccini, by the way), and leaves the room to a hushed orchestral accompaniment.  Whew!

This whole scene is incredibly powerful.  If you have never seen this opera, do so, if only for the sake of this scene. 

Act III opens as dawn is breaking, with a shepherd boy’s song and sheep-bells followed by the chimes of Matins (the first sacred ceremony of the Catholic day).  We are at the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo; in his research for the opera Puccini went to Rome to this precise spot to hear how the Matins bells would sound.  Cavaradossi enters to sing his heartbreaking aria “E lucevan le stelle,”about  memories of his past joys with Tosca before the impending end.  And then there is Tosca before him, with the goods news that after the fake execution they will flee Rome forever.  Hooray!

Except that Scarpia has betrayed her; his instructions to his underlings, which Tosca believed were to use blanks in the guns, were instead to proceed as usual.  Cavaradossi is dead; Tosca realizes this (after the soldiers have exited the stage) just as Scarpia’s murder is discovered and his men are racing to arrest her.  She climbs on the battlements, sings that she will meet Scarpia before God, and hurls herself over the side to her death.  Supposedly this dramatic moment has not always gone as planned; there are tales of Toscas too scared to jump, or of stage crews, annoyed at the current prima donna, who have substituted trampolines for the normal foam pits, thus leading to the reappearance of Tosca above the battlements.  But perhaps that’s just apocryphal—what prima donna could possibly warrant such treatment?  On a far more serious note, Sarah Bernhardt severely injured her knee in one of her jumps off the stage version of Castel Sant’Angelo, which led eventually to the amputation of her right leg. 

A personal note: A latecomer to opera, I first heard anything connected with Tosca only at Debra Fatula’s senior voice recital at Penn State, where she sang (gloriously) “Vissi d’arte.”  The aria made an indelible impression on me (that high B-flat on “SigNOR!”).  But that was the only thing I knew until some years later, when I got to sing in a semi-staged production during my first summer in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  Both the Te Deum and the offstage chorus are fun, and I’ve always wanted to hear the “rest” of the fake cantata that we are singing in Act II.  Oh, and if you’re ever in Rome, you must go visit the Castel Sant’ Angelo.  Puccini’s music will accompany you throughout.  But try to see a traditional production if possible.  I just saw an “updated” one at the National Theater in Prague that put the action in 1923 (funny how those Napoleon references didn’t work too well when you do that) and set all three acts in a police station.  No, I am not making this up. 

Turandot

Puccini’s last opera was left unfinished.  Diagnosed with throat cancer (he was a lifelong smoker), he died while undergoing treatment in Brussels.  But the ending of the opera was giving him trouble anyway; it’s not clear how he would have handled it had he lived.

The libretto, by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, was inspired by the eighteenth-century dramatic fairy tale of Carlo Gozzi via the nineteenth-century adaptation by Schiller.  Puccini wasn’t the first to turn this into an opera; his compatriot Ferruccio Busoni premiered his opera on the same subject in 1917.   But it’s Puccini’s treatment that has lasted.  

The opera takes place in legendary times in the city known in the West until recently as Peking.  The Emperor has decreed that the Princess Turandot will marry the first royal suitor to answer three riddles; aspirants to her hand who fail will be beheaded.  The opera opens with a crowd present for the decapitation of an unsuccessful suitor.  In the crowd, Prince Calaf encounters his father Timur, the blind and exiled King of Tartary, and the slave girl Liù, who is loyal to the family because she loves Calaf.  Turandot, who does not sing in the first act, appears and rejects the crowd’s call to spare the victim’s life.  Calaf, entranced by Turandot’s beauty, decides to try to win her.  His father, Liù, and various others attempt to sway him from his resolve, but he is unmoved, striking the gong that indicates he will accept Turandot’s challenge. 

In Act II, Calaf solves the riddles, to Turandot’s displeasure.  She begs the Emperor to release her from marrying Calaf; the Emperor refuses.  Calaf gives her a way out: if she discovers his name by dawn the next day, he will be beheaded. 

Act III opens in the palace gardens, at night, and is the setting for Calaf’s aria “Nessun dorma,” “no one sleeps.”  Largely thanks to Luciano Pavarotti, “Nessun dorma” falls into the relatively small category of Pieces Even People Who Know Nothing About Opera Recognize.  And it certainly deserves its position in that pantheon, with its typically Puccinian lyrical melody, and its soaring “Vincero” (I will win!) at the end, as Calaf lets us know that even though no one is sleeping in the attempt to learn his name, he’s going to succeed in marrying the princess. 

But not for lack of trying on Turandot’s part.  Calaf is offered bribes, the crowd menaces him with daggers, and Timur and Liù are brought before him, captured by the guards.  Turandot appears and orders Timur to be interrogated, but Liù steps up in his place instead.  Despite being tortured, she tells Turandot that it is love that gives her the strength to resist.  And then she grabs a dagger from a guard and kills herself.  Her body is taken off stage; everyone leaves except Calaf and Turandot. 

This is where Puccini’s work stops; the remainder of the opera was put together by Franco Alfano and now forms the standard ending.  Calaf and Turandot sing a duet; she succumbs to his charm and urges him to leave; he tells her his name.  In the final scene in the palace courtyard, she tells the Emperor and all that she knows his name:  it is Love.  The opera ends with a reprise of the “Nessun dorma” music to different words. 

You can see how this ending is just a little bit problematic.  This “happy” ending doesn’t fit too well with the more usual Puccinian finales (Manon dies in exile; Mimi dies of consumption; Tosca commits suicide; Cio-Cio-San commits suicide; Giorgetta is forced to confront her dead lover’s body; Suor Angelica commits suicide...you get the picture), and Calaf is supremely untroubled that his bride-to-be has just had an innocent and loyal slave tortured to the point of suicide in place of his father.  Yes, Turandot has a change of heart (finally!), but still.  Yet as we all know, opera isn’t just about the plot; it survives ultimately because of the music.  And I do like soaring up to that alto high F at the end.  

July 2017

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