“Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man’s faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements.” – Giacomo Puccini
If anyone can give Verdi a run for his money for a place atop the pedestal of Italian opera greats, it’s got to be Puccini. According to the website Operabase, Puccini is the world’s second most frequently performed opera composer; as of the 2013-14 season, Puccini had 2,062 performances to Verdi’s 3,009, with La bohème and Tosca trailing only Verdi’s La traviata, as the most frequently performed opera of all.
Puccini’s operas contain many of the genre’s most poignant dramatic moments. He succeeded in doing for the voice what Tchaikovsky accomplished for the orchestra -writing music that was not merely beautiful, but always masterfully building towards a thrilling denouement that sweeps the audience off its feet. Like Tchaikovsky, Puccini often mused about the elusive concept of inspiration, once remarking: “Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration.”
Perhaps no other passage of music better illustrates this than arguably the most famous aria of all time (in no small part due to the BBC’s use of it as the anthem for the 1990 FIFA World Cup): Nessun dorma (“None Shall Sleep”) from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. I’d be in trouble with my relatives if I didn’t at least mention the fact that Turandot was based on a work by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami, the epic Turan-Dokht. Set in mythical China, it tells the story of Prince Calàf, who must solve three riddles to win the hand of the man-hating Princess Turandot, with death being the penalty for a wrong answer. Calàf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. Under the circumstances I’d probably take that as my cue to move on, but remember Tinder didn’t exist in those days so the dating pool was much smaller. In any event, Calàf offers her another way to get rid of him: if she learns his name before dawn the next day, he’ll do the honourable thing and die. Filled with passion and anguish, the aria stands as a monument to the pain of unrequited love, and the impossible quest for companionship in the days before dating apps. Here it is along with an English translation of the words, sung by the great Pavarotti (warning: the power and passion of Pavarotti in this video may blow up your computer).
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Even you, o Princess,
In your cold room,
Watch the stars,
That tremble with love and hope.
But my secret is hidden within me,
My name none shall know,
No! No! To your lips I will reveal it when the light shines.
And my kiss will break the silence that makes you mine!
Vanish, o night!
Set, you stars! Set, you stars!
At dawn I will win! I will win! I will win!
And here it is in the World Cup – maybe not Puccini’s intended setting, but it definitely succeeded in taking his music to a wider audience.
Turandot however is altogether atypical of the subject matter Puccini worked with. He is in fact known as a master of the verismo tradition, a move towards greater realism in opera, which marked a shift away from using historical and mythological themes. Puccini used instead everyday people as his heroes, teasing drama out of relationships and familiar situations. His opera Manon Lescaut, for example, tells the story of a willful young girl torn between her desire for true love and a life of luxury. An excellent article on NPR draws an apt comparison to modern songs which play on a similar theme, such as Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Madonna’s “Material Girl”, which preaches that “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.” Manon seems to arrive at the same conclusion, allowing herself to be whisked away from her true love, Des Grieux, by a wealthy and lascivious suitor, Geronte. There is no happy ending: Manon is finally imprisoned for theft and prostitution, and escapes only to die.
Here is a great video from the Royal Opera discussing the character of Manon. While the opera was Puccini’s first major success, it garnered a mixed reception from critics who considered it unoriginal, the story having already been the subject of an earlier opera by Massenet. Puccini retorted “A woman like Manon can accommodate more than one lover.”
Donna non vidi mai (“I Have Never Seen a Woman”) from Manon Lescaut, sung by Pavarotti at a free concert on a wet evening in Hyde Park in July 1991. Prince Charles and Princess Diana can be seen sitting with John Major in the audience at 0:08. The Guardian wrote an article about the occasion which those that wish to reminisce can read here.
Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut played by the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine
Crisantemi (“Chrysanthemums” – a flower associated with mourning in Italy) played by the Enso String Quartet, an elegy Puccini is said to have written in a single night. This stunning piece shows that Puccini was equally capable of writing instrumental masterpieces, and he later reused much of this music in various scenes in Manon Lescaut.
Puccini seemed destined for a life in music, coming from a family with a long history of musical service at the cathedral in Lucca, Tuscany. It was always assumed that Puccini would follow in their footsteps, though as a young boy he actually showed little interest in music. This all changed however when he and his brother walked all the way to Pisa (a journey of over 4 hours according to Google Maps) to attend a performance of Verdi’s Aida. Much like Liszt had been set on his path by a performance of Paganini, the concert inspired Puccini to become a master of the opera. Puccini remarked “Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said: ‘Write for the theatre – mind, only for the theatre!’”
Puccini achieved early success in 1884 with his opera Le Villi, but it wasn’t until his golden years from 1895-1904 that he composed the string of works that he is best remembered for today: La bohème, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. During this time Puccini resided in the idyllic Torre del Lago, a tranquil lake-side town, which provided the unlikely setting for the most scandalous episode of his personal life. The story bears all the hallmarks of a Danielle Steel novel: infidelity, suicide, blackmail, litigation, incarceration – even a motoring accident and a letter with the damning words “What an abyss of depravity and prostitution! You are a shit, and with this I leave you to your future.” It’s a complex story that would fill up an entire post, but anyone so inclined can read a thorough account here.
Quando men vo (“When I Walk”) also known as “Musetta’s Waltz”, from La bohème, sung by Anna Netrebko
Che gelida manina (“What a Cold Little Hand”) from La bohème, sung by Vittorio Grigolo, one of the world’s leading tenors who very graciously shared my blog with his fanbase recently. I asked Vittorio what makes Puccini so beloved in the world of opera, and he answered: “Puccini is for me like having a cappuccino next to your bed in the morning as soon as you wake up! You can smell the coffee but not yet taste it… it’s continuous excitement bar after bar.”
E lucevan le stelle (“And the Stars were Shining”) from Tosca, sung by Vittorio Grigolo
Vissi d’arte (“I Lived for Art”) from Tosca, sung by Angela Gheorghiu – surely one of the most stunning arias ever written!
Un bel dì vedremo (“One Beautiful Day We Will See”) from Madame Butterfly, sung by Maria Callas
Cora a bocca chiusa (“Humming Chorus) from Madame Butterfly
Puccini was known to be an obsessive perfectionist, and was hell-bent on making his work idiot-proof: incapable of being ruined by incompetent performers or lost on unsophisticated audiences. He insisted that his music could be appreciated in any language, regardless of whether or not one understood what was being sung. That Puccini’s works were often criticized during his lifetime is likely to have been a contributing factor to his meticulous attention to detail. One critic wrote that La bohème “will leave a scant trace in the history of opera, and the author would be well advised to consider it a passing error” – and Puccini seemed to take such comments to heart. One of his earliest operas for example, Edgar, his most notable failure, was singled out for its deficient libretto, causing Puccini to go to great lengths to ensure this never happened again. When he subsequently undertook Manon Lescaut he initially set out to write his own libretto so that “no fool of a librettist” could spoil it, though he ultimately relented on the advice of a friend – in the event, four different librettists were brought in to work on the piece before he was finally satisfied.
O mio babbino caro (“Oh My Beloved Father”) from Gianni Schicchi, sung by Anna Netrebko
Classic FM writes that “Puccini’s musical touchstones were simplicity and directness of emotion and it is these, above all, that endeared him to his audiences.” There is certainly something in his music that speaks to people from all walks of life, and when one thinks of opera it’s often a glimpse of a Puccini aria that first comes to mind. His greatest operas are among the defining compositions of the genre.