The Operas, Le Villi & Edgar, and the Death of Puccini’s Mother
In the summer of 1884, Ricordi, the publishing house that had purchased the rights to Le Villi, now paid Puccini an advance on royalties (in monthly instalments)for the proposed opera, Edgar, money they hoped would give Puccini freedom to work without financial worries.
It was a reasonably generous offer, but Puccini had other things on his mind, not least the death, from cancer, of his fifty-four year old mother, Albina, who had, as Gustavo Marchesi writes:
“ …been a beacon for her children and had had a weak spot for Giacomo. Apart from filial sentiment, he felt a mixture of awe and gratitude towards her: she was authoritarian but had always encouraged him.”
Puccini arrived at his mother’s side July 17th 1884, just in time to say farewell, and give her the laurel wreath presented to him at the final performance of Le Villi. So very operatic.
The death of his mother was not the only upheaval in Puccini’s life in the summer of 1884, as he and his lover, Elvira Bonturi, had decided to live together, which was a rather scandalous thing to do in the Tuscany of the times as Elvira was married to a well respected grocer in Lucca, as Puccini biographer, William Weaver, sets out:
“ Elvira’s elopement with Giacomo obviously created many problems. His family, always somewhat straight-laced (with one sister a nun), was shocked and outraged. For the rest of his life Puccini was virtually an outcast from Lucca. Though later bought or rented houses in the area, he seldom visited the city itself. An, most pressingly, he found himself with a family to support…” including his son, Antonio, born in 1886.
Elvira and Giacomo made a handsome couple, he tall and slim with broad shoulders, she with blonde hair and dark eyes, but with a strict manner and very prone to depression.
There can be no doubt Puccini’s relationship with Elvira damaged to some extent his standing with his already adoring audiences: but wasn’t he living the life of his operas. He was forgiven in the end.
Work on Edgar went slowly, as would all his operas thereafter, but was finally performed at La Scala in 1889 to a mixed response. A revised version was performed in 1906 to great acclaim. Times had moved on.
Scottish Opera’s concert production of Edgar describes the opera thus:
“ Puccini’s second opera tells of Edgar, an impulsive young knight who runs off with the seductive gypsy Tigrana. Eventually, bored of their life of indulgence and debauchery and seeking something purer, he fakes his own death to escape. But Tigrana is not one to let go easily, and soon takes her revenge…Despite its dark themes of murder and vengeance, Puccini’s score is one of remarkable lyricism, lush harmonies and rich orchestral colouring, clearly heralding the later genius of both Madama Butterfly and Tosca.”
They could also have mentioned another Puccini opera, for within Edgar we hear wonderful forward echoes (rising out of the Wagner inspired brass sections at full blast) of one of Puccini’s greatest, and most loved operas, La Boheme, especially in the heart breaking chorus work, and the orchestra within an orchestra device that is at the heart of Puccini’s work.
If you’re a young, relatively unknown, composer of opera and the publisher Giulio Ricordi (who has just acquired the Italian rights to Wagner’s work) and the management of la Scala, Milan, ask you to reduce the length of Wagner’s De Meistersinger von Nurnberg for their 1889/90 Carnival Season, and you just happen to be a great admirer of Wagner’s music the chances are you’re going to say yes please and thank you, especially when they intend sending you to Bayreuth to see the opera.
Giacomo Puccini said yes please, and thank you very much, and as Gustavo Marchesi writes:
“ The commission provoked endless envy. A new star was entering the firmament and its light was blinding Puccini’s competitors, who were not few in number. Soon the world of opera would see works of the calibre of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni [who’d roomed with Puccini in their college days], winner of the Concorso Sonzogno, in 1890; Cristoforo Colombo by Alberto Franchetti, commissioned for the Columbus celebrations, and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, in 1892, while Catalani came out with Loreley in 1890, and in 1892 with the highly successful La Wally.”
Puccini wasn’t worried about the envy, but, more importantly, he realised that new, and perhaps great, opera was happening all around him, and that he had to write something to make people sit up and take notice, and make his fellow composer really envious. He was also tired of being short of money, with he and Elvira living on onions and bread.
It was at this time that Giacomo started working through the night, which didn’t do his health much good but increased his output hugely, enabling him to finish the adaptation of the Wagner, and start work on a new opera based on an 18th century French novel.
Gustavo Marchesi — Puccini: Life and Pictures (Grafiche Step, Parma, Italy, 2007 -Translated by Paul Sears); William Weaver — Puccini: The Man and his Music, Hutchinson, London, 1978)…