Giacomo Puccini — A Profile of the Man and His Operas (Part 3)

Manon Lescaut & La Bohème

Image: Irish National Opera

Manon Lescaut was based on the novel of the same name by the French writer, Antoine Francois (Abbé) Prévost, and published in 1731. It has seldom been out of print.

As William Weaver, in his 1977 biography of Puccini, writes:

“ The story of this opera’s genesis is long and tortuous. The libretto and score were published without any librettist’s name. The reason is that the final text is the result of many hands, including Puccini’s and Ricordi’s and probably Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s. In any event Puccini worked on the opera for about two years [after he had completed the Wagner adaptation]. It was finished in October 1892. This again was a crucial period in his [Puccini’s] life, marked by the death of his young brother Michele, a promising musician, who had gone off to South America to seek his fortune.”

As well as the young composers mentioned above, Verdi was also working on Falstaff (premiered in 1893), but was, nevertheless, reaching the end of his long career. There was going to be a race to reach the top of the opera world. Who was to replace Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi?

Giacomo wanted it to be him.

The plot of Manon Lascaut revolves around the eighten-year-old Manon who is destined to become a nun, but instead runs away with her young lover Des Grieux. Not long after she gives him up for the very rich Geronte, who’s a bit of bore, so Manon runs back to her lover, Des Grieux. After a lot of tangling Manon is accused(wrongly)of soliciting by Geronte. She is then arrested and deported to New Orleans, where she dies, comforted by a grief stricken Des Greux.

The premier of Manon Lascaut was held a the Teatro Regio in Turin on the 1st of February 1893, with Alfredo Colombani, the critic for the Corriere della Sera writing:

“ I have just come out of the Regio, very crowded, elegant, warm with enthusiasm, echoing the applause for Manon Lescaut, which won there a triumphal success. Although expectation was high, the opera surprised us thanks to its great artistic value, its powerful conception, its theatrical efficacy. At first the public was alert but distrustful. Then that distrust was immediately disarmed by the value of the opera. The love, so human and yet so romantic, of Chevalier des Grieux for the sweet and naively depraved Manon lifted Puccin’s talent to the sources of the most fresh and artistic inspiration. In fact, Manon Lescaut is an opera of passion and melody.”

From Turin the opera went on a tour of Italian opera houses, then to Covent Garden in May 1894. It was acclaimed wherever it was performed.

The foundation stone of Puccini’s international fame had been laid.

With the success of Manon came celebrity and money, in fact money enough to buy back his father’s house, bought a bicycle, and rented a villa at Torre, on lake Massaciùccoli (to the west of Florence, and north of Pisa) which brought him and Elvira closer to Lucca society and respectability. Puccini had the villa restored, extended the garden down the edge of the lake, and created the ‘Puccini Club’ housed in a wooden building in front of the villa. And as Gustavo Marchesi writes:

“ Members were committed to living well and ‘eating better’; to excluding ‘ those with long faces, pedantic or squeamish dispositions, weak stomachs, poor spirits and similar misfortunes.’ The chairman had to hinder the treasurer during his attempts to collect membership fees and the treasurer had the faculty to escape with the cash. The main subjects of conversation were wine, good cheese, lascivious jokes, love affairs, fishing and hunting and art in general.”

And it was at this new villa, with the sound of the lake just feet away — and the laughter of his friends in the club house — that Giacomo Puccini started work on his new opera, La Bohème.

The source for La Bohème was a French novel Scènes de la Vie Bohème, by Henri Murger, published in 1851 and set in the bohemian Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Although published as a novel, the book is really a collection of stories and character sketches first published in the magazine Le Corsaire some years earlier.

It was, at last, perfect material for Giacomo, giving him a bunch of characters who lived the life he’d only come close to in his student days in Milan. Puccini was fired-up by Murger’s book and felt no desire to visit the Latin Quarter, or any other bohemian district knowing it was, for him, and the audiences, the characters that mattered, not the setting. As Gustav Marchesi writes in his biography of Puccini:

“ It seemed the right choice, thanks also to the two libretto writers, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who were already well-established authors capable of constructing excellent librettos. Of the five or six credited authors of Manon Lescaut, their contribution was the most effective.”

Biographer William Weaver continues:

“ Giacosa, born in 1853, was older than Illica. A devoted husband and father, he was a sober member of the cultural establishment, a friend of Boito [Arrigo Boito, Italian poet and one of Verdi’s librettists], [and] of the novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, [whose novel, ll Santo, published in 1905, was banned by The Vatican, ensuring it became a best-seller], the leading journalists and poets. Illica, born in 1857, was a more rebellious spirit: temperamental, quick to take offence but a gifted man of the theatre. As a rule, Illica made the prose sketch of the work, cutting its dramatic form, while Giacosa then versified and polished. But the division of labor was not rigid. Relations between the two men were often strained, though Ricordi [the publisher] always managed to pour oil on the troubled waters of the collaboration.”

The writing began in 1893 but things dragged on, as was to be the case with all of Puccini’s operas, often with Puccini losing interest part way through, as was the case in 1894, when he became very interested in a story by Giovanni Verga [born in Sicily, Verga was something of a realist writer, best known for his story Cavalleria Rusticana], called La Lupa, but then as quickly lost interest in that thinking it “ too crude” and got back to work on La Bohème, sending off demands to Giacosa to “…correct, cut, stick back, expand here, reduce there.” Giacosa threatened to stop work on the opera three times, but, in the words of Marchesi “…had to admit that Puccini was really talented. ‘He has gone beyond my every expectation, he confessed to the publisher.”

After three years of hard intensive work La Bohème was finished, opening in Turin on the 1st of February 1896, under the baton of the twenty-nine year old Arturo Toscanni. It received mixed reviews, but with each of the subsequent performances that year the opera quickly became a favourite, and then one of the most performed operas of all time. It was a major musical breakthrough for Puccini, with his passionate ‘signature’ at last released with a heart breaking power that almost unbearable at times. It is a timeless masterpiece with a simplicity and lyricism that is all embracing.

The story revolves around four friends living in a Paris attic: Rodolfo, a poet, Marcello, a painter; Colline, a philosopher; Schaunard, a musician. Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi and introduces her to his friends at the Café Momus. Sadly Mimi is suffering from consumption and toward the end of the opera senses she is close to death, and with Rodolo and his friends at her side, dies in one of the most moving operatic endings of all time.

In the first performance Mimi was played by the soprano Cesira Ferrani, with Evan Gorga as Rodolfo.

With the success of La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini was happy to follow the opera around Europe, soaking up the applause and the praise, with the French premier a triumph, and the composer swiftly becoming the darling of Parisian society.

La Bohème also became a favourite of English composer Edward Elgar, who saw it a couple of times when on holiday in Milan with his wife and daughter around 1908, and again in London, along with Tosca, a year or so before WWI. If you listen to the music of Elgar and Puccini — remembering they are contemporaries — there is a similarity of passion and, and in some cases, composition, that suggests, as I have mentioned earlier in this piece, that both composers were on a similar wavelength. Elgar may certainly have been inspired by Puccini’s work, not least with his The Apostles, and The Kingdom.

Read Part 4

Image: etsy


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)…

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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