Giacomo Puccini — A Profile of the Man and His Operas (Part 4)

Madame Butterfly, Tosca, La Fanciulla del West — The Girl of the Golden West, & Turandot, and The End


With his new found fame, Giacomo, with his librettist, Illica, extended their stay in Paris to see Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, deciding the play had to be the vehicle for their next opera. Within days they had met the playwright, who informed Puccini and his librettist that he had promised the play to another composer, Alberto Franchetti.

Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, was now, due to the success of La Bohème, very keen to hang onto its composer, and once he became aware of the problem with the rights to La Tosca he contacted Franchetti — who was also a Ricordi composer — and persuaded him (no doubt with some sort of a sweetener)to cede the rights of Sardou’s play to Puccini.

Part of the agreement with Sardou was that the playwright had to approve any changes to the text, which was far too long anyway. At the meeting Sardou asked Puccini to play some of the music from the proposed opera. Puccini hadn’t written a note of course, but played, on Sardou’s piano, a selection of pieces from previous operas, which satisfied Sardou; he was even more satisfied with the agreed royalty terms of 15%.

Sardou was considered in his day to be second only to Alexandre Dumas in literary quality and popularity, due in no small way to his clear prose and a plot technique of creating a cliff-hanging emotional end to the first half of the play, with an even more dramatic and highly emotional climax at the end. He would then go back to the start and write a drama that worked toward the two climaxes. His style, and content, suited Puccini perfectly.

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Gircosa worked on the libretto quickly, and without too much disagreement, to have it ready for the summer of 1898, when Puccini moved himself and Elvira to a house in a remote part Monsagrati (still in the region of Lucca), where he felt he could work more easily, and as William Weaver writes:

“ Elvira…hated it; even Puccini wrote to Ricordi, ‘Hot! hot! hot! I sleep during the day and work at night…I am in an ugly, hateful spot, among forests and pines where the view is blocked, barred by mountains…blazing sun, without any wind. I work from ten [pm] until four in the morning…I am really content [why the sudden change?] to have taken refuge in this boring place where the human being is the exception…I hope to stay here till October (I say I hope because I don’t know if I’ll hold out).”

I think Puccini’s mood changes within a single paragraph of his letter when he suggests it had more to do with the progress of the opera than the isolated house in a pine forest, and the stifling weather, because, when you listen to the opera there are passages that conjure up, in a slightly Wagnerian way, the heat and the windless forest that emerges in dramatic emotional fatigue; and although he complained of ugliness and hatefulness it is, nevertheless, in the passion of the music, which is perhaps some of the most dramatic Giacomo ever wrote. Puccini had obviously chosen the right place in which to write. Puccini even included the distant sound of a church bell, and a reference to a local popular song.

In early October, with the opera almost complete, Puccini received a letter from Ricordi pleading with Puccini to change certain aspects of the opera, describing in detail what was wrong with it (in fairness he did say how much he enjoyed other aspects of the work), which brought Puccini to the brink of despair. Puccini’s eventual reply was courteous, but he stood his ground and refused to change anything.

The action of Tosca takes place in Rome in the June of 1800…

“ Mario Cavaradossi, a painter, offers shelter to Cesare Angelotti, a Jacobin who has escaped from the state prison. Baron Scarpia, the ruthless head of police, arrests Cavaradossi, tortures him and is about to condemn him to be executed. The painter’s lover, Floria Tosca, promises to accept the Baron’s lascivious propositions in exchange for freedom for herself and Cavaradossi who is to be shot with blanks. As soon as Tosca is granted safe-conduct, she stabs Scarpia to death and throws herself from Castel Sant’ Angelo, where Mario was killed by a firing squad under the Baron’s orders.”

Simple but effective, and when I last saw the opera, at the Snape Maltings, in Suffolk, some years ago, it was totally breathtaking, and emotionally draining. What a great opera it is.

Tosca opened at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, on January 16th, 1900, under the baton of the idiosyncratic and hot-blooded Leopoldo Mugnone, who had to stop the performance after fifteen minutes due to a bomb scare. After a short period of inevitable panic the conductor helped to calm things down and began the opera from the beginning.

Puccini may not have realised it, but the opera mirrored the political unrest and anguish in the Italy of that time (King Umberto was assassinated at the end of that year), with many reviewers commenting on the contrast between the emotional drama and Puccini’s advanced musical technique’s: technique’s that were now changing opera, and making it more relevant to a new century.

After the success of Tosca Puccini seemed to spend most of his time looking for plays he could turn into librettos than writing music, but then, if you’re a composer of operas that’s what you do isn’t it?

But then, why didn’t Puccini write an original libretto?

In fact, after Tosca, Puccini’s own life had become something of an opera. Why not just write a libretto based on that?

You can see it can’t you.

Act I: the home of a madcap musical family.

Act II: leaving home to live in an attic while studying and living from hand-to-mouth, the taking of another man’s wife, then success and riches, with a large villa by a picturesque lake, the sweat and emotional pain of writing music, owning new motor cars when motor cars were new, travelling the world, becoming a darling of the chattering classes and adored by women. The affairs, the motor car accident that nearly killed him.

Act III: the death of a servant and the depths of his wife’s despair, and the search for a good libretto in the steamy world of the pot-boiler.

Plus, had he written his own libretti Puccini could have paid himself the 15% that went to Belasco and others. And I’m sure he could have made a better stab at the words than Wagner did with his often exhausting ‘poems’, as he called them.

But there we are he didn’t, and we must be thankful because he did make some great choices in the end, not least David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly, co-written with John Luther Long, and based on Long’s own novella of the same name, which was itself based on the recollections of his sister, Jennie Correll, who’d spent several years in Japan with her Methodist missionary husband.

In 1900 Puccini was in London to see the opening of Tosca, and a few days later went to the Duke of York’s Theatre to see Belasco’s aforementioned Japanese play, starring Evelyn Millard as Cho Cho San.

Evelyn Millard was a major player at the time, with her own theatre company, who’d starred as Cecily Cardew in the premier production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest in 1895.

Puccini loved the show and decided, there and then, that it was to be his next opera. He immediately set his librettists, Illica and Giacosa to work.

It wasn’t long before Illica began protesting to Puccini’s publisher that the Belasco play was unsuitable as an opera, with librettist partner, Giacosa, who was ill, threatening to quit the project, but he always did.

But, as ever, things cooled down and the opera progressed, although a new act, set in the US Consulate, was scrapped.

Then, in February 1903, after a visit to his dentist in Lucca, Puccini, Elvira, and their son Antonio, were being driven back to their lakeside villa in bad visibility along icy roads. After travelling less than four miles the car skidded off the road, crashing fifteen feet down into a field. And as William Weaver writes:

“ The driver, thrown from the car, fractured a thigh. But Puccini was trapped under the overturned car itself, half poisoned by the fumes of the leaking fuel tank.”

Elvira and the seventeen-year-old Antonio only suffered shock.

Luckily, for Puccini, a doctor lived nearby, who had heard the crash and rushed to scene, where he undoubtedly saved the composer’s life.

Puccini’s recovery would be long and painful, but he kept on writing and was, by September 1903, back at his desk.

Not only was he working but was probably back in another woman’s bed.

Elvira was fully aware of the Maestro’s affairs and accepted them as best she could, but it was not getting any easier. The latest affair had started just three years earlier, as Gustavo Marchesi describes:

“ At the end of June, in 1900, he [Puccini] was seen in Pisa station while he was waiting for the night train to Genova in the company of a young lady from Turin called Corinna… One of Puccini’s sisters, Nitteti, who lived in Pisa found out about the Maestro’s escapades and, without reflecting on the consequences, indulged in excessive gossip. In Lucca [Puccini’s home town], Gemignani, Elvera’s husband, jumped on the chance to bring public shame on the composer. Elvira made as much fuss as she could and even Giulio Ricordi [Puccini’s publisher] wrote Puccini a violent and vulgar letter of rebuke. Illica also put his oar in…seconding Ricordi’s lecture and Puccini never forgave him.”

Holier than thou Librettists, who needs ‘em.

And as for Puccini’s sister, Nitteti — who was a nun — it was the chance of a lifetime to get back at her successful brother, who she obviously didn’t like very much, although she did express the hope that making the affair (which was only an assumption anyway) public would maker her brother see the error of his ways and drag him away from the abyss towards the Lord because our mother “…loved Giacomo so.” There’s a deep sadness in those words.

Soon after the car crash Nitteti added, apparently with some glee, that on the night of the car crash someone died. That someone was Elvira’s husband who had died as the result of a wound received during an altercation with a jealous husband. Pure opera.

Giacomo and Elvira were now free to marry and give Antonio a legitimate father, which upset Corinna, Puccini’s lover, who threatened to blackmail Puccini saying she would authenticate their affair. A woman scorned: pure opera.

Within this turmoil Madama Butterfly was finished. But the turmoil didn’t end there.

The rehearsals went well at La Scala, or as well as they might, but then, as most rehearsals do, they suddenly didn’t go so well, with singers and musicians tired, with the opera obviously too long, with the libretto somehow disjointed from the music. In fact it was a disaster, but there was no time left, it had to go on. And like Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius a few years before it, it flopped. It flopped so much that it was taken off with Puccini instructed to repay the money (20,000 L) he earned from the first night’s takings(it was still a sell-out), and instructed by the theatre management to re-structure and shorten the opera. Puccini didn’t hang about, he needed the money, reducing the libretto by a around a third, and tightening-up the music to create a more dynamic effect.

The re-presented Opera was a hit.

Image: wikipedia

Puccini’s 1910 opera, La Fanciulla del West — The Girl of the Golden West — is now considered by many as the prototype for the Hollywood Western, not least Chaplin’s The Gold Rush of 1925. The opera was also, in those fast developing cinema days before the First World War, a new development in how opera could be presented, and accepted, as a popular art form: an art form that, in the hands of an American midwife, gave birth to the Broadway Musical.

With the success of Madama Butterfly, in 1904, Puccini was keen to find material that might just make a half decent libretto. He found it when he visited New York in 1907, ostensibly to see the Met’s production of Madama Butterfly, but in reality to find out what the playwright, theatrical producer and director, Peter Belasco (who had written the original play upon which Madama Butterfly was based) might have available.

Born in San Francisco in 1853 (five years Pucinni’s senior)David Belasco was, by 1907, at the height of his career, having established his own theatre, and theatre company, where he developed a much more natural form of acting, as well as creating modern lighting systems. In retrospect Belasco was an ideal creative partner for Puccini, as Madama Butterfly had shown.

When Giacomo and David met at the playwright’s theatre, it would be his new play, The Girl of the Golden West, that Belasco suggested to the composer, who was intrigued by the drama, but unsure if a western theme could become another La Bohème, as some were suggesting it might.

Puccini left the US without an agreement with Belasco and headed home somewhat depressed, but, by the time he reached Paris the composer(desperate to start work on something) had decided to see what could be done with Belasco’s play. He contacted the playwright asking for a copy of the play to be sent as quickly as possible.

With his mood much improved Puccini hired the librettist Carlo Zangarini to work on Belasco’s script as soon as it arrived, and by the August of 1907, Puccini wrote to his publishers:

“ This is it. The Girl promises to become a second Bohème, but stronger, bolder, vaster. I have an idea for a grand scene, a clearing in the California forest with colossal trees, but it requires eight or ten horses as supers. ”

The projected opera was then commissioned by the Met, who were doing great business with Madama Butterfly, and saw the theme of Belasco’s play as a sure fired winner in the hands of Puccini.

And although Zangarini’s work on the libretto of The Girl was slow (even with the help of fellow librettist, Gueifo Civinini) and often criticised by the composer, Puccini (recovering from a motor car accident), began work on the score: work that went well until January 1909 when Doria, a maid in the Puccini household, committed suicide, leaving behind a note blaming Puccini’s wife Elvira of constant abuse. It was a bad time, with Elvira facing court proceedings until Puccini settled with Doria’s family out of court.

Puccini finished the score in July 1910, with the Met booked to premier the work in December 1910, with Emma Destinn as Minnie, Pasquale Amato as Rance, and Enrico Caruso as Johnson.

The run of The Girl of the Golden West sold out within days, receiving polite reviews that complained the work did not have the expected over arching romantic themes of La Bohème, or Madama Butterfly, and was, detrimentally, influenced by such modern composers as Debussy and Richard Strauss, which, to an extent, was true (albeit not detrimentally), but The Girl does have an extremely powerful repeating central melody that brings out the strength of the Belasco story, and Zangarini’s and Civinnini’s fine libretto. It may not be another La Bohème, but it is a masterpiece that shows Puccini was still at the pinnacle of his creative power.


The years after The Girl were a confused search for a new opera, a search which eventually, in 1912, settled on La Rondine, a story by the German writers Alfred Willner and Heinz Reichert, turned into a libretto by Giuseppe Adami.

Puccini offered what was, initially an operetta, to his life long publisher Ricordi, but the new director of the company, Tito Ricordi, was not interested in Puccini’s idea, with the result that Puccini took La Rondine to the firm of Sonzogno, who snapped it up.

After more work the operetta was turned into a full length opera, which as Gustavo Marchesi writes:

“ …is set in Paris during the second empire. The poet and socialite Prunier tells the courtesan Magda de Civry, the banker Rambaldo’s lover, that she will fly away like a swallow. The woman meets Ruggero Lastouc, a young provincial student, and the two of them spend some time together on the Cote d’ Azur…”

You can probably guess the rest, but it involves separation, and the flight of the swallow, set in a dream sequence.

Its first performance should have been in Vienna, but due to WWI, it was first performed in Monte Carlo, and was another huge success.

By early 1918 Puccini had finished writing the score for a full length opera (squeezed down from three one act operas, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, with a libretto by Giovacchino Foranzo, set in medieval Italy), promoted as Il Trittico. It opened at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on December 14th, 1918, to good reviews. Interestingly, the three one act operas were published separately by Ricordi. Young Tito had obviously seen the error of his ways and the profit of the company.

Post-war Italy depressed and worried Puccini, especially the political situation, and like many another wondered if Fascism might be the answer. Mussolini, after Puccini’s death, made the most of that momentary lapse by Puccini, who had always been non-political.

Puccini was also worried about his son, Tonio, who had still not returned from the front: but once he knew Tonio was safe, Puccini decided on a trip, and as William Weaver writes:

“ On June 1919, Puccini managed to pay a visit to postwar London and the Seligmans [Sybil Seligman had been one of Giacomo’s lovers]. Sybil’s son Vincent, years later, described the composer at that time: ‘He seemed to have changed but little during the long interval since we had seen him last; his hair had begun to turn white, but it was as abundant as ever; his movements were perhaps a little slower and more measured, but the oncoming of old age [he was 61] over which he continually lamented in his letters was with him a very gradual and almost imperceptible process…’ ”

Others thought he had aged considerably, with the manager of London’s Ivy restaurant having to help him get up from the table.

It seems he also became interested in rejuvenation cures, not least the latest craze of monkey-gland treatment, which, thankfully, his doctor persuaded him from using due his diabetes.

On Giacomo’s and Elvira’s return to Italy they decided to move house, away from Torre del Lago, which had become very industrialised during the war with an atmosphere that was now very polluted.

As a consequence Puccini had a villa built on a site he’d bought at Viareggio, and close to the sea, moving in the 21st of December, 1921. Puccini never sold his villa at the side of Lake Massaciuccoli, using it occasionally for hunting and fishing.

Puccini’s Villa at Viareggio. Image: Puccini Museum

But it would be in the Viareggio Villa that Puccini wrote Turandot, his last opera.

Soon after moving into the new villa, Puccini’s first thoughts for new opera was something by Charles Dickens, and had commissioned Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni to find and write a suitable libretto. He then quickly fell out with the Dickens idea, looking again at the fairy tale play Turandotte.

Having sought out an Italian translation of the German play, when visiting Milan, Puccini read it on the return train journey. On reaching home he made it clear to his librettists that he wanted the play simplified, to make it trim and effective, and “…above all exalt Turandot’s amorous passion…”, through a modern mind. It’s obvious that Puccini wanted to get away from what was now considered to be a typical Puccini opera. Instead he wanted to look to the music of Debussy, Richard Strauss, and even Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Turandot had “…to be new in every sense.”

The opera, with the exception of just fifteen minutes of music, was finished in March 1924, but was worried about the final words of the love duet that was to be the opera’s grand finali. When he received the verses for the duet from Simoni and Adami, Puccini made notes against them.

Then, in October 1924, Puccini headed for Celle, his ancestral home, for few days, where his health began to deteriorate, initially with a bad cough and soar throat. The problem was finally found to be a malignant growth at the base of his Larynx.

Treatment was sought in Belgium which included radioactive needles being inserted into his throat. For a time they seemed to work, but on the 28th of November Puccini suffered a heart attack, dying on the 29th, at 11.30am. His last whispered words were for Elvira.

Before travelling to Belgium Puccini had asked Toscanini to ensure that if he were to due, he must ensure that Turandot was finished and produced. Toscanini agreed, and with the help of composer Franco Alfano, with notes left by Puccini, completed the opera.

Turandot, an opera based on a Chinese fairy tale, opened at La Scala on April 25th, 1926.



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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store