Giacomo Puccini: untormented genius
- September 27, 2023
- Alexandra Wilson
- Themes: Culture, Opera
Both accessible and modern, Giacomo Puccini seems far too untroubled and content to be a major artistic figure. It is time we took him and his strikingly contemporary works – which number among the most popular operas of all time – seriously.
As composers go, there is something particularly human about Giacomo Puccini. His image was captured not in a handful of formal paintings, like most of his predecessors, but in countless black and white photographs in which he is depicted going about his daily life. In one, taken in 1900, his wife Elvira and adult son Antonio turn sideways to face the camera from the table they are seated at outside their Tuscan villa, their expressions serious and formal. Giacomo, on the other hand, now the celebrated – and wealthy – composer of La bohème and Tosca, and no doubt already weary of celebrity, ignores the camera, eyes downcast as he reads a newspaper, cigarette in mouth.
In another, we find the trio sitting on a flight of steps, the two men boater-hatted and squinting in the bright sunlight, a smile playing on their lips as if the family has just shared a joke. Elsewhere, Puccini sits proudly at the wheel of his latest motorcar, rides on a mule, or (most intriguingly) mock-wrestles, bare-chested, with friends on an outing to Pompeii. Even when depicted at the piano, his pose is relaxed: either leaning back in his chair, or placing one hand lightly on the keyboard as the other holds the ubiquitous cigarette. Tormented genius was not Puccini’s style.
An accessible figure then, and also a modern one, in his pinstriped or linen three-piece suits and succession of raffish hats. This might not be how the majority of men style themselves nowadays (alas), but it is a look from living memory. There is a modernity to his works as well, which are all too often consigned to the nineteenth-century chapters of music histories but are in reality far more forward-looking than many critics concede. It is not only the scores that seem modern, but the composer’s whole approach to drama and characterisation. As Friedrich Lippmann wrote in The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, ‘Real musical characterisation of individuals entered Italian opera only with middle- and late-period Verdi’, every earlier love aria being simply a love aria, no matter who sang it. But there is no mistaking Rodolfo and Mimì for Pinkerton and Butterfly, and it is Puccini’s detailed attention to character psychology that makes his operas so ripe for updating to the present day. And yet, at the same time, these are works so evocative of their own historical moment. It was, for example, the inclusion of Puccini arias in the soundtrack that made the Merchant Ivory A Room with a View among the more exquisite of period dramas.
I have been writing about Puccini and his operas for the last quarter century and it is always the ‘human’ side of his music that has interested me: not only the composer’s life story but the social, political and aesthetic factors that shaped his works, what they meant to people in his own time, and how they have been used and abused since. As editor of Puccini in Context, published this autumn in good time for Puccini’s centenary year of 2024, I have been allowed a deeper investigation of a composer’s era than a conventional biography would permit. Rather than pursuing a direct line through the narrative of a composer’s life, the authors who contributed to this book had the freedom to take detours and diversions down interesting paths to either side, fleshing out the many and various factors that shaped the composer’s attitudes and musico-dramatic practice.
Puccini’s relationship with the cultural, political, and social zeitgeist of his time, both in Italy and further afield, tells us much about Puccini the man, his hobbies and interests, the trends in music, literature, and drama that shaped his works, and the influence upon him of contemporary politics and religion. It is also important to be attentive to what we might call the ‘afterlife’ of his works: how he was memorialised, his posthumous reputation and legacy, and the many and varied ways in which his work has been incorporated into popular culture, from Golden-Age Hollywood to Mr Bean. An arc can be traced from the early singers who helped to shape his roles and the conductors who have interpreted his scores, to more recent recordings and current approaches to staging – including how longstanding performance practices are becoming embroiled in controversy in our own time. Context, this reminds us, is everything.
Puccini was only a child when Italy became a united nation; by the time he reached maturity the new nation was still struggling to forge a cohesive sense of cultural identity, and it would ultimately use his own operas as a means to achieve this end. Over the course of his lifetime, Puccini would witness the rise of the Italian bourgeoisie (a vital sector of the audience for his own works), agrarian and industrial strife, his nation’s struggles in the First World War, and the rise of fascism. Even though Puccini regarded himself as an apolitical composer, seeking none of the activism his predecessor Giuseppe Verdi had embraced, he could not avoid becoming embroiled in the political debates of his time, particularly those surrounding national identity. Across Europe, his was a period of rapid technological development and huge change in artistic styles, and these were developments he responded to with much greater interest and enthusiasm than politics.
Although by no means neglected by music historians – there have always been biographies aimed at fans – Puccini attained ‘respectability’ as an object of academic study only comparatively recently, around the turn of the millennium, hence the imminent publication of Puccini in Context. Yet some of the snobbery his works attracted throughout the twentieth century lingers on, even today. There have been a good number of scholarly ‘life and works’ in recent decades, together with studies of individual operas, and highly technical analyses of his musical style. What was life really like in the Tuscany of Puccini’s day (clue: far removed from the picture-perfect tourist destination of today) and how did it feel to be a passenger on a transatlantic liner before the Great War? Puccini’s opinions on such eclectic matters as early film, Parisian fashion, Mancunian weather, and the music of his contemporaries have been unearthed, as have the precise models of motorcar he purchased, and his relationship with the emerging Italian fascist movement. We learn about acting techniques that were shared across the dramatic and lyric stages, the nitty gritty of the music publishing business, the marketing ephemera used to promote Puccini’s works, and more. The personalities of contemporaries, librettists, critics, singers, conductors, relatives, friends, enemies, and lovers should leap off the page – as does that of Puccini himself. The centenary of Puccini’s death next year offers an opportunity to reflect on the ongoing significance of this much-loved (and much maligned) composer.