This play with Puccini’s music serves as a First Act preceding Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which follows as the Second Act.
While based on real events in Puccini’s life, all characters and scenes in the play are imaginary. It explores some newly revealed scandals in Puccini’s life and sets them against some of his operatic achievements. It starts at Puccini’s deathbed, in an imaginary scene with the master surrounded by family and then friends, both dead and alive. Puccini expects of course upon his death to rise straight to heaven – but Dante Alighieri, creator of the original story to Gianni Schicchi, (and for that matter, something of a creator of the mythology of hell) has other ideas: purgatory is where Puccini belongs. The composer tries to justify himself, setting out examples of his operatic repertoire (sung by all the relatives and friends on stage, who double as characters in his operas) to plead his case. All these are countered by Dante, who consigns Puccini to ever-deepening circles of hell. Puccini makes a final plea: if nothing else in his oeuvre serves to redeem him, how about Gianni Schicchi – the comic opera inspired by Dante himself, which (though full of greed and fraud) pleads the case for the sanctity of young love – and the heroine doesn’t die! Puccini calls for a performance of Gianni Schicchi to prove his case, which becomes the second Act of the evening – at the end of which Dante must rule: does the composer merit redemption or damnation?
ABOUT The Opera
Sung in English with projected titles in English.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Florence in the Year 1299
Buoso Donati has just expired. His relatives bathed in crocodile tears frantically seek a copy of his will. Among these are his cousins Simone and Zita, her nephew Rinunccio and Buoso’s brother-in-law Betto who adds fuel to the search by suggesting that Buoso may have left his entire estate to a monastery, in particular his most valued possessions—a mule, his house and his mills.
Rinunccio finds the will, confident that Buoso had left him sufficient money to marry Lauretta, daughter of Gianni Schicchi who has recently come to live in Florence. For that reason, he sends for Schicchi and Lauretta to be present at the reading of the will.
In the meanwhile, the will is discovered revealing that Buoso has indeed willed his fortune to a monastery. The family is in despair, but in a moment of inspiration, Rinunccio suggests that Schicchi might possibly find a means of dealing with the problem.
When Schicchi arrives, he is quick to sum up the situation and after Lauretta has pleaded with him on her and Rinunccio’s behalf, he reluctantly admits to having some inkling of what might be a solution.
There is a knock on the door. It is the doctor. Schicchi orders the relatives to hide Buoso’s body at the same time climbing into Buoso’s bed and hiding behind the bed curtains. Then, imitating Buoso’s voice, he assures the doctor that he is feeling better. Satisfied the doctor departs, whereupon Schicchi reveals his plan to the relatives—that continuing his impersonation of Buoso he will dictate a new testament in which he will take into consideration for inclusion each of the family’s request. Additionally, before climbing into the bed in his disguise as Buoso, he reminds everyone present that those accused of falsifying a will are subject to exile and the amputation of their right hand.
The notary arrives with a lawyer in tow. The substitute Buoso states immediately that his existing will is null and void and that he proposes to dictate a new one on the spot. With feigned deference, Schicchi allocates portions of the estate to the greedy relatives. But then to their dismay, he awards the mule, the house and the mills to his “devoted friend Gianni Schicchi,” at the same time waving his right hand under each one’s as a reminder of the punishment awaiting those who collude in writing fraudulent wills.
As the notary and his lawyer leave, there is a moment of silence, but no sooner is the door closed behind them than entire family lunges at its betrayer. Imperiously, Schicchi orders them out of his new home.
Then, with a loving look at Rinunccio and Laura, Schicchi turns to the audience, first asking it if ever a better use could be found for Buoso’s wealth and then begging each and every one of them to forgive him—even though Dante condemned him to Hell for what he did.
Gianni Schicchi was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1916 as the evening’s finale following Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and Suor Angelica, two other one-act operas. Puccini had congregated all three under the title of Il Trittico (The Triptych). Reception of the first two entries was lukewarm, but that of Schicchi enthusiastic.
Understandably, Puccini did not attend the Met premiere, because travel was severely limited. The armistice ending the First World War had been signed only a month before. Still, he had hoped for the same tumultuous reception of his previous opera La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) which had also been given its premiere at the Met in 1910.
The success of Mascagni’s one-act opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, in 1880 was not lost on Puccini, the astute businessman that he was. Even before he immersed himself in the composition of Madama Butterfly he toyed with the idea of a trilogy of one-act operas.
Time and again he returned to the thought of a trilogy. On the first occasion, he was discouraged by Giulio Ricordi, his publisher who was concerned about the expense of producing and casting of such an ambitious project.
After completing Butterfly, he began again to think in terms of three one-act operas, only to set aside the project so that he might concentrate on the composition of La fanciulla del West.
As time went on, he modified his thinking, judging that a two-opera bill--one tragic and the other comic--would serve equally well as an evening’s program. Still, the idea of three short operas haunted him—one a tragedy, one a comedy and one with a religious theme. Thus finally came into being---in order of composition—Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and finally Gianni Schicchi.
His librettist for Schicchi was Giovacchino Forzano who found inspiration for a comic opera in Dante’s Inferno where Schicchi is contemptuously cast into the thirtieth canto among Italy’s and mythology’s more notorious swindlers. The details of his swindles are not enunciated in the Italian epic but rather in a somewhat suspicious manuscript by an anonymous fourteenth-century chronicler. Surely, Schicchi must be gratified that Forzano has given him an opportunity to vindicate himself, since in the Inferno, when Dante sees a man viciously attacking another one, he is told: “that ghost over there is Schicchi.” In short, he is awarded only half a line of poetry.
Sadly, Gianni Schicchi was the last opera Puccini completed. Turandot, another favorite in the Puccini canon, was left incomplete upon his death.
Two notes. This past November—the one-hundredth anniversary of Gianni Schicchi--Placido Domingo, the most extraordinary personality in the operatic world for the last two generations at the age of seventy-seven sang the title role in Schicchi, just one of the one hundred and fifty roles he commands. The performances were to celebrate his fiftieth year on the Metropolitan stage, and, obviously, Gianni Schicchi’s one hundred birthday,
For those who delight in memorabilia, it should be noted that shortly after Schicchi’s premiere, Florence Eaton—one of the Metropolitan’s most versatile sopranos who sang the role of Lauretta in the premiere--recorded the opera’s most popular number, “O mio babbino caro.” The recording’s quality--preserved on CD--is not the best, because it is a pre-acoustic recording, is nevertheless a precious document for opera lovers.
Meet the Composer
[born 22 December 1848; died 29 November 1924]
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born on December 22, 1858, in Lucca, Italy, where since the 1730s his family had been tightly interwoven with the musical life of the city, providing five generations of organists and composers to the Cathedral of San Martino, Lucca’s religious heart. It was therefore taken for granted that Giacomo would carry on this legacy, succeeding his father, Michele, in the role first held by his great-great grandfather. However, in 1864 Michele passed away when Giacomo was just 5 years old, and so the position was held for him by the church in anticipation of his eventual coming of age.
But the young Giacomo was uninterested in music and was a generally poor student, and for a time it seemed that the Puccini musical dynasty would end with Michele. Giacomo’s mother, Albina, believed otherwise and found him a tutor at the local music school. His education was also subsidized by the city, and over time, Giacomo started to show progress. By the age of 14 he had become the church organist and was beginning to write his first musical compositions as well. But Puccini discovered his true calling in 1876, when he and one of his brothers walked nearly 20 miles to the nearby city of Pisa to attend a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. The experience planted in Puccini the seeds of what would become a long and lucrative career in opera.
From Milan to Manon
Motivated by his newfound passion, Puccini threw himself into his studies and in 1880 gained admission to the Milan Conservatory, where he received instruction from noted composers. He graduated from the school in 1883, submitting the instrumental composition Capriccio sinfonico as his exit piece. His first attempt at opera came later that year, when he composed the one-act La villi for a local competition. Although it was snubbed by the judges, the work won itself a small group of admirers, who ultimately funded its production.
The Big Three
With their accessible melodies, exotic subject matter and realistic action, Puccini’s three best-known compositions are considered to be his most important; over time they would become the most widely performed in opera history. The result of another collaboration between Puccini, Giacosa and Illica, the four-act opera La Bohème was premiered in Turin on February 1, 1896, again to great public (if not critical) acclaim. In January 1900, Puccini’s next opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome and was also enthusiastically received by the audience, despite fears that its controversial subject matter (from the novel of the same name) would draw the public’s ire. Later that year, Puccini attended a production of the David Belasco play Madam Butterfly in New York City and decided that it would be the basis of his next opera. Several years later, on February 17, 1904, Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala. Though initially criticized for being too long and too similar to Puccini’s other work, Butterfly was later split up into three shorter acts and became more popular in subsequent performances.
His fame widespread, Puccini spent the next few years traveling the world to attend productions of his operas to ensure that they met his high standards. He would continue to work on new compositions as well, but his often-complicated personal life would see to it that one would not be immediately forthcoming for some time.
The period between 1903 and 1910 proved to be one of the most difficult in Puccini’s life. After recovering from a near-fatal auto accident, on January 3, 1904, Puccini married a woman named Elvira Gemignani, with whom he had been having an illicit affair since 1884. (Gemignani had been married when she and Puccini started their liaisons.) The couple had been living in the small, quiet fishing village of Torre del Lago since 1891, but over the years, Elvira had grown increasingly unhappy, due to the numerous other women that Puccini became involved with.
Matters reached a dramatic apex worthy of one of Puccini’s operas when Elvira’s jealousy led her to accuse a servant girl named Doria Manfredi of having an affair with her husband, publicly threatening her and harassing her in the village. In 1909, the distraught Doria killed herself by ingesting poison. After a medical examination proved that she had been a virgin, her family brought charges of slander and persecution against Elvira.
Mortified by what Elvira had done, Puccini separated from her and sent her away to live in Milan. She was eventually tried, found guilty and sentenced to five months in prison. Ultimately though, Puccini intervened in the matter, taking Elvira back and paying a substantial sum to Doria’s family to convince them to drop the charges.
Fading Success, Failing Health
While dealing with the ongoing crises in his personal life, Puccini continued composing. On December 10, 1910, six years after his last opera, The Girl of the Golden West premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Though the initial production—which featured world-renowned tenor Enrico Caruso in the cast—was a success, the opera failed to achieve any lasting popularity, and over the course of the next decade, a string of relative disappointments followed.
In 1912, Puccini’s faithful supporter and business partner Guilio Ricordi passed away, and shortly thereafter, Puccini began work on a three-part opera (realistic, tragic and comedic) that Ricordi had always been against titled Il Trittico. Puccini then refocused his efforts when representatives from an Austrian opera house offered him a large sum to compose ten pieces for an operetta. However, work on the project was soon complicated by their respective countries’ alliances during World War I, and for a time the compositions foundered. When La Rondine was finally performed in Monaco in 1918, it was moderately successful, but like its predecessor, it failed to make a lasting impact. The following year, Il Trittico debuted in New York City, but it too was quickly forgotten.
Seeking to achieve his former glory in the face of fading popularity, Puccini set out to write his masterwork in 1920, throwing all of his hopes and energies into the project, which he titled Turandot. But his ambitions would never be fully realized.
In 1923, Puccini complained of a recurring sore throat and sought medical advice. Though an initial consultation turned up nothing serious, during a subsequent examination he was diagnosed with throat cancer. As the cancer had by that point progressed beyond where it could be operated upon, Puccini traveled to Brussels in 1924 for an experimental radiation treatment. Too weak to endure the procedure, he died in the hospital seven days later, on November 29, 1924. At the time of his death, Puccini had become the most commercially successful opera composer of all time, worth the equivalent of an estimated $200 million.
After an initial burial in Milan, in 1926 his body was moved to his Torre del Lago estate, where a small chapel was constructed to hold his remains. An opera celebration called “Festival Puccini” is held in the town every year in honor of its most famous resident.