One could assume it would be Giacomo’s fate to be a great Italian classical opera composer as he was born in Tuscany into a dynasty of musical geniuses. The family played a major part in Puccini’s development and at a young age he had already impressed his teachers.
Puccini was quick to adopt his own style and the way he wanted to work. He believed that God had commanded him to write ‘only for the theatre’, and one can see why. He had the knack of finding the perfect subject to suit his talents. A highly literate man, he worked in depth with his librettists and though he drove them to despair with his demands, he had sound dramatic instincts. At his best – particularly in his collaborations with Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica – his operas have settings as atmospheric and characters as vivid as those in the novels of his admired Emile Zola and Charles Dickens.
This combination of experience and determination resulted in his first international success in the field of opera with “Manon Lescaut” (1892). Shortly after this, Puccini presented to the world his three most famous pieces which emerged at the turn of the century: “La Boehme” (1896), “Tosca” (1900) and “Madam Butterfly” (1904).
With “Tosca” in 1900, he was a composer at the peak of his powers, in the prime of life (he was just 42). However, he was about to enter a decade of turbulence, restlessness and tragedy.
This was the first time he had not launched into a new project almost simultaneously with the premiere of his latest opera and he spent the intervening time uneasily, throwing himself into his favourite pastimes (hunting, driving fast cars and indulging in short-lived ‘amours’) and overseeing productions of his works outside Italy. A near fatal car accident would leave him lame for the rest of his life, needing a stick to walk any great distance.
Spending a few days in London for the July 1900 Covent Garden premiere of “Tosca”, Puccini attended a play by American David Belasco from a story by John Luther Long – Madam Butterfly. Puccini was utterly seduced by the tragic female lead, Cio-Cio-San, and was convinced that the piece could be made into a moving and powerful opera.
For such a gifted composer, Giacomo Puccini was oddly uncertain of his own abilities and each new work seemed to cause him a great deal of anxiety. Madama Butterfly was no exception.
The premiere in Milan on 17 February 1904 was deliberately sabotaged, so the fiasco of its first performance must have been particularly distressing for him.
After 1904, Puccini’s compositions were less frequent. In 1906 Giacosa died and, in 1909, there was scandal after Puccini’s wife, Elvira, falsely accused their maid Doria Manfredi of having an affair with Puccini. Finally, in 1912, the death of Giulio Ricordi, Puccini’s editor and publisher, ended a productive period of his career.
‘I’m afraid that Turandot will never be finished’, wrote Puccini in 1921. But he had no real reason to believe this – he was simply in the throes of self-doubt over his own abilities. Yet, ironically, he never did finish the opera. In the event, the last touches were put to it by Franco Alfano, a conscientious but obscure composer.
In 1923, he was still enjoying life since his move to Viareggio, buying himself powerful new cars and speedboats and being made a Senator of the Realm in 1924 for his services to music.
However, it was soon after this award that the first serious signs of his fatal illness appeared. Puccini died on 29 November 1924 of heart failure when he had appeared to be recovering well after an operation for throat cancer. In Milan, his death was marked by the cancellation of the planned programme at La Scala.