The fifth of seven children, he was christened Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria, the fifth (and as it turned out the last) generation of a dynasty of Italian musicians: his great-great grandfather Giacomo, his great-grandfather Antonio, his grandfather Domenico and father Michele all had positions as (mainly) organists and church composers in Lucca.Puccini’s mother was determined that her son should follow in the family tradition and sent him to the Istituto Musicale in Lucca where his teacher, Carlo Angeloni, fired the boy’s enthusiasm for music. Before long he was playing the piano and organ like a good Puccini was expected to. But it was a visit to Pisa in 1876 to see a production of Aida that had a revelatory effect on him: from that time forward he was determined to follow in Verdi’s footsteps.
First, though, he rounded off his studies in Lucca with a Mass. Then he went to the Conservatory in Milan for serious study with Antonio Bazzini and with Amilcare Ponchielli, famed as the composer of the opera La Gioconda. In 1883 the publishers Edoardo Sonzogno announced the first of a series of competitions for a one-act opera (Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was to win the 1889 competition). Puccini, encouraged by Ponchielli, wrote a work with a young journalist named Fontana. This was Le villi, written within a few weeks. It was not even mentioned when the prizes were announced in 1884. However, Puccini was at a party soon afterwards where Boito and other influential people in the musical world were present and he was asked to sing extracts from Le villi. The direct result was a production of the work at the Teatro dal Verme in May 1884. It was an immediate triumph; the great Italian publishing house of Ricordi snapped up the rights and commissioned Puccini to write another. He remained with the firm for the rest of his career.
Five years passed before he completed his next opera, Edgar. It was a failure, one of only two that he experienced. Puccini admitted it was ‘a blunder’ but during this time he began his affair with Elvira Gemignani. Being married in Catholic Italy meant divorce from Elvira’s merchant husband was impossible. Nevertheless, she bore Puccini an only son in 1886 – it was not until 1904, after Elvira’s husband died, that the couple could marry. Meanwhile, Puccini was searching for a good librettist. His next choice was a potential disaster. The subject he had selected was a cheeky and daring one in the circumstances, for Puccini decided on writing an opera based on the same story, Manon Lescaut, as that with which Massenet had had a huge success only nine years earlier (Manon, 1884). The original libretto by Domenico Oliva was entirely rewritten by Puccini and Ricordi with contributions along the way from Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. In the final score of Manon Lescaut, no librettist is credited, a unique curiosity in the annals of opera. Paradoxically,Manon Lescaut provided Puccini with an unprecedented success. It is the work in which he discovered his own musical voice and overnight it made his name internationally famous.
With his next opera, La bohème, Puccini confirmed that prediction, though initial reaction was far cooler than the enthusiastic welcome accorded Manon Lescaut. It was more conversational in style, more grittily real and the orchestral score was more impressionistic. The conductor for the premiere was the young Arturo Toscanini, just beginning to make a name for himself (he recorded the work many years later). Within a short time La bohème had been produced all over the world; it’s still regarded by many as Puccini’s supreme masterpiece.
With fame came wealth and in 1900 he built a fabulous villa in the simple village of Torre del Lago by the lake of Massaciuccoli near Florence – he’d been living in the place since 1892 – and began work on his next project. It was based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca. Using the same team as La bohème (librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa), Puccini completed the work in 1893. Now one of the best-loved of all operas with some of the most famous arias, Tosca divided the critics. Shaw referred to Sardou’s melodramas as ‘Sardoodledom’, describing the original play as ‘a cheap shocker’. The remark was copied 50 years later by the American critic Joseph Kerman when he described Puccini’s opera as ‘that shabby little shocker’.
Four years after the premiere of Tosca came the third of this remarkable trilogy written by the same three men, Madama Butterfly. Puccini once more went to great pains not to repeat himself musically and created an exotic atmosphere for his Japanese setting, using authentic Japanese folk tunes in the score. The first performance was a fiasco orchestrated by Puccini’s rivals, but after many cuts and revisions it was re-presented two months later at Brescia (May 1904), where it triumphed.
Another Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West, furnished Puccini with his next venture in the unlikely operatic setting of the 1849 California gold rush. It had an American premiere (1910, Toscanini conducting, Caruso starring as the hero Dick Johnson) and, though it has many fine moments and was liked by the public, it has never caught on in the same way as the previous three. His next work, La rondine, was Puccini’s second professional failure (it’s an uneasy mix of opera and operetta). Challenging himself once more, Puccini then conceived the idea of an evening of three one-act operas: Il trittico (‘The Triptych’) is made up of Il tabarro (‘The cloak’), Suor Angelica (‘Sister Angelica’) and Gianni Schicchi – the latter by far the best of the three.
Puccini’s final opera presented even greater self-imposed challenges. He was a shrewd operator and kept abreast of all the latest musical developments, so that Turandot, with its exotic setting of Peking in ancient times, incorporates some contemporary music techniques we don’t normally associate with Puccini. It was adventurous stuff, the last opera to be written that has entered the standard repertoire and remain beloved by the public at large. The composer himself never finished the score – the last two scenes were completed from sketches by one Franco Alfano. Puccini died aged 65 from a heart attack while undergoing treatment for cancer of the larynx.