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Giacomo Puccini, 1908.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; A. Dupont, NY (dig. id. cph 3a40628)
The premiere of La fanciulla del west took place at the Metropolitan in New York City on December 10, 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. It was a great triumph, and with it Puccini reached the end of his mature period. He admitted “writing an opera is difficult.” For one who had been the typical operatic representative of the turn of the century, he felt the new century advancing ruthlessly with problems no longer his own. He did not understand contemporary events, such as World War I. In 1917 at Monte-Carlo in Monaco, Puccini’s opera La rondine was first performed and then was quickly forgotten.
Always interested in contemporary operatic compositions, Puccini studied the works of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. From this study emerged Il trittico (The Triptych; New York City, 1918), three stylistically individual one-act operas—the melodramatic Il tabarro (The Cloak), the sentimental Suor Angelica, and the comic Gianni Schicchi. His last opera, based on the fable of Turandot as told in the play Turandot by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, is the only Italian opera in the Impressionistic style. Puccini did not complete Turandot, unable to write a final grand duet on the triumphant love between Turandot and Calaf. Suffering from cancer of the throat, he was ordered to Brussels for surgery, and a few days afterward he died with the incomplete score of Turandot in his hands.
Turandot was performed posthumously at La Scala on April 25, 1926, and Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the performance, concluded the opera at the point Puccini had reached before dying. Two final scenes were completed by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s sketches.
Solemn funeral services were held for Puccini at La Scala in Milan, and his body was taken to Torre del Lago, which became the Puccini Pantheon. Shortly afterward, Elvira and Antonio were also buried there. The Puccini house became a museum and an archive.
The majority of Puccini’s operas illustrate a theme defined in Il tabarro: “Chi ha vissuto per amore, per amore si morì” (“He who has lived for love, has died for love”). This theme is played out in the fate of his heroines—women who are devoted body and soul to their lovers, are tormented by feelings of guilt, and are punished by the infliction of pain until in the end they are destroyed. In his treatment of this theme, Puccini combines compassion and pity for his heroines with a strong streak of sadism: hence the strong emotional appeal but also the restricted scope of the Puccinian type of opera.
The main feature of Puccini’s musicodramatic style is his ability to identify himself with his subject; each opera has its distinctive ambience. With an unfailing instinct for balanced dramatic structure, Puccini knew that an opera is not all action, movement, and conflict; it must also contain moments of repose, contemplation, and lyricism. For such moments he invented an original type of melody, passionate and radiant, yet marked by an underlying morbidity; examples are the “farewell” and “death” arias that also reflect the persistent melancholy from which he suffered in his personal life.
Puccini’s approach to dramatic composition is expressed in his own words: “The basis of an opera is its subject and its treatment.” The fashioning of a story into a moving drama for the stage claimed his attention in the first place, and he devoted to this part of his work as much labour as to the musical composition itself. The action of his operas is uncomplicated and self-evident, so that the spectators, even if they do not understand the words, readily comprehend what is taking place on the stage.
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Puccini’s conception of diatonic melody is rooted in the tradition of 19th-century Italian opera, but his harmonic and orchestral style indicate that he was also aware of contemporary developments, notably the work of the Impressionists and of Stravinsky. Though he allowed the orchestra a more active role, he upheld the traditional vocal style of Italian opera, in which the singers carry the burden of the music. In many ways a typical fin de siècle artist, Puccini nevertheless can be ranked as the greatest exponent of operatic realism.