The Puccini Festival and biography of Giacomo Puccini
Take one look at the landscape from the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli in the city of Torre del Lago, Tuscany and it is easy to understand Giacomo Puccini’s inspiration for his operas. The great Italian composer, Puccini, once wrote to his friend Forzano, “I always come out here and take a boat to go and shoot snipes … but once I would like to come here and listen to one of my operas in the open air.” Forzano brought alive his friend’s wishes in 1930 when he organized the first Puccini festival celebrating not only Puccini’s operas but also the beautiful landscape that inspired Puccini.
The open-air theatre, which hosts about 40,000 opera lovers every year, has the Massaciuccoli Lake in its background, presenting an unforgettable experience to Puccini fans, opera lovers and visitors alike. The incomparable natural scenery, the stage designed by among the most reputed designers, painters and sculptors in the world and Puccini’s music together paint fantastic images in the mind of the viewer.
The festival attracts among the biggest names in world opera. Tito Gobbi, Mario del Monaco, Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Placido Domingo, Josè Cura among other reputed names have performed here. The highlight of the festival is the attention to details invested on it. Each set, costume, opera, ballet and the colors resonate with the Puccinian spirit. The Puccini Prize, an award instituted in 1971, is a statuette resembling Puccini and handed out on the death anniversary of the composer on November 29th.
The Puccini festival invites worldwide attention attracting diverse artists. Some of the previous set designers have included the Japanese sculptor Kan Yasuda for Madama Butterfly, the Belgian painter and sculptor Jean-Michel Folon for La Boheme and Igor Mitoraj for Manon Lescaut.
Giacomo Puccini was born in the province of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy on 22nd December 1858. He was born into a family with a long tradition in music. Generations before him had all been musicians and organists at San Martino, Lucca’s ancient church. Puccini’s father, a music composer and church organist, died when he was only five years old. In order to continue the family tradition, Puccini was sent to study music with his uncle Fortunato Magi and later with Carlo Angeloni, the director of the Istituto Musicale Pacini. He started off his musical career at the age of 14 as an organist at Lucca’s churches, St. Martino and St. Michele.
Puccini was quite content to follow in his ancestors’ tradition and continue as an organist in Lucca’s churches until fate intervened. Little did he know that the direction of his life would change on the fateful day that he went to the city of Pisa to see Verdi’s opera Aida. Puccini was wonder-struck by Verdi’s musical brilliance and amazed at his form of musical composition. Obsessed with the opera, he finally decided to break from his family tradition of church music and pursue his new-found passion, operatic composition.
His tutoring under Angeloni ended in 1880 which he marked by composing the Messa di Gloria. Financial aid from one of his uncles and a scholarship from Queen Margherita allowed him to join Royal Conservatory of Milan, the perfect place for upcoming musicians. He studied at the Milan Conservatory from 1880 till 1883 under the mentoring of the legendary Amilcare Ponchielli, the composer of La Gioconda, and Antonio Bazzini.
In 1883, Eduardo Sonzagno, the publisher of the music journal Il Teatro Illustrato, announced an opera competition for young musicians. He called for the submission of one-act operas; the winner would be awarded 2000 lira, and more importantly would be given a chance to perform his opera at a theater in Milan, sponsored by Sonzogno. Such opportunities were like a dream come true to young musicians and goaded by Ponchielli Puccini decided to compete. Puccini and Ponchielli convinced the librettist (lyricist) Fontana to write a libretto for Puccini. The opera, Le Villi, though it failed to win, marked the beginning of Puccini’s career in operatic composition.
Le Villi was later staged at the Teatro dal Verme in 1884 where it not only achieved immense success but was also noticed by the Milanese publisher Giulio Ricordi. Ricordo was to become his friend, philosopher and guide in this new world of operas. He commissioned Puccini to write another opera with the same librettist, Fontana. The new opera, Edgar, was to be based on a drama by Alfred de Mussett. Puccini’s style of composition was not suited to the form that Edgar required and for the first time Puccini met with failure when the opera failed to make any splash in the La Scala, where it debuted. Undaunted, Puccini tried several revisions to Edgar but had to abandon the whole project later calling it a blunder. It was during this period that he got associated with Elvira, marrying her in 1904.
Puccini then chose Abbé Prévost’s autobiography for his next opera, Manon Lescaut. This time, Puccini took an active interest in the libretto, working with five librettists, suggesting changes to its form and structure until he thought it to be perfect. Manon Lescaut debuted in Turin and achieved great success. It made him known outside Italy as well; George Bernard Shaw called Puccini a natural successor to Verdi.
Puccini bought a house in the village of Torre del Lago which was to become his most favorite spot in the world. After the success of Manon, Puccini went onto compose La Bohème, considered by some to be his best work, Tosca and Madama Butterfly among other operas.
Puccini probably would have reached greater heights if it were for his wife who falsely accused their maid of having an affair with him. The poor girl committed suicide. Puccini never completely recovered from this incident. In November 1924, Puccini died of throat cancer leaving Turandot unfinished, later completed by Franco Alfano. He was buried at the Torre del Lago.
It is interesting to note that most of Puccini’s protagonists were women and many of his operas tended towards tragedy. Puccini’s gift for tragedy, despair and sensuality are readily evident in his orchestrations. Indeed, Puccini ranks among the greatest composers like Mozart, Verdi and Wagner.