Giacomo Puccini – a life devoted to opera

16 August 2021

Born in Lucca, Tuscany on 22 December 1858, Giacomo [Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria] Puccini is one of the best operatic composers of all time.

He devoted himself to music from an early age, learning from his uncle at the age of five. His love for music continued into his teenage years and in 1876, after attending a performance of Verdi’s Aida in Pisa, he found his true calling – opera – abandoning a 124 year family tradition of being a musical director at Lucca’s Cathedral of San Martino.

He was accepted to Milan Conservatory and studied with Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini. After graduating in 1883, he composed and instrumental work – Capriccio sinfonico. His first opera – Le villi – which had been composed and rejected by Sonzogno Competition, was premiered to great acclaim at Milan’s Verme Theatre the following year, attracting the attention of music publisher Giulio Ricordi, who commissioned Puccini to write a new opera for La Scala. 

Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, based on a drama by French writer Alfred de Musset, was performed at La Scala in 1889, and was a complete failure. Nevertheless, Ricordi continued to have faith in his protégé and sent him to Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Puccini returned with a plan for Manon Lescaut – an opera depicting the love of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux in 18th century France.

La bohème is one of the most famous operas ever written, following the unforgettable story of two young, bohemian lovers in Paris. Within a few years of its premiere at Teatro Regio, Turin in 1896, it had been performed at almost every opera house in Europe and the United States. Four years later, Tosca (1900) emerged, followed by Madam Butterfly (1904) – for these Puccini collaborated with the writers Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. 

In 1908, having spent the summer in Cairo, Puccini devoted himself to his next opera, La fanciulla del West. Its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in December 1910 was a great triumph, and with it Puccini reached the end of his mature period. 1917 saw the premiere of La rondine but the opera was quickly forgotten.

Puccini was fascinated by contemporary opera and studied the works of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. As a result, Il trittico was produced – a collection of three one-act operas: a sinister melodrama Il tabarro; a sentimental religious tragedy Suor Angelica; and a comic opera Gianni Schicchi.

His last years were spent working on his final opera, Turandot – the only Italian opera in the Impressionistic style. He never completed the opera. Puccini was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer in 1923 and died in Brussels the following year, while working on the final love duet. The opera had its premiere at La Scala two years later, in a version completed by Franco Alfano.

Puccini was initially buried in Milan but in 1926 his body was moved to his old estate, Torre el Lago. Festival Puccini is held there annually to honour their most famous resident.