Brian Sewell on Puccini

Article by Brian Sewell, 1997

Ignore the music for the moment and consider the plots of La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s three great operas of a century ago – two romances so sickly sentimental in today’s terms they could only be written by Barbara Cartland or published by Mills and Boon, and a bloody television melodrama for adult delectation when the children are a-bed.  Puccini’s vulgar streak was touched by many things and the marvel is that with his music as an instrument of alchemy, he could turn dross and tawdry into gold, both metaphorically and in his pocket.  Those who have read Henry Mürger’s tales of tenants in the house of which his father was the concierge, know that ill-written, maudlin rot lies behind Bohème; those who have seen the tedious trifle of a play by David Belasco that is the origin of Butterfly, can only wonder in their boredom that Puccini gave it a second thought and took the trouble to invent a second act; and though no one alive now can recall Sarah Bernhardt stomping the boards in Sandou’s Tosca written expressly to fit her histrionic talents, we can imagine (though not with her wooden leg – that came only in 1915) the murderous business desperately overblown with growls and moans and curdled screams for this was a woman compelled to play compliant Cordelia when her true role was mad Lear.

Puccini saw the play in Milan in May 1889, and even though he could not understand her French, Bernhardt’s performance pinned him to his seat – ‘I was tremendously impressed with her acting and the wonderful portamento of her voice.  It carried like a Stradivarius violin to the remotest corners of the theatre.’  When he saw her in the play again in 1895 in Florence, the germ of the opera was firmly planted in his mind.   The plot of Tosca has ever since coloured our attitude to Puccini as a man.  We have transferred the treachery, the violence, the killing, and the prostitution of Tosca’s body from the stage to an imagined dark side of Puccini’s nature, and see him as a man with a sadistic streak, relishing the rape and taking lubricious pleasure not only in the torture of Cavaradossi, but in Tosca’s distress as Scarpia describes the spiked steel helmet screwed ever tighter on her lover’s handsome head, and she hears his screams of agony.  This is taking Verismo too far we argue; this is no longer the fashionable realism of the Italian working-class plot; this is not the contemporary naturalism of Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and Bohème; this is a sadistic melodrama, set a century before; the characters not beset by poverty, but back in the traditional rich settings of Opera Seria, where vicious despots hold sway over innocents – and we are gleeful when Puccini himself proves the point by admitting to ‘Neronic inclinations’.  It has occurred to no one that Puccini’s staging of Tosca is as a classical tragedy worthy of ancient Greece conforming in every respect with those of Euripides in his exploitation of private love, hate, revenge and violence, rather than treating them as mythological or historical abstractions.

As for Puccini’s ‘Neronic inclination,’ the only parallels in decadence between the composer and the Roman Emperor lie in their shared tastes for women, fine clothes, and fast transport.  Nero, notorious for foul body odour, stout of belly and covered in spots, got his many women by command (and the odd boy too at the Youth Games); Puccini, handsome by the conventions of the day, with large dark eyes, erect of stature, trim of figure, poised witty and assured, always elegantly dressed and increasingly distinguished as he grew older, fascinated innumerable women, and whether of low or high degree they readily surrendered.  Only three of these casual liaisons developed into affairs; the first and longest, in that it matured into sincere friendship, was with Sybil Seligman; the second, with the sister of an Hungarian friend, lasted for two years; and the third was with the Viennese Baroness von Strängel, who after six years was ready to pack her bags and join him at his house in Viareggio when he was well into his sixties.

In his way, Puccini was more than usually faithful.  In 1884 when he was twenty-five, his career as a composer of operas just launched, he seduced the wife of an old school friend in Lucca, the local grocer, and though the relationship was stormy – and drew stormier with every new seduction, real and imagined – Elvira Gemignani and Puccini stayed together until his death.  She brought him her daughter Fosca, bore him his only known son, Antonio, in 1886, and on the death of her husband in 1904, married him – though to all intents and purposes they had been married for twenty years.

Elivira, alas, also brought him the only episode of scandal in his life.  Once into middle age, she drew plump, plain and jealous, suspiciously objecting to his frequent travels; Puccini occasionally took her with him – to Buenos Aires in 1905, for example, to a Puccini festival – but most of his journeys to discuss or supervise productions were made alone.  Letters from his Hungarian mistress she intercepted and destroyed, and seethed in her loneliness.  In 1908 she concentrated her anger, not on some distant singer, actress or lady in society, but on her housemaid, Doria Manfredi a local girl of twenty-one who had been with her six years; she accused her of sleeping with her husband dismissed her from her house, and maintained such a campaign of vilification that the girl committed suicide – only then to be discovered still a virgin.  Her family sued Elvira, who was found guilty and given a prison sentence of five months; she appealed, and Puccini intervened, offering an out of court settlement large enough to satisfy the Manfredis, who withdrew the case.

With his marriage under such a cloud, Puccini not only philandered more but more seriously, yet in none of his sexual relationships is there known to have been any express of ‘Neronic inclinations;’ he may well, as is often the case with sexual deviants, have put his mother on a pedestal after his father’s early death – she was the boy’s dominant figure from the age of five for twenty years – but it is too easy to see some convoluted psychological significance in his falling into Elivera’s arms within days of her death.  One might better suppose that in earning his pocket money as a pianist in Lucca’s municipal brother, he learned more of the ways of women than a boy might otherwise know, and that this formed his attitude to them, his understanding of them, and his use of them as flawed heroines – but one might just as well suppose that his years spent as a choirboy in Lucca Cathedral also affected his sexual attitudes, and look for evidence to support the notion. The probable truth of Puccini’s sexuality is that it was that of a normal, potent Italian male – constantly active, random and casual – and that his fame and wealth (he was worth £1,000,000 at his death) would have drawn women to him had he been as ugly as a toad; that he was handsome was an aid to their lubricity.

Puccini’s most Neronic inclination was his taste for fast cars and having accidents in them – Nero, it will be remembered, won the Olympic chariot race, even though he was thrown from his.  Born in 1858, he was into his forties before the car became widely available, but he took to it like Mr. Toad and was the first man in Lucca to own one.  His car is said to have been a La Buire, bought in 1900 but this must be in error, for the French marque was not introduced until 1904, with the big 30 hp Type Fraignac the sensation of the Paris Motor Show in 1905.  There is an updated photograph of him in a very early Isotta-Fraschini, and Italian marque introduced in 1901, and it may have been this car that he overturned in February 1903 when returning from Lucca to his estate at Torre del Lago Lake Massaciuccoli.  It was frosty and foggy night, and the car skidded on a sharp bend careered down the hillside, and came to rest up upside- down.  Elvira and Tonio were thrown clear, shocked but uninjured; the chauffeur, Guido, sustained a broken thigh, and, and Puccini, his shin broken, was trapped under the car with fuel dripping hear his mouth.  The shin mended badly, had to be broken and re-set, and it was well into the autumn before he was out of a wheelchair; work in progress on Butterfly was so much interrupted by a recovery so slow that Giulio Ricordi, his publisher and friend, surmised that venereal disease (by which he meant syphilis) was hampering it – in fact Puccini had developed diabetes and was having to come to terms with irksome treatment.  It was this combination of circumstances that brought Doria Manfredi into the house as an extra maid.

Puccini’s other mechanical infatuation was the motorboat.  The scandal of elopement with Elivra in 1884 had driven him out of Lucca, his family’s home for many generations, and it was not until 1891 that he was able to return nearby, settling in Torre del Lago, there to develop a passion for wildfowling, for which he wore preposterous operatic boots with high heels (he had enormously long feet), a voluminous fur coat, and a jaunty Tyrolean hat.  With the success of Bohème in 1895, he bought the first of many motorboats – Mimi I – scaring, rather than slaughtering the duck, his favourite manoeuvre a slalom at high speed.  Torre del Lago remained both his home and his retreat until after the Great War, when the construction of a factory near his villa destroyed the sense of wilderness and isolation; this, and the insults of local fishermen when Puccini joined Mussolini’s Fascist Party and was appointed Senator, drove him to spend his last three years in his villa at Viareggio, then still a quiet fishing village.

He died in November 1924, in hospital in Brussels.  A smoker all his life, throat cancer put an end to him; he had consulted a throat specialist on the day of the car crash in 1903, but did not relinquish his beloved cigars and cigarettes until September 1924, when troubled by persistent pain.  A specialist in Florence diagnosed cancer and sent him to Brussels for a newly-developed cure that involved retaining consciousness under excruciating pain, needles in his neck and a hole in his throat (shades of Cavaradossi’s spiked helmet).  Shock induced the heart attack that killed him.  He had the manuscript of Turandot in his luggage.  Antonio and Fosca, Elivira’s daughter, were with him, and took the body back to Milan for a State Funeral.  In 1926 it was transferred to a tomb in Torre del lago.  Elivira died in 1930.  Clown, Lothario, genius and victim. Puccini’s life was plotless Verismo with moments of Opera Buffa and Opera Seria, a new category of opera plot, perhaps – Puccinismo.

Brian Sewell is a columnist for The Evening Standard