La rondine

Article by Adrian Mourby

La rondine occupies a curious place piece in Puccini’s life. By the time the 59-year-old composer wrote this gentle, tragic tale he was the most successful and wealthiest opera composer in the world. In real terms his income exceeded even that of Rossini and Verdi. But Giacomo Puccini was also recovering from considerable emotional and physical trauma, and undiagnosed diabetes was beginning to sap his strength. The lassitude that had always plagued Puccini when he was not in the throes of composition may well have had its roots in this condition. Fortunately by the time he was writing La rondine he was at last regaining his creative momentum.

Puccini was a complex creature although he would have denied it. His relationship with women would today be considered predatory. He claimed that he needed to be in love to compose and whenever he was working on an opera he would have his “little gardens”: dalliances with new women that gave him the energy he associated with falling in love.

For all his faults as a man there is no one as good as Giacomo Puccini when it comes to depicting in music how it feels to love – or to recall love. In emotional terms this was a high-risk lifestyle, particularly because since his second opera, Edgar, Puccini had been living with Elvira Bonturi, a married woman who had borne him a son in 1886.

As Elvira’s husband would not divorce his estranged wife, the menage at Casa Puccini in Torre del Lago was unconventional enough. But the fact that the middle-aged composer frequently embarked on new “gardens” could have easily drowned the household in scandal. Fortunately the Italian press kept its distance and Tito Ricordi, Puccini’s longstanding publisher and mentor, did everything he could to keep the composer’s private life out of the papers.

Puccini had been a great investment for Ricordi. In the magical decade 1893–1903 the Tuscan composer, after a very shaky start, wrote Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, three of the most popular operas in the world and a fourth of which most composers would be proud. Then Puccini’s domestic life fell apart spectacularly, wrecking his creative output. The full details of this tragic story have only recently been discovered.

We now know that while working on the last of these four operas, Madama Butterfly, Puccini fell in love with a woman from Turin whom he nicknamed “Corinna”. Puccini scholars have suggested that the intensity of Pinkerton’s “Vene Vene” at the end of Act I of Butterfly reflects the composer’s physical obsession with Corinna, and Act II his unbearable days of separation from her.

Whatever the reason, Puccini’s relationship with Corinna went further than all his previous dalliances. According to a letter from Elvira to Puccini, the composer may have even promised Corinna marriage. Certainly when he broke off the relationship, and Corinna threatened an action for breach of promise, Puccini had thoughts of skipping the country:

“For that business you could have gone to gaol… I still remember well how, when the famous letter [from Corinna] arrived, you became pusillanimous at the thought of a sentence and talked about fleeing to Switzerland.”

The composer had always enjoyed “little gardens”. How had this one got so out of hand?

Sensing that this was no mere infatuation with the Turinese, Tito Ricordi had stepped in, urging Puccini to investigate the woman with whom he was proposing to start a new life, abandoning his common-law-wife and only child.

Did Ricordi know something? Certainly his insistence paid off. Puccini hired a private detective who discovered that “Corinna” was not the innocent Butterfly he had imagined. She was in fact working, at least some of the time, as a prostitute. Puccini was humiliated and lashed out in a furious letter, breaking with his mistress:

“What an abyss of depravity and prostitution! You are a shit, and with this I leave you to your future.”

When Corinna threatened in turn to sue, it looked as if a public scandal could not be prevented. Then events spiralled quickly out of everyone’s control. One night, driving the maestro home, Puccini’s chauffeur ran off the road and in the ensuing crash the composer was left pinioned under his car and almost died of asphyxiation from petrol fumes. He was brought home but in need of nursing.

Then Elvira’s husband, Narciso Gemingnani, suddenly and unexpectedly died. Needing someone to look after him and run the household, and with no barrier now to legitimising his relationship with Elvira, Puccini was put under pressure by both his sisters and Ricordi to formalise his relationship with the mother of his son.

But there was still the matter of Corinna to resolve. At this point however fate intervened again. The girl’s father was arraigned in court for exposing himself. In early twentieth-century Italy this blew the Turinese’s claim to be a respectable woman out of the water. Puccini, housebound now, humiliated, ailing and besieged on all sides by people telling him to legitimise his unconventional domestic arrangements married Elvira on 4 January 1904, just six weeks before the unhappy premiere of Madama Butterfly in Milan. The extraordinary power of Butterfly’s final moments when she commits suicide rather than be further humiliated by those who have betrayed her gives voice to the rawest emotion that Puccini ever poured into a character. Many people have heard a very personal note of anguish in this music. To complete Puccini’s humiliation, Elvira had come into the possession of her husband’s intimate letters to “Corinna” and passed them to her sister and brother-in-law for safe-keeping.

It is not surprising that after Madama Butterfly Puccini did not premiere another opera for six years. The discovery of recent letters and a memorandum that Puccini wrote while staying in a Milan hotel shows that by 1904 the composer was emotionally and physically exhausted.

It would be a long time before Puccini was back on form. What ultimately saved him, of course, was a new emotional involvement, this time with a local woman in Torre del Lago, Giulia Manfredi, who helped run the lakeside bar in front of Villa Puccini. Giulia was more than one of Puccini’s gardens. In fact she was without a doubt the model for Minnie, the bar-owning heroine of his next opera, La Fanciula del West. Giulia was much more confident than Puccini’s previous heroines. Throughout their long affair she never cracked or became over-demanding or openly suffered.

There was however more drama to unfold in Puccini’s life. The Fates had not finished with the overwrought players in at Torre del Lago. Despite the marriage Elvira knew she did not have her husband’s heart and she soon suspected a new affair. Unfortunately she hit on the wrong suspect, urged on by her daughter Fosca Gemingnani. Doria Manfredi was Giulia’s younger cousin and worked as a maid at Villa Puccini. The worst she was doing was carrying letters between Puccini and her cousin, but in October 1908 Elvira began attacking her verbally in public. Doria was wholly innocent but she had accidentally discovered Fosca in bed with one of Puccini’s librettists and Fosca (already married) wanted her discredited. On 1 January 1909, Elvira accosted Doria and her cousin Giulia in the street and called Doria a “gossip and a filthy creature”. Two weeks later in front of the Villa Puccini and before witnesses, she called Doria a “whore” and a “tart” and subsequently told the onlookers “sooner or later I will drown that tramp in the lake”.

Eventually Doria, unable to cope with the abuse, committed suicide by drinking poison on 23 January 1909. She lived on long enough to beg her mother to exhonorate her. When a post-mortem revealed that Doria was a virgin, the Manfredis took Elvira to court on counts of defamation, slander and menaces. Elvira only escaped prison when Puccini bought the family off with a payment of 12,000 lire. The one positive thing to emerge from this awful, sordid story was that Puccini regained the upper hand in his marriage. While this may not sound admirable in personal terms, it coincided, and probably initiated, a new revival of his ability to write opera.

It was in the autumn of 1913, a year after he had finally finished revising La Fanciula, that Puccini began work on La rondine, a comedy commissioned from him by the Karltheatr in Vienna. While nowhere near as heart-rending as the four operas that established his career, La rondine marks Puccini’s return to thwarted love, a subject that always inspired him dramatically. Moreover in Magda’s aria “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”, the composer proved with just one phrase that he was once again a force to be reckoned with.

Folie amore!

Folie ebbrezza!

Love as madness!

Drunk on such madness!

While La rondine marked the rebirth of Puccini as an operatic composer, it would be several years still before he began work on Turandot, the only one of his later works to stand alongside the achievements of that extraordinary decade 1893- 1903. In the meantime Puccini went straight from rondine to Il trittico, which premiered in 1918. The composer’s usually excellent dramatic instincts did not serve him as well in this American triple bill. However he did manage another show-stopping aria for soprano in the triptych’s third opera, Gianni Schicchi. Once again in “O mio babbino caro” we have Puccini capturing with devastating and apparent simplicity the beauty of a woman’s love. It ranks alongside “Vissi D’Arte”, “Un bel di” and of course “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”. It’s not surprising that the Merchant Ivory film of A Room With A View uses “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” and “O mio babbino caro” to give voice to Lucy Honeychurch’s first experience of love in Tuscany.

Meanwhile Puccini was continuing to live a secret life with Giulia Manfredi even as his health was beginning to fail. We know no detail of their time together except for the twin consequences of the composer seeming to regain his confidence musically and, in June 1923, the birth of a son who was christened with the name of Puccini’s grandfather, Antonio. The boy was farmed out to a nurse in Pisa and a contract was drawn up for the then-massive sum of 1,000 lire a month. Significantly for those who dispute that Puccini was the father of Antonio Manfredi, the maintenance money stopped abruptly in December 1924, just days after the composer’s death in Brussels where he had gone for a operation for cancer.

Puccini died without completing Turandot but there is no doubt that this was the late great work for which La rondine and Gianni Schicchi had prepared him musically. Significantly, when composing the score, Puccini ran into problems with the libretto of this very dark fairytale. In the vengeful Turandot he had a powerful soprano figure both musically and dramatically but the opera lacked a heart, the kind of soft, beating, loving heart that Puccini needed in order to compose. Never reluctant to work his librettists hard, Puccini pushed Simoni and Adami until they came up with the new character of Liu, a servant girl whose memory of love (the aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta”) is Puccini at his best, depicting a young woman who sacrifices her own life to save that of her beloved master.

To the end Giacomo Puccini’s emotional life was inextricably mixed with his music. It is significant that the last part of Turandot that he completed before travelling to Brussels for his ill-fated operation was the death of Liu and the departure of the heartbroken old man, Timur, who follows her corpse off stage.

Adrian Mourby is a novelist, opera producer and international architectural correspondent for Opera Now magazine. In 2007 he was awarded the Giacomo Puccini Medal for his opera journalism.