Strange Harmony of Contrasts

Article by George Hall

‘Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse’ sings Cavaradossi in his first aria in Tosca, the old Standard English translation of which runs: ‘Strange harmony of contrasts, thus deliciously blending’. These words might serve as a description of Puccini’s method in Il trittico. Attempts to discover a unifying factor in his highly original scheme of a triptych of one-act pieces, created during the years 1915-18, all seem far-fetched; in fact Puccini was operating on similar lines to those later used by creators of ‘portmanteau films’ – that of maximum and effective contrast.

World War I was a difficult period for Italy’s leading composer. In 1912 his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had died, and Puccini thereafter had to deal with Giulio’s son, Tito, whom he disliked and believed – with reason – to have far more interest in younger members of the Ricordi stable (such as Riccardo Zandonai, composer of Francesca da Rimini) than in him. He had begun work on La rondine, originally commissioned in 1913 by an operetta theatre in Vienna, only to find that the outbreak of war placed him and the work’s intended recipients on opposite sides of the conflict. La rondine would eventually have its premiere in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917. Tito Ricordi turned down the offer of publishing it.

The war itself depressed Puccini on both a philosophical and a human level, and not merely because he feared for the life of his son Tonio, who had volunteered for the army and was stationed on Italy’s northern front. Travelling abroad, which had long been one of his special delights, became virtually impossible. His German mistress Josephine von Stängel had been forced to leave Italy as an enemy alien; even visiting her in Switzerland got him into trouble when the Italian consul in Lugano initially refused to grant him a return visa to Italy because of her status. Most embarrassing of all was the outcry over Puccini’s refusal to contribute (as did Mascagni, Elgar, Debussy, Saint-Saëns and other contemporaries) to a volume published in 1915 by the writer Hall Caine in support of the heroism of Belgium in the face of German aggression. Puccini’s attitude led to widespread condemnation in the French and Italian press, which resurfaced again when his negotiations with an Austrian management over La rondine became known. The word ‘traitor’ hung unspoken in the air.

All of these factors came together to increase Puccini’s natural tendency towards a sense of isolation and melancholy. Composition for Puccini was not merely an artistic necessity but a distraction from his other worries. What would eventually become his unique conception of three short operas designed to be mounted on the same evening originated with the first and gloomiest of the three, Il tabarro – in fact, the three operas were essentially composed in the order in which they would eventually be played.

As early as 1900 Puccini had considered a three-part structure (perhaps inspired by Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann) for a projected setting of Alphonse Daudet’s 1877 burlesque novel Tartarin de Tarascon and its two sequels. Then in 1904-5 he became intrigued by the possibilities of bringing together three dramatic themes, believing that the works of Maxim Gorky would provide both sufficiently varied material and some sense of unity. In March 1907 he described in a letter to his friend and Ricordi manager Claudio Clausetti both his fascination with the idea and an inherent problem:

‘Some time ago I thought of doing three different sketches (three acts) from Gorky, taken from The Vagabonds and In the Steppes; I had chosen The Raft and The 26 Against One, but was missing a strong and dramatic third for the finale of the evening and couldn’t find it in anything else of Gorky. Then I reconsidered, and found the idea impractical: three different things, which would then be performed by the same singers, would spoil the illusion and damage the representative truth. And so I gave up the idea. Now I am thinking of it again.’

Il tabarro had its origins in Didier Gold’s play La Houppelande (‘The Cloak’), first performed in Paris in 1910, whose operatic potential Puccini pointed out to his former librettist Luigi Illica in 1913, though their collaboration on this project went no further. It was to a new literary partner, the writer and later film-maker Giovacchino Forzano, that Puccini next turned for its realization. Forzano (1883-1970) was a multi-talented individual: a journalist, playwright and librettist who worked with Mascagni (Lodoletta and Il piccolo Marat), Giordano (Il re), and Wolf-Ferrari (Sly) as well as Puccini. He has also been described as Italy’s first opera director; following Puccini’s death he directed the premiere of Turandot in 1926, as he already had for Pizzetti’s Debora e Jaele (1922), Respighi’s Belfagor (1923) and Boito’s Nerone (1924), all at La Scala, Milan. Later, and less fortunately, he would align himself with Mussolini and collaborate with him on plays and propaganda films. Initially Forzano was merely asked by Puccini to translate Gold’s play, which he refused.

Puccini then contacted another journalist and playwright, Giuseppe Adami (1878-1946), who had already written the libretto of La rondine and who would ultimately collaborate with Renato Simoni on Turandot. Puccini outlined to Adami how he himself imagined the opera, demonstrating in the process how clear his vision of it already was:

‘What I’m concerned about is that the Lady Seine should be the true protagonist of the drama. This life-style of the boatmen and stevedores dragging out their wretched existence in the traffic of the river, resigned to their lot, is in complete contrast to the longing that throbs in Giorgetta’s heart – a yearning for dry land, regret for the noisy clamour of the suburbs, for the lights of Paris. Love snatched at for the odd quarter of an hour is not enough for her. Her dream is to escape, to tread the pavements, to leave the cabin on the water where her child died… These are gleams and shadows that just give the crime a sharp and delicate flavour, like an etching.’

Adami later described how he fleshed the piece out in further detail: ‘I gave Luigi, Giorgetta’s lover, a revolutionary slant against the miserable slavery that bent his back and shoulders beneath the weight of sacks. For Giorgetta, a feverish desire for the life of freedom, obsessed by memories of Belleville, of old friendships, of Sunday trips to the Bois de Boulogne in merry parties. For Michele, the skipper, the melancholy of old age and a restrained sorrow mingled with the suspicion that he can no longer charm his young dreamer of a companion. I enriched the quayside with eminently Puccinian episodes. I even introduced a ballad singer who distributes loose sheets of paper with a song of Mimì among the midinettes [young girls], and who accompanies himself on an out-of-tune barrel organ.’

Il tabarro was complete by November 1916 and Puccini toyed with the idea of presenting it in a double bill (a revival of his very first opera, Le villi, was a possibility for a while) before returning to the tripartite notion. Conceiving a second opera – what would ultimately be the middle panel of the triptych – proved more elusive until Forzano came up with the idea of Suor Angelica, as he would also with Gianni Schicchi (though some authorities speculate that the very first suggestion may have come from the composer, who regularly carried a copy of Dante around with him). Originally Forzano had imagined the story of a tragic yet ultimately redeemed nun as a play, but Puccini quickly saw its operatic potential and asked for a libretto to be drawn up. Forzano’s letter to Tito Ricordi on March 3 1917 embodies his pride:

‘I sent the libretto of Suor Angelica to Maestro Puccini some days ago. He has declared himself – kind as he is – very satisfied… I have also finished a brief outline of a plot based on Gianni Schicchi. You know the maestro’s opinion of its subject, which is rich in possibilities and whose comic nature is quite out of the ordinary.’

As usual Puccini went to some pains to come up with authentic material to colour in the background of Suor Angelica. He enquired in a letter dated May 1 1917 of an old friend, the literary priest Don Pietro Panichelli (who had previously supplied material for Tosca), as to what liturgical text might be appropriate for the angels who hail the Virgin at the moment of the miracle – words that eventually found their position in the final libretto:

‘I am writing a cloistered, convent opera, so I need some Latin words for it. My knowledge does not go so far as your heavenly heights. I will need some of the words of the litany, for example ‘Turris Eburnea, Foederis Arca’, etc. (I don’t remember.) but instead of the Ora pro nobis I need another response exalting the Virgin herself.

‘To give you the idea, I can tell you that there is a vision of the Madonna, which is preceded by choirs of distant angels, and I want the litanies and some of their verses. So no prega per noi. Instead it needs a Nostra Regina, or a Santa delle Sante; something to repeat over and over again in Latin. Assume that they are angels glorifying Mary. Then, at the moment of the miracle, I’d like the ‘Marcia Reale della Madonna’ [Puccini’s joking reference to a ‘Royal March of the Madonna’]. Neither the Ave Maris Stella nor the Ave Maria, which I already have the nuns sing, is quite right for me.’

According to Panichelli, Puccini also gained permission to visit the sequestered convent in Vicopelago near Lucca, where his sister Iginia had become Mother Superior, and the plight of Sister Angelica as described and performed for them by Puccini in its unfinished setting moved the nuns intensely. Suor Angelica was completed in September 1917. Strangely, the work’s only major aria, ‘Senza mamma’, was developed from an existing short reference in the score prior to the first performance but too late to be incorporated within it; the first time this addition was included was for the European premiere in Rome a month later.

The ingenious Forzano also obliged with the libretto of Gianni Schicchi, which has its origin in a handful of lines in Dante fleshed out in the Commentary on the Divine Comedy by an Anonymous Florentine of the 14th Century, published in 1866:

‘This Gianni Schicchi was of the Cavalcanti of Florence, and the story is told of him that: Messer Buoso Donati being mortally ill, he wished to make a will, as he had much to leave others. Simone his son put him off with words, so that he could not do so, and kept putting him off until he died. Simone concealed his death, afraid that there might be a will he had made before his illness. Simone, not knowing what to do, called on Gianni Schicchi for counsel. Gianni knew how to mimic anyone in words and actions, especially Messer Buoso, whom he had known well. He said to Simone: “call a notary, and say that Messer Buoso wishes to make a will: I will get into his bed, we’ll hide him behind it, I will cover myself well, putting on his nightcap, and I will dictate the will as you wish: and to see that I profit as well.

‘Simone agreed with him: Gianni gets into bed, appears to be in pain, and imitates the voice of Messer Buoso so that he appears to be him, and begins the will, saying: “I leave 20 soldi to the works of Santa Reparata, and five lire to the Little Friars, and five to the Preachers”, and so on, distributing to God, but in very small amounts. To Simone, who was to profit from this deed, he said, “and I leave additionally 500 florins to Gianni Schicchi”. Simone says to ‘Messer Buoso’: “this needn’t be put in the will: I’ll see that he gets them” – “Simone, I will leave what is mine to whom I please: I will leave you enough, that you will be happy” – out of fear, Simone kept quiet. He continues: “And I leave to Gianni Schicchi my mule” (for Messer Buoso had the best mule in Tuscany). “Oh, Messer Buoso”, said Simone, “he doesn’t care anything for this mule”. “I know what Gianni Schicchi wants better than you”. Simone begins to be consumed with rage, but keeps silent out of fear. Gianni Schicchi continues: “And I leave to Gianni Schicchi the hundred florins that my neighbour owes me: and the remainder I leave to Simone, on this condition, that he execute all my bequests within 15 days; otherwise, I leave everything to the Little Friars of the convent of Santa Croce”; and the will being complete, everyone departs. Gianni gets out of bed, Messer Buoso’s body is replaced, and they rise up, and weep, and say that he has died.’

Surprisingly, given the brilliant success of the eventual result, Puccini seems to have lost his enthusiasm for the project at one point (‘I fear that ancient Florence does not suit me, nor is it a subject that would appeal much to the public at large’) before again warming to its comic possibilities as so wonderfully developed in the libretto. The opera was finished in April 1918.

When one thinks of Puccini, comedy is not what immediately springs to mind. He was, as he himself once put it, more usually inspired by the phenomenon of ‘great sorrow in little souls’, and even today – though less frequently than before – one meets with the pejorative term ‘tear-jerker’ in reviews of his most famous works. This seems a curiously old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon attitude, as if the ability to cause members of an audience to weep at the misfortunes of a fictional character were in itself unmanly, even despicable, rather than evidence of a gift to deepen a spectator’s human sympathies through profound artistic experiences. Yet even in Puccini’s most obviously moving and dramatic operas, such as La bohème, Tosca and La fanciulla del West, there can be found comic scenes or moments, while his letters often show a highly developed sense of humour, sometimes gentle, sometimes satirical, but more often ironic and occasionally dark.

Unlike the other two operas that make up Il trittico, Gianni Schicchi’s stature was recognised from the first: paradoxically, perhaps, for of all Puccini’s operas this was the one least to be expected from him. As with Verdi and Falstaff – an obvious ancestor – a late excursion into a new genre proved not merely a brilliant success but fully to realize musical potentials only partially developed in previous works. Whatever the considerable merits of the other two panels of Puccini’s triptych may be, there is still something amazing about the musical finesse and dramatic dexterity of this late comedy. Puccini had conceived Gianni Schicchi ‘in a desire to laugh and make others laugh’; and in that he certainly succeeded.

George Hall writes widely on classical music, and especially opera, for such publications as The Guardian, The Stage, BBC Music Magazine and Opera.