Renata Sperandio (Italian Cultural Institute), George Fleeton.
This is the redacted text of my Talk on Puccini’s Operatic Heroines given at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Dublin on October 05, 2015.
le piccole donne innamorate di Giacomo Puccini
Le Villi, leggenda drammatica, Milano, 1884
Edgar, dramma lirico, Milano, 1889
Manon Lescaut, dramma lirico, Torino, 1893
scene liriche, Torino, 1896
Tosca, melodramma, Roma, 1900
Madama Butterfly, tragedia giapponese, Milano, 1904
La fanciulla del West, New York, 1910
La rondine, commedia lirica, Monte Carlo, 1917
Il trittico: Il tabarro,
Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, New York, 1918
Turandot, dramma lirico, Milano, 1926
Fidelia / Tigrana (Edgar)
Mimì / Musetta (Bohème)
Giorgetta – Angelica – Lauretta (Trittico)
Turandot / Liù
Anna, Fidelia: establishing the DNA
Our encounters with Puccini’s little women in love start on a spring day of celebration in a village near the Black Forest: Anna has just been engaged
to Roberto but he must leave that evening for the Rhineland, where he will succumb to the ‘lures of an adventuress’.
Le Villi was
Puccini’s first opera, and he was 26.
We are in Giselle territory here, where the ghosts of jilted girls (le villi) - Anna’s fate – dance
at night, and should a faithless lover – in this case Roberto – encounter them he must join in the dance until he falls exhausted and dies.
opera and Puccini’s second are not widely performed today; Edgar is set in early 14th century Flanders; Edgar himself is undecided between his platonic love for Fidelia and his passion
for Tigrana, and it will all end badly because vengeful Tigrana, abandoned by a remorseful Edgar, stabs Fidelia and we find ourselves at the very beginning of post-Romantic verismo opera.
Each of Puccini’s two earliest women in love, in a real sense therefore, establish a particular thrust in his choices of material that result, for us, in some of the best known operatic melodramas in the entire history
of the art form.
Manon, Mimì, Magda, Giorgetta: the Paris operas
So our encounters with Puccini’s piccole donne innamorate really begin, for most of us, with Manon, on her tragic odyssey from Amiens to Paris and Le Havre,
and on in to exile in Louisiana, where she ends up alone, lost and abandoned.
Paris, a city which Puccini (like Mozart and Verdi before him) grew to like,
is fore-grounded in three further operas; indeed it is most celebrated in La Bohème, especially in the splendid Café Momus scenes where Mimì and Musetta are at their happiest with
Rodolfo, Marcello and their friends.
Magda, an older woman -in La Rondine, an opera with the
flavours of Fledermaus, a Traviata without the tragic outcome - will fly like a swallow to the Mediterranean in search of uncomplicated romantic love with a younger man Ruggero, but her guilt about her past will oblige her to leave him and
return to her self-satisfied banker-protector in Paris.
And Giorgetta (in Il Tabarro) is, like
Magda, a survivorbut, after her young lover Luigi’s murder, her life on the Seine as a bargeman’s wife will be unbearable.
Giorgetta is the
only married woman in Puccini’s twelve operas; the marriage between Pinkerton and Cio-cio-san is a sham, although she will refuse to accept that.
Tosca, Cio-cio-san, Minnie: grand opera stuff
Among the most tragic of all Puccini’s unfortunate heroines are Tosca and Cio-cio-san, the former overwhelmed by a fast developing
set of circumstances over which she has no control and as a result of which she will choose to die without fully comprehending why.
Like Magda and Giorgetta,
Tosca and Minnie (La Fanciulla) are more mature women in love, unlike the younger and less experienced Anna, Fidelia, Manon and Mimì.
Cio-cio-san, naïve, vulnerable, spurned but steadfast, and youngest of them all, belongs to a culture (Nagasaki in the early 20th century) which Puccini really didn’t get to grips with in any
dramatically convincing way – a slip for someone who had such an intuitive grasp of how the theatre works.
A further equally unhappy judgement call
is also evident in the even more exotic La Fanciulla del West, set during the 1849 Gold Rush in California.
runs her Polka Saloon in the Cloudy Mountains, dispensing alcoholic and spiritual refreshments to the miners, until the arrival of Dick Johnson, robber and outlaw, an old flame, for whose life she will cheat in a game of poker with Sheriff Rance and, like
Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane, she will ride in and rescue Johnson from a death worse than fate for Puccini’s least credible dénouement.
Lauretta, Turandot, Angelica: end games
Like Minnie and Turandot,
Lauretta will also live to tell her tale of love, in her case with Rinuccio, thanks to the machinations of her Machiavellian father Gianni Schicchi.
And the final heroine on our journey, the frigid Princess Turandot (Puccini loose and lost in legendary Peking), is defrosted by a warming kiss from Prince Calàf.
But it is Angelica and Liù who are probably the most heart-rending of these young women who fall fatally in
Manon had originally set out to enter a convent; Angelica is sent to one, having brought shame and disgrace on her noble family, with her illegitimate
bambino, whom she cannot forget and whom she does not know had died two years previously.
Cio-cio-san and Giorgetta had also lost their infant sons, in
very contrasting ways.
In addition to one murder (Fidelia), suicide is a pronounced feature of Puccini’s operatic heroines: Liù stabs herself
rather than face torture and reveal to Turandot the Prince’s name; Angelica will take poison, distilled from the herbs she tends in the covent garden; Cio-cio-san will commit hara-kiri, dying with honour when she can no longer live honourably; and Toscawill
leap to her death from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, she too sola, perduta, abbandonata.
Anna dies of a broken heart, Manon of exhaustion
and thirst and Mimì of consumption.
Only five survive when the curtains fall: Minnie, Magda, Giorgetta, Lauretta and Turandot – and what stories
they could tell.
What makes Puccini’s entire body of work special – six major works, six minor (embracing the three one-act operas) - is the
intensity of the storytelling, the lyricism of the music, the unforgettable melodies and the sharpness of delineation of character, all infused with Puccini’s many moods and madnesses (his chain-smoking, and crashing his cars), infidelities, energy-sapping
travels abroad to supervise revivals of his work, arguments with librettists and publishers and an unsupportive spouse.
Puccini, dramatist and composer,
is not Dante or Shakespeare nor is he Wagner or Verdi, but the deep niche he carved for himself at the emotional end of our imaginations cannot be denied, nor has time eroded the connective tissue.
Is it any wonder then that when we wander out of a Puccini opera, intoxicated by the marijuana of his music, we remember clearly, next day when we sober up, the plights, the tears and the fears, and the premature, often
self-inflicted deaths of a gallery of brave young women cheated and forsaken in their search for a simple undemanding love that might just abide?
film extracts used to illustrate this Talk were :
Tosca Act 2, Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore with Maria Callas (and Tito Gobbi),
Covent Garden London, 1964;
Madama Butterfly Act 2, Un bel dì vedremo with Ying Huang, 1995;
Suor Angelica, Senza mamma o bimbo with Rosalind Plowright, La Scala Milano, 1983; and
La bohème Scene 1, Che gelida manina and Sì mi chiamano Mimì with Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling, New York, 1956.