Renata Sperandio (Italian Cultural Institute), George Fleeton.

Puccini's Heroines

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. 

Mimì e le piccole donne innamorate di Giacomo Puccini

The Operas

Le Villi, leggenda drammatica, Milano, 1884 

Edgar, dramma lirico, Milano, 1889

Manon Lescaut, dramma lirico, Torino, 1893

La bohème, 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

The Heroines

Anna                       (Villi)

Fidelia / Tigrana   (Edgar)

Manon

Mimì / Musetta     (Bohème)

Tosca

Cio-cio-san            (Butterfly)

Minnie                   (Fanciulla)

Magda                     (Rondine)

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.

This 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.

Minnie 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 love.

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?

The four 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.

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