A single burst of inspiration

La vida breve / Gianni Schicchi
by De Falla / Puccini
Opera North
February 2015

Puccini was notorious for making almost impossible demands on his librettist colleagues. Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who worked with him on La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly were reduced to sending despairing letters to the operas' publisher, Giulio Ricordi, as Puccini insisted on yet more alterations. At one point, in 1895, during the creation of Bohème, Giacosa wrote: 'I confess that I am sick to death of all this incessant rewriting, retouching, adding, correcting, taking away and sticking on again, puffing it out on the right side to thin it down on the left. Curse the libretto! I have already done the whole thing from start to finish three times over, and some of it four or five times. I have wasted more paper on a few scenes of this libretto than on any of my own plays.'

Just over a decade later, Giovacchino Forzano was lucky enough to have a considerably smoother ride. As a friend of Puccini, an intelligent and widely-read man who had studied medicine and the law as well as, briefly, pursuing a career as an operatic baritone, he began by helping him in his unceasing search for subject matter. Over the years, Puccini had considered and, ultimately, rejected subjects ranging from the life and death of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, Oscar Wilde's The Duchess of Padua, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, to The Light that Failed by Rudyard Kipling, a life of the Buddha and Richard Blackmore's historical romance, Lorna Doone.

When Forzano learnt that Puccini had in mind a trio of operas, one of them to be a comedy, he at first put himself out of the picture altogether, declaring that he was not interested in making adaptations of existing work. As a result, Puccini went ahead with the first opera, Il tabarro, which was based on a French play, La Houppelande, by Didier Gold. Working with Giuseppe Adami, the librettist for his previous opera, La rondine, he finished this in 1916 and was left adrift, imploring Adami to come up with more ideas. Adami did his best but in the end, Forzano saved the day with two original ideas of his own. The first was the story, which he had originally intended as a play, of a nun forced by her family to enter a convent after giving birth to an illegitimate child. This became Suor Angelica. The second was inspired by a handful of lines in Dante's Inferno, describing 'that mad soul, Gianni Schicchi', a Florentine rogue and sharp operator who impersonated a dead man and dictated a new will in his own favour. As a result, he was condemned to the eighth circle of hell, reserved for those who have 'counterfeited the persons of others, debased the current coin or deceived by speech under false pretences'.

At first, Puccini claimed not to be inspired by this idea and thought that Adami might still come up with a better one, writing to him to say 'I'm afraid that ancient Florence doesn't suit me, nor do I think it is a subject that will appeal much to the general public.' But something must have pricked his interest, as before long he was pestering Forzano for text, begging him to drop everything, stop work on Suor Angelica and get on with Gianni Schicchi instead. He had been wanting to write a comic opera for some time and now he felt that the opportunity had finally presented itself. There was nothing inherently funny about Dante's lines but Forzano was to spin a deliciously witty and elaborate scenario from them.

According to Dante, Gianni Schicchi's real-life crime was to have used his brilliantly accurate gift for mimicry to impersonate old Buoso Donati, recently deceased. His indignation at this behaviour was almost certainly exacerbated by the fact that his wife Gemma was a Donati and the family had taken great personal offence at Schicchi's fraudulent behaviour.

There is a fine precedent to demonstrate the comic potential of a fraudulent deathbed scene in Ben Jonson's Volpone of 1605, in which the sly fox of the title pretends to be close to death in order to dupe the three men who hope to be favoured in his will. Forzano realised that there is nothing like the lure of a fat inheritance to bring out the worst in people. He built up the character of Gianni Schicchi into a beguiling, swift-thinking trickster of a man whose redeeming feature is his love for his daughter, Lauretta, and his desire to secure for her a better future. With this aim in view, he leads the gathering of avaricious relatives a merry dance before wickedly dashing their hopes. As he pretends to be old Buoso Donati, he feebly lists the string of possessions they all covet, promising 'La casa, la mula, i mulini di Signa' to (pause for dramatic effect) – 'il caro affezionato amico … Gianni Schicchi! It is a delirious moment of bubble-bursting and is so well-known in Italy that, when the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti was dying, with his wife Nicoletta, his ex-wife Adua and their children arguing viciously over who would inherit his millions, the Press lamented the fact that his final role after such a wonderful career would turn out to be that of Buoso Donati, keeping everyone guessing but eventually leaving his personal 'mulini di Signa' to – Nicoletta Mantovani.

Puccini responded to Forzano's libretto with music which he composed in almost a single burst of inspiration and which was received, at its New York premiere in 1918 as 'mirthful and brilliant' in its 'happy characterization'. The critic of The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the opera blew through the theatre 'like an invigorating breeze, a modern version of old-fashioned Italian opera buffa'. After its Italian premiere in Rome, in January 1919, the critics again praised Gianni Schicchi above the other two operas in the Trittico, although the Giornale d'Italia considered that they were linked by a 'shared Italianness', 'an idea that unites the three new operas, the flicker, the light, the flame that even today illuminates Italian genius'.

This goes to the heart of the matter. At the end of a terrible war, from which Italy had emerged badly damaged, Puccini had produced, a mere month after the armistice, an opera which was greeted as an affirmation of all that was genuinely, joyfully Italian. It was hailed as a national masterpiece, set in Florence, that cradle of civilisation, and based on Dante, a cultural icon. In the Florentine newspaper, La nazione, special praise was reserved for the aria in praise of the city, 'Firenze è come un albero fiorito', which was deemed to have symbolic, patriotic significance, 'a divine, sweet, spontaneous melody that fills us with hope and faith in our great eternal land'. Puccini was applauded for returning to an Italian subject 'after so many useless Japanese, American, Parisian digressions'; he was seen to be entering a 'second youth' and was compared to Verdi, who had also turned to comedy late in life. Gianni Schicchi was another Falstaff, 'in which the music and the words are bound together throughout, without uncertainty, without apparent effort'.

While all this may have been rather more than Puccini anticipated or intended, he was at all times, profoundly and proudly of his native land, more specifically of Tuscany; of his birthplace, Lucca; and of his beloved Torre del Lago, the small lakeside community where he made his home and where he was able to indulge his passions for hunting, fast cars and boats. After his first major success with Manon Lescaut in 1893, followed by La Bohème and Tosca, he had become an international hit, promoted by his publisher, Ricordi, as the natural successor to Verdi. In his own country, however, his success was not so assured, a fact which pained him deeply. In 1904, at La Scala in Milan, Madama Butterfly was greeted at its first performance by baffled silence followed by a hideous outburst of catcalls and shouts of rage. The critics damned it for being artificial and overly decorative, for being, instead of an opera, 'the cornice, the frame, the decoration – but no substance'.

When Puccini followed Butterfly with La fanciulla del West – an American opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York – and La rondine – an operetta originally composed for Vienna – the antagonism came to a head. In 1912, a 29-year-old writer named Fausto Torrefranca published an extended and vitriolic attack entitled Giacomo Puccini e l'opera internazionale. In an atmosphere of deep concern about the state of contemporary Italy, when a sort of bellicose nationalism was gaining ground over old-fashioned patriotism, Puccini was accused of embodying 'with the utmost completeness, all the decadence of current Italian music', representing 'all its cynical commercialism, all its pitiful impotence and the whole triumphant vogue for internationalism'.

It was a period of real crisis for Puccini. He had always been apolitical and maintained a neutral stance throughout the War, concentrating on his work and contributing to the war effort in a low-key fashion, helping local individuals and families affected by the conflict and writing a short piano piece for an album which was sold for the benefit of the wounded. This put him in stark contrast with his old friend, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was fiercely patriotic, organizing and conducting benefit concerts for huge audiences and even going so far as to lead a small band of musicians onto the battlefield, shouting 'Viva l'Italia!' when they came under fire and fragments of shrapnel ripped open the bass drum.

The enthusiastic reception for Gianni Schicchi must, in these circumstances, have been a source of intense personal satisfaction to Puccini. It was, as part of the Trittico, to be the last premiere of his work that he would witness. His final opera, Turandot, was still incomplete when he died in Brussels in 1924, after an unsuccessful operation for throat cancer.