Puccini, you dirty dog, you

The New York Times has a great story about the life and art of Giacomo Puccini.

It’s coming up on the 150th anniversary of his birth, and there’s a new movie about his raucous love life being released to coincide with the anniversary.

Puccini proudly called himself a “mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos and attractive woman.” Mr. Benvenuti’s film, “Puccini e la Fanciulla” (“Puccini and the Girl”), presents a newly uncovered strand in Puccini’s messy biography. It asserts that he has another living granddaughter, Nadia Manfredi, the child of another son, also named Antonio, born of an affair with Giulia Manfredi, a feisty woman of humble background who ran a hostelry in Torre del Lago popular with local farmers and transient hunters. Personal letters and other documents that Mr. Benvenuti was shown by Nadia Manfredi in early 2007 present what seems a persuasive case.

And that’s after he had a 17 year affair with a married piano student of his who bore him a son and lived with him in raunchy sin until her husband finally died and Puccini’s family browbeat him into marrying her despite the fact that he was porking half the town as he had been pretty much non-stop from day one.

Juicy gossip aside, the article covers some interesting musical ground as well. Puccini was apparently fascinated by modern musical approaches and included them in his operas.

Puccini was intrigued by the experiments of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. He took the 60-mile trip from Torre del Lago to Florence just to hear an early performance of Schoenberg’s landmark “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912), an experience that made a deep impression. And Anton Webern, no less, Schoenberg’s student, who would become the master of the radically compact and elusive gesture in 12-tone composition, once wrote to Schoenberg of his enthusiasm for Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” (1910). “A score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise,” Webern wrote, with “not a trace of kitsch.”

The aggressive opening chords of “Turandot” present Puccini in his tough-guy modernist mode. Yet think of the Act II scene for Ping, Pang and Pong, three ministers at the court of the ancient emperor in Beijing. It’s easy to treat it as a comic/nostalgic interlude in an otherwise intense opera. But to listen closely to this elaborate trio is to marvel at the intricate, pungent orchestral harmonies, spiked with piercing dissonance.

I never thought of it that way on account of I was too busy cringing at the racist coolie aspect. Time to listen to “Turandot” again. The non-Nessum Dorma bits, that is.

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