Along about 1903, Giacomo Puccini's life began to resemble an opera plot — and not so much a Puccini plot as a full-blown Verdi-style entanglement, with crippling injury, family scandal, lawsuits, a suicide, and the intervention of international politics.
First came the automobile accident on a slippery mountain road in Italy on a foggy night in February. Puccini, trapped under an overturned vehicle, nearly died from the fumes; when he regained consciousness, he immediately muttered, "Poor Butterfly, poor Butterfly." Temporarily crippled (he was on crutches and canes for three years) he continued to work on his current project, an opera about a geisha and an American naval lieutenant. And, at about the same time that he finished Madama Butterfly, he married the recently widowed Elvira Bonturi Gemignani, his longtime mistress and mother of his son Antonio.
As every Puccini buff knows, Butterfly debuted in one of those notorious opening night fiascos that Fate reserves for operas destined to be spectacularly successful. (Bizet's Carmen and Rossini's The Barber of Seville suffered similar opening-night failures). Both Puccini and Madama Butterfly recovered soon after; the composer crossed the Atlantic for the first time, and became, by 1905, the darling of the thriving operatic cult on both sides of the ocean. The audience and management at the Metropolitan Opera in New York particularly adored him, and he was soon at work for his American fans on a new piece with an American subject and setting — La fanciulla del West ("The Girl of the Golden West"), his "wild west" opera. Italian opera, which had been making inroads into America for nearly a century, had become a fixture of urban American culture, and Puccini was one of its living manifestations.
Living happily ever after wasn't part of the storyline for Puccini, however. Scandals in the operatic community don't often surpass or even match the foibles of cinematic celebrities, but the Puccini family, thanks to Puccini's wandering eye and Elvira's raging temper, splashed across the tabloids and unintentionally entertained scandal-mongers in Europe and America, ironically, at the moment of Puccini's greatest international fame and prestige.
Elvira, increasingly suspicious of the fondness of her husband for the teenage maid Doria Manfredi, threw both of them out of the house in 1908. And both Doria and Elvira acted out their parts like operatic verismo characters: Elvira pursued the girl publicly with threats and accusations, while Doria, after writing a note protesting her innocence, swallowed poison and died a protracted death.
Doria's outraged family sued for defamation of character, libel, and menace to life and limb, winning a judgment including a hefty fine and a prison sentence for Elvira. Puccini pulled out his checkbook and managed to settle out of court for a generous sum, after which the judgment of guilt was nullified (thus keeping Elvira, with whom Puccini managed a fragile, doomed reconciliation, out of jail). In spite of the scandal, La fanciulla del West triumphed at opening night in 1910 in New York, with Toscanini in the pit, Enrico Caruso and eight live horses on stage, and 14 curtain calls. A string of productions across Europe and America followed, and Puccini, though emotionally battered by the scandal of the Doria affair, began looking around for a new operatic subject.
He considered a setting of R. O. Blackmore's Lorna Doone, material from The Arabian Nights, and a retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son. He pondered the works of his favorite author, Charles Dickens, to no avail.
Meanwhile, Italy, along with the rest of Europe, had become enamored with the Viennese operetta, with its undercurrent of waltz, glamorous salon settings, and romantic plots; Puccini's rival Ruggero Leoncavallo scored a minor hit by taking an Italian angle on the genre in La reginetta delle rose. Interested in the trend, Puccini, in Vienna for that city's first production of Fanciulla, befriended Franz Lehšr, the leading operetta composer of the day (and creator of The Merry Widow). Lehšr introduced Puccini to his publisher, who in turn introduced Puccini to Lehšr's librettist, Alfred Willner. Willner went to work on a libretto for Puccini; though Puccini rejected Willner's first attempt, he took the bait of a Traviata-like plot titled Die Schwalbe ("The Swallow"), which became, in Italian, La rondine.
Just like in Tosca, however, international politics intruded on Puccini's life, albeit with Puccini's eternal ability to romantically entangle himself adding to the mess.
War broke out in 1914, with Britain, France, and Russia lining up against Germany and Austria; Italy clung to neutrality, with pro-German and pro-Allied factions within Italy fighting verbal battles. Puccini, meanwhile, had a new mistress, the wife of a German officer. When Italy entered the war on the Allied side in 1915, the composer found himself attached to a mistress who was officially an enemy, while working on a commission originating in an enemy country.
In spite of the emergence of a combat zone between himself and his sponsors, and his own politically suspect situation, Puccini finished La rondine, creating what one might frame as a tribute to an optimistically cosmopolitan outlook in the midst of war — or, alternatively, as the work of a composer experiencing a state of denial of the tragic events surrounding him. With the previously anticipated Viennese premiere out of the question, Puccini was present for the debut in tiny, neutral Monaco in March of 1917. While men bled and died in trenches a few hundred miles to the north, Puccini's latest opera evoked an elegant world of half a century earlier.
Fans and detractors still debate the place of Rondine in the operatic repertoire — and for that matter, the preceding Fanciulla, as well as Il trittico, the work that immediately followed La Rondine. Were they mid-career miscalculations by a composer spoiled by outward success and weakened by physical problems and scandal? Or do they represent, as many of Puccini's defenders argue, an intriguing phase of experimentation and exploration before the valedictory triumph of Turandot?
Not quite a century later, Puccini the innovator is clearly evident in La rondine. It's not a Viennese operetta; it's an Italian verismo opera heavily influenced by operetta, with disguises, mistaken identities, and a comical subplot involving romance among the servants — along with a starring soprano role that's both challenging for the singer and, when the right soprano stands in the spotlight, spectacularly rewarding. References to the Viennese waltz abound, as do Debussy-style harmonies, and one quick, sly, parody of Richard Strauss's super-decadent Salome.
Listeners who expect Butterfly or Bohme may be somewhat puzzled by La rondine; the texture is a little more lean, the setting a bit less exotic. But, as in all of his operas, Puccini studies, with wonderment, the complexity of the human female, and the miraculous, redemptive quality of human sexuality. As in all of his operas, he expresses these powerful forces through a combination of beautiful orchestral colors and sublimely crafted melodies.
Whether one regards Rondine as an oddity, or, on the other hand, as an underrated masterpiece, hardly anyone can deny that, at least at one point in the show, Puccini achieves one of the most arresting moments in all operatic literature. The curtain has been up for only a few moments when the orchestra, rife with Impressionist colors and harmonies, goes silent. Onstage piano captures the ear with a lavishly florid passage, after which Prunier, a tenor, picks up the innocent little melody. Magda, the soprano, urged by the chorus, takes up the song, then soars into one of Puccini's most heart-rending tunes, floating from a high A to a high C, propelled by the ideal of romantic love as a treasure greater than wealth and fame.
The war ended a year and a half after the debut of La rondine; the opera landed on a respectable spot in the second tier of the operatic repertoire, not one of the all-time hits but definitely presentable. Puccini died in 1924, and didn't live to see the premiere of his final, unfinished masterpiece, Turandot, in 1926. Worse horrors than the "War to End All Wars" were yet to come; many members of the audience for the premiere of La rondine would live to see even greater bloodshed and terror than that which had rumbled in the distance on the night that Magda, Prunier, and Ruggero first appeared on the stage.
Ninety years later, with a European Union that includes democratic ideals, a pan-European Parliament and currency, and energetically enforced civil rights stretching from the Orkneys to Athens, the international slaughter that accompanied the premiere of La rondine seems almost unreal and certainly, in retrospect, unnecessary. No, Puccini wasn't out of touch with reality in his little romance. In an Austrian-influenced Italian opera with a French setting, embodying and celebrating distinctive national characteristics and styles, he was, if anything, ahead of his time.
Wayne Lee Gay was a longtime and award-winning reviewer and critic of classical music and dance in the Fort Worth and Dallas area. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories.