Puccini's 'piccole donne innamorate'

Puccini’s Little Women in Love
Le piccole donne innamorate
di Giacomo Puccini (Lucca 1858 – Bruxelles 1924)

This is the redacted text of my illustrated introduction to
Puccini’s iconic heroines and their lovers
at L’istituto Italiano di Cultura Dublino on 14 February 2019


Anna, Fidelia: establishing the DNA

Our encounters with Puccini’s little women in love chronologically 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 the territory of Adam’s ballet Giselle 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 with her impoverished chevalier des Grieux 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 Caffè 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 survivor but, 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 more 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, exploited by Pinkerton, spurned by her own people, but steadfast, and youngest of them all, at 15, 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 Calaf.

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 Tosca will 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 us in sequels that were never written.

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 intoxicating marijuana of his music, the unforgettable melodies and a certain sharpness of delineation of character, all infused with Puccini’s many moods and madnesses (his chain-smoking, and crashing his cars), his infidelities, energy-sapping travels abroad to supervise revivals of his work, his arguments with librettists and publishers and an unsupportive spouse.

Puccini, dramatist and composer, is not Homer, Dante or Shakespeare nor is he Mozart, Wagner or Verdi, but the deep niche he carved for himself at the emotional end of our collective and individual imaginations cannot be gainsaid, nor has time eroded the connective tissue between his imagination and ours.

And surely that delivers the frisson in our anticipation of another encounter with yet another piccola donna innamorata and her tears and 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 opera extracts used to illustrate this presentation were:

La Bohème Scene 1, Che gelida manina and Sì, mi chiamano Mimì with Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling, Carnegie Hall New York, NBC January 1956;
Tosca Act 2, Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore with Maria Callas (and Tito Gobbi), ROH Covent Garden London, ITV February 1964;
Turandot Act 3, Tu, che di gel sei cinta with Barbara Frittoli, Forbidden City Beijing, September 1998;
Suor Angelica, Senza mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto with Rosalind Plowright, Teatro alla Scala Milano, 1983;
and soprano Rachel Croash, accompanied by Richard McGrath, sang Musetta’s ‘waltz’ Quando m’en vo soletta per la via from the second scene of Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème (Dublin 23, 24, 26, February 2019).

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, opera, 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

Heroines & lovers

Anna e Roberto (Le Villi)
Fidelia e Edgar (Edgar)
Manon e des Grieux (Manon Lescaut)
Mimì e Rodolfo/Musetta e Marcello (La Bohème)
Tosca e Cavaradossi (Tosca)
Cio-cio-san e Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly)
Minnie e Johnson (La Fanciulla del West)
Magda e Ruggero (La Rondine)
Giorgetta e Luigi – Angelica – Lauretta e Rinuccio (Il Trittico)
Turandot/Liù e Calaf (Turandot)