February 28, 2017

Turandot: when a composer's opera echoes his personal issues

I probably should have majored in Psych. When I lecture about opera, I always seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the ways in which music drama manifests human psychology. One such aspect is the way in which issues of a composer's personal life can be reflected, consciously or otherwise, in the operas he creates.
Giacomo Puccini - he had issues!

Take Verdi as an example. As a young married man with two infant children, he suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Within a couple of years, he lost his entire family to encephalitis, leaving him with a crushing case of survivor's guilt. Not coincidentally, many of his greatest operas (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Aida, and several others) deal with parents who directly or indirectly cause the death of their children.

Puccini's Turandot provides two fascinating examples of this phenomenon. The first involves the composer's distaste for big cities; the other involves a scandalous episode in his marriage.

For a man whose career called on him to make frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and New York, it's ironic that Puccini was only at peace at his villa in Torre del Lago, a coastal village in Northern Italy. There, at least until 1921, when the installation of a factory ruined the environment for him, he could indulge his passion for bird-hunting.

Puccini's letters are rife with complaints about city life. Some examples:

"In a few days I shall be back home - and I can hardly wait: I am so sick of Paris..."
"How it bores me to stay here (in Paris) so long! I should like to be at Torre or Chiatri, in solitude and peace."

"The thought of going to (New York) is getting on my nerves. Why did I ever accept? How glad I'd feel to be back in Torre del Lago with my free life and the fresh air!"

Peruse his letters, and such comments flow in a continual stream of wistful resignation.

So in this context, I'm especially interested in the first scene of Act 2 in Turandot, the twelve minutes given over to the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong as they gossip and ruminate prior to the scene of the three riddles. After a brief conference ironing out the logistics of the Unknown Prince's impending trial, they pause for a trio of infinitely nostalgic, utterly beautiful music beginning with Ping's "Ho una casa nell'Honan". (Listen to it here.) Here's the English text:

PING
I have a little house in Honan with a little blue lake all surrounded with bamboo. And here I am, wasting my life, wearing out my brain over sacred books, when I could go back there to my little blue lake.

PONG
I have forests near Tsiang of which none are lovelier, but their shade is not for me.

PANG
I have a garden near Kiu that I left to come here, that I'll never see again.

Can there be any doubt that the longing in the music of this trio is Puccini's own? Remember: at one point the libretto had omitted the ministers, a version of whom is found in Carlo Gozzi's play (the basis for the opera); Puccini suggested inserting them. They are his personal touch and, in this scene, they are speaking directly for him. It's the composer sharing his greatest desire to us, his audience.

The slave girl Liù was another invention of Puccini's, this time with no parallel in earlier versions of the fable. (His motivation for doing so will be the topic for a future post...) Liù claims to be the only person in Peking to know the name of the prince, information Turandot is desperate to obtain to escape having to marry him. As the prince is restrained, the hard-hearted "princess of ice" has her guards try to beat the name out of the slave, but Liù's lips are sealed to protect the man she loves. It's important for our purpose here to remember that the prince does not return her love; he's obsessed with Turandot. At last, to escape the torment lest she lose her will, the slave girl grabs a weapon and kills herself.

Anyone who has read Puccini's biography should recognize this scene as eerily similar to events in Puccini's life in 1909.

Puccini's married his wife Elvira because he had gotten her pregnant. She was married to another man at the time, but she and the composer bided their time until her husband's death enabled Puccini to "do the right thing" and give their son Antonio a respectable name.

Elvira was a difficult woman, and their relationship was not close. The Catholic prohibition against divorce accounted for the longevity of their union more than any real intimacy. It has been said that Puccini, like Pygmalion loving the statue he sculpted, fell in love with the delicate, ultra-feminine characters he created, like Mimi and Cio-Cio-San, to find the ideal mate lacking in his marriage.

That said, Puccini was attracted to other women, many of whom returned his interest. He once described himself as a "mighty hunter of wild birds, opera librettos and beautiful women". He was, after all, handsome, wealthy and famous. Elvira, naturally, endured this inescapable reality with little grace, a situation that came to a head in 1909.

The Puccinis employed a young woman named Doria Manfredi as household maid. Elvira became convinced that Puccini was having an affair with her, in spite of denials from both parties. She made life misereable for Doria, harrassing her, berating her, and making hysterical scenes in public. Doria, evidently not in a position to defend herself, ultimately committed suicide by poison.

The girl's outraged family demanded an autopsy; it revealed that Doria had died a virgin. In retrospect, the idea that the glamorous Puccini, who undoubtedly was admired by any number of fascinating women, would canoodle with the help was absurd. The Manfredi family brought charges against Elvira, who was convicted and sentenced to prison!

After five months of incarceration, Puccini (perhaps feeling guilty over some actual affairs) used his financial resources to "settle the matter out of court" as they say in the papers, granting the release of his wife. She returned to him, and they remained a couple till Puccini's death in 1924.

A stern and difficult woman torturing a young woman into suicide in a case where the man involved did not love the victim. Yikes.

Was this deliberate? Or would Puccini be amazed if we could show him how Liù's death recalled his own tragedy?

THAT, my friends, is a good question.

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