b. Lucca, Italy, 22 December 1858; d. Brussels, 11 November 1924
Puccini was the leading Italian composer of the generation after Verdi and his highly developed theatrical sense and uncanny facility for memorable melodies have made his major works the most enduringly popular of all 20th-century operas.
Born into a long line of church musicians, Puccini initially studied with his father (a pupil of Donizetti) and then his uncle, but on entering the Milan Conservatory his tutor Ponchielli (composer of La Gioconda) steered him towards the stage. In 1883 he entered a competition for one-act operas and, though Le Villi failed to win, it did secure Puccini a commission for another, full-length opera. Premiered six years later, Edgar also proved a failure and it was another four years before Puccini produced his first success, Manon Lescaut. Its fusion of high passion and sweet melodies led Bernard Shaw to proclaim Puccini the rightful heir to Verdi and, by the time La bohème was premiered in 1896, he was Italy's most talked-about musician. His reputation was further enhanced by Tosca in 1900 and, though Madam Butterfly suffered a disastrous debut in 1904, it too was acclaimed a masterpiece after Puccini revised it.
Now wealthy enough to indulge his tastes for sports cars and expensive property, and to devote as much time as he wanted as he wanted to shooting and fishing, Puccini was also trapped in an unhappy marriage and forever drifting in and out of (often scandalously public) affairs. He was also prone to frequent fits of self-doubt. Thus, after Butterfly, several months passed before he eventually settled on The Girl of the Golden West, a play by David Belasco, author of the text on which Butterfly was based. After the New York premiere of La fanciulla del West in 1910 he again dithered over his next project before the offer of vast sums of money led him to accept a commission for an operetta from a Viennese theatre, though sadly the early success of La rondine has not endured. His next work was a triptych of one-act operas: a verismo thriller, Il tabarro; a sentimental religious drama, Suor Angelica; and a comic farce, Gianni Schicchi. Although it proved a big hit, only Schicchi has held a place in the repertoire. Puccini's last opera, Turandot, was left unfinished at his death (from throat cancer) in 1924.
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