Puccini, Melodrama and the Ubiquitous Feminine

Patricia Racette and Markus Haddock in 2006's Madama Butterfly

Patricia Racette and Markus Haddock in 2006’s Madama Butterfly

Chi ha vissuto per amore, per amore si mori.

(Who has lived for love, dies for love.)

—Giacomo Puccini/Giuseppe Adami (Il Tabarro)

It is hard to name another composer whose entire creative force so rarely deviated from a single focal point. Giacomo Puccini’s fascination with “Woman in Love” was the alpha and omega of his life’s work. And not only his operas, but also his life was dominated by his attraction and absorption with eroticism and the female.

As composer, he embraces the theater and eschews absolute music. As dramatist, he chooses the “sufferings of little souls” over the great, tragic, grandiose or transcendent. He writes about one theme: love, death and erotic/romantic desperation. In his inexhaustible genius he dresses it up repeatedly in exotic garb, creating an apparent distance from the immediacy of the plight of contemporary woman.

The woman is his protagonist—the love, passion, devotion, desire, jealousy, nostalgia, yearning and disappointment she feels and inspires. He writes in the third person, sympathizing with her as she makes her way to her various tragic ends. He himself, however, is a secondary protagonist, infusing every drama with his psychological projections onto his women. Scratching the surface, plumbing the depths, seeking the hidden source, his wrestling with himself is revealed over and over again.

Love and life, lived and lost together, are the elements of melodrama. This universal theme is not his exclusive property, whether Wagner’s Liebestod or Woody Allen’s Love and Death. But Puccini filters and distills it in a very personal way, almost exclusively through the agency of the feminine.

Of his 12 operas, six are named for their female protagonists (Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, Suor Angelica, Turandot), two have titles which refer to one or more women (Le Villi, La Rondine) and one has a title derived from a novel whose central character is a woman (La Bohème). Only two are named for men (Edgar, Gianni Schicchi) and one for an object (Il Tabarro).

Women have always figured in a central way in the work of male artists over the centuries. But there is a collection of factors, a syndrome, peculiar and specific to the dynamics of Puccini’s melodramas. Each soprano wins our sympathy with her beauty (inner, outer or both) and her ardent and (almost always) faithful love. She characteristically suffers, at the hands of males, society or fate. Two triumph (Minnie and Turandot), but only after pain and anguish.

The paradox of Puccini’s relationship to his heroines is as follows. He loves each one of them with great tenderness and deep empathy, justifying or at least rationalizing their faults, if they have any. And yet his muse is their suffering. The crueler their misfortunes, the more that muse is stimulated.

Taken from a Freudian point of view, Puccini, the man, is enmeshed in a complex web of obsession, dependence and hostility. Ambivalent feelings of love and hate, tenderness and cruelty toward his female heroines, are dramatized in the arena of his operas. These conflicts are played out, though they are never resolved.

He was melancholic by character and pessimistic by philosophy. In his works, death repeatedly triumphs over love. In Fanciulla and Turandot, this is reversed. But then, in an ultimate irony, death claimed the composer before he completed the “happy” ending to the latter. In this final fairy tale, his composition was interrupted just when Liu, his last beloved tragic victim, dies by her own hand.

That his psyche and art were so female-dominated should come as no surprise. He had grown up in a predominantly feminine environment, strongly attached to his mother, who was widowed when young Giacomo was five years old. He had five sisters and one younger brother.

His operas stem from drama, to which his music adapts. The music is the means, rather than an end in itself. Puccini chose (“was chosen,” in his words) to write exclusively for the theater. He wrote “I am a man of the theater… I see the characters, the colors and [their] gestures. If, alone at home, I don’t succeed to see the stage planted in front of me, I don’t write, I can’t write a note.”

The psychological underpinnings of his entire output have clear and consistent characteristics. The repetitive and obsessive emotional turbulence of melancholy, desire, romantic catastrophe is the soul of this theater but their “spiritual” sameness is masked by Puccini’s compositional and theatrical genius, which is to be found in the inspired and varied portrayal of exotic and distant subjects. The operas are set in the Black Forest, Flanders, three times in Paris and noncontemporary Italy (Florence 1299, an unidentified 17th-century convent and Rome 1800), Monte Carlo, the American West, Japan and China.

In an apparent contradiction to the spirit of the time, in which the verismo movement encouraged exploring the lives of common people in art (Puccini’s “little souls”), he set not a single drama in contemporary Italy. Significantly, he was an internationalist in the absorption of foreign influences in his music.

As Europe traversed the turn of the century, saw the gradual decline of the social and political order, the dissolution of the belle époque and the convulsions of the First World War, Puccini, through his music and melodramas, insisted upon the supremacy of love and the personal. He embodied the melodrama and was its most prominent and last great advocate. Had the form exhausted itself, having lived its life and perished from its love? It passed from the operatic stage with him, the bar having perhaps been raised too high to be equaled.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.

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