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8.660111 - Essential Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
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Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Gianni Scachicchi

 

Giacomo Puccini, christened with the forenames Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria in 1858, inherited with these names the long musical traditions of his family. Resident in Lucca, the earlier Giacomo Puccini, born there in 1712, served as organist at S. Martino and directed the Cappella Palatina until his death in 1781, when he was succeeded by his son Antonio, born in 1747, who had assisted his father also at S. Martino and, like his father, was a member of the distinguished Bologna Accademia Filarmonica. His son Domenico, born in 1772, directed the Cappella di Camera from 1806, after the disbanding of the earlier Cappella Palatina by Napoleon’s sister, Elise Baciocchi, who became Regent of Lucca in 1805. Domenico Puccini died suddenly in 1815 and was outlived by his father, who died in 1832. Domenico Puccini’s son Michele, born in 1813, was taught by his grandfather Antonio and served in Lucca as a teacher and later director at the Istituto Musicale Pacini and as organist at S. Martino. It was his son Giacomo who brought much wider fame to the family.

 

Earlier generations of the Puccini family had been largely concerned with church music, although they had also composed movements for dramatic Tasche, composite choral and instrumental works to mark the biennial elections in Lucca. Domenico, while continuing the tradition of church music and Tasche, also turned his fuller attention to opera, a form attempted only briefly by his son Michele. Family tradition suggested that Giacomo Puccini should remain in the restricted musical world of Lucca, but his ambitions were to turn in another direction, when he moved to Milan to pursue his operatic ambitions.

 

The position of organist at S. Martino was generally regarded as the hereditary right of the Puccini family and in 1864, after his father’s death, it was decreed by the city fathers that Puccini’s uncle Fortunato Magi, a pupil of Michele Puccini, should hold the position until Giacomo was old enough to assume it. His early studies were with Magi, before he found, at the Istituto Pacini, a more stimulating teacher in another of his father’s old pupils, Carlo Angeloni, who also inspired in his pupil an abiding interest in hunting and shooting. Puccini had been a chorister at S. Martino and S. Michele from the age of ten and began to undertake duties as an organist when he was fourteen. These last led him to write music for the organ, but it was a visit to Pisa in 1876 to attend a performance of Verdi’s Aida that finally changed the direction of his future career. In 1880 he completed his studies in Lucca, graduating with his Messa di Gloria. In the autumn of that year he began his three years of study at the Milan Conservatory.

 

In 1884 his opera Le Villi won some success, but it was with Manon Lescaut in 1893 that his reputation seemed finally established. This was followed by a succession of operas, La bohème in 1896, Tosca in 1900, Madama Butterfly in 1904, to be followed by La fanciulla del West in 1910, La rondine in 1917 and Il trittico the following year. These retain their central part in Italian operatic repertoire. His last opera, Turandot, in which he sought a new challenge, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1924, but enough had been written for the work to be completed by Franco Alfano and staged in 1926.

 

Il trittico (The Triptych) consists, as its title suggests, of three short operas. The first of these, Il tabarro (The Cloak), was based on a play that Puccini had seen in Paris, Le houppelande, by Didier Gold, a work that he described as almost Grand Guignol, a story of love, jealousy and murder. The second of the group, Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) is set in a convent, providing a contrast with the low life of Il tabarro. Here Sister Angelica learns from the Princess, her aunt, of the death of the son she had borne, his birth and her disgrace the reason for her entry into a convent. She brews poison, to kill herself, but is saved in death by her own repentance. The third opera of the trilogy, Gianni Schicchi, again deals with death, but now in a comic context comparable to that of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. The three operas were first given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1918, followed shortly afterwards by the Italian première in Rome.

 

The story of Gianni Schicchi is referred to in a passage in Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXX. The reference in Dante is brief enough, but is expanded in an anonymous commentary from the fourteenth century, recounting a popular story current in Tuscany. This explains how Gianni Schicchi is brought in to replace the dead Buoso Donati by the latter’s relatives and make a will favourable to them. Schicchi cheats the family by dictating a will that leaves the greater part to himself, a testament they cannot dispute without revealing their own complicity in the original plot.

 

The libretto of Puccini’s opera is by Giovacchino Forzano, who had started his career as a singer, before turning to journalism. He was also the author of Suor Angelica and of a number of other operatic texts set by composers including Mascagni, Giordano, Wolf-Ferrari and Leoncavallo. He served as stage director at La Scala, where he mounted Boito’s Nerone in 1924 and the first performance of Turandot in 1926, continuing a career as a writer and in the theatre. He died in 1970.

 

Synopsis

 

[1] The scene is the bedroom of Buoso Donati. To the right is a curtained four-poster bed, by the side of which four candles are burning. Buoso’s relatives are kneeling at prayer, in simulated sorrow. To the left is the boy Gherardino, playing. The room is lit by the candles and the sun. It is nine o’clock in the morning. The relatives mutter their prayers and each tries to outdo the other in expressions of feigned sorrow at the death of Buoso, whose body lies on the bed, concealed by the bed-curtains. Gherardino knocks a chair over, and is put out by his father. Betto begins to suggest a rumour about Buoso. Questioned by the others, he tells them that it is said that Buoso has left all his money to a monastery.

 

[2] Still kneeling, the relatives look at one another in surprise before turning to the oldest, Simone, former mayor of Fucecchio. After some thought he suggests that they should see if they can find the will, while the young Rinuccio, nephew of Zita, expresses the secret hope he has with Lauretta, if the will favours him. The relatives stand up and set about a frantic search for the will, while Betto eyes a silver plate and pockets a pair of silver scissors and a stylus, but cannot manage to take the plate. The others search wildly, opening drawers and cupboards and even looking under the bed. Betto profits from the confusion by hiding the plate under his coat. Rinuccio is the one who finds the will, and before he gives it to his aunt he seeks her consent, if the terms of the will are favourable, to his marriage to Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi. It is agreed that he should marry at the beginning of May and he hands over the will. Zita looks for the scissors to cut the tape round the document, but not finding them she breaks the tape with her hands. Rinuccio tips Gherardino and sends him off to fetch Lauretta.

 

[3] Zita starts to read the will: ‘To my cousins Zita and Simone …’, breaking off to exclaim ‘Poor Buoso’, echoed by Simone, who promises the dead man all the candles he wants. The other members of the family express their hopes of inheriting the house, the mule, the mills. They gather round eagerly, trying to read the will. Gradually their faces cloud over, as they realise its contents. Zita drops the document and sinks back on a chair. Simone puts the candles out.

 

[4] ‘Then it was true’, Simone says, since it seems that the friars will inherit all. La Ciesca laments the loss of all that money, and Marco the property which will go to the friars, who, Betto thinks, will be drinking wine, while he has to be careful. Rinuccio sees his hopes of a legacy dashed, and they all express their anger at what has happened, imagining the delight of the friars and the luxuries they will now have. Their excited anger gradually gives way to disappointment.

 

[5] They start to think how the will might be changed, turning first to Simone. It is Rinuccio, however, who suggests a way out: they must summon the help of Gianni Schicchi. Zita does not want to hear his name, but at this moment Gherardino returns, telling them that Gianni Schicchi is on his way, answering Rinuccio’s earlier request. The rest of the family could do without his presence at this moment, and Gherardo tells his son that he should only listen to him. The family do not want to ally themselves with a mere peasant, an upstart. Rinuccio tells them they are wrong, as Gianni Schicchi is a clever, cunning fellow who understands legal matters very well, a hoaxer and joker.

 

[6] He continues to defend Gianni Schicchi. Florence, he tells them, is like a tree with its trunk and leaves in the city but drawing its strength from the countryside, as the River Arno draws its waters from country streams.

 

[7] At this moment Gianni Schicchi enters, accompanied by his daughter Lauretta. He stands in the doorway, looking at the dejected faces that he sees before him. Rinuccio and Lauretta exchange greetings, and he hints at his disappointment. Gianni Schicchi goes on to commiserate with the relatives of the dead man on their loss, but points out that the loss of one thing may bring gain on the other side; they have lost Buoso, but there is an inheritance. For the friars, Zita tells him, and declares that they are all disinherited; she will not let her nephew marry a girl with no dowry. Rinuccio pleads with his aunt, and Lauretta with her father. Gianni Schicchi tells Zita what he thinks of her, while she calls to her nephew to come away. The two lovers vow their continuing love for each other, but it seems the quarrel between Zita and Gianni Schicchi will make their marriage impossible. Rinuccio begs Gianni Schicchi, who is trying to leave with his daughter, to look at the will and see if there is any way that he can help them. Gianni Schicchi will do nothing for such people.

 

[8] It is now Lauretta’s turn to plead with her father, in desperation. Her argument succeeds.

 

[9] Gianni Schicchi gives way and asks to see the will. Rinuccio hands it to him, and he walks up and down, absorbed in reading it, watched by the relatives, before announcing abruptly that nothing can be done. The lovers still hope, and Gianni Schicchi resumes his reading of the will, again declaring that nothing can be done. Rinuccio and Lauretta are in despair. Suddenly Gianni Schicchi’s face lights up and he sends Lauretta out onto the terrace to feed the birds.

 

[10] When she has gone, Gianni Schicchi turns to the relatives and asks if anyone else knows that Buoso is dead. They assure him that nobody knows. He tells them to move the body and remake the bed. There is a knock at the door, and Zita tells him it is the doctor. He tells them to tell the doctor that Buoso is better but is resting. The doctor is greeted by the family, at the door of the room, while Gianni Schicchi hides behind the bed-curtains. The doctor is pleased to hear about the efficacy of the medicine prescribed and wants to see his patient, his request denied by the family. The feigned voice of Buoso is heard, at which Betto drops the plate he has stolen, leaving Zita to replace it on the table. Gianni Schicchi, in the voice of Buoso, asks the doctor to return in the evening, as he now wants to rest. The doctor agrees, congratulating himself on the effectiveness of the medical practices of Bologna, as he leaves.

 

[11] The relatives are amazed at the accuracy of Gianni Schicchi’s imitation of Buoso’s voice, but have not understood what is planned. They must send at once for the notary, and tell him that Buoso has taken a turn for the worse and wants to make his will. Meanwhile he will dress in Buoso’s night-gown and night-cap and make a new will. The relatives applaud Schicchi and hurry to do as he has told them, then setting about staking their particular claims on the estate, equal divisions of money, and then various bequests of property. It is not long before they are all quarrelling, with Zita rebutting Simone’s claim as former mayor of Fucecchio and the oldest of the family. Their clamour subsides when the death bell is heard, suggesting that people know that Buoso is dead. Gianni Schicchi thinks it is all up with his scheme. Lauretta comes in, telling him that the birds have had enough. He tells her to give them something to drink. Gherardo, who had rushed out at the sound of the bell, returns, breathless, to tell them that the bell had been for a neighbour’s servant. Simone suggests that they should all rely on the honesty of Gianni Schicchi in the allocation of property. The others agree. Gianni Schicchi asks for the clothes that he needs.

 

[12] Zita and La Ciesca give Gianni Schicchi Buoso’s night-gown and night-cap. Zita promises him thirty florins, if he allows her the house, the mule and the mills, to which he agrees. Simone is the next to whisper his request for the same bequest, promising a hundred florins. He is followed by Betto, Nella and La Ciesca, agreeing to each of their secret requests. They prepare for the arrival of the notary, the women fussing over Gianni Schicchi, now disguised.

 

[13] Before matters go further, Gianni Schicchi has a warning for them. They must remember that anyone found guilty of impersonating another in making a will or who is an accomplice will have their hands cut off and be banished from the city. He starts a mock lament, a farewell to Florence, which they repeat. There is a knock at the door and Gianni Schicchi hurriedly climbs into bed, while the others set the room in order for the lawyer, drawing the curtains so that the room is in semi-darkness.

 

[14] Rinuccio brings in the notary, with the two necessary witnesses, Pinellino, the cobbler, and Guccio, the dyer, who greet the supposed Buoso. Gianni Schicchi thanks them for coming and explains that he is paralysed and can no longer write, and therefore needs a lawyer to make a solemn and legal will. He extends a trembling hand, to demonstrate his feigned paralysis, to which the others bear witness. The notary reads the required Latin preamble, to which Gianni Schicchi adds the provision, the annulment and revocation of any earlier testament. The lawyer asks whether an expensive funeral is to be stipulated, or something more modest. Gianni Schicchi opts for the cheapest, to the admiration of the family. To the friars and the monastery of Santa Reparata he leaves five lire. The lawyer suggests that the sum is rather little, but Gianni Schicchi justifies his decision, again to the approval of Buoso’s relatives. He first makes a small bequest to the family, who wait for the more substantial benefaction. Gianni Schicchi continues by leaving the mule that cost three hundred florins and is the best in Tuscany to his devoted friend Gianni Schicchi. The relatives are alarmed, while the notary transcribes the bequest in Latin, and now realise what the rascal is up to. He continues, leaving the house in Florence to his dear, devoted, affectionate friend, Gianni Schicchi. There is an outburst of anger from the relatives, but they are reminded of the possible penalty they may incur, as he repeats the song of farewell to Florence, with snatches of it as a cautionary reminder, as he leaves the mills to his affectionate friend, Gianni Schicchi. He tells Zita to give the witnesses twenty florins with a hundred for the notary. As they leave, the notary and the witnesses express their sympathy at such a sad loss.

 

[15] Hardly have they gone than Buoso’s relatives turn on Gianni Schicchi, calling him a thief, a rascal, a traitor, and a rogue. Rinuccio runs out onto the terrace, while Gianni Schicchi wards the angry family off, leaping off the bed, armed with Buoso’s stick, and telling them to leave his house, chasing them, as they rush around seeing what they can take. Gianni Schicchi eventually succeeds in driving them away.

 

[16] The window is opened from outside and Florence appears, now bathed in sunlight, with the two lovers, Rinuccio and Lauretta embracing and pledging their love for one another. Gianni Schicchi, returning from his pursuit of Buoso’s relatives, sees them and smiles. Turning to the audience, he asks if there could be a better ending than this. Dante had consigned him to the Inferno, but the evening’s amusement should be an attenuating circumstance.

 

Keith Anderson


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