Puccini - The maestro and a succès de scandale

Puccini's Wild West opera, La fanciulla del West, has a rare outing in Edinburgh. It is almost certainly based on his secret love affair that was mired in tragedy. Jessica Duchen went to his house in Tuscany to find out more

The costume of Minnie, the Girl of the Golden West, hangs in the shadows halfway up the back stairs of Giacomo Puccini's house in Torre del Lago, Italy. Simonetta Puccini, the composer's granddaughter, makes sure I spot it. It was worn, she says, by the soprano Gigliola Frazzoni at La Scala, Milan, in 1955. Red neckerchief, black trousers, white shirt. Not for Minnie the grand gowns of Tosca or the exotic silks of Madama Butterfly. Hers is a tale of the Gold Rush, populated by miners and poker games.

Exactly 100 years after Puccini penned the opera of which she's the heroine, La fanciulla del West, Minnie seems almost incongruous in this villa of dreams. Unusually among the composer's female characters, she is no histrionic glamour queen, nor does she wilt from consumption, or kill herself rather than face dishonour. Instead, she's the independent-minded manager of a tavern where she plays cards, serves as counsellor and schoolmarm to the local miners, and ultimately walks away into the sunset with her beloved Dick Johnson. This is not how we usually think of Puccini's stories.

Even now, in its centenary year, this opera is peculiarly underrated. But Susan Bullock, arguably Britain's finest dramatic soprano today, is passionate about restoring Minnie to her rightful prominence. She will be singing the role for the first time at a concert performance in the Edinburgh Festival.

Minnie, says Bullock, is Puccini's most complex heroine. "She has many more sides to her than most of the others," she points out. "She can calculate coolly how to hide a card in her stocking to cheat at poker, yet she has a deep religious faith, and when she's alone with Dick Johnson she reveals a lot of insecurities. On one hand she's happy alone in the mountains, but also she can whip out the gun and say, "this is what keeps me company'. She's a wonderful, multifaceted person to discover, and for me it's wonderful to play not a myth or a goddess, but a real woman."

Why, then, is the opera not performed more often? Some concerns may be practical, Bullock suggests. "Minnie is often called the Wagner of Puccini: the role is as demanding as the German dramatic repertoire. Also, Fanciulla is expensive to cast because you need so many soloists. But it's a great story and it ought to be a real crowd-puller."

Yet maybe another cause lies behind its odd-girl-out status: one that makes the work just a bit too close to the bone. In 1903 Puccini – who adored fast cars as well as hunting, shooting, fishing and women – was badly injured in a road accident. A 16-year-old maid, Doria Manfredi, was engaged at Torre del Lago: she nursed him back to health. But her devotion produced terrible consequences.

Elvira Puccini, well aware of her husband's countless infidelities, became desperate with jealousy, to the point that she is supposed to have laced his coffee with bromide and planted camphor in his trouser pockets to lessen his sexual appetite.

The marriage had been positively operatic from the start. Elvira had left her first husband and eloped with the composer in 1885; they lived together thereafter and were only free to marry in 1904. Now she openly accused the maid of seducing the "Maestro". Denounced and helpless, Doria swallowed poison. After her death, a post-mortem revealed that she was a virgin.

Doria's family took Elvira to court; Puccini paid them 12,000 lire in order to avert his wife's prison sentence. The money was easy. The psychological blow was not. He considered separating from Elvira; their son, Antonio, threatened emigration.

It was only three years ago that the director Paolo Benvenuti, working on his feature film Puccini e la fanciulla, stumbled upon the truth. Puccini's lover was not Doria, but her cousin, Giulia Manfredi; Doria had served as go-between. Benvenuti traced Giulia's granddaughter, Nadia Manfredi, whose father – named Antonio, like Puccini's father and son – was believed to be Puccini's illegitimate child, but who had died with his heritage unproven in 1988 after working most of his life as a hospital porter. A suitcase in Nadia's attic contained some 40 letters that completed the puzzle.

This was just the latest of many Puccini scandals. A frantic inheritance battle had raged for the succession in Torre del Lago, complicated by the composer's legion of love affairs and, it seems, those of his son, too; Simonetta only won recognition as Puccini's granddaughter in 1995.

What did this mean for La fanciulla del West? First, perhaps ironically, the opera's librettist, Guelfo Civinini, was caught up in the initiation of Doria's persecution. The maid had inadvertently walked in on Puccini's married stepdaughter, Fosca, in flagrante with Civinini; Fosca apparently instigated the framing of Doria in revenge. But also, Giulia, like Minnie, was an independent-spirited woman who worked in a bar.

Puccini's affair with Giulia, Benvenuti discovered, was more than a flash in the pan: it had continued until the end of the Maestro's life. The composer's heroines, famously enough, were often fuelled by his relationships with various mistresses, whom he termed his "little gardens". If Minnie seems more real than the others, it might be because she is a tribute to the woman to whom Puccini was closest.

What of the happy ending – a rarity in Puccini's operas? He and his librettists had the original play by David Belasco to follow; still, might the conclusion have been a gentle incidence of wishful thinking? It's neither so simple, nor so happy. Puccini's biographer Julian Budden points out that what lingers is the pathos of the friends the lovers leave behind. "What strikes us above all is the pity of it," he writes.

The tragedy of Doria left a lasting impact on Puccini. In Turandot, his last opera, Liu, the servant girl, kills herself rather than betray the man she loves. Liu was Puccini's own addition to the drama and he wrote some of her crucial words himself. Many have detected a parallel with Doria. Puccini by then was battling not only cancer, but also his own mind – a loss of self-belief that seems astonishing in an artist of his stature. On his death, Turandot lay unfinished. Its mystery has haunted opera-lovers ever since.

Puccini is still at Torre del Lago: his remains and his family's – Elvira, Antonio, and Antonio's wife – are interred in a chapel converted from what was once the drawing room. Elsewhere in the house stand models of Puccini's yachts (Cio Cio San I and II, named after Madama Butterfly), signed photographs of great singers, a statue of tenor Enrico Caruso, Puccini's piano – still fitted with candlesticks – and a cabinet filled with shotguns.

"Puccini seems always to have been surrounded by scandal," Bullock remarks. "But maybe this is what inspired this lavish and emotional music. Maybe that is what he needed."

La fanciulla del West was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910, starring Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Enrico Caruso as Dick; Arturo Toscanini, the Met's music director, was on the podium. Puccini regarded the opera as his best work to date. If he ever dreamed of escaping to a world of simple happiness with Giulia, his own Minnie, he did not let on. We still have the music, and the music is enough.

'La fanciulla del West', Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23 August (0131 473 2000)

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat