Giacomo Puccini was the world's most successful opera composer. When he died in 1924, he was worth around £125m in today's money, and his music is at the core of every opera house's repertoire.
His love life was as tortuous and tormented as that of any of his heroes, as Puccini e la Fanciulla (Puccini and the Girl), Paolo Benvenuti's controversial film about him reveals. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival this weekend.
The composer's boast was that he was "a mighty hunter of fowl, opera librettos and attractive women". He had cuckolded an old friend to obtain Elvira, the common-law wife with whom he shared his lakeside villa at Torre del Lago in Tuscany. The price Elvira paid for her central role was the "little gardens", as he called his lovers.
One of the women on whom her jealous eye fell was Doria Manfredi, who worked for them as a maid. Convinced that Doria was Puccini's new love, Elvira vowed that "sooner or later, I will drown her in the lake".
She didn't need to: in January 1909, Doria killed herself. Her dying wish was that her body be subjected to an autopsy – which established that she had died a virgin. Elvira was convicted of instigation to suicide, and only escaped jail when Puccini paid huge damages to Doria's family.
But as Benvenuti discovered, that was only the half of it. At the time Doria died, Puccini was working on his opera La Fanciulla del West, about Minnie, the rambunctious owner of a Wild West saloon. Benvenuti found that "while writing an opera, Puccini tended to fall in love with a real-life person similar to his protagonist". Poor Doria was nothing like Minnie, but the gossip was that he had had an affair with Doria's cousin, Giulia Manfredi, who worked in the local tavern. She was reputed, like Minnie, to be "independent and commanding, but at the same time humble and affectionate".
It was only gossip – but then Nadia, a great-niece of Giulia's, showed Benvenuti a suitcase full of explicit letters between the composer and Giulia.
Benvenuti has enraged Simonetta Puccini, the composer's grand-daughter. She is trying to prevent Nadia from taking a DNA test to establish whether she, too, is a descendant of the composer. Her lawyers have also stopped Benvenuti referring to the steamy letters in his film. The director regrets this row. "I would like to say to Simonetta Puccini," he said this week, "see this film with an open mind .... It is a monument in honour of her grandfather, not a work of denigration."Reuse content