In his lifetime, Giacomo Puccini achieved a level of celebrith that is reserved nowadays for rock stars and Johnny Carson. He was already the subject of a published biography in English ("Giacomo Puccini," by Akeling Dry) in 1906, 18 years before his death. By mid-carer, his latest biographer notes, he "acquired an elegance and a bearing which, added to his status as a celebrity, made him a more than attractive figure. He was pursued by women wherever he went, and he was often willing to be caught."
His operas frequently had problems with opening-night audiences, and critics had many reservations about them (critics still have reservations about them), but after his apprentice efforts, they usually set the public on fire, broke records at the box office and earned millions. Most of his mature work has been in the repertoire constantly and busily since its introduction -- even though he never followed through on such intriguing ideas as "Anna Karenina" and "King Lear," choosing instead the deplorable "Girl of the Golden West." His big centennial performances will start coming up before very long, "Manon Lescaut," the first of the blockbusters, in February 1993.
With such spectacular popularity, and a life not devoid of glamor, color and intrigue, it is surprising that Puccini biographies are not a glut on the market. But before the latest entry by Howard Greenfeld, only two new biographies had been published in English during the last 10 years -- a period rich in the discovery of new material on Puccini. Neither of these is a serious competitor for the special niche Greenfeld has chosen to fill. "Puccini: The Man and His Music," by William Weaver, is an introductory volume, with a short biography and synopses of the operas -- worth having, perhaps, chiefly for its splendid illustrations. "Monsieur Buteterfly" by Stanley Jackson is, as its title hints, a popular biography, brightly written but lightweight in its treatment of Puccini as an artist.
Greenfeld's most serious competition is Mosco Carner's "Puccini: A Critical Biography." Originally issued for the centinnial of the composer's birth in 1958 and lightly updated for the 50th anniversary of his death in 1974, it does not make full use of the new material (particularly thousands of letters by, to or about Puccini) unearthed in the '60s and '70s, but it remains a solid treatment of Puccini as both a man and a musician. Greenfeld writes well, his scholarship is more aucourant, and he often supplies details not provided elsewhere, but he hardly discusses Puccini's music as such -- a subject that takes up almost half of Carner's book. Readers' tastes may vary on another basic difference between Carner and Greenfeld: the Freudian interpretation of Puccini's life and work by Carner. Greenfeld calls it "excessively Freudian" and says it "discolors his often impressive scholarship," but it mist be admitted that Puccini often lends himself to -- almost demands -- Freudian interpretation.
His life sometimes reads like an opera libretto. Born in a family with a long tradition of professional musicianship, he was the first Puccini to abandon church music and write for the secular stage. He lost his father in childhood and found a second father in the music publishr Giulio Ricordi, who wholeheartedly accepted that role, meddling enthusiastically in his prize composer's personal life. After Ricordi's death, Puccini had a break with the company because of personal incompatibility (sibling rivalry?) with the son of heir, Tito Ricordi.
Puccini's wife, Elvira, eloped with him while she was still married to a merchant in his home town, Narciso Gemignani -- but this was 19th-century Italy; Giacomo and Elvira were unable to be legally married until their son, Antonio, was 18 years old. By then, she had long since ceased to be his inspiration and the object of his adoration, and their home was often infested with her relatives -- apparently a pack of characters right out "Gianni Schicchi." As a man of honor, he married her; as a mere mortal, he continued to find his solace elsewhere. She became, as he told a friend, "a nervous policeman," oftenwith good reason. Greenfeld has discovered some new letters by Puccini to a friend and is able to supply some colorful details of her detective work. Despite enormous research efforts, the identities of most of his amours remain unknown, even with Greenfeld's latest data. It is still uncertain whether his relation with an English friend and confidante, Sybil Seligman, was ever sexual. The general assumption is that it was not -- except possibly for a short time at the beginning of their long acquaintance.
In one case where the heroine's name is known -- the most operatic and Freudian event in Puccini's life -- Elvira's suspicions were unfounded. Doria was a servant girl who worked for the Puccinis several years before Elvira became suspicious of her, destroyed her reputation with wild accusations, threatened to kill her, had her fired and tired to drive her out of town. A simple child who apparently worshipped the composer, Doria cracked under the pressure and committed sucicide; then the medical examiner (who had been a witness at Puccini's belated wedding) announced that she had died a virgin. Her family sued Elvira, the scandal rocked Italy, and there may be dim echoes of the incident in some of Puccini's later operas.
All of this material is well handled by Greenfeld, and much more besides -- for example, the auto accident that disabled Puccini for month during the composition of "Butterfly." But his greatest strength is shown in his treatment of Puccini's creative processes -- not Puccini the musician but Puccini the man of the theater. His often tempestuous relations with librettist and publishers are discussed in lavish detail and provide some key insights into his perennial popularity.