Monday 24 April 2017

Scandalous secret of the opera master

Niall Morris has written and directed a show about the life of Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini in which he plays the title role. Here he explores Puccini's eventful life

An operatic life: The Puccini family at Torre del Lago, Elvira, Giacomo and Antonio
An operatic life: The Puccini family at Torre del Lago, Elvira, Giacomo and Antonio
Niall Morris in his new production as Puccini

Giacomo Puccini is now remembered as the world's most famous opera composer whose soaring, romantic Italian melodies are frequently used in films, TV commercials and worldwide sporting events.

Who can forget Luciano Pavarotti's spellbinding performance of Nessun Dorma in Italia 90 or the touching pathos of Kiri Te Kanawa singing O Mio Babbino Caro in the glossy Merchant Ivory film A Room With A View? Puccini's operas Madame Butterfly, La Boheme & Tosca still to this day fill opera houses and concert halls around the world.

But, 90 years after his death, very little is remembered of the composer's colourful personal life, which was as dramatic as any of his opera storylines.

Controversy, jealousy, sexual infidelity and even suicide surrounded Puccini during his lifetime but it was the events of 1909 that almost cost the composer everything.

Niall Morris in his new production as Puccini
Niall Morris in his new production as Puccini

At the time of his death in 1924, Puccini was worth €200m in today's money. He had a passion for hunting, fast cars, yachts (he named one after his heroine Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly) and he had an insatiable weakness for beautiful ladies. As he himself put it: "I am a mighty hunter of wild fowl, operatic librettos and attractive women."

His wife, Elvira, was a very jealous woman and she certainly had good reason to be. For years, she had kept the knowledge of her husband's infidelities to herself but, in 1909, when a young girl from the local village took up a position as chambermaid at the Villa Puccini, her jealous fury was unleashed. Elvira Puccini took a particular dislike to Doria Manfredi, who was only 19 years old, and over the course of a few months she made it her business to totally destroy the girl. What followed was not only a dreadful tragedy but a scandal of national proportions which would see Elvira sentenced to prison and Puccini so traumatised that his ability to compose music was almost ruined.

All of this happened in the sleepy, coastal town of Torre del Lago in Tuscany and it has long since been forgotten. But it was the tragic death of Doria and the burden of guilt that stayed with Puccini for more than a decade which eventually gave him the inspiration to compose his final opera, Turandot, and the world's most popular aria, Nessun Dorma.

Puccini was born into a hard-working musical family in the picturesque walled town of Lucca in Tuscany.

His father died when he was only six years old so it was up to his strong, very capable mother to look after the Puccini household. At the age of just 17, he and a group of friends walked from Lucca to Pisa (some 20km) to see the opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi, and the young Puccini was so inspired that he declared he was going to be a famous opera composer.

He entered his first opera into a competition but it was rejected because the judges couldn't read his handwriting. (Puccini's surviving manuscripts are often indecipherable.) Determined not to give up, he staged his own performance of Le Villi (The Fairies) and it was successful enough to get him taken on by the famous Milanese publishers Ricordi. Giulio Ricordi was instinctively skilled at spotting new talent and signing the young Puccini was without doubt the best decision of his life. Puccini went on to write three hugely successful operas in a row: La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly and the publishing house reaped vast royalties for many years after the composer's death.

While living in Lucca, Puccini had fallen for a handsome woman (Elvira Gemignani) to whom he gave piano lessons. They struck up a relationship and neither seemed to be put off by the fact that she was already married. Soon Elvira was pregnant with Puccini's child and, tired of the gossip-mongers in Lucca, the couple left for Milan. Almost immediately, Puccini had his first big success with the wonderfully melodic opera Manon Lescaut - the heroine of which he based on Elvira. By now they had a son, whom they named Antonio, and, with Puccini's new-found wealth and fame, they decided to leave Milan for a quiet life in the country.

Initially, Puccini rented a rundown old house near the village of Torre del Lago but, by 1900, with the success of La Boheme he had enough funds to buy a large plot of land which looked on to Lake Massaciuccoli. There, he built a fine house which became known locally as the Villa Puccini. (It is now open to the public as a museum where, rather mawkishly, Giacomo, Elvira and their son are all buried under the marble floors.)

Some of Puccini's artistic friends from Milan visited him in Torre del Lago and they liked country life so much they stayed for nearly five years. They referred to themselves as The Bohemians and built a small wooden cabin in the garden with a sign over the door which read: Le Club de Boheme. There they would sit for hours talking about hunting, fishing, beautiful women and music while drinking fine wines and eating local delicacies - all at Puccini's expense.

But on the evening of February 25, 1903, Puccini's country idyll was shattered. Puccini, his wife and son were being driven from Lucca to Torre del Lago by his chauffeur when their car went off the road and landed in a field. At that time, Puccini was one of only a few people in Italy to own a motor car and the accident made national news. Elvira and Antonio were thrown clear but the car, with its engine still running, turned on its side and landed on Puccini's right leg. When help finally came, he had nearly been asphyxiated by the car's fumes. After eight months in hospital, Puccini returned home with a pronounced limp and he walked with a stick for the rest of his days.

Life changed at the Villa Puccini. One by one, The Bohemians moved out and Puccini locked himself away for hours at his piano to write music, stopping only to walk around his beloved lake for inspiration. He retreated into his operas and his relationship with Elvira who he had married in 1904 became more distant.

In 1909, Doria Manfredi was hired as a domestic servant at the Villa Puccini. No one imagined that a horrific tragedy would fall on the town of Torre del Lago within only a few months. Elvira Puccini became increasingly obsessed with the notion that Doria was having an affair with her husband, even though she had no evidence to support this. One afternoon, Elvira confronted Doria in public, calling her "a filthy whore and a tart". Onlookers witnessed her accusation: "She is seducing my husband in my own home. Sooner or later I will drown her in the lake," screamed Elvira as Doria ran crying from the villa.

After a week, when she hadn't returned to work, the Puccini household sent word to the Manfredi family to ask when she was coming back. They were told that Doria, publicly humiliated by the accusations of adultery, had swallowed poison and was on her deathbed. Her last words were reported to be: "Don't blame the maestro for what I have done."

Within a few weeks of her death, an autopsy was returned which revealed Doria had died a virgin. Elvira Puccini's accusations were proved false and she was taken to court by the Manfredi family where she was convicted of slander and defamation.

Elvira was sentenced to five months and five days in prison but managed to avoid jail when her husband paid 12,000 lira - a huge sum at that time - in compensation to the Manfredi family. Puccini's wealth had come to his wife's rescue but his reputation was badly tarnished and the couple's marriage was all but over. Elvira moved to Milan, taking Antonio with her, leaving Puccini alone in the villa by the lake, tormented with guilt over Doria's suicide and unable to write music. After some time, his wife and son returned to the Villa Puccini and there was an attempt at reconciliation.

Puccini died in 1924, aged 65, leaving his final opera Turandot unfinished. Elvira inherited his huge estate which then, upon her death, passed on to their son. When he died without an heir in 1946, his wife Rita inherited everything, only to squander much of it on the French Riviera with her freeloading brother, the self-styled Count Livio dell'Anna.

And this is an important point for, as it turned out, there may in fact have been a heir to the Puccini fortune.

Evidence has recently emerged that Elvira Puccini's obsessive jealousy of Doria Manfredi was only slightly misplaced. Puccini was indeed having an affair, not with Doria but with her cousin Giulia Manfredi, and it was widely known that they had a child out of wedlock.

Rather like one of Puccini's operatic heroines (The Girl of the Golden West) Giulia worked as a barmaid in the local tavern, the Chalet Emilio, which still exists on the shores of the lake, opposite Puccini's house. Giulia was unlike her rather shy, innocent cousin. "She was independent and commanding but at the same time humble and affectionate with locals and strangers alike," says the Italian filmmaker Paulo Benvenuti, who in 2007 made a film on the subject of Puccini's women.

Giulia and Puccini may have had a son together, whom they named Alfredo. The boy was looked after by a nurse in Pisa, and a large amount of money arrived every month to pay for his needs. Significantly, the money stopped in 1924, immediately after Puccini's death.

Hearing the story of Puccini's son with Giulia Manfredi, Benvenuti decided to try to track him down and was led to a house just outside Pisa where the Manfredi family lived.

"The woman who answered the door was Nadia, an ordinary housewife," recounts Benvenuti. "Her deceased father, Alfredo, a hotel night porter, had been convinced that he was the son of Giacomo Puccini."

Nadia Manfredi showed the film director a collection of more than 40 letters locked in her cellar which seemed to finally reveal the truth about Doria's suicide 100 years previously. What is evident in the letters is that Doria knew about her cousin's affair with Maestro Puccini but, as her confidante and go-between, she was caught in an impossible situation.

In order to prove she was innocent of Elvira's accusations, she would have to reveal the truth about Puccini's affair with Giulia. It seems that, instead, she decided to protect them. Then, humiliated by Elvira Puccini's insults, on the spur of the moment she drank a bottle of corrosive disinfectant.

It is likely that she almost immediately regretted her actions. The local residents of Torre del Lago to this day still quote the stricken girl saying: "I wish I hadn't done it." But, by the time a doctor was called to her bedside, there was nothing that could be done to save her. Young Doria died an agonising death over eight days.

Alfredo Manfredi always maintained he was Puccini's forgotten son. He died in poverty in 1998, aged 75.

In 2007, his daughter Nadia Manfredi requested that the body of the famous composer be exhumed from the Villa Puccini so that a DNA test could be carried out to prove her father's claim. To date this hasn't happened. Tragic Doria, who was unfortunately caught in the middle of this convoluted plot, is not, however, entirely forgotten.

Puccini had always been fond of basing his operatic heroines on real women in his life. While composing Turandot - which culminates in the aria Nessun Dorma - he invented a new character called Liu who was not part of the original story. At the climax of the young slave girl's aria, Liu takes her own life, just as Doria did in 1909.

By putting her at the emotional heart of his opera, Puccini may have finally liberated himself from the ghost that had haunted him for more than a decade. He immortalised Doria as the tragic heroine Liu and gave her a voice to sing for eternity.

Niall Morris stars as Giacomo Puccini in his own dramatisation of the events of 1909, The Puccini Scandal, set in the Villa Puccini in Tuscany with scenes from his famous operas. Pavilion Theatre Dun Laoghaire Friday, January 6. www.paviliontheatre.ie (01) 231 2929. National Concert Hall, Saturday, January 7. www.nch.ie (01) 4170000

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