Europe’s greatest cities, the mysterious exoticism of the Orient, the American Wild West and Deep South… the Grand Tour of an aristocrat, or the extraordinary vision of the man who was both Italy’s last great Romantic and it’s first great Modern? Giacomo Puccini takes his audiences on their own grand tour, offering the armchair traveller – and those brave enough to venture further afield – the chance to indulge in a little escapism through music, visiting Rome, Old Peking, Nagasaki, New Orleans, Florence, and Paris.
At Home in the Old World
The Old World is the natural place to begin. The continent gave birth to Puccini and to opera itself, not to mention most of the stories Puccini set to music, and the daily life of Europe’s capitals and greatest cities cast its spell over the young Italian. Moving rapidly away from the medieval and unfamiliar settings of his early operas, Puccini began to adhere to the authorly maxim “write what you know” with spectacular results, and modern Italian opera was born. Gianni Schicchi creates a musical picture of Florence that is impossible to ignore, extolling the city’s virtues and charms, as well as her vices, while Suor Angelica brings to life another constant of Italian life – the sounds of the great religious houses of Siena. Opportunities abound to experience Puccini’s music in Florence or Tuscany – often within walls infused with history. If you find Florence’s appeal as irresistible as Puccini’s music, be sure to plan a musical experience to enhance your visit.
Puccini’s greatest Italian opera, however, is Tosca, whose events all take place in real buildings that can still be visited today. Tosca premiered in January of 1900 at Opera di Roma, within walking distance of each act’s landmarks, and Rome itself plays a central role in the plot. Whether you visit in person or solely through Puccini’s music, the Eternal City’s lures are just as strong as the tempestuous and sensual diva’s, but if you time a visit right, you might just be able to attend a performance of Tosca, before experiencing the opera’s locations. If the diva is not in residence when you visit, perhaps a light concert in one of the opera’s settings in Rome might appeal.
Above all, Puccini will be forever associated with Paris, the setting for no fewer than four of his operas. The glamorous and the gritty sides of the great city are captured in vivid musical color. Paris is surely on the ‘must-see’ list of every traveller, but the city is more than the cafes and courtesans of La Rondine, Manon Lescaut and the immortal La Bohème. A musical cruise down the Seine evokes Il Tabarro, while a visit to the Opera de Paris or one of Paris’ many concert venues adds the final touch to your visit.
The New World and Beyond
Adventure was the spirit of the age, and the New World opened new horizons for Puccini. While the final act of Manon Lescaut takes place in the deserts of Louisiana, marking the composer’s first steps onto a new continent, La Fanciulla del West was Puccini’s quintessentially American opera. An exciting tale of the Wild West, the opera was commissioned by and premiered at New York’s fabled Metropolitan Opera in 1910. Fanciulla was the first world premiere to be hosted by the theater, and its symphonic score marks a new departure in Puccini’s style, evoking wide open vistas and grand landscapes in a way the composer had not previously attempted. If a visit to the Californian gold camps sounds a bit too rough and ready – better experienced through music than in person – New York is bursting with operas, concerts, and of course, musicals of the Great White Way of Broadway.
Not content to limit his artistic vision, Puccini looked further east, to modern Japan and Ancient China. Madama Butterfly exudes an ethereal musical color that captures the delicacy of cherry blossoms in springtime in Nagasaki – a sight that should be on every traveler’s bucket list, alongside the wonders of China’s Forbidden City, within whose hallowed walls the mythical Turandot poses her deadly riddles. Puccini’s use of Chinese musical ideas in his final opera is revolutionary, and best appreciated having experienced the culture from which it is taken, perhaps including a visit to Shanghai’s state of the art Symphony Hall. The meeting point of an ancient culture with the very best of the modern world, the hall embodies a conjunction of which Puccini would undoubtedly have approved.