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ClassicsOnline Home » Essential Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Giacomo Puccini, christened with the forenames Antonio
Domenico Michele Secondo Maria in 1858, inherited with these names the long
musical traditions of his family. Resident in Lucca, the earlier Giacomo
Puccini, born there in 1712, served as organist at S. Martino and directed the Cappella Palatina until his death in 1781,
when he was succeeded by his son Antonio, born in 1747, who had assisted his
father also at S. Martino and, like his father, was a member of the distinguished
Bologna Accademia Filarmonica. His son Domenico, born in 1772, directed the
Cappella di Camera from 1806, after the disbanding of the earlier Cappella
Palatina by Napoleon’s sister, Elise Baciocchi, who became Regent of Lucca in
1805. Domenico Puccini died suddenly in 1815 and was outlived by his father,
who died in 1832. Domenico Puccini’s son Michele, born in 1813, was taught by
his grandfather Antonio and served in Lucca as a teacher and later director at
the Istituto Musicale Pacini and as organist at S. Martino. It was his son
Giacomo who brought much wider fame to the family.
Earlier generations of the Puccini family had been largely
concerned with church music, although they had also composed movements for
dramatic Tasche, composite choral and instrumental works to mark the biennial
elections in Lucca. Domenico, while continuing the tradition of church music
and Tasche, also turned his fuller attention to opera, a form attempted only
briefly by his son Michele. Family tradition suggested that Giacomo Puccini
should remain in the restricted musical world of Lucca, but his ambitions were
to turn in another direction, when he moved to Milan to pursue his operatic
The position of organist at S. Martino was generally regarded
as the hereditary right of the Puccini family and in 1864, after his father’s
death, it was decreed by the city fathers that Puccini’s uncle Fortunato Magi,
a pupil of Michele Puccini, should hold the position until Giacomo was old
enough to assume it. His early studies were with Magi, before he found, at the
Istituto Pacini, a more stimulating teacher in another of his father’s old
pupils, Carlo Angeloni, who also inspired in his pupil an abiding interest in
hunting and shooting. Puccini had been a chorister at S. Martino and S. Michele
from the age of ten and began to undertake duties as an organist when he was
fourteen. These last led him to write music for the organ, but it was a visit
to Pisa in 1876 to attend a performance of Verdi’s Aida that finally changed
the direction of his future career. In 1880 he completed his studies in Lucca,
graduating with his Messa di Gloria. In the autumn of that year he began his
three years of study at the Milan Conservatory.
In 1884 his opera Le Villi won some success, but it was with
Manon Lescaut in 1893 that his reputation seemed finally established. This was
followed by a succession of operas, La bohème in 1896, Tosca in 1900, Madama
Butterfly in 1904, to be followed by La fanciulla del West in 1910, La rondine
in 1917 and Il trittico the
following year. These retain their central part in Italian operatic repertoire.
His last opera, Turandot, in which he sought a new challenge, was unfinished at
the time of his death in 1924, but enough had been written for the work to be
completed by Franco Alfano and staged in 1926.
Il trittico (The Triptych) consists, as its title suggests,
of three short operas. The first of these, Il tabarro (The Cloak), was based on a play that Puccini had seen in Paris,
Le houppelande, by Didier Gold, a work that he described as almost Grand
Guignol, a story of love, jealousy and murder. The second of the group, Suor
Angelica (Sister Angelica) is set in a convent, providing a contrast with the
low life of Il tabarro. Here Sister Angelica learns from the Princess, her
aunt, of the death of the son she had borne, his birth and her disgrace the
reason for her entry into a convent. She brews poison, to kill herself, but is
saved in death by her own repentance. The third opera of the trilogy, Gianni
Schicchi, again deals with death, but now in a comic context comparable to that
of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. The three operas were first given at the Metropolitan
Opera House in New York in 1918, followed shortly afterwards by the Italian
première in Rome.
The story of Gianni Schicchi is referred to in a passage in
Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXX. The reference in Dante is brief enough, but is
expanded in an anonymous commentary from the fourteenth century, recounting a
popular story current in Tuscany. This explains how Gianni Schicchi is brought
in to replace the dead Buoso Donati by the latter’s relatives and make a will
favourable to them. Schicchi cheats the family by dictating a will that leaves
the greater part to himself, a testament they cannot dispute without revealing
their own complicity in the original plot.
The libretto of Puccini’s opera is by Giovacchino Forzano,
who had started his career as a singer, before turning to journalism. He was
also the author of Suor Angelica and of a number of other operatic texts set by
composers including Mascagni, Giordano, Wolf-Ferrari and Leoncavallo. He served
as stage director at La Scala, where he mounted Boito’s Nerone in 1924 and the
first performance of Turandot in 1926, continuing a career as a writer and in
the theatre. He died in 1970.
 The scene is the bedroom of Buoso Donati. To the right
is a curtained four-poster bed, by the side of which four candles are burning.
Buoso’s relatives are kneeling at prayer, in simulated sorrow. To the left is
the boy Gherardino, playing. The room is lit by the candles and the sun. It is
nine o’clock in the morning. The relatives mutter their prayers and each tries
to outdo the other in expressions of feigned sorrow at the death of Buoso,
whose body lies on the bed, concealed by the bed-curtains. Gherardino knocks a
chair over, and is put out by his father. Betto begins to suggest a rumour
about Buoso. Questioned by the others, he tells them that it is said that Buoso
has left all his money to a monastery.
 Still kneeling, the relatives look at one another in
surprise before turning to the oldest, Simone, former mayor of Fucecchio. After
some thought he suggests that they should see if they can find the will, while
the young Rinuccio, nephew of Zita, expresses the secret hope he has with
Lauretta, if the will favours him. The relatives stand up and set about a
frantic search for the will, while Betto eyes a silver plate and pockets a pair
of silver scissors and a stylus, but cannot manage to take the plate. The
others search wildly, opening drawers and cupboards and even looking under the
bed. Betto profits from the confusion by hiding the plate under his coat.
Rinuccio is the one who finds the will, and before he gives it to his aunt he
seeks her consent, if the terms of the will are favourable, to his marriage to
Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi. It is agreed that he should marry at
the beginning of May and he hands over the will. Zita looks for the scissors to
cut the tape round the document, but not finding them she breaks the tape with
her hands. Rinuccio tips Gherardino and sends him off to fetch Lauretta.
 Zita starts to read the will: ‘To my cousins Zita and
Simone …’, breaking off to exclaim ‘Poor Buoso’, echoed by Simone, who promises
the dead man all the candles he wants. The other members of the family express
their hopes of inheriting the house, the mule, the mills. They gather round
eagerly, trying to read the will. Gradually their faces cloud over, as they realise
its contents. Zita drops the document and sinks back on a chair. Simone puts
the candles out.
 ‘Then it was true’, Simone says, since it seems that the
friars will inherit all. La Ciesca laments the loss of all that money, and
Marco the property which will go to the friars, who, Betto thinks, will be
drinking wine, while he has to be careful. Rinuccio sees his hopes of a legacy
dashed, and they all express their anger at what has happened, imagining the
delight of the friars and the luxuries they will now have. Their excited anger
gradually gives way to disappointment.
 They start to think how the will might be changed,
turning first to Simone. It is Rinuccio, however, who suggests a way out: they
must summon the help of Gianni Schicchi. Zita does not want to hear his name,
but at this moment Gherardino returns, telling them that Gianni Schicchi is on
his way, answering Rinuccio’s earlier request. The rest of the family could do
without his presence at this moment, and Gherardo tells his son that he should
only listen to him. The family do not want to ally themselves with a mere
peasant, an upstart. Rinuccio tells them they are wrong, as Gianni Schicchi is
a clever, cunning fellow who understands legal matters very well, a hoaxer and
 He continues to defend Gianni Schicchi. Florence, he
tells them, is like a tree with its trunk and leaves in the city but drawing
its strength from the countryside, as the River Arno draws its waters from
 At this moment Gianni Schicchi enters, accompanied by
his daughter Lauretta. He stands in the doorway, looking at the dejected faces
that he sees before him. Rinuccio and Lauretta exchange greetings, and he hints
at his disappointment. Gianni Schicchi goes on to commiserate with the
relatives of the dead man on their loss, but points out that the loss of one
thing may bring gain on the other side; they have lost Buoso, but there is an
inheritance. For the friars, Zita tells him, and declares that they are all
disinherited; she will not let her nephew marry a girl with no dowry. Rinuccio
pleads with his aunt, and Lauretta with her father. Gianni Schicchi tells Zita
what he thinks of her, while she calls to her nephew to come away. The two
lovers vow their continuing love for each other, but it seems the quarrel
between Zita and Gianni Schicchi will make their marriage impossible. Rinuccio
begs Gianni Schicchi, who is trying to leave with his daughter, to look at the
will and see if there is any way that he can help them. Gianni Schicchi will do
nothing for such people.
 It is now Lauretta’s turn to plead with her father, in
desperation. Her argument succeeds.
 Gianni Schicchi gives way and asks to see the will.
Rinuccio hands it to him, and he walks up and down, absorbed in reading it,
watched by the relatives, before announcing abruptly that nothing can be done.
The lovers still hope, and Gianni Schicchi resumes his reading of the will,
again declaring that nothing can be done. Rinuccio and Lauretta are in despair.
Suddenly Gianni Schicchi’s face lights up and he sends Lauretta out onto the
terrace to feed the birds.
 When she has gone, Gianni Schicchi turns to the
relatives and asks if anyone else knows that Buoso is dead. They assure him that
nobody knows. He tells them to move the body and remake the bed. There is a
knock at the door, and Zita tells him it is the doctor. He tells them to tell
the doctor that Buoso is better but is resting. The doctor is greeted by the
family, at the door of the room, while Gianni Schicchi hides behind the
bed-curtains. The doctor is pleased to hear about the efficacy of the medicine
prescribed and wants to see his patient, his request denied by the family. The
feigned voice of Buoso is heard, at which Betto drops the plate he has stolen,
leaving Zita to replace it on the table. Gianni Schicchi, in the voice of
Buoso, asks the doctor to return in the evening, as he now wants to rest. The
doctor agrees, congratulating himself on the effectiveness of the medical
practices of Bologna, as he leaves.
 The relatives are amazed at the accuracy of Gianni
Schicchi’s imitation of Buoso’s voice, but have not understood what is planned.
They must send at once for the notary, and tell him that Buoso has taken a turn
for the worse and wants to make his will. Meanwhile he will dress in Buoso’s
night-gown and night-cap and make a new will. The relatives applaud Schicchi
and hurry to do as he has told them, then setting about staking their
particular claims on the estate, equal divisions of money, and then various
bequests of property. It is not long before they are all quarrelling, with Zita
rebutting Simone’s claim as former mayor of Fucecchio and the oldest of the
family. Their clamour subsides when the death bell is heard, suggesting that
people know that Buoso is dead. Gianni Schicchi thinks it is all up with his
scheme. Lauretta comes in, telling him that the birds have had enough. He tells
her to give them something to drink. Gherardo, who had rushed out at the sound
of the bell, returns, breathless, to tell them that the bell had been for a
neighbour’s servant. Simone suggests that they should all rely on the honesty
of Gianni Schicchi in the allocation of property. The others agree. Gianni
Schicchi asks for the clothes that he needs.
 Zita and La Ciesca give Gianni Schicchi Buoso’s
night-gown and night-cap. Zita promises him thirty florins, if he allows her
the house, the mule and the mills, to which he agrees. Simone is the next to
whisper his request for the same bequest, promising a hundred florins. He is
followed by Betto, Nella and La Ciesca, agreeing to each of their secret
requests. They prepare for the arrival of the notary, the women fussing over
Gianni Schicchi, now disguised.
 Before matters go further, Gianni Schicchi has a
warning for them. They must remember that anyone found guilty of impersonating
another in making a will or who is an accomplice will have their hands cut off
and be banished from the city. He starts a mock lament, a farewell to Florence,
which they repeat. There is a knock at the door and Gianni Schicchi hurriedly
climbs into bed, while the others set the room in order for the lawyer, drawing
the curtains so that the room is in semi-darkness.
 Rinuccio brings in the notary, with the two necessary
witnesses, Pinellino, the cobbler, and Guccio, the dyer, who greet the supposed
Buoso. Gianni Schicchi thanks them for coming and explains that he is paralysed
and can no longer write, and therefore needs a lawyer to make a solemn and
legal will. He extends a trembling hand, to demonstrate his feigned paralysis,
to which the others bear witness. The notary reads the required Latin preamble,
to which Gianni Schicchi adds the provision, the annulment and revocation of
any earlier testament. The lawyer asks whether an expensive funeral is to be
stipulated, or something more modest. Gianni Schicchi opts for the cheapest, to
the admiration of the family. To the friars and the monastery of Santa Reparata
he leaves five lire. The lawyer suggests that the sum is rather little, but
Gianni Schicchi justifies his decision, again to the approval of Buoso’s
relatives. He first makes a small bequest to the family, who wait for the more
substantial benefaction. Gianni Schicchi continues by leaving the mule that
cost three hundred florins and is the best in Tuscany to his devoted friend
Gianni Schicchi. The relatives are alarmed, while the notary transcribes the
bequest in Latin, and now realise what the rascal is up to. He continues,
leaving the house in Florence to his dear, devoted, affectionate friend, Gianni
Schicchi. There is an outburst of anger from the relatives, but they are
reminded of the possible penalty they may incur, as he repeats the song of
farewell to Florence, with snatches of it as a cautionary reminder, as he
leaves the mills to his affectionate friend, Gianni Schicchi. He tells Zita to
give the witnesses twenty florins with a hundred for the notary. As they leave,
the notary and the witnesses express their sympathy at such a sad loss.
 Hardly have they gone than Buoso’s relatives turn on
Gianni Schicchi, calling him a thief, a rascal, a traitor, and a rogue.
Rinuccio runs out onto the terrace, while Gianni Schicchi wards the angry
family off, leaping off the bed, armed with Buoso’s stick, and telling them to
leave his house, chasing them, as they rush around seeing what they can take.
Gianni Schicchi eventually succeeds in driving them away.
 The window is opened from outside and Florence appears,
now bathed in sunlight, with the two lovers, Rinuccio and Lauretta embracing
and pledging their love for one another. Gianni Schicchi, returning from his
pursuit of Buoso’s relatives, sees them and smiles. Turning to the audience, he
asks if there could be a better ending than this. Dante had consigned him to
the Inferno, but the evening’s amusement should be an attenuating circumstance.
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Essential Puccini: Gianni Schicchi