From Puccini's Letters

Columbia University/New York City Opera Project

Fall 2001



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 Excerpts from Puccini's Letters concerning La Bohème

Quotations from Letters of Giacomo Puccini, ed. G. Adami, trans. E. Makin (New York: AMS Press, 1972 [orig. edn. 1931])

After Puccini had finished his previous opera, Manon Lescaut, in the Fall of1892, he set to work composing an opera (never to be finished) on a short story by Giovanni Verga entitled The She-Wolf. During the following Winter, his fellow composer Leoncavallo showed him the libretto he was working on--entitled La Bohème--even suggesting Puccini might like to work on it. Puccini declined. Then, to Leoncavallo's fury, in March 1893 Puccini informed him that he was working on it after all.

This enfuriated Leoncavallo, who made a public statement in the newspaper Il secolo:

Maestro Leoncavallo wishes to make known that he signed a contract for the new opera, and has since then been working on the music for that subject [La Bohème].... Maestro Puccini, to whom Maestro Leoncavallo declared a few days ago that he was writing Bohème, has confessed that only on returning from Turin a few days ago did he have the idea of setting La Bohème and that he spoke of it to Illica and Giacosa, who he says have not yet finished the libretto. Thus Maestro Leoncavallo's priority over this opera is indisputably established. (Il Secolo, 20-21 March 1893.)

--to which Puccini replied in the Il corriere della sera:

From Maestro Leoncavallo's declaration in yesterday's Il Secolo the public must understand my complete innocence; for, to be sure, if Maestro Leoncavallo, for whom I have long felt great friendship, had confided to me earlier what he suddenly made known to me the other evening, then I would certainly not have thought of Murger's Bohème. Now -- for reasons easy to understand -- I am no longer inclined to be as courteous to him as I might like, either as friend or musician. After all, what does this matter to him? Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge. Precedence in art does not imply that identical subjects must be interpreted by identical artistic ideas. I only want to make it known that for about two months, namely since the first performance of Manon Lescaut in Turin, I have worked earnestly on my idea, and made no secret of this to anyone. (Il Corriere della sera, 24 March 1893)

Source of both quotations: Michele Girardi, Puccini: His International Art, trans. Laura Basini (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 103.

For Puccini's new libretto, the composer and his publisher, Giulio Ricordi chose two men: Luigi Illica (1857-1919), playright and librettist, and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847- 1906), playright, poet, and writer of short stories. Illica was to produce the the general plan of the opera (scenario), while Giacosa was to write the actual verse. Both became frustrated because Puccini was continuing to work on The She-Wolf, and not giving sufficient time to Bohème.

Then in a letter of July 13, 1894, Puccini wrote:

... Instead of being enthusiastic about The She-Wolf, I confess that I am assailed by innumerable doubts ... I am only sorry about the time that I have lost, but I shall make up for it by throwing myself with all my heart into Bohème.

Puccini exasperated them both with his constant demands for changes, his dissatisfaction with the overall plan, and his constant tinkering with details. In that same letter, he wrote:

The second act--Barrière d'Enfer [which later became the scene for Act III]--does not please me much. I am annoyed by all these trifling episodes which have nothing at all to do with the action of the drama. We ought to find an entirely different setting ...

At one point, Giacosa writes to Ricordi:

I confess to you that of all this incessant rewriting, retouching, adding, correcting, taking away and sticking on again, puffing it out on the right side to thin it down on the left, I am sick to death. Curse the libretto! ...

Puccini holds his own against Illica's irritation:

I have my vision of La Bohème, but it includes the Latin Quarter act [i.e. Act II], ... It must have the scene with Musetta, which was my idea. I want the death to be as I have envisaged it, and I am sure then of producing an original and vital piecce of work. ...

This laborious, exacting process continued throughout 1895, with Puccini constantly demanding revisions, until finally the score was finished in the December.

This fractious interaction between the composer and his two librettists reveals what a perfectionist Puccini was, and how meticulous he was about the tiniest details. His craftsmanship was of a very high order. In the light of the opera's subsequent fame, it also shows us what a keen a sense of the theater Puccini had. Moreover, despite their disagreements, the three men went on to collaborate on two further operas: Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).


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