I trust everyone will forgive me for writing about Giacomo Puccini again on this last day of 2008, but one of my Christmas gifts was the Mary Jane Phillips-Matz biography from 2002, and, like other biographies, it discusses the composer’s vivid romantic life.
The composer’s relationships outside his relationship with his live-in lover and then wife Elvira (they married after her husband died) are well-known, and it seems clear that Puccini had a strong sex drive and a deep desire for companionship of all kinds, not just younger, attractive females. The woman I’m thinking about most right now is the mysterious Corinna, whom until recently we knew only by that name. At the time of their affair, she was supposedly a schoolteacher or law student in Turin, single and in her 20s, and Puccini was in his early 40s.
But two German writers, Helmut Krausser and Dieter Schickling, identified her early in the spring of 2007 as Maria Anna Coriasco, a seamstress born in 1882 — which means she was 17 when she began her affair with Puccini — and say that he had her followed later by detectives and broke off their relationship.
Just a few days ago, a German-language TV film called Giacomo Puccini: The Dark Side of the Moon, directed by Andreas Morell, premiered in Europe; a lovely German-Turkish actress named Aylin Tezel (at right) played the part of Corinna.
If Corinna was Maria Anna Coriasco (she died in 1961, and had two sons with her husband, a customs officer named Pancrazio Savarino), and it seems likely she was, clearly Puccini strung her along, and I don’t doubt that he promised to marry her instead of Elvira, who was still married to her husband Narciso. After the car accident in 1904 in which Puccini was severely injured, and the death one day later of Narciso, Puccini had Corinna followed, accused her of being a loose woman, and broke off their relationship. She apparently threatened to blow the whistle on their relationship, and they had to settle things in a meeting before Puccini could marry Elvira.
Phillips-Matz says it was evident to everyone that Puccini loved Corinna, and his decision to stay with Elvira must have been tough for him. Elvira had sacrificed her marriage and community respect to run off with Puccini and bear his child, and clearly their relationship had deep, complicated roots, but neither of them could have been easy to live with.
The biographies end up insisting that Puccini loved Elvira despite everything, including the hounding to death of a domestic who was not involved with Puccini but was serving as a go-between for Puccini and her cousin, who were having a fling. I would wager that by the time he met Corinna, he had long fallen out of love with Elvira, but needed her for everything else, not the least of which was extended family. There are also different kinds of love, and while Puccini obviously sought erotic attachment elsewhere than at home, he might very well have loved Elvira in a way other than sexual.
But I doubt it. I think he felt he had to stay with her, and knew that he didn’t have the courage to leave her, even though every instinct he had told him to find someone else. Puccini had a nervous artist’s temperament, exultant one day and in the blackest depression the next, continually insecure and desperate for approval all the time. That kind of temperament needs stability, and perhaps Elvira provided that for him in their long life together.
Perhaps my interest in this aspect of Puccini’s life has to do with my own unhappiness at the size of his output. His relatively small list of compositions is due at least in part to his conviction that he should write only for the theater, and his theatrical mindset was much more akin to that of a director or producer than simply the hired hand coming in to write the score. He really thought about the action and appearance of his operas as an integral part of the music, and everything in the pit had to support what was happening on stage.
He was far ahead of his time in that regard, and a real man of the theater. But I wish he had written some chamber works while he was looking for libretti instead of traveling to other cities to supervise productions, though I’m aware that this personal attention is what he was all about. And I’m aware that in the Italy of his time, composers were chiefly opera composers, not instrumental writers, and it would take the advent of someone like Ottorino Respighi to make a case for Italian absolute music again.
But the other part of the reason for his small output is that he enjoyed his wealth and the high life, which came to him in his early 30s, and he was a millionaire many times over when he died in 1924. He was too busy chasing women, driving fast cars and boats, and living in luxury to pay enough attention to his music; in some ways, he was like a modern-day movie director taking years to plan the next big blockbuster.
It would be a joy had he taken the time along the way to write a couple instrumental pieces other than the occasional piano salon pieces, or the Crisantemi for string quartet. His gift was greater than just being suited for the stage, and perhaps if his personal life hadn’t been what it was, he might have found occasion to write a few serious pieces of chamber or symphonic music while berating his librettists and giving the Ricordis heartburn.
Lamenting the non-existence of a mature Puccini string quartet, or an instrumental sonata, or a few organ pieces, or a short symphony doesn’t mean I wish he had been more Germanic than he was. I just think he could have done it, and I wish he had.