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  • Mechanism and Tradition in Puccini's Turandot
  • Arman Schwartz (bio)

Giuseppe Adami's memoir Il romanzo della vita di Giacomo Puccini is a respected source of information on the composer, but it contains one anecdote that you'll never find repeated in the secondary literature. Already near death, Puccini summoned the writer to his home, ostensibly to discuss their ongoing revisions to Turandot's libretto, but also to inform him of plans for a subsequent opera, one that he would not live long enough to pursue in earnest. Adami recounts the tale with palpable excitement:

Immediately, I ran to Viareggio. He spoke. I knew what he would have desired. The Chinese lacquers that cover eighteenth-century Venetian folding screens, the pompous robes that disguise the old Venetian masks as grotesque imperial ministers: these had fascinated the Maestro, guiding his thoughts toward the gilded surfaces of San Marco.

The new work would have had Venice at its base. But not, absolutely not, the nauseating Venice of face powders, beauty spots, and lorgnettes. A Venice full of pathetic, moving, poetic hues: perfumed like a terrace covered with hanging flowers; dark and gloomy like water beating against the smooth marbles of a mysterious canal.

At a certain point he opened a drawer and pulled out a French magazine that throbbed with naked women. He leafed through it slowly, stopping at a page that contained an audaciously suggestive image. And he handed it to me: Venice. A remote canal, bathed in light. A large window with protective grates. Behind it, clinging to the bars for all to see, a wild-haired nude girl, who arched her supple body in a provocative offering to a young boatman resting below, twisting with spasms, his arms stretched out toward the elusive vision.1

From Adami's perspective, this is a story of genius at work and great opportunities tragically cut short. It is not difficult, however, to imagine why other writers have decided to look askance. A specifically Venetian context for Turandot, the romantic sheen of an unwritten masterpiece—these are appealing notions. But not when they also remind us of all the aspects of Puccini that have made scholars most uncomfortable: his exploitative treatment of women, his susceptibility to kitsch.2 [End Page 28]

Adami's narrative also resembles another passage in his book, one that is considerably better known. It too concerns Puccini's final opera, a meeting between the composer and his poets, a domestic interior, and a peculiar source of inspiration:

We came to Bagni di Lucca to read Puccini the first draft of the libretto. He was waiting for us there with a surprise. The reading took place at the villa of Baron Fassini, who had spent many years at the Italian Embassy in China, and his house was decorated with every sort of chinoiserie. And as soon as the manuscript was placed on a little lacquer table, the silence was broken, as if with a magic spell, by the voice of a music box playing the ancient Imperial Hymn, with the solemnity of a sacred and august ceremony. We were astonished, everybody laughed, and Giacomo, who had prepared the trick, was joyful and satisfied. In his hands, the notes of this Hymn would later become the vast chorale that closes the second act.3

This anecdote is usually cited as evidence of Puccini's dedicated realism; but, read in the context of Adami's other story, it suggests an image of a composer inspired less by the real than by the uncanny, fascinated with the strange magic of photographs and machines, drawn to technology in all its slightly disreputable forms. This is a man, after all, who collected racecars and motorboats, who wrote a march to commemorate the invention of the electric battery, and whose own decorating tastes combined exotic grace with modern trickery.4 Describing Puccini's final home, Julian Budden notes "the number of new-fangled gadgets: the aerial for radio reception, the automatic sprinklers that operated from the trees, several of which were hung with Chinese lanterns, the entrance door opened by remote control."5

This love of machines may seem strange for a composer working in the...


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