Musical sleuth unravels the `Puccini Mystery'

IT reads like a mystery novel - a complex, intricate plot of rival organizations, fictitious heirs, a contested patrimony, a missing will. Is all this a newly discovered manuscript of Agatha Christie or another Ellery Queen tale come to light? No. It's the ``Puccini Mystery,'' the story of Giacomo Puccini - the famous opera composer - his heirs, and his estate.

The tale began with Puccini's death in 1924 and built by fits and starts toward a courtroom climax just this year. This correspondent pursued interviews in four different cities (Luca, Milan, Torre del Lago, and Viareggio) to piece together this serpentine narrative.

The opening act

At the time of Puccini's death, his estate included two homes: the Villa Puccini at Torre del Lago, a spacious home facing Lake Massaciuccoli built by the composer in 1900 out of the royalties from his newly-written ``La Boh`eme''; and a pseudo-Oriental villa at Viareggio, built in 1920 after the composer could no longer endure the stench generated by the recently opened ``peat factory'' on Lake Massaciuccoli. (The estate also included the composer's handsome royalties.) His family at the time of his passing consisted of his widow, Elvira; their only child, a son named Antonio; and Antonio's wife, Rita.

The composer was laid to rest in his beloved villa at Torre del Lago, which the Roman Catholic Church consecrated as a mausoleum. In this way, Puccini's son Antonio turned the home into a ``pantheon'' as well as a public museum. Within the span of a few years, the composer's wife Elvira, and Antonio himself, were also interred there.

The plot thickens

In 1930, less than six years after the composer's passing, the communities of Viareggio and Torre del Lago founded a Puccini Festival. Together, they built an outdoor theater adjacent to the Villa Puccini at Torre del Lago so that the composer's operas could be successfully mounted in the environment he had always envisaged.

The complications in the story now set in. They bring a third house into the picture.

Rita Puccini, the composer's daughter-in-law, established a Puccini Foundation in 1973 so that the home in Lucca where the composer was born in 1858 could be purchased and turned into a museum of its own. Her foundation also sponsored a Puccini Voice Competition with handsome financial prizes for the winners. Although Rita Puccini is now gone, the foundation continues to function in these two capacities: It supports the museum and sponsors the vocal competition.

To further complicate our narrative, the composer's son, Antonio, before his marriage to Rita, had an illegitimate daughter, Simonetta, who was legally recognized in 1972 as a Puccini. Endeavoring to further the serious study of music by members of the Puccini dynasty (Giacomo was the last of five generations of famous Tuscan composers by the name of Puccini), Simonetta Puccini founded in 1979 the Institute for Puccini Studies in Milan, a scholarly organization that publishes research papers and does critical work in the Puccini archives.

Over the ensuing years, the three organizations refused to cooperate with - or even acknowledge - each other.

The missing will

The true melodrama of the ``Puccini Mystery'' started last December with the passing of Baron Livio Dell'Anna, brother of Puccini's daughter-in-law, Rita. As in the composer's own comic opera, ``Gianni Schichi,'' there was a furtive search for a will. None could be found. There was also talk of a ``missing heir,'' a distant relative in Verona. (The ``relative,'' says one authority involved in the mystery, was just an ``invention of the imagination.'')

In the absence of the crucial document, there was talk that the baron's major-domo should inherit everything. ``That was invented,'' claimed Simonetta Puccini's lawyer, Augusto Fallaguerra. ``Before the baron's death, we asked the judge to sequester the three Puccini houses because the baron did not have any heirs. ...

``While he was still alive, the baron left the house in Lucca to the Puccini Foundation, but something of that importance must have the authorization of the President of the Republic.''

Not so, claimed Marcello Carmanno, the lawyer who heads the Puccini Foundation in Lucca. ``The three houses were left to us. ... There is no need for an authorization from the President of the Republic!'' Denouement

Finally, this spring, the ``Puccini Mystery'' headed toward its conclusion. No will had been found. No missing heir had made an appearance. The court handed down its decision: Simonetta Puccini was the rightful heir.

Loose threads

But the conclusion leaves our story with a few loose threads - three of them, to be precise. For there is still the situation with the three rival organizations: a festival, a foundation, and an institute, each moving in its own area of interest, each developing projects independently.

Fortunately for the ``cause Puccini,'' Simonetta Puccini is a charming, intelligent woman who expresses devotion and diligence when it comes to her family's heritage. She has worked long, quietly, and lovingly in behalf of the music of her ancestors.

``There is much to do now,'' she said recently in a Monitor interview. ``I must begin important and urgent restoration work at the Villa Puccini Museum at Torre del Lago, and establish a systematic classification of the Puccini archives.''

And, thanks in part to the assistance of her neighbors, the Puccini Festival (she will live in the Villa Puccini on the second floor) the antagonistic gap is narrowing between at least two of the three organizations.

``We want to work very carefully with Simonetta Puccini and her institute,'' Renzo Ciacchieri, the newly-appointed artistic director of the festival, said in a recent interview.

``Just think, this summer for the first time, the Institute for Puccini Studies has prepared and edited our handsome Puccini Festival souvenir book. Also, I look to future collaboration with the foundation, too.''

Lines from the closing scene of ``Gianni Schichi'' are perhaps a fitting conclusion to this chapter of the ``Puccini Mystery'':

Tell me, you gentlemen

Whether [the master's]

property

Could have been better dis-

tributed than that!

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