A summer of Puccini, so far

My four recent encounters with the Italian operatic composer, Giacomo Puccini:

The first this summer was at Lucca, his birthplace in Tuscany, a walled city not far from Florence.

Puccini was part of a dynasty of musicians extending 150 years. His grandfather and father were choirmasters at the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca. He was a chorister at the church of San Michele in Foro. Each member of his family played a musical instrument.

As I entered the apartment where he was born in 1858, a few steps away from San Michele, Act One of a recorded performance of "La Bohème" was concluding, in which Rodolfo and Mimi meet and fall in love. This is one of the loveliest moments in all opera.

"Tosca" is an opera with larger-than-life characters – Tosca, Scarpia, Cavaradossi – but it is also an opera about Rome. When I am in Rome, I make my second encounter there, visiting the site of each act.

Act One: The church of Sant'Andrea della Valle with its magnificent dome.

Act Two: Scarpia's apartments at the Palazzo Farnese, now the French Embassy.

Act Three: The Castel Sant'Angelo overlooking the Tiber River.

The last act of "Tosca" begins at dawn. Church bells ring. Puccini placed a high value on accuracy. He wanted not just the sound of bells, but church bells in Rome at dawn. He sought guidance from friends in Rome on the subject.

I encountered Rodolfo and Mimi again, but this time in a driving rainstorm on an island off the coast of Maine. (Buoy bells clanged in Maine. church bells in Rome.) Without electricity or heat, my friends and I huddled around a Franklin stove. We listened to a radio performance of "La Bohème" by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I shared the discomfort of the Bohemians when they complain about the cold.

My fourth encounter with Puccini took place in New York City. At 9:30 on a steaming summer evening, I walked to Central Park. The windows of the apartment houses on Park and Fifth Avenues were darkened, the occupants having fled the heat. In the silence of the streets, I heard the sound of traffic lights as they changed.

"Manon Lescaut" was being performed in the park. I arrived for Act Three. Manon, now a prisoner, is taken from Paris to Le Havre, where she will be deported to America. Des Grieux remains by her side. The ship is ready. The roll call of the prisoners begins. A tearful des Grieux persuades the ship's captain to let him join Manon in exile.

Act Three, for me, is the most moving part of the opera. I sat with picnickers on the grass of the East Green, listening to the music. Fireflies joined us.

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