This question has always troubled me, ever since, years ago, I read the standard biography of the composer, by Mosco Carner, who interprets Puccini in a Freudian key, making much of the way the libretti are to do with love, suffering and death, and finds great significance in the tragic death of the composer’s housemaid, which is supposedly what inspired the creation of the character Liu in Turandot. Puccini’s wife Elvira accused the maid, Doria Manfredi, of adultery with her husband, and the poor girl committed suicide; a post-mortem examination proved she was a virgin. Carner sees the Calaf – Turandot – Liu triangle as a dramatic representation of this domestic tragedy.
Again, Carner dwells on the way that another Puccinian heroine is tortured, albeit vicariously, namely Tosca.
Carner also claims that the Catholic setting of Suor Angelica, the one act opera set in a convent, is just sentimental window-dressing: in other words that Puccini’s Catholicism was merely skin deep. His sister might have been a nun, and he may well have come from a long line of cathedral organists, but religion meant nothing to him.
I find this interpretation wrong. What is decisive for me is the message of the last scene of La Fancuilla del West, where Minnie persuades the miners to spare Ramirez’s life and let him go go, on the grounds that there is no man on the face of the earth who cannot be redeemed by the power of love. One of the tough miners then sings: “Non è Minnie che parla, questo è il discorso del Signore” (‘It is not Minnie who is speaking, this is the discourse of the Lord’ – it sounds better in Italian.) Ramirez is accordingly released by the men who a moment before were eager to hang him, and he says to them all: “Grazie, fratelli” (‘Thank you, bothers’), which I find a beautiful and moving evocation of universal brotherhood.
This redemptive theme is very strong in Fancuilla (which is not among his most performed operas, which I find mystifying), and is also present in Butterfly, which is about sacrificial love, the love of a mother for her son, as opposed to the love of a geisha for a Yankee naval officer. Puccini writes about love, but his message is never simple: there are higher loves and lower loves. It seems to me that maternal love comes out on top in Butterfly and Suor Angelica, just as the love of friends is the greatest love in La Bohème. As for Tosca, the supposedly “shabby little shocker”, its key moment occurs when Tosca, in her agony, reproaches not Scarpia her tormentor, but God himself: “Why have you treated me like this?” she asks. You can hear the greatest Tosca ever sing the famous aria here. The idea that a woman in intense agony of soul would take up this metaphysical question at such a moment is, it strikes me, a deeply religious insight. It is what raises Tosca above the level of melodrama. Incidentally, we are told Floria Tosca is the sort of lady who hides nothing from her confessor. And right at the end of the opera, she utters the wonderful line “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – not ‘I will see you in Hell!’ – but rather that she will see Scarpia before the throne of God, where justice, denied her on earth, will be done.