The idea of combining a tragic, a lyrical and a comic piece in one evening by performing three one-act operas had been with Giacomo Puccini since 1904. Originally, the composer intended to take the plots of these three works from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, but abandoned his plan after the inspiration for the first of the three operas – Il tabarro – struck him during a visit to the theatre in Paris in 1912. Based on the play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, Giuseppe Adami wrote the libretto for the first, tragic, part of the triptych and Puccini completed the score in 1916. The search for themes for the other operas proved difficult at this time. Planned collaborations with librettists came to nothing and even the search for inspiration in Charles Dickens, one of Puccini's favourite writers, was unsuccessful. However, when the young journalist and author Giovacchino Forzano showed him a draft of a play set in a monastery that he had written for a travelling theatre company, the composer was immediately enthusiastic and began work on the lyrical part of his project: Suor Angelica.

Design for booklet cover by Peter Hoffer
© Public domain

Not long after, it was again Forzano who inspired Puccini with the story of Gianni Schicchi and thus led him back to the original plan, namely to find inspiration in Dante for the cheerful final part of the triptych. Incidentally, the work, completed in April 1918, remained the first and only one for which Puccini chose a classical Italian author as a basis; a crucial factor may have been Dante's increasing popularity at the time. While there were only a few operas or plays based on Dante's texts in the 19th century, more than a hundred of such stage works were written between 1900 and 1920 alone. In the centuries before, Giovanni Boccaccio or Francesco Petrarca were considered the epitome of the Italian literary tradition, but since the unification of Italy, Dante Alighieri and his work have experienced an awakening – not least due to political and nationalistic efforts.

“That imp is Gianni Schicchi who, enraged, goes all around ill-treating others thus [...] dared to counterfeit Buoso Donati’s self, and make his will and give it legal form.” This is how short and crisp the legacy hunter and impostor Gianni Schicchi is introduced in the Eighth Circle of Hell in the 30th Canto of Dante's Inferno. The historical inspiration for this character was the knight Gianni Schicchi de' Cavalcanti, who lived in the 13th century and whose story was presumably so well-known around Florence at the time the Divine Comedy was written that no further explanation was necessary. The fact that Dante, considering it was a comparatively harmless fraud surrounding a forged will, banishes Schicchi as an angry imp straight to the Penultimate Circle of Hell – only one other circle of Hell is reserved for even worse crimes – can be attributed to several reasons. Personal reasons are feasible, for his wife Gemma came from the family of the bamboozled Donati. Moreover, the poet liked to pride himself on his pure, bourgeois Florentine ancestry and despised the lower class to which Gianni Schicchi arguably belonged. Dante was also a follower of the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, in whose theological understanding the assumption of a false identity is the work of the devil.

Florence Easton as Lauretta in the premiere of Gianni Schicchi, 14th December 1918
© Public domain

For those readers who are not familiar with the historical events surrounding Gianni Schicchi, only a commentary published in the appendix of an 1866 edition, whose source is an anonymous Florentine of the 14th century, provides the necessary background information to understand the back story of this will-o'-the-wisp. Allegedly, the following happened. The critically ill Buoso Donati wanted to write a will, but was repeatedly put off by his son, Simone, until he eventually died. Fearing that his father might have already written a will – unfavourable to himself – before his illness, Simone kept his death a secret at first and asked Gianni Schicchi for advice. The latter was a master of impersonation and a good friend of Donati's, which is why he suggested that he, disguised as Buoso Donati, dictate the will to a notary according to Simone's wishes. As it happened though, Schicchi bequeathed himself a small fortune and the pick of the bunch as part of this charade. Simone, however, could not contradict him in the presence of the notary, otherwise the hoax would have been exposed.

This is also the version of events that Giovacchino Forzano took as inspiration when writing the libretto for Giacomo Puccini's opera buffa. Instead of a single son, however, several relatives are present in the operatic plot, from nephews to cousins and brothers-in-law – although there are no direct descendants, for Simone is merely a cousin here. In contrast to the original, the greedy relatives actually do find a will after Donati's death, according to which the entire estate has been bequeathed to the church. For the romantic touch we have Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi's daughter, and Rinuccio, a member of the Donati family, who want to marry. Yet their permission to marry depends on his Aunt Zita and the desired lavish inheritance, as no dowry can be expected from the bride-to-be. In the opera, too, Gianni Schicchi eventually leaves most of the fortune to himself; the relatives are enraged but powerless, Lauretta and Rinuccio, on the other hand, may finally marry and get their happy ending.

The libretto is full of nasty knocks that cast a bad light on the pack of relatives. First they outdo each other in false mourning, after the discovery of the will Zita resignedly states “Who would ever have believed that when Buoso goes into the ground we would be crying real tears!”, and after the falsification of the will, the family quickly tries to snaffle the silver as they leave the house. Forzano's sympathies firmly lie on the side of Schicchi, for whom he takes sides at the end of the opera: “Tell me, ladies and gentlemen, if Buoso’s money could have had a better end than this. For this prank they sent me to hell, and so be it; but, with the permission of the great old man Dante, if you’ve been entertained this evening, allow me... extenuating circumstances.”

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini chose a musical language – almost radical by his standards – full of dissonances and harsh, unmelodic passages; the style of the work is more unconventional and characterised by more diverse influences than those of his earlier periods. Yet he still uses recurring motifs in this opera to characterise roles, situations and moods. For instance, we hear the mourning motif at the beginning, peppered with exaggerated and above all dishonest sighs from the relatives present. Schicchi's motif is first introduced by Rinuccio when he conceives the idea of asking him for advice; it returns when the protagonist knocks on the door. Puccini's sympathies become clear through his choice of keys. While bright major keys dominate the score around Gianni Schicchi, Lauretta and Rinuccio, the hypocrisy of the Donatis is often expressed through subdued minor keys. The composer emphasises the contrasts between the clashing characters by placing the musically sharp and harsh motifs of the devious Donatis in stark contrast to the lyrical and romantic sound world of the lovers, Rinuccio and Lauretta.

As such, the aria “O mio babbino caro” – the veritable tearjerker better known than the entire opera thanks to its presence in commercials and films – offers the full dose of melodic heartbreak. Lauretta cunningly manipulates her father Gianni Schicchi – and the audience along with him – by means of operatic melodrama taken to extremes. Whether Puccini simply could not resist the temptation to compose a (box-office) hit in ideal record length, or whether he deliberately wanted to create a tongue-in-cheek parody of the sometimes completely absurd and naïve emotional world of opera with this aria, remains anyone's guess. For whatever reason, emotional blackmail never sounded more beautifully than in Lauretta's declaration, sweetly accompanied by the strings, that she was willing to die in the Arno if she was not allowed to marry Rinuccio. 

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz