“O Mio Babbino Caro” is one of the most famous arias in opera history. It was written by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini for his one-act opera called Gianni Schicchi in 1918. Gianni Schicchi, in turn, was written as a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano and was based upon a scene in the famous narrative poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The scene that Dante Alighieri was referring to was, in turn, based upon a real historical event known as the Death of Buoso Donati. Today’s post is the story of a love song sung from the heart by a young woman who has fallen in love with a man she can probably never be with because of her social status as a commoner, while he comes from upper class circles. It is the story of the lengths a father will go to make his child happy. At the same time, it is a comedy about the social mores of the time in 17th century Italy and the politics of a society constructed on class distinctions. Of all of Puccini’s operas, Gianni Schicchi is not one of his most well known and would probably have faded into oblivion if not for the universal appeal of a child’s desperate cry for help from her father sung in the form of an aria called “O Mio Babbino Caro”. Please join me as we find out how it all came to be.
Giuseppe Verdi was known as the Father of Italian Opera. He was a legendary figure who did much over the course of his lifetime to define what Italian opera was. As he grew older, a search was conducted by those who wished to continue his work. This search was designed to find an heir apparent to succeed him after his death. The thinking was that a contest would be held and aspiring young composers would be invited to submit their own original operas for consideration. The winner of this contest would then be granted the opportunity to apprentice under Verdi while he was still alive and then carry on his artistic vision for Italian opera after his death. (This contest was discussed in an earlier post in this series that you can read about here). The contest was won by a composer named Pietro Mascagni whose opera contained the very beautiful composition “Cavalleria Rusticana”. Unfortunately for Mascagni, he was never able to scale the artistic heights he managed to achieve when he wrote “Cavalleria Rusticana”. He was granted opportunities to create new operas and have them staged at the famous La Scala opera house, but all of his subsequent work ended in disappointment and failure. However, at the time of the original contest to find Verdi’s successor, Mascagni shared an apartment with another young composer named Giacomo Puccini. Puccini entered the same contest that was won by Mascagni and came in second place. The judges were suitably impressed by Puccini’s attempt at a one-act opera and invited him to write a new opera for the La Scala stage as well. Unlike Mascagni, Puccinni’s new opera was a success. Because of that success, he was granted even more opportunities to showcase his budding talent. Before long, he had a half-dozen operas under his belt, which allowed others to begin to view him as a worthy successor to Giuseppe Verdi. In time, Puccini created some of opera’s greatest works such as La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Puccini not only continued Verdi’s traditions when it came to Italian opera, but he expanded upon them and is considered to be one of the first to create operas that portrayed realistic storylines (as opposed to being about God or Kings). While considered a minor opera by his standards, one of Puccini’s realistic stories was told in an opera entitled Gianni Schicchi.
Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi was named after a real person who existed in Italy during the 12th century. The real Gianni Schicchi was a man who became involved in one of the first great swindles in Italian history. The story was that there lived a wealthy aristocratic man named Buoso Donati. As Donati approached death, his family surrounded him and professed their eternal love to him. However, as heartfelt a scene as that may have been, his family was equally concerned about who would inherit his wealth. There was a rumour circulating that Donati felt his family was too greedy and that he was bequeathing his entire estate to the Church. Consequently, Donati’s family was desperate to learn the contents of his will. So, as they surrounded him on his deathbed, some of them also engaged in some detective work, searching everywhere for the elusive will. Eventually Buoso Donati passed away. His will was discovered and the rumours of his gift of the family fortune to the Church were realized as being true. The entire family had been cut out of the will. They were upset and completely devastated, as one can imagine.
A few weeks prior to Donati’s death, his nephew, Rinuccio, had come across a lovely young woman named Lauretta. Lauretta was a commoner by birth but as soon as Rinuccio laid his eyes upon her, he was immediately attracted to her. Despite the differences in their social status, Rinuccio had planned to bring Lauretta to meet his family. He was convinced that they would see how wonderful and beautiful she was for themselves and would welcome her into the family and grant their blessing so they could be married. In turn, Lauretta thought Rinuccio was very kindhearted and handsome. The two young lovers fell in love, even though they both knew that such a union was highly unlikely to be approved because she just wasn’t of his station in life, and that social chasm was one that was rarely, if ever, breached. Lauretta’s father was a knight named Gianni Schicchi. With the family gathering together in anticipation of Donati’s death, Rinuccio invited Lauretta to attend the affair. He felt that the distraction caused by Donati’s poor health would be enough to allow Lauretta to avoid too much scrutiny and would give the couple time to display their love and affection as the first impression everyone would have. Lauretta had never attended an event in society circles and was, understandably, nervous. (At this moment in the operatic retelling of the story, Lauretta sings the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” to her father as she seeks a way for him to help her win the hand of her beloved). When Gianni Schicchi arrived at Buoso Donati’s estate and learned how close to death Donati actually was and how worried his family was about the contents of his will, Schicchi hatched a devious plan.
Gianni Schicchi had many skills that were not all that useful in real life. One of those skills was that he had a knack for being able to imitate the voices of those in his company. Upon arrival, Schicchi was able to listen to Donati as he gasped out his final words to various family members. After Donati died, but before a doctor arrived on scene to officially pronounce him as being dead, Schicchi approached young Rinuccio. Schicchi understood how devastated the family was at being cut out of the will. What if, he proposed to Rinuccio, he could get the will changed in the family’s favour? Rinuccio listened skeptically. Schicchi laid out a plan whereby he would speak in Donati’s voice using his skill of mimicry and would “dictate” a new last will and testament that would end up favouring the family. In return, the family would accept Lauretta as Rinuccio’s bride to be. All along, Schicchi felt that Donati had been correct in pegging his family as being more concerned about getting their hands on his wealth than they ever were about him. Rinuccio pitched the plan to his family. They agreed to let Schicchi try, but first, they wanted him to prove that he could pass as Donati. Schicchi agreed and asked for the doctor to be summoned. When the doctor arrived, he found Donati’s bedroom door closed. From inside of the room, the “voice” of Donati called out. Schicchi apologized for having summoned the doctor and claimed to be feeling much improved. The doctor accepted the apology and left the estate thinking that Donati was still alive. Donati’s family was thrilled with Schicchi’s success and immediately sent for the family lawyer so that a new will could be drawn up. Once the lawyer arrived he, too, was faced with a closed bedroom door. He agreed to write up a new will but refused to do so with family members present so he sent everyone away. Alone with the lawyer, Schicchi created a new will that left the bulk of everything to him. Schicchi said that he was unable to sign the will at that moment because of his illness but if the lawyer left the will, he would sign it and ensure it was returned to the lawyer later that day. The lawyer left. Schicchi signed the will in Donati’s name and sealed the will in an envelope closed shut with Donati’s own wax seal. The family returned and were highly pleased with Schicchi. Once the lawyer had received the signed copy of the new will, the family called for the doctor again so that the real death of Buoso Donati could be declared and publicly announced. Once his death was declared, the greedy family members summoned the lawyer back to read the will. It was only then, at the reading of the will, that the family learned they had been duped by Gianni Schicchi. The entire estate of Buoso Donati was now legally the property of a swindler.
Needless to say, Gianni Schicchi did not get away with his attempted crime. Donati’s family flew into a rage and immediately contested the new will. Schicchi was imprisoned and the former will was invoked and brought back into force. The family never did get any money from the estate, but at least they got some satisfaction in that Gianni Schicchi didn’t get the family fortune, either. That went to the Church, as Donati had wished all along. The story of the attempted swindling of the Donati family fortune would have been a story lost to time in all likelihood except for the fact that it was told to a man named Dante Alighieri. Dante’s wife had been a relative of Buoso Donati and was intimately familiar with what had happened. Thus, Dante was able to use Schicchi as one of the characters who gets his comeuppance in the Divine Comedy, which was one of the first important written works ever. Because popular writing was such a new thing in society, Dante Alighieri had a unique platform to make his political points. One of the points he chose to make was to reinforce the notion of class separation and of lower class people knowing and accepting their place in society. One of the ways he did this was by incorporating the story of Gianni Schicchi into his narrative poem.
Puccini, (who wrote the music) and Forzano (who wrote the libretto for Gianni Schicchi) both were inspired by Dante’s take on the story of the Death of Buoso Donati but decided to tell a slightly lighter tale and so, they made their opera into a comedy. In this comedy, the wealthy Donati family members are not meant to be portrayed as victims of a schemer and are, in fact, portrayed as the greedy bumblers that they probably were. Gianni Schicchi began a new tradition in Italian opera by being a comic opera that sought to lampoon the nature of a class-based society. In doing so, Puccini ushered in a new era of operas from Italy. By the end of his career and life, Giacomo Puccini was as highly regarded a composer as was the man he was brought in to emulate, Giuseppe Verdi. Together, these two titans of Italian opera remain forever linked in glory by those who believe that Italian opera is the world’s best opera.
The link to the video for the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi can be found here.
The link to the official website for Giacomo Puccini can be found here.
The link to the world’s best classical music radio station…Classical 103.1….streaming worldwide from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.
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