TR Robertson — The San Diego Repertory Theatre has once again hit a theatrical home run with the latest online presentation of the incomparable Hershey Felder and a masterful look into the life of another great composer from the past, this the life of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. SD Rep and Felder have presented several performances centered on great composers from history, live streaming now since the onset of COVID. Felder lives in Italy and the recent performances have come from Florence, this time also using Puccini’s original birth home in Lucca, Italy. Puccini has been called “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi”.
This performance opened with a haunting clarinet performance by Riccardo Crocilla as he and Felder wandered the streets outside of Puccini’s original birth home in Lucca, Italy. Puccini was born on December 22, 1858. He had a close relationship with his mother, his father dying when Giacomo was 5 years old. Puccini had 6 sisters and one brother. Felder’s style with these presentations is to tell portions of each composer’s life story, as the composer, as he plays music the composer is known for. This presentation also used performances by four opera singers who sang portions of several of Puccini’s operas. Puccini was the organist for his local church and always felt he had a calling for composing music more secular in nature. He knew his mother would not approve, but it was a choice he felt he had to make. He was inspired after walking from Lucca to Pisa to hear a Verdi performance of “Aida”. Puccini’s mother did give him money she had saved to help Puccini begin his quest. He went to Milan to live and work and would write 3 operas before his mother passed away.
Felder personalizes Puccini and the world he surrounds himself with as he personalizes the characters Puccini creates for his opera’s. Puccini had several love affairs, many with married women. Elvira, a married woman, would leave her husband and live with Puccini and give birth to his son. As Puccini wrote to make a living, he felt opera, to be successful, must incorporate the Holy Trinity of rhythm, notes, and color of sound to be successful. Throughout his life, his relationship with Elvira was a bit topsy-turvy as she was very jealous and suffocating, referred to acting as a policeman by Puccini. It was during his relationship that he noticed a throat problem, even causing him to lose his voice for a period of time, a precursor of cancer. All along the way, Felder would present stories about several of Puccini’s operas and performances of highlights from the operas would occur. Not all of Puccini’s operas were well received by the critics, but the public did like most of them. “Tosca” for example, was not liked by the critics but played to packed houses. Felder, as Puccini, said he liked stories of love, lust, jealousy and power.
“Madame Butterfly” was one opera that was not well received when it opened in Milan, described by Puccini as a disaster. The public felt that the opera sounded too much like his other opera “La boheme”. Puccini said the things he loved most were hunting waterfowl, excellent libretti, and beautiful women. He also loved gadgets and motor cars. It was the love of motor cars that would almost kill him in 1903 when he fell out of a car and the car rolled over him. A long recovery also led to a discovery he had diabetes. A permanent pronounced limp and walking with a cane would follow him the rest of his life. Along with this, Elvira’s former husband was killed, and she wanted Puccini to formerly marry her. In 1909, Puccini would become embroiled in a marital conflict as Elvira accused Puccini of having an affair with their 15-year-old maid, Doria. This scandal would lead Doria to commit suicide, even though Puccini never had an affair with her. Elvira would be charged with slander, but Puccini would save her from prison by paying a sum of money to Doria’s family. It would later come out that Puccini was having an affair, but it was with Doria’s cousin.
Felder’s performance draws to a close with the story of Puccini’s battle with throat cancer. Years of smoking cigars and cigarettes would lead Puccini to seek treatment with an experimental new therapy, radiation. He would travel to Belgium in 1923, but unfortunately have bleeding complications that would lead to a heart attack on November 29, 1924. The haunting clarinet that opened the performance would bring Puccini’s life to an end along with a portion of one of his final operas, directed by lifelong friend Toscanini.
Felder’s performance is as much a musical history lesson as they are wonderful theatrical musical performances. His piano virtuoso is amazing and with this story, standout operatic performances of many parts of Puccini’s operas were presented by Nathan Gunn, Gianna Corbisiero, Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina. Felder wrote the text for the show as well as directing the performance along with Stefano DeCarli. Costumes which were designed by Camilla Saccardi.
One of the most amazing things about these recent Hershey Felder performances is that fact that they are filmed, in this case, where many of the events occurred. The realism this adds to the play makes for a more poignant memory of the play. The San Diego Repertory online streaming is still available. Go to www.SDRep.org or call 619-544-1000 to purchase an online streaming for the Hershey Felder Puccini performance.