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Puccini In America
New York received the great composer like a god; he responded con brio to its shiny gadgets and beautiful women and produced an “American” opera.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Elvira saw at once that there was no time to lose. Within minutes she had her strategy mapped out. She began to attend every rehearsal on her husband’s arm. One morning she was sitting next to him in the front row of the Metropolitan orchestra when she noticed that his big diamond ring was missing from his finger.
“Where is your ring?” she whispered loudly.
Puccini pretended not to hear, but she persisted.
“Where is it?”
“Keep quiet,” he ordered. “Can’t you see they’re rehearsing?” But Elvira was not to be distracted.
Since it was impossible to silence her, Puccini pretended to discover that he had lost the ring.
“Did you have it when you left the hotel?” Elvira persisted.
“Yes, of course. Give me time to think.”
But Elvira’s sharp eye had lighted on a pretty young woman seated in one of the boxes. That must be the hussy! And that, of course, was where the ring had been “lost.”
“Go and find it,” Elvira commanded. “You know where you have been and with whom.”
“All right. After the rehearsal is over,” Puccini agreed.
“No. Get it now.” Elvira’s voice rose shrilly over the music. “Either you get it or I will.”
Puccini muttered rebelliously as he made his way up the aisle. Out of the corner of her eye, Elvira watched him approach the girl in the box above. Soon he returned, his hand extended to show the ring.
“Satisfied?” he asked. “You see what it is to be a good Catholic? While you were scolding I said a prayer to Saint Anthony, and he helped me. I found the ring under a chair where I was sitting some time ago.”
“Bravo. Giacomo,” Elvira responded bitterly. “We must remember to make a special offering to Saint Anthony!”
At the end of the rehearsal, Elvira sought out her American rival and addressed her with maliciously feigned gratitude. “Dear Signora,” she said, “I thank both you and Saint Anthony for helping my husband find his ring.”
Just before he left New York, Puccini attended a reception at the Metropolitan, leaving Elvira at the Astor, in bed with a cold. He resumed the flirtation and danced all night with the young American who had caught his fancy. At dawn, he slipped into his hotel. The moment he fell asleep, Elvira crept from bed and searched systematically through every piece of her husband’s clothing. Finally, in his hat she discovered a small snip of paper hidden inside the band. It was from the girl, setting a meeting for the next day.
“From that moment, I believed in telepathy, spiritualism, necromancy, mind-reading and every kind of occult art,” Puccini swore, as he told the story over and over. “Don’t tell me Elvira is not a medium, for how else could she have seen through that hatband?”
Caruso, who had first come to the United States in 1903, was already fired with that exuberant brand of Americanism which remained distinctively his own all the rest of his life. He could scarcely wait to show Puccini “his” country. Alter rehearsal each day, he, Puccini, and Scotti would plunge along the snowy sidewalks, the two veterans of New York life delightedly pointing out the sights to their recently arrived compatriot. The finest shops, the largest jewels, the handsomest women, the shiniest cars, all captured their eye. In the evenings they and their entourages would make their way downtown from the Metropolitan to Mulberry Street, in the heart of Little Italy. At Del Pezzo’s restaurant they joined Marziale Sisca, the witty dean of Italo-American publishers who was then and is now the owner of the newspaper La Follin.
They would all sit down together at a table groaning with Neapolitan specialties while dozens of curious Italo-Americans peered in through the windows for a glimpse of their famous countrymen. After dinner the men would settle down to a game of poker or scopa. Caruso possessed a diabolic instinct for cards and frequently hit winning streaks that left the other players breathless. They finally devised a scheme to beat him. They bribed the proprietor to install an inconspicuous mirror just behind the chair that Caruso always chose. Of course the tenor began to lose—but not so frequently that he became suspicious. It was not until Puccini was back in Europe that he took pity on Caruso and wrote him: “Dear Enrico, be a little bit careful not to fall into the trap.” Then he unfolded the secret.
Madame Butterfly was presented at the Metropolitan on February 11 and achieved a smashing success with both press and public, but not with Puccini: he thought the production “lacking the poetry which I put into it.” In spite of the fact that Geraldine Farrar became the idol of millions of Americans in the title role, Puccini still thought her “not what she ought to have been.”