Priming spectators for Pirandello's Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921) through Puccini, 1884

Mitchell, Katharine (2017) Priming spectators for Pirandello's Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (1921) through Puccini, 1884. Pirandello Studies, 37. ISSN 1471-9363

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A focus on violence and aggression―in the form of self-harm and murder enacted by Puccini’s suffering heroines―opens up common ground between Puccini and Pirandello if we consider the period of Puccini’s output from the first-night performance in Rome of Tosca in 1899 onwards. Forthwith, the concentration and frequency with which opera spectators were confronted with his suffering heroines committing murder (in the case of Tosca) and enacting self-harm immediately before bringing the curtain down, was unprecedented in theatre auditoriums up until the year of his death in 1924. Moreover, coincidentally, it was in this year that Puccini had finished composing the music for his secondary, partially-invented character in Turandot, the slave girl, Liù, who commits suicide by stabbing herself with a dagger out of love for the hero, so as not to reveal his name to the Princess. I argue in this piece that even though Puccini’s realist operatic productions were set in far-off places and in the (sometimes distant) past, his on-stage candid and recurring leitmotif of the heroine’s self-violence ‘primed’ Rome’s spectators for the shock of the removal of the fourth wall, and the 'alienation' (anticipating Brecht) with which they were met on the first night of Sei personaggi at the Teatro Valle in 1921; and, more importantly, for the violence and aggression at the end of the third act: that is, the Little Girl drowning, and the Boy shooting himself with a gun. Such high-intensity melodrama and brutality, with the sung words and accompanying music to anaesthetize the effect stripped away, would have undoubtedly challenged spectators in ways that had not occurred previously in the spoken performance tradition. However, as I also argue here, were it not for Puccini’s brazen depictions of female self-harm and murder from 1899 onwards, the challenge to spectators would have been greater.