For the casual operagoer, the name “Puccini” is synonymous with tragedy. Young artists in poverty. Tuberculosis. Cross-cultural bigamy. Execution by firing squad. Even when Puccini’s operas don’t end in tragedy, such as La Rondine or La fanciulla del West, the plots have a definite overtone of bittersweetness, and an audience is more inclined to smile quietly than to laugh out loud.
And then, there’s Gianni Schicchi.
Composed in 1917, as the end part to Puccini’s sweeping triptych of one-act operas (the first two being the unabashedly tragic Suor Angelica and Il tabarro), Schicchi takes its source material from Dante’s Inferno, where Dante mentions seeing Gianni Schicchi himself in the eighth circle of Hell, condemned for falsifying a will (more about this presently). Gianni Schicchi was a real person--a late 13th century Florentine of the lower nobility--as was Buoso Donati, which makes their jump into the operatic canon even more fantastic.
It is 1299. The Donati family is in mourning because their patriarch, Buoso Donati, has just died. As in, his dead body is still sitting there onstage at the beginning of the opera. It’s probably the only Puccini opera where the only death occurs before the opera starts. At any rate, it quickly becomes apparent that the Donati extended family (as poor Buoso had no direct heirs) are greedy, grasping, and about as genuinely grief-stricken about their patriarch as you or I would be about a hangnail. Their presence at his death bed is fueled by self interest--they are hoping to find Donati’s will and see who he has left his highly lucrative estates (which include the best mule in Tuscany) to. Once Donati’s dead, they rush to find the will.
Unfortunately, Donati has left everything to a monastery. After much grumbling, gnashing of teeth, and attempts to deny the reality of the situation, a solution is proposed by Rinuccio, the youngest Donati: Send for Gianni Schicchi. He’s clever, crafty, and just so happens to be the father of Rinuccio’s sweetheart, Lauretta. If anyone can get them out of this jam, he can.
The family is not enthused by this idea--in their eyes, Schicchi is hopped-up “new money,” while they are the remnants of one of Florence’s oldest families--but Rinuccio has already sent his nephew, Gherardino, to fetch Schicchi, so it’s entirely a moot point. Schicchi arrives, Lauretta in tow, and immediately starts quarreling with Zita, the Donati family matriarch. She wants him to go, he posits he’s only there for his daughter and doesn’t want to help the Donatis, all while Lauretta and Rinuccio lament the state of their star-crossed relationship. Schicchi finally puts his foot down--he will NEVER help the Donatis--and then we get to the aria that launched a thousand pop/opera crossover albums.
“Oh, mio babbino caro” is frequently held up as the ne plus ultra of romantic arias, but, in reality, it’s an aria wherein a 21-year-old girl emotionally manipulates her father so that she can marry the boy she loves. It basically boils down to “Oh, daddy, you know I love Rinuccio, but if I can’t marry him, I will THROW MYSELF INTO THIS RIVER SO HELP ME YOU KNOW I WILL love you daddy!” And, of course, Schicchi caves.
So onto the plan. Schicchi reminds the Donatis of some facts: 1. Buoso is dead 2. The will is written, but no one official has seen it yet. He’s about to go on to step three, when there’s a knock on the door, and it’s the lawyer, come to check in on Buoso Donati. Panic. Schicchi tells the Donatis not to mention Buoso is dead, but merely resting. And in comes the lawyer. Miraculously, the voice of “Buoso Donati” is heard from the bed (don’t ask about where the dead body of the real Buoso went, really, don’t)--it’s Schicchi, acting his face off. The visit with the lawyer ends, and Schicchi tells the Donatis what’s going to happen.
He himself will impersonate Donati. He will re-dictate the will, presumably in favor of the living Donatis, provided that Rinuccio can marry Lauretta. The Donatis agree, and Schicchi reminds them that the penalty for falsifying a will is getting a hand chopped off, so everyone has to play along. Envisioning the riches that they are certain Schicchi will bequeath to them, they get ready.
The notary and witnesses enter. Schicchi as Donati bequeaths a small sum of money to the monastery, and a few token estates to the family members. But when it comes to the really nice stuff--including the mule--Schicchi leaves them to his good friend…...Gianni Schicchi. The gobsmacked family begins to protest, only to be reminded of the whole hand-chopping-off thing, which silences them. Once the new will is dictated, the officials leave, and the Donatis basically go berserk with rage in a way that would make a preschooler proud. Schicchi kicks them out (it is his house now, after all), sees that Rinuccio and his daughter are content, and then wraps up the evening.
The whereabouts of Buoso Donati’s body are still unknown.