- 26 June, 2008
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The tragic story of Doria Manfredi and her relationship with Giacomo Puccini was suppressed for almost 80 years by either Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, or his family (or both). Tony Palmer’s Puccini juxtaposes a dramatization of this tragic story with footage from his controversial 1984 production of Turandot for the Scottish National Opera. (The production was lambasted by the critics, but the entire run was sold-out, with tickets going on the black market for £100).Written by Charles Wood (Wagner), the film features a superb cast, including actress Virginia McKenna as Elvira Puccini, and the late Sir Robert Stephens in the title role. The Scottish National Opera cast includes the extraordinary Scottish soprano Linda Evans Gray in the role of Turandot, American baritone Williard White as Timur, and British baritone Alan Opie as Ping. Sadly, this was Ms. Gray’s last performance, as her career was cut short in 1984 by physical and emotional problems. She withdrew from the production and suspended her promising opera career. Ms. Gray was a student of the famed British soprano Dame Eva Turner, and her short career included a legendary performance as Isolde with the English National Opera, as well as appearances at Glyndebourne, with the Welsh National Opera and at Covent Garden.
Doria Manfredi was a maid who worked for the Puccini family when they lived in the small northern Italian village of Torre del Lago. She was wrongfully accused by composer’s insanely jealous wife Elvira of carrying on an illicit relationship with the womanizing Puccini. Manfredi, who, after death, was proved completely innocent, was so distraught by the charges that she committed suicide by poisoning herself. She died a horrible and painful death. Puccini’s wife was later found guilty of “public defamation” and sentenced to five months and five days in prison.
The story of Doria Manfredi was brought to the attention of filmmaker Tony Palmer by Edward Greenfield, distinguished music critic of The Guardian, after a new section about Manfredi was added in the mid-1970s to Moscoe Carner’s 1958 Puccini: A Critical Biography. Palmer sought out Carner, who was intrigued by his fascination with the Manfredi story. Palmer and Carner both saw the parallels to Puccini’s last opera Turandot in “the loveless woman who kills for love, Turandot (Elvira); the slave girl who kills herself, Liu (Manfredi); the village gossips, Ping, Pang and Pong; [and] the village elder who accepts his guilt in the tragedy, Timur.” Carner believed that the psychological trauma resulting from Manfredi’s death may have made it impossible for the composer to complete the opera, despite the long-held belief that he simply died before he had a chance to finish it. According to Palmer, Carner indicated that Puccini may have ceased his attempts to finish Turandot in 1922, a full two years before his death. This, if true, gives the famous Toscanini story an especially eerie quality. (Toscanini stopped the performance at Liu’s death during its 1926 premiere at La Scala and said, “At this point, Puccini laid down his pen.”) Was the composer simply too distraught to finish an opera whose libretto had originally called for a “happy ending”?
Featuring famed British actor Trevor Howard (Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Gandhi) and written by award-winning playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Luther), Tony Palmer’s God Rot Tunbridge Wells was originally broadcast on British television in 1985 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Georg Frederic Handel.
The film derives its title from a letter Osborne claims Handel wrote after a visit to the Tunbridge Wells Ladies’ Music Circle, who had invited him to hear a performance of “their Messiah.” Handel allegedly retorted “I always thought it was my Messiah.” He accepted the invitation, only to make a quick escape after the first hour. When he returned home, he allegedly shot off an angry letter describing the horrid experience, signing off with the line “so God rot Tunbridge Wells.”
Early reviews of the film were dismal, with critics asking what John Osborne could possibly know about music-and even savaging poor Trevor Howard (this was his last major film), who was very hurt by the film’s early notices. At first, only the music escaped criticism: the film features performances by Sir Charles Mackerras, the English Chamber Orchestra, Emma Kirkby, James Bowman, Elizabeth Harwood, John Shirley-Quirk, Simon Preston, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Valerie Masterson, and Andrei Gavrilov.
However, the tide eventually turned, and critics began to understand that Osborne had “attempted to strip away what felt like centuries of bad Handel performances …and reveal a composer who had burst upon London like a tornado and not only shaken the smugness of Georgian England to its roots, but laid the foundations of an entirely different tradition of British music making-bold, brassy and brilliant. ”