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The manuscript of a previously unknown, incomplete opera has been authenticated as the work of Giacomo Puccini, Italian music scholars announced yesterday. And even more startling: it’s set in Australia.
La Condannata, meaning "The Condemned One" or "The Convict", has been unearthed more than a century after it was penned. Written in the composer's hand, the score was found sewn into the original upholstery of an item of furniture at the Museo Villa Puccini in Torre del Lago, the picturesque town where the maestro spent his days from 1891 onwards. The remarkable discovery was made when the seating upholstery was being restored last month.
Musicologist and Puccini specialist Antonio del Imbrogliare oversaw the authentication process and believes the opera is an early work, tentatively dated between Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896). This suggests La Condannata was one of Puccini's first forays into the exotic settings that characterise La Fanciulla del West, Madama Butterfly andTurandot. "To Puccini, Australia seemed more distant, culturally and certainly geographically, than the world of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San, and even more rugged than the Wild West of La Fanciulla", he said.
The opera's plot contains echoes of Tosca and Manon Lescaut, but Puccini and his as yet unidentified librettist must have had only the sketchiest knowledge of Australian geography, since La Condannata is set in Botany Bay in the early years of colonisation but features a daring Act Two escape into the desert.
The title role of the "condemned" heroine is given the Gaelic name Kylie. In the opening scene it is revealed that she is no ordinary convict, having been sentenced to seven harsh years in the colony for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her consumptive mother. Like Minnie of the Golden West, she is the light of the land, planting flowers and nursing injured marsupials back to health. Her love interest Brisbano, a tenor role, is a colonial officer touched by her innate goodness, but their happiness is threatened by the influential and high-ranking official Paddington (baritone), who offers Kylie freedom in exchange for her hand in marriage.
In the second act, Kylie and Brisbano elope with the help of their indigenous confidant Boomerang, a grossly caricatured native character typical of Puccini's more exotic ventures. The lovers seem destined to perish in the ruthless Australian desert, but the final act is unwritten or lost.
Even more astonishing than the fanciful plot are the musical revelations in the score. It appears that Puccini reworked much of the music that languished in the early opera: most immediately recognisable is the motif that opens Mi chiamano Kylie, which became the beloved Mi chiamano Mimì of La Bohème.
According to del Imbrogliare, discussions are underway on how La Condannata might be completed and at last staged, and which company might have first performance honours. “A discovery like this comes once in a lifetime. I am honoured to be a part of it and excited to see how it unfolds.”
In the meantime opera lovers can only speculate on how Puccini's abandoned masterpiece ends, but at least La Condannata is no longer condemned to remain forever lost under the couch.