National News

Simonetta Puccini, Keeper of the Composer’s Flame, Dies at 89

Posted December 26, 2017 6:42 p.m. EST

Simonetta Puccini, who went to court to prove that she was a descendant of the composer Giacomo Puccini and, after she won that case, worked to further Puccini’s legacy, died on Dec. 16 in Milan. She was 89 by most accounts.

Her death was confirmed by her friend Herbert Handt, the conductor, who did not give a cause. She was Puccini’s only recognized remaining descendant.

Puccini was, for half of her life, Simonetta Giurumello. She received a degree in literature from the University of Milan and became a teacher, but she left that profession in 1973 as her court case neared its conclusion.

Giacomo Puccini, the composer of “La Bohème,” “Turandot,” “Madama Butterfly” and other masterworks of opera, was known for his formidable libido, and chronicling his various affairs and possible progeny has been a popular pastime for a certain segment of opera fans. But Simonetta’s connection to the family came through Puccini’s son, Antonio.

She brought suit to prove that she was born of an affair between Antonio Puccini, who died in 1946, and her mother, whose name does not surface in the various news accounts of the matter.

The Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest tribunal in civil matters, ruled in her favor, entitling her to take the name Puccini and giving her a share of the Puccini estate.

That estate had been vast, but, a half-century after the composer’s death in 1924, it had been bled down and become enmeshed in competing claims, which would continue to be contested into this century.

Once it was decided that she was Puccini’s granddaughter and was granted the right to use the family name, Simonetta Puccini, while continuing to be entangled in legal disputes over the estate, became her grandfather’s flame keeper. In 1979, she and several others founded the Institute for Puccini Studies to promote research about him and help maintain his archive.

She also won control of the lakeside villa in Torre del Lago, in Tuscany, where Puccini lived and composed some of his operas. It had been in disrepair, and in 1996 she created Friends of the Homes of Giacomo Puccini, a nonprofit organization that raised money to restore and maintain the villa and the museum there.

She also established the Simonetta Puccini Foundation to promote scholarship and other causes.

Simonetta Puccini became a sort of goodwill ambassador for all things Puccini, attending performances of his operas and exhibitions devoted to him in Italy, the United States and elsewhere.

She also edited two volumes of Puccini’s letters and, with William Weaver, edited “The Puccini Companion: Essays on Puccini’s Life and Music,” published in 1994.

“The loss of Simonetta’s warmth, especially her deeply felt dedication to her grandfather’s life and music, will be deeply felt here in Torre del Lago,” Handt said by email from that town.

The conductor Alberto Veronesi, president of the foundation that stages the annual Puccini festival in Torre del Lago, which has been going since 1930, said in a video message for Simonetta Puccini’s funeral last week: “She always supported us and guided the activity of the foundation. I intend to cherish what I learned from her and to do my best to keep the great work of her grandfather vibrant and alive.”

Simonetta Puccini leaves no immediate survivors.

Neither does Giacomo Puccini, as least officially, although claimants surface from time to time. In 2008, Paolo Benvenuti’s film “Puccini e la Fanciulla” examined the possibility that Puccini had a son from an affair and descendants through that line.

Some have sought to prove their ancestry by having Puccini dug up for a DNA test, but so far — partly because of Simonetta Puccini’s opposition — his grave in a chapel inside the villa at Torre del Lago has remained undisturbed.

Bernard Holland, at the time a music critic for The New York Times, visited the villa at Torre del Lago in 2001. He had found a trip there 10 years earlier disappointing (it included a tour by “an inebriated caretaker and his dog,” he wrote), but by 2001 Simonetta Puccini’s restoration efforts had taken hold, and she and the museum left him favorably impressed.

“Very often among families,” Holland wrote, “a generation of great productivity is followed by one that nose-dives into chaos. Then the character and quality have a way of reappearing. Whether this is a function of wealth and its debilitating influences or simply of genes skipping a generation, Puccini’s troubled family tree is looking a little greener.”