Puccini reception lay at the heart of a crisis of national identity that gripped Italy at the fin de siècle. His music was simultaneously held up as a symbol of cultural strength and derided as a manifestation of decadence. The sharply polarised responses of the critics mirrored wider ideological rifts in a society increasingly beset with dissatisfaction and disunity, and responses to score and libretto were at times almost "drowned out" as Puccini became caught up in a crossfire of polemics concerning the contested question of what it meant to be Italian.
This study uses evidence from turn-of-the-century press reports in order to assess Puccini's role in the nation-building process. Penetrating the conflicts which surrounded his works not only informs us about how public reputations were constructed, sustained and challenged, but reveals much about the aspirations of a nation on the brink of Fascism. Contextual chapters on the music press and the anxieties of early-twentieth-century Italian society are followed by a consideration of the ways in which Puccini was lionised as a national composer by his supporters in the early years of his career. Three case studies examine the first reviews of La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, operas which provoked the expression of profound insecurities about the future of Italian music, with discussions centring on the threat of Wagnerism, tradition versus progress, musical sincerity, and the nature of opera criticism itself. The final chapter analyses Fausto Torrefranca's 1912 assault on Puccini as an "effeminate" composer and contextualises his monograph (Giacomo Puccini e l'opera internazionale) alongside contemporary debates on gender and nationalism.