Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera.
He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided to compose a set of three one-act operas, to be called Il trittico. Of all of his original ideas, he completed only Il tabarro. His eventual choices for companion pieces, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, are his only works written (by librettist Giovacchino Forzano) as operas and not adapted from an earlier stage play. Additionally, Gianni Schicchi is his only comic opera.
Even though the medieval poet Dante’s most famous work is called The Divine Comedy, it was never intended to be funny, Dante had consigned Gianni Schicchi to hell for forging a will and collecting Buoso Donati’s legacy for himself. Dante himself was related to the Donati family and thus suffered from Schicchi’s fraud, so he found nothing humorous about it. Forzano did.
As the curtain rises, we see Buoso’s corpse on the bed and all of his relatives mourning his death. Before long, a more practical matter comes up. No one knows where his will is, and one of them has heard the rumor that he had left all of his money to the friars. After a feverish search of the room, they discover the will and the truth of the rumor.
If they are to get any benefit from Buoso’s estate, they have to do something about the will, but what? One of them, Rinuccio, suggests that they call the father of his beloved Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi, a notorious con man.
Schicchi and Lauretta arrive in due time, the daughter begging permission to marry Rinuccio. For her sake only, he agrees to take the corpse’s place on the deathbed and dictate a new will. Each relative lays claim to some particular piece of property, but every one of them wants his house, his mule, and his sawmills.
They wrangle dangerously long until one of them proposes to let Schicchi decide. Actually, what he says and the rest agree to is, “Let’s leave it all to Schicchi.”
Before going through with the plan, Schicchi reminds them of the penalties for falsifiers of wills and their accomplices: banishment from Florence and having their fingers amputated.
When the notary arrives, the bogus Buoso leaves a pittance to the friars and gives the relatives exactly what they asked for–except the house, the mule and the sawmill. Those he leaved to his good friend and neighbor, Gianni Schicchi. He stifles the relatives’ outcry by singing the warning song again, “Farewell, dear Florence!” and slyly waving to them “with tiny little fingers.”
Everyone who has earned any sympathy from the audience–Schicchi, Lauretta, and Rinuccio–receive exactly what they wanted, and Schicchi asks the audience for pardon.