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Puccini in Brussels

The maestro’s final weeks in our capital

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
4 min.

One hundred years after Giacomo Puccini’s death in Brussels, La Monnaie presents a new production of the opera he hoped to finish here. We’ll reconstruct the last days of Italy’s operatic pride as we visit four key locations in the capital.

Hotel Puccini

Milan, Paris, Vienna, Berlin: Puccini travelled regularly  –  to meet librettists and conductors, listen to new works by leading colleagues, or supervise European productions of his works. On 22 October 1924, he wrote to Giuseppe Adami, one of the librettists of Turandot, that he would undertake a trip to Brussels. The trip, unhappily, was not simply for the pleasure of visiting the city: he had been diagnosed with acute throat cancer and Puccini’s doctors had recommended experimental radium therapy with Dr Leroux of Brussels.

“This trouble in my throat is giving me no peace, although the torment is more mental than physical. I am going to Brussels to consult a well-known specialist… Will it be an operation? A medical treatment? A death sentence? I can’t go on like this any longer. And then there’s Turandot…”

And so it happened: on 4 November, Puccini and his son Antonio left Viareggio for Pisa, where they continued by express train to Milan, Ostend, and eventually Brussels. In the composer’s luggage: the rough compositions for the finale of his last opera, Turandot, which he was eager to finish during his stay in Brussels. Puccini spent part of his days in our capital in a stately mansion on the Rue Royale, with a façade that would not be out of place in an Italian palazzo.

The house, at number 294, still exists and has since been named ‘Hotel Puccini’. It is currently the headquarters of the home care organisation Familiehulp (Family Aid).

La clinique de l’Institut de la Couronne

However, Puccini spent much of his time at Dr Leroux’s private clinic, located at 1 Avenue de la Couronne in Ixelles. On 7 November, the famous patient began experimental radium therapy there. Initially, the radium would be applied externally, after which the tumour would be treated internally with throat surgery. At the time, the treatment was only offered in two European cities, Brussels and Berlin. “You can see which city I chose,” Puccini joked a few weeks later in an exclusive interview for Le Soir. “I was already familiar with Brussels, and I love it; but imagine how much more I will love the city if it gives me back my health…” (21/22 November 1924). Over the years, the ‘Institut chirurgical’ gave way to an apartment building, which still has this plaque on its façade.

Memorial with the correction of his birth date underneath (Puccini incorrectly stated 23 December when he was hospitalised)
Memorial with the correction of his birth date underneath (Puccini incorrectly stated 23 December when he was hospitalised)

La Monnaie

Both hospital staff and the Italian embassy carefully cooperated to preserve Puccini’s privacy, allowing him to undergo his treatment virtually unnoticed for the first two weeks. Nevertheless, when Le Soir reported on 18 November that the renowned composer was in Brussels to have his larynx removed, Ambassador Orsini Barone immediately denied all the buzz. However, he could not completely quell the rumours: Puccini strolled with his son almost daily through the Brussels city centre for their lunches – albeit incognito. He is also said to have visited La Monnaie for another performance (in French) of Madama Butterfly, which he reportedly had to leave early because he became too ill. Puccini, incidentally, was well acquainted with our opera house: in 1909, he spent a fortnight involved in rehearsals for Madama Butterfly, and attended the Brussels performance of La Bohème on 25 October 1900.

The La Monnaie Theatre in the years Puccini visited it
The La Monnaie Theatre in the years Puccini visited it

St Mary’s Church Schaerbeek

After the initial success of the radium therapy, the medical treatment gradually began to take a toll on Puccini. According to Antonio, Puccini’s spirits were increasingly sinking: “He has ups and downs, but – poor man – the downs are more and more frequent,” he wrote to a friend. Puccini’s doubts about his recovery are palpable in the update he gave Adami just before the all-important operation on 24 November 1924. “Some days ago, I had lost all hope of recovery. And what hours and days I have passed… I am prepared for anything.” However, he received the hopeful news that the operation had gone well just a few days after. “The doctors are now saying without any hesitation that Puccini will certainly recover,” fellow composer Clausetti informed Puccini’s librettist. But fate struck two days later: Puccini’s heart gave out, and after a brief struggle, he lost his life at 11:30 a.m. on 29 November 1924 in the Brussels private clinic.

Shortly afterwards, the funeral ceremony took place at St Mary’s Church in Schaerbeek. The service, graced by an organ and La Monnaie soprano Laure Bergé, drew in a massive crowd. People gathered en masse in the streets of Brussels to say goodbye to one of the greatest opera composers of all time. A long procession through the city ended with a military salute of honour at Brussels Central, where Puccini’s coffin was transferred to a private carriage bound for Ostend and then Milan. Almost one hundred years later, thousands of opera lovers will soon be stepping out of that same station into Brussels for another salute of honour: a new production of his last, unfinished masterpiece.