What is it about Puccini?
Puccini's operas are some of the world's most loved. We look at what makes his music so appealing.
16 February 2014 at 11.45am | 6 Comments
Giacomo Puccini is one of the most popular opera composers of all time. Of his 12 operas, four – La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot – are among the most performed operas worldwide. They’re also regularly recorded: you can buy more than twenty DVD recordings of La bohème alone. Here are just a few of the reasons why we think Puccini is such an appealing composer:
First, there are his marvellous plots, full of attention-grabbing action and interesting character development. Puccini’s sense of dramatic pacing is always immaculate (his operas never feel too long or too short) and he was a master of stagecraft. There’s plenty of variety to enjoy as well: Puccini took a different dramatic approach with each opera. Tosca has all the elements of a thriller. Manon Lescaut is an iconic drama of doomed romance and La fanciulla del West has a cinematic grandeur. La bohème is a realistic, sometimes witty, sometimes very moving depiction of the life and loves of a group of poverty-stricken young artists. Madama Butterfly explores the dark side of colonialism through the story of an exploited Japanese girl, while Turandot transports us to a dark fairytale world where a mysterious stranger teaches the meaning of love to a cruel princess.
There are also Puccini’s wonderful characters. Each of the bohemians in La bohème is a true individual, from the romantic dreamer Rodolfo to the bookish and taciturn Colline. Tosca’s Scarpia is one of the greatest of operatic villains – while Tosca herself, with her jealousy, courage and passionate love for Cavaradossi, is one of the most complex of operatic heroines. In Madama Butterfly we watch Cio-Cio-San mature from an innocent young girl to a dignified, tragic woman. The cunning hero of Gianni Schicchi is one of opera’s great comic creations. And in his final opera Puccini explores the nature of power and the survival instinct through the characters of Calaf, who knows no fear, Liù, who dies for love, and Turandot, the ‘ice princess’ who swears that no man will possess her.
Puccini had a knack for picking a good setting for his operas – Paris, Rome, Nagasaki, California, ancient Peking. And how well he brought these places to life! Even Debussy – not a Puccini fan – claimed no one had depicted 1830s Paris as vividly as Puccini in Act II of La bohème. For Tosca, Puccini went to great lengths to create a grand and – to some extent – historically accurate church service to end Act I, and he stood at dawn on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo to find inspiration for the tolling bells that open Act III. Madama Butterfly transports us to Japan through the use of traditional Japanese songs. Puccini also studied Chinese music to create the oriental flavour of Turandot. And in every Puccini opera there’s also a host of wonderful evocations of stage action, such as the 18th-century pastiche dances in Act II of Manon Lescaut, the out-of-tune barrel organ in Il tabarro and the falling snow at the opening of Act III of La bohème.
Finally, there’s Puccini’s glorious tunes. Not only are his arias and duets beautiful to listen to, but they also capture perfectly his characters’ emotional states. What could more powerfully represent falling in love than Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelid manina’? Or sexual magnatism than Pinkerton’s seduction of Cio-Cio-San in the duet ‘Vieni la sera’? Or despair and desperate appeal than Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’? And in Turandot there’s a host of marvellous arias, including Turandot’s fiery ‘In questa reggia’ and Calaf’s heroic ‘Nessun dorma’.
Do you enjoy Puccini’s operas or are you immune to their charm? Let us know what you think.