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How Puccini used music to portray settings

From Nagasaki harbour to the wide-open plains of Louisiana, Puccini was a master of evoking a sense of place.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

21 May 2014 at 11.47am | 3 Comments

One of the defining features of Puccini’s musical settings is how he portrays the geographical settings for the stories of his operas. He was not the first to do this, nor the last, but Puccini’s works are notably well-travelled. The scores' set descriptions themselves make the point – for example:

Puccini’s aim was to create a realistic world on stage that included the specific locale of the drama, so he included in his music sounds that give this sense of a real place. One of the most famous is the opening of Act III of Tosca. The final part of the story takes place on top of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, just before dawn. The points of starlight in a black sky provoke condemned hero Cavaradossi to recall a romantic night spent with Tosca – this is the famous aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’Paul Brown’s designs for Jonathan Kent’s Royal Opera production re-create the scene beautifully, but Puccini provided the lead through the music.

The opening creates the sense of quiet over a sleeping city: a shepherd leads his flock out to graze – we don’t see him, but hear his song and the ringing of the sheep's bells, and then the church bells start to chime the call to matins. It is a lovely evocation of peace and calm, a world on the brink of awakening. This was one of the first sections of the opera that Puccini began composing, and indicates his desire to get an accurate sense of place right at the start of his work on the music. He had visited Rome and had local help to notate the sound of the Roman bells so that he could include the pitch and rhythm of their tolling into the music with some precision. It's detail like this that makes the atmosphere so convincing.

It was harder to draw on such literal sounds for the landscape of the American West of the Gold Rush. But Puccini’s ear for colour and texture brilliantly conjure up that sense of the sublime that was captured in the art of the American Hudson River School, with painters such as Thomas ColeFrederic Church and Albert Bierstadt: the majestic power and scale of nature untamed in a barely explored New World.

The short orchestral prelude that begins La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) uses sweeping chords, tremolo strings and big changes of dynamics to evoke with the orchestra the idea of huge spaces subject to the elements, the wind through great redwoods, the swaying of their branches (a wind machine is used later in the opera to convey such a soundscape literally).

The last act of Manon Lescaut opens with an equally haunting, if more contracted, effect of expansive chords to represent the wide barren expanse outside New Orleans (geographical licence is part of opera!) in which Manon will perish.

Puccini’s time allowed him to bring the pictorial quality of 19th-century Romantic music into opera with a purpose beyond the decorative. Puccini wanted to make you feel as though you were there, alongside the characters in the story. His music evokes the power of their emotions, but it also brings alive the landscapes in which they live and die. 

Manon Lescaut runs from 22 November–12 December 2016. Tickets are still available. This is a co-production with Shanghai Grand Theatre.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Siggy responded on 25 May 2014 at 2:39pm Reply

    This is also one of the reasons Puccini is surprisingly problematic to update. He has created such a specific sound picture that if the visuals don't agree there is a jarring effect - like nails down a blackboard. Looking forward to seeing how the new Manon Lescaut production copes.

  2. william glynne hughes responded on 15 July 2014 at 10:06pm Reply

    The article is correct in every detail.There are many more examples. Even Suor Angelica could have been included. The ROH Manon L had as many examples of the kind mentioned above by Siggy. They are too many to mention but hardly any one cares when there is so much sex to enjoy and wonderful singing !

  3. Mark Strachan responded on 13 May 2015 at 12:44am Reply

    For me it's his musical description of the River Seine in the opening bars of Il Tabarro. As the others have so correctly said, close your eyes and he puts you right there.

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