Giacomo Puccini was the greatest composer of Italian opera after Giuseppe Verdi. He took the form into the 20th century, writing a series of works that include four of the most popular operas of all time: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. Puccini’s family had been church musicians in the city of Lucca for generations. Following his father’s death, Giacomo studied music with his uncle and walked all the way to Pisa to see Verdi’s Aida in 1876. It became the defining moment of his early life: from then on, he knew he wanted to become an opera composer.
Gianni Schicchi takes place in 13th-century Florence, and the story was derived from a passage in Dante’s Inferno. In Puccini’s only comedy Gianni Schicchi is asked to fix a will on behalf of a family so that they inherit, but instead cunningly makes himself and his daughter the sole beneficiaries. The opera includes the well-known aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (‘Oh, My Adored Father’).
La Bohème’s story of young artists living hand-to-mouth in 1830s Paris was not so distant from the composer’s own student experiences in Milan. The emotional authenticity of his music, which dramatizes the details of the action and the characters’ minutest emotions, touched audiences at the first performance in 1896 and has continued to do so ever since. Arguably Puccini’s best work, La Bohème overflows with sublime melodies, sumptuously orchestrated, and quickly became the hottest opera ticket in town.
La Fanciulla Del West (‘The Girl Of The Golden West’)
La Fanciulla Del West (‘The Girl of the Golden West’) was commissioned and premiered by the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Although previously long neglected, the opera is now achieving the popularity it deserves. It has an epic quality ideally suited to its Californian setting and a breadth and scale all its own. Tickets for the grand Metropolitan Opera premiere of The Golden Girl Of The West changed hands on the black market for as much as $150 – which back in 1910 was a small fortune!
La Rondine (‘The Swallow’)
Gentle domestic comedy The Swallow finds Puccini at his most emotionally deft and skillful, composing with a masterly fastidiousness that spills over in the unforgettable ‘Chi Il Belsogno Di Doretta.’ Puccini’s soaring music belies the heartbreak to come.
Incredibly the La Scala premiere of Madama Butterfly, one of Puccini’s best works, was met by jeers, whistles, and farmyard noises – as the whole thing had been organized by Puccini’s jealous musical rivals! Puccini instantly withdrew the opera, and it triumphed three months later in a revised form. Its tragic story of a Japanese geisha betrayed by a visiting American sailor is given heartfelt treatment in Puccini’s melodies, with the exotic touches of his score delicately depicting the work’s Nagasaki setting.
The sublime Manon Lescaut secured Puccini’s international reputation once and for all. George Bernard Shaw declared, “Puccini now looks more like the heir to Verdi than any of his rivals!” Manon chooses luxury over love and pays the ultimate price.
’Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot
‘Nessun Dorma‘, the most famous aria from Puccini’s mesmerizing opera Turandot, has arguably become the most famous of all operatic arias, largely as a result of Pavarotti’s performance of it at umpteen events and arenas following its use as the theme song of the BBC’s 1990 FIFA World Cup coverage. Pavarotti’s interpretation on Zubin Mehta’s 1972 essential recording remains the benchmark by which all others are measured.
’O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Gianni Schicchi
Sounding for all the world like another of Puccini’s glorious declarations of love, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (‘Oh, My Adored Father’) is, in fact, a gently pleading aria concerning the inheritors of a will.
Tosca tells a hard-hitting story of intrigue and torture set in the political unrest of Rome in 1800. Puccini ratchets up the tension from the start, maintaining his hold on audiences through the violent, modernist impact of his harmony and orchestration. Tosca caused a sensation at its 1900 Rome premiere, and not just for the music – there was a bomb scare in the front rows of the stalls before the opera had barely got underway!
While composing Turandot, Puccini felt that his powers were at their height. The work is indeed his grandest structure, drawing on the resources of a vast orchestra and giving a major role to the chorus. Turandot, one of Puccini’s best works, is an oriental operatic melodrama in which Calaf wins the hand of the eponymous ice-cold Princess of Peking, having successfully answered three riddles, thus avoiding execution. Puccini used authentic Chinese melodies in the opera, just as he had drawn on Japanese ones in Madama Butterfly.