The Operas of Puccini

His Style

Giacomo Puccini was the leading figure in Italian opera of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He resembles Massenet in his position of mediator between two eras, as well as in many features of his musical style.

The outstanding musical characteristic of his style is the sensuous warmth and melting radiance of the vocal line.  It is like naked emotion crying out, and persuading the listener's feeling by its very urgency.  There's a kind of perpetual pregnancy in the melody, whether it is sung or entrusted to the orchestra as a background for vocal declamation.  The musical utterance is kept at high tension, almost without repose, as though it were to be feared that if the audiences were not continually excited they would go to sleep.  Good examples would be "Che gelida manina" from Bohéme; "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca and "Un bel dì" from Butterfly.

This sort of melody runs through all of Puccini's works.  In his earliest and latest operas it tends to be organized in balanced phrases, but in those of the middle period it becomes a freer line, often embodying a set of recurring motifs, which serve to:

Puccini's music was enriched by the composer's constant interest in the new harmonic developments of his time; he was always eager to put current discoveries to use in his operas.  One example is the opening of Tosca with three major chords:  B-flat, A-flat, E-natural.  The harmonic tension of the augmented fourth between the first and third chords serves to represent the villainous Scarpia throughout the opera.

An important source of color effects in Puccini's music is the use of exotic materials.  Exoticism in Puccini was more than a mere borrowing of certain details but rather extended into the very fabric of his melody, harmony, rhythm, and orchestration.  It is naturally most evident in the works of oriental subjects, Butterfly and Turandot.

It has been said of Wagner that his music "is better than it sounds."  Puccini's music, on the contrary often sounds better than it is, owing to the perfect adjustment of means to ends.  He had the prime requisites for an opera composer,

Le Villi

While still a student at the Milan Conservatory, Puccini entered a competition for a one-act opera announced in 1882 by the publishing firm of Sonzogno. He and his librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, failed to win, but their opera "Le villi" came to the attention of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who arranged a successful production at the Teatro del Verme in Milan in 1883 and commissioned a second opera.


Fontana's libretto, "Edgar," was unsuited to Puccini's dramatic talent and the opera was coolly received at La Scala in April 1889. It did, however, set the seal on what was to be Puccini's lifelong association with the house of Ricordi.

Manon Lescaut

The first opera for which Puccini himself chose the subject was "Manon Lescaut."  Produced at Turin in 1893, it achieved a success that made him known outside Italy.  Among the writers who worked on its libretto were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who provided the librettos for Puccini's next three operas.

Manon Lescaut is:

La Bohéme

La Bohéme is generally considered Puccini's masterpiece, but with its mixture of lighthearted and sentimental scenes, and its largely conversational style it was not a success when produced at Turin in 1896.

The rapport between composer and librettists is close, and the atmosphere is attractive because it reflects Puccini's own work and cultural milieu, which he could convey with warm and sympathetic authority.  La Bohéme is well balanced and satisfying because here Puccini stayed wholly within the boundaries of his genuine powers.  The lyric-sentimental and bourgeois attitude in this opera is, of course, diametrically opposed to Verdi's heroic vein, and yet one still perceives the ties that bind the younger to the older master.  La Bohéme has an excellent libretto congenially set to music, and besides, Puccini was clearly in love with his heroine, Mimi.


Tosca, Puccini's first excursion into verismo, was more enthusiastically received than Bohéme by the Roman audience at the Teatro Costanzi in 1900.

Madama Butterfly

Later that year (1900), Puccini visited London and saw David Belasco's one-act play "Madam Butterfly."  This he took as the basis for his next collaboration with Illica and Giacosa; he considered it the best and technically most advanced opera he had written. He was unprepared for the fiasco attending its first performance in February 1904, when the La Scala audience was urged into hostility, even pandemonium, by the composer's jealous rivals.  In a revised version it was given to great acclaim at Brescia the following May.

La fanciulla del West

(The Girl of the Golden West)
"La fanciulla del West," based on another Belasco drama, was given its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in December 1910.  In all technical respects, notably its Debussian harmony and Straussian orchestration, it was a masterly reply to the criticism that Puccini repeated himself in every new opera. What it lacks is the incandescent phrase, and this is probably why it has not entered the normal repertory outside Italy.

La Rondine

(The Swallow)
Differences with Tito Ricordi, head of the publishing firm since 1912, led Puccini to accept a commission for an operetta from the directors of the Vienna Karltheater. The result, "La rondine," though warmly received at Monte Carlo in 1917, is among Puccini's weakest works, hovering between opera and operetta and devoid of striking lyrical melody.

Il Trittico

While working on "La Rondine," Puccini began the composition of "Il tabarro," the first of three one-act operas ("Il trittico") which follow the scheme of the Parisian Grand Guignol: This last (Gianni Schicchi) has proved to be the most enduring part of the triptych and is often done without the others, usually in a double bill.  It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in December, 1918.


In his early 60s Puccini was determined to "strike out on new paths" and started work on "Turandot," based on a Gozzi play which satisfied his desire for a subject with a fantastic, fairy-tale atmosphere, but flesh-and-blood characters. It shows: During its composition he moved to Viareggio and in 1923 developed cancer of the throat. Treatment at a Brussels clinic seemed successful, but his heart could not stand the strain and he died, leaving "Turandot" unfinished.  (It is usually played today with Franco Alfano's ending.)