Puccini: An Appreciation

Puccini was the operatic supremo whose blazing melodramas strike right to the core of human emotion.

I love Puccini but he always seems to get a rough ride from the critics. What’s the problem?

No great opera composer divides opinion as startlingly as Puccini. Yet take almost any scene from his operas and within a short space of time you can sense exactly what is going on. Puccini always claimed that his work could be sung in any language yet still be clearly understood: his characters are gloriously uncomplicated, his pacing immaculate, his music absolutely at one with the dramatic situation. Basically it’s all just a tad too obvious for the intelligentsia.

Who or what was “verismo”?

This was an Italian artistic movement calling for more “realism”. In true EastEnders’ style, lust, betrayal, hatred and murder became the order of the day, as in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Puccini’s Tosca.

But was he really a bad composer then?

Not at all. Puccini was a highly skilled orchestrator, with a rare command of musical structure and stagecraft. As he once put it: “A curtain raised or dropped too late often means the failure of an opera”. He was also a perfectionist in all things. When working on his final opera Turandot, he revealingly explained: “Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said: ‘Write for the theatre – mind, only for the theatre’. And I have obeyed his supreme command.”

What’s all this about Puccini stealing the idea for La Bohème from Leoncavallo?

A bit of a red herring. Both men just happened to be making an operatic treatment of the same story at the same time. Neither man was previously aware of the situation. Puccini's version was premiered first, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And that rumour of a bomb threat during the premiere of Tosca?

Absolutely true. Just 15 minutes before the curtain was due to go up, Puccini received a warning from the Chief of Police that there could be trouble. In fact, there was a mild disturbance in the stalls, but it was caused by latecomers arriving!