Original poster depicting the death of Scarpia
La bohème and Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini consistently head lists of the most-frequently performed operas in the United States, and two others, Tosca and Turandot, are rarely much farther behind them in ranking. All these works are treasured for their powerfully expressive music and poignant depictions of human emotions.
Musicologist Daniel E. Freeman offers a survey of Puccini’s four most popular operas with an emphasis on the ways in which they reflect the composer’s approach to musical setting and character development. Analysis of the principal musical and dramatic components of each work includes video recordings of performances staged at the world’s leading opera houses.
Freeman teaches at the University of Minnesota and lectures nationally and internationally on classical music and opera
November 1 Puccini’s Operatic Style
In his youth, Giacomo Puccini assiduously studied operatic masterpieces composed in Italy, Germany, and France and drew freely on each of these national styles for inspiration. His approach to operatic composition was deeply rooted in traditions of 19th-century musical Romanticism, but despite his reputation as an isolated and backward-looking composer, Puccini was very much aware of contemporary trends in composition, and he did incorporate some of them into his works.
November 8 La bohème (1896)
Puccini’s La bohème is a quintessential example of verismo (realist) opera of late 19th-century Italy. Instead of serious works set in the distant past, it became possible to set them in modern times among ordinary people rather than royalty or nobles. La bohème explores the harsh lives of Parisian writers and artists and features a conventional tragic love story that ends in death.
November 15 Tosca (1900)
Set in Rome in the year 1800, the dramatic story of opera singer Floria Tosca and her lover Mario, a painter, finds them trapped in dangerous political circumstances. Early audiences were shocked at its portrayal of a female murderer, who dies at the end along with her lover.
November 22 Madame Butterfly (1904)
In the tradition of verismo opera, this tragic love story of a Japanese geisha and an American naval officer was set in contemporary times. Some audience members were uncomfortable with its interracial love story when it was first performed, whereas many modern audience members take offence at its patronizing portrayal of Asians. The score is famous for its occasional introduction of Asian musical idioms.
November 29 Turandot (1924)
In a radical departure, Puccini’s last opera is based on an 18th-century play, and it follows certain important conventions of that century’s Italian opera. In particular, the story is set in ancient times with the heroine a Chinese princess, and a happy marriage is proclaimed at the end instead of the death of one or both principal lovers. The music has a much harsher sound than Puccini’s earlier scores due to influences from leading avant-garde composers of the early 20th century.
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