Puccini - the end of the golden age

Opera-goers often see Verdi and Puccini as the twin peaks of romantic opera. The top of the operatic pops are household names and money-spinners for cash-strapped opera companies: Aida, Bohème, Butterfly, Traviata, which was whose? Lush music, catchy tunes, romantic tragedy. But dig a little deeper and major differences emerge.

For a start, Puccini was much later than Verdi (whom we covered in 2018 - see our web page). Verdi's final opera - the comedy Falstaff - appeared in 1893, the same year as Puccini's first success, Manon Lescaut. (We looked at Manon Lescaut last year along with Massenet's Manon, to make a sideways comparison of French and Italian opera. Search below for 'Manon' or 'Puccini'.) That wasn't actually our first brush with Puccini - we spent a term on him four years ago. If you want a good introduction to Puccini and the operas of his we looked at then, go to our web pages on him, his music, Tosca and Turandot. Lots of good stuff there, which I'll try to avoid rehashing here!

Puccini was the last composer of the "golden age of opera". No more hummable tunes, no more tear-jerking romance. The grey sordidness of the 20th century had arrived.

To my mind, one of the big differences between Puccini and Verdi, is that Puccini was far more Realist in his plots, while largely

adhering to the Love-and-Death zeitgeist of Romanticism. Verdi leaned strongly towards the romance from times past and places exotic, the myth and legend, and stories of princes and princesses hopelessly crossed in in love. Even Rigoletto was in the court of a duke.

By comparison, Puccini's operas were far more inclined to be about ordinary people in much more contemporary and recognisable settings. Moreover the elements of doom and tragedy arose more from immediate politics (Manon Lescaut), deep social/cultural problems (Butterfly), vicious turns of history (Tosca), and individual circumstances and problems (Bohème), rather than love triangles. This made them much more into psycho-dramas or socio-dramas, less into doomed-lovers melodramas. Sound like the real world? In these stories and characters we see ourselves and our societies quite directly, whereas with Verdi (and Wagner, another great influence on Puccini) we must do a lot of translating to fit those lives and stories into ours. (None the worse for that of course - think of the power of Greek myth - just different.)

As we work through our Term 1 on Puccini, some aspects to keep in mind - and discuss - are:

  • His music - what were his influences, what is the "Puccini style"? (see our 2016 page on this)

  • What drives the plots - people's psychology, their society, or force of destiny? Predictable endings? - or not?

  • How important are the characters' personalities, and do they change - and why?

  • Puccini's women - victims or manipulators, self-driven or helpless, simplistic or shrewd?

Our first opera will be Tosca, chosen because there's a screening of it at the Palace Balwyn. A brutal tale of state power triumphing over virtue and art. A blog page for her is coming!


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