Rehabilitating Puccini

The immense popularity of operas such as Tosca or La Bohème has long rendered the composer suspect in high-minded circles—but opinion within the academy is catching up with audiences.

A portrait of Giacomo Puccini with an inscription to the soprano Rose Ader
A portrait of Giacomo Puccini with an inscription to the soprano Rose Ader (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty)

Intellectual condescension toward Giacomo Puccini, which still persists, started during his lifetime, when his operas played the world’s houses and made him wealthy. How wealthy? When Puccini died at 65, in 1924, he left behind an estate estimated in today’s dollars at nearly $200 million, making him one of the most financially successful opera composers in history.

That very popularity has long rendered Puccini suspect in high-minded circles. For one, his operas are deemed shamelessly sentimental. Consider the stories. A consumptive seamstress and a struggling poet in the Latin Quarter of Paris around 1830, living in near-poverty amid bohemian friends, meet and fall in love at first sight. They break up, make up, and break up again, until she returns to die in his arms.

Then there is the tale of a plucky young woman who owns a saloon in a small California town during the Gold Rush, a place she makes a home away from home for the rugged miners who have left families behind to seek their fortune. Though yearning for love, she keeps herself at a motherly distance, reading from the Bible to the illiterate men and offering them an example of decency—until she falls for a bandit, rescues him from an imperious sheriff, and rides off with her redeemed lover as they sing “Addio, California.”

Another staple of international houses tells the story of a steamy love affair in Rome in 1800 between a renowned opera diva and a handsome painter who, betraying his aristocratic lineage, embraces antiroyalist causes. The city’s villainous police chief, a lecherous baron who lusts for the diva, sadistically tortures her lover practically in her presence to elicit information about an escaped political prisoner the artist has protected.

The distinguished musicologist Joseph Kerman, in his noted 1956 book Opera as Drama, famously dismissed this last work, Tosca, as a “shabby little shocker.” For Kerman and many other Puccini debunkers, including towering (possibly envious) composers such as Mahler and Stravinsky, the problem is not just the sappy stories but, as they deem it, the schlocky music. Puccini whips up intensity with cinematically graphic symphonic effects and manipulates your emotions with opulent vocal lines, often doubled for extra punch in the orchestra.

Do not believe it.

For me, Puccini is not only indispensable, but one of the most dramatically astute and musically expert composers to write for the stage. Opinion within the academy has for some time been catching up with the opera-​­going public. Serious Puccini scholarship has thrived. In my experience, some of the most coolheaded admirers of Puccini have been composers who marvel not just at his melding of music and drama but at his compositional skill, harmonic daring, and colorful orchestration.

In Puccini’s day, Mahler may have dismissed him. But of all people, Anton Webern—a Mahler devotee and proud student of Schoenberg, a composer who embraced 12-​­tone technique and wrote works of radical concision—was a Puccini fan. After attending a Vienna performance of Puccini’s Gold Rush opera La fanciulla del West in 1919, Webern praised the work in a letter to Schoenberg as “a score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise.” Webern found “no trace of Kitsch” in the opera: “I must say I enjoyed it very much … Am I wrong?”

Puccini checks the score for one of his operas, La fanciulla del West. (Bettmann / Getty)

He was right. But it’s revealing that Webern felt the need to run his opinion past his teacher.

Even Schoenberg, though he had scant affinity for Puccini’s emotive Italianate style, expressed admiration for his craftsmanship and curiosity. In a 1930 essay, he wrote of how touched he was that in 1924, though Puccini was grappling with the disease that would claim him that year, he made an arduous trip to attend a performance in Florence of Schoenberg’s path-breaking Pierrot Lunaire, an unabashedly atonal song cycle for voice and chamber ensemble. The piece was received on this occasion with overt hostility, Schoenberg recalled, not by the “art lovers,” but by the “expert judges,” as he put it. “I was indeed honored that Puccini, not an expert judge but a practical expert, already ill, made a six-​­hour journey to get to know my work, and afterwards said some very friendly things to me; that was good, strange though my music may have remained to him.”

Actually, Puccini was deeply interested in the musical experiments going on during this period in Vienna, Paris, and elsewhere. Even in his early works, the influences of Debussy and Richard Strauss come through: You hear Puccini deftly folding hints of their styles into his own distinctive voice. The more radical modernist developments intrigued Puccini as well: He had to make sure he wasn’t missing out on something so he could go back to doing what he did best.

And what did his best entail?

Puccini has long been hailed as a supreme melodist. Yet in his day, detractors complained that his music was overly symphonic, the product of a composer who lacked understanding that opera always had been, and should remain, a voice-​­driven art form. Today, those scores seem ingenious amalgams of orchestral and vocal richness. Still, the general perception that Puccini filled his operas with soaring, endless melodies seems a simplification. His melodic writing can often be complex and elusive.

Think of Rodolfo’s Act I aria in La Bohème, “Che gelida manina,” in which he tells Mimì, who had knocked on his garret door just moments before, all about his life. The aria is like a monologue in which melodic phrases segue into stretches of arioso writing that straddle aria and recitative. Rodolfo’s lyrical effusions are disrupted by sudden dramatic bursts as he lets down his guard. The music is too episodic and impetuous to be described as simply melodious.

Harmonically, Puccini’s music never really loosened its tethering to tonal harmony, though he explored whole-​­tone scales (à la Debussy) and even bitonality (in which strands of music in clashing keys overlap). Puccini often juxtaposed chords that had far-​­flung harmonic relationships and enriched his language with thick, dissonance-​saturated sonorities to engender ambiguity and intensity.

The most impressive element of Puccini’s craft, though, may be his sophisticated use of motifs. Wagner tended to use his leitmotifs, as they’ve been called, more loosely: A musical motif associated with a character, an incident, or a thematic element of the drama will routinely be transformed and deployed for more generalized purposes.

Puccini, in contrast, used motifs and melodic phrases mostly as identification tags for characters or locales: a bohemian garret, a favorite haunt, a statue of the Madonna in a church. Think of the opening of Tosca, which begins with a series of three fearsome, brassy chords in the orchestra: the motif of Scarpia, the fiendish police chief of Rome. The specific chords (B-flat, A-flat, and E major) are essentially unrelated harmonically, suggesting that Scarpia exercises his power in fits and starts. Also, the chords spread apart menacingly, with the top line creeping upward and the bass line plunging downward. Puccini manipulates this motif constantly throughout the opera, deploying versions of it as an ominous undercurrent, a suspenseful premonition, even, at one point, a deceptively playful dance that percolates in the orchestra while Scarpia hatches his schemes.

Over many years, starting in high school, as I got to know Puccini’s operas and played through the scores on the piano, I would discern subtle uses of some motif that I’d never noticed before. These discoveries were like epiphanies that finally explained why I had always been so affected by a particular moment, without knowing why.

Regarding structure, Puccini kept pushing himself to take more chances and create almost through-​composed scores. La fanciulla del West (1910) represented a significant advance: The score is a near-​seamless unfolding of lyrical flights, choral stirrings, melodies that suggest an aria is coming only to slip into elusive arioso, and gripping dramatic episodes that are driven by the shrewd deployment of motifs and themes. Fanciulla has only one stand-​­alone aria: for Dick Johnson, the bandit, during the final act, when he is about to be hanged by an avenging posse of miners (or so we think).

Finally, what about this idea that Puccini’s stories are sentimental? Well, not if you explore them a little deeper, which Puccini does on our behalf through his music.

Take La Bohème. Our hero, Rodolfo, the wannabe poet, survives by writing articles that bore him for little journals. He shares a cramped garret with three buddies: an aimless painter and the household’s most gregarious guy; an all-​­purpose musician who manages to find little gigs now and then; and a would-be philosopher, adrift in the real world, who mostly struts around cracking bad puns and uttering ponderosities. The guys share food and money when they have any and hang out at a café they can’t afford. Their poverty is self-​­imposed, the result of their anti-establishment attitudes. Not one of them ever mentions a family member.

But why does Rodolfo, who is so swept away by Mimì, flee lasting attachment to her? Puccini and his librettists take us step by step to the answer, which is the core message of Bohème, a tough life lesson that all the bohemians learn by the end. It’s fine to be artsy, penniless, and carefree when you’re young and healthy. But terminal illness is an adult problem. Though he can’t admit this to her, or even to himself, Rodolfo soon realizes that Mimì is not just frail and prone to coughing fits but seriously ill. What can he do for her? How can he help her? He loves her but can’t face her illness; he can’t “hack it,” as we might say today.

Mimì’s death is a brutal wake-up call. Rodolfo and his friends finally understand that they must take stock and grapple with real-​­life responsibilities. Generations of young people—from idealistic college roommates, to striving artists sharing apartments in big cities, to 30-somethings trying to start businesses and raise children while feeling wistful for carefree earlier days—have seen themselves in Puccini’s characters, which may be one reason Bohème remains one of the most popular operas ever.

Critics who valued opera’s long history of putting myths, legends, and historical events on stage carped about Puccini’s “little” subjects, tales of seamstresses and geisha girls and such. But early on, Puccini gravitated toward the emerging school of verismo (“realism” or “truthfulness”), a movement that had originated in Italian literature and embraced naturalistic, everyday subjects. Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) were embraced as watershed operas by verismo agitators. Yet Puccini felt neither bound to nor defined by this movement. And he never made excuses for being attracted to humble characters whom he could ennoble through his music.

This article has been adapted from Anthony Tommasini’s new book, The Indispensable Composers.