Learn to Recognize the Most Famous Operas in 15 Minutes – Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca on December 22, 1858 from a family of musicians for five generations. It will be with “Manon Lescaut” of 1893 and the “Bohéme” of 1896, respectively the third and fourth works of Puccini, both represented for the first time in Turin, which will find fame and fortune.

The two subsequent works, “Tosca” of 1900 and “Madama Butterfly” of 1904, are received with less enthusiasm than the first performance. The critics who had condemned the Tosca, however, are later denied by the public; so, after the revision in the weeks following the premiere at La Scala, Madama Butterfly is also a great success.

Giacomo Puccini married Elvira Gemignani in 1904, who had fled from Lucca and his family to stay with him; it would have been an unhappy choice, however. Elvira haunts Giacomo with her scenes of jealousy and leads to suicide a young girl, such Doria Manfredi, who had come to be a maid at the Puccini house in Torre del Lago. According to the most accredited historical-musicological studies, it seems that Puccini’s wife exasperated the waitress to such an extent, accusing her of knowing it with her husband, that the poor woman took her own life. All these events, as it is easy to perceive, remove the necessary serenity from the teacher, who experiences very sad moments of severe depression.

The next opera, “La Fanciulla del West”, is written for the Metropolitan in New York, where it is represented in 1910 for the first time. They follow “La rondine” of 1917, the “Trittico” of 1918 and finally “Turandot”, whose last act will be completed by Franco Alfano after the death of Giacomo Puccini, which took place in Brussels on 29 November 1924. The first of Turandot will be performed at the Scala in Milan in 1926.

Puccini wasn’t happy with his wife. In fact, Elvira Puccini was a woman obsessed with jealousy and Puccini arrived to search suicide to escape her obsessive and controlling jealousy. Maybe, due to her jealousy, or maybe due to other factors, Puccini tried many times to divorce her wife. She put him also in trouble with the suicide of Doria Manfredi. In fact, Puccini was suspected of having poisoned her, but then he was found innocent.

Puccini had many extramarital affairs but he never left his wife. He even had a short relationship with Mata Hari in Paris, how is reported in this documentary. However, no many documentation is available on the private life of this composer.

The artistic production of Puccini hasn’t been large like the one of Verdi but we will go through his most important operas.

MANON LESCAUT – Manon Lescaut (L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut) is a novel by French author Antoine François Prévost. Published in 1731. In the story, Manon Lescaut is in Paris and she is about to be sent in a monastery to become a nun according to her father decision. De Grieux sees her and falls in love instantly. The brother of Manon is accompanying her to the monastery and he decides to play cards with some students losing a large sum of money. Geronte is an old and rich gentleman who wants Manon for himself. He proposes to Lescaut to pay all his debts if he kidnaps his sister and gives her to him. Lescaut accepts, but Edmondo, the best friend of Des Grieux overheard the conversation and refers everything to his friend who warns immediately Manon. Des Grieux proposes to Manon to go to live with him in his apartment in Paris and she accepts. After a few months, Des Grieux runs out of money and Manon left him for Geronte who offers her a rich life. After a while, Manon regrets her old lover Des Grieux and asks him for forgiveness. While the two lovers are in the palace of Geronte to get Manon’s things, Geronte arrives and get Manon arrested for stealing from him, with the only intent to punish her. Manon ends in Jail and Des Grieux is desperate. Manon accused of prostitution, will be deported in the American colony of Louisiana. Des Grieux bribes a guard to let him board the ship as well. The two lovers escape as soon as the boat arrives in America. In the French colony of Louisiana, there is nothing and the two lovers wonder until, Manon exhausted, dies in the arms of Des Grieux. [Since the music in this operas are not particularly famous have not been reported in our short summary].

LA BOHÉME This opera is in 4 acts and it doesn’t come from any famous novels. Around 1830 Paris, France was the center of the world and extremely active artistically and intellectually. It was common for young and poor artists to live in the neighborhoods of Paris. Their lifestyle was poor but happy and very creative. Is from the lives of those young artists that the Bohém gets its inspiration. As today, in fact, the adjective Bohemienne refers to the romantic lifestyle of the poor artists misunderstood by the world. In the opera, there are four Bohemians, the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard, and the philosopher Colline in an old attic. They are poor but happy.
A neighbor, Mimi, knocks on Rodolfo’s door, and she asks him to light her candle for her. But, Rodolfo’s candle goes out, too. At the moment, Mimi accidentally drops her key. When the two search for it in the dark, they touch each other’s hand. They fall in love then.
Unfortunately, Mimi is sick with tuberculosis and Rodolfo cannot afford to buy her medicine so he pretends of not loving her, hoping that she can find a man that can better take care of her. Mimi doesn’t understand why her lover avoids her. With time her conditions get worst. The group of friend artists does their best to collect the money to buy the medicines to save her life. But when finally they give her the medicine is too late. Rodolfo has a bad omen and goes to visit Mimi, who will die in his arms. The romantic and tragic love is a typical teme of the Romanticism, a literary and artistic tendency typical of Europe in this historical moment. [The song “Che Gelida Manina” that translated means “what a cold little hand” refers to the moment Rodolfo helps Mimi to look for her key and he touches her hand].

LA TOSCA – This opera is in 3 acts and it doesn’t come from any famous novels. The story happens in 1800, in Rome.  The Republicans who wants the independence from the king lost their revolution and the royal guards are killing the rebels by the thousands. The city of Rome is run by terror. Scarpia, general of the secret police, on the side of royalism continuously commits many Republicans to prison. One of the Republicans, Angelotti, succeeds in breaking out of prison and rushes into the church of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle. In the church, he meets up with another Republican, Cavaradossi. Tosca Cavaradossi’s lover. Scarpia tricks Tosca into going to Cavaradossi’s house and has his subordinates follow her.
Scarpia’s subordinates have arrested Cavaradossi. Scarpia tortures Cavaradossi, and calls Tosca, and shows her lover’s tortured state.
Then, word comes that Napoleon has won the Battle of Marengo, that is, a defeat for royalism. Scarpia is furious condemns Cavaradossi to death anyway.
Tosca begs Scarpia to save her lover’s life. Scarpia demands that Tosca yield herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life. As Scarpia goes to touch Tosca, she stabs him to death with a knife from the table.
Tosca runs to Cavaradossi but, the firing squad had already carried out their orders to shoot Cavaradossi. When the guards rush to arrest Tosca for Scarpia’s murder, she kills herself by leaping from the castle. [In this opera, there are three arias, “Recondita Armonia (hidden harmony)” in act 1, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore (I lived for art, I lived for love)” in act 2 when Tosca sings her sorrow for the arrest of her lover, and “E lucevan le stele (And the stars shone)” in act 3 whe Cavarossi sings before being executed. 

MADAMA BUTTERFLY – In the 1890’s in Nagasaki, Japan, Pinkerton, an officer in the American Navy, has arranged to marry Cho-cho-san, whos name means “Butterfly” in Japanese.
Cho-cho-san is 15 years old and she has secretly become a Christian. But, her relatives, who are Buddhist, sever connections with her due to her conversion. Since Pinkerton has returned to America, three years have passed. Cho-cho-san believes that he will return.
While Cho-cho-san and her child take a rest in her bedroom in the morning, Pinkerton and Pinkerton’s “real” wife, Kate return and want to take Cho-cho-san child to America. Then Cho-cho-san commits suicide with her father’s short dagger. [The famous aria “Un bel di vedremo (one nice day we will see)” refers to Act I when  Cho-cho-san waits for the boat that will bring back her husband by the sea].

TRYPTIC – No all knows about these tree short operas of one-act each produced by Puccini. The first opera is called “Gianni Schicchi”. This fictional character appears in Dante Divine Comedy, he is condemned to hell because he impersonated someone else. Dante took inspiration from areal fact but he changed the names of the characters. Buoso Donati is a rich old guy who dies in Florence by leaving all his fortune to the church. The desperate family of Donati calls Gianni, who is the smart guy of the village, to help them. Schicchi has a daughter who is in love with Rinuccio Donati. When Schicchi decides to not helping the Donati’s, his daughter Lauretta sings the aria “Oh mio babbino caro” (oh mu h\dear dad)  asking him to let her marry Rinuccio. Schicchi convinces the Donati family to pretend that Buoso is not dead and he impersonates him in front of the notary to create a fake will. Schicchi will make himself the richer hair, knowing that the Donati family cannot reveal the scam unless they want to end up in prison. The second story “Suor Angelica” (nun Angelica) is about a noblewoman who has been sent by her family to a monastery because she got pregnant by her lover. When she knows that her child died when she was in the monastery, she kills herself but she asks for forgiveness to the Virgin Mary who forgives her for committing suicide. The third story, Il Tabarro is quite dark; on the Seine in Paris, the stevedores are working unloading Michele’s barge. The young wife of Michele, Georgetta, loves Luigi, one of the stevedores. Luigi and Georgetta are planning to kill Michele and take his money. Michele makes Luigi confess his love affair with his wife and stab him to death. When Georgetta goes to the shore of the Seine to meet her lover, Michele shows her the dead body of Luigi.

TURANDOT – Turandot is a beautiful Chinese princess who is not interested in marriage. Since her family presses her to get married she says she will ask three questions to anyone they want to marry her and if they cannot answer the questions they have to be executed. The prince Calaf falls in love with her and wants to take the challenge. Liu, his slave, secretly in love with him, tries without success to stop him. Turandot asks Calaf her three questions:
1. What thing is reborn every night? …A. ‘Hope’
2. What burns hot, but is not fire? …A. ‘Blood’
3. What ice can make fire? …A. ‘Turandot’
Calaf answers correctly all of them. Turandot doesn’t want to marry him. So he said to her that if she can learn his name by the sunset she is free. At the end of the day, Calaf decides that he doesn’t want to force her to marry him and says his name to her. But Turandot impressed by his generosity fall in love with him and decides to marry him. The slave Liu kills herself.

In order to have a complete knowledge of the most famous operas of Puccini please, listen to the next video with the most famous operas of the composer. After that, try to take the quiz in the second video.

Thank you for your interest! Please, don’t miss the next article about Bizet, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Rossini.

Thank you for your interest in Opera.


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