‘My Butterfly Will Not Die!’ Why has Puccini remained so popular?

This spring season, English Touring Opera performs Giacomo Puccini’s Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi all around the United Kingdom. Along with the two selections from Il Trittico (1918), this great Italian composer has written some of the world’s most popular operas: La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and the famously unfinished Turandot (1926). Resident blogger Alex Burns asks – what is it about Puccini’s operas that have kept his legacy very much alive to this day?

An International Man

If we look at the breadth of Puccini’s musical output, it is clear he was a cosmopolitan man. His operas often reflected cultural interest in other countries – Madama Butterfly is based in Nagasaki, Japan, La bohème is based in Paris, France, and Turandot is based in Peking, China. You can hear Puccini’s international inspiration within his music, for example the use of tuned Chinese gongs in Turandot, and the use of Japanese bells in Madama Butterfly.

La bohème (2015) © Richard Hubert Smith

Attention-Grabbing Plots

One of the most exciting things about Puccini’s operas are his exciting character development and action-filled plots. Each of his operas are completely unique. Turandot takes the audience into a dark fairy-tale world, but La bohème is much more ‘realistic’, and depicts the lives of poverty-stricken young artists. His work La fanciulla del West is set in the far away world of the American Wild West – an exotic destination when travel was difficult!

If you read our last blog in this series: ‘Don’t Myth a Thing: 10 Opera Myths Debunked’, then you’ll know that opera can be relevant and transferable into the modern day, and a few contemporary works have taken their inspiration from Puccini. For instance both Madama Butterfly and La bohème were both used as the basis for hit Broadway musicals: Miss Saigon and Rent respectively. Turandot features a feminist lead who is choosing her own destiny, and Tosca battles with an evil male predator – it could be ripped from the headlines today.

Gianni Schicchi (2018) © Richard Hubert Smith 

‘Some of the most appealing music ever written’

Puccini is often remembered for his glorious melodies, which perfectly capture his characters’ emotional states. His duets and arias in particular remain popular both in the operas, films and in concert programmes. Puccini penned famous duets and arias such as Calaf’s heroic ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot, Lauretta’s tear-jerking ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, and Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San’s seductive ‘Vieni la sera’ from Madama Butterfly.
It can be surprising to know just how many Puccini arias have been used in film over the last 100 years. I’ve put a list together if you are wondering where you’ve heard them before.

‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot, heard in The Sum of All Fears 

‘Te Deum’ from Tosca, heard in Quantum of Solace

‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, heard in A Room with a View

The music from La bohème was received positively from audiences in the 1896 premiere, with particular emphasis being on Puccini’s emotional authenticity within the music, which resonated with each character’s emotional palette. Although Puccini is hugely popular now, it wasn’t all easy, especially in 1904, when Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala. The audience recognised the music that Puccini recycled from La bohème, and were incredibly hostile. After taking the opera away and revising it, it was performed again, to much more positive reviews.

‘Un bel di vedremo’ from Madama Butterfly

The numbers speak for themselves!

Puccini’s works are performed thousands of times a year world-wide, so he obviously has a flare for pleasing international audiences. Considering he’s always in the company of Verdi and Rossini, who both composed more than double what Puccini did, it makes his performance statistics all the more impressive. According to Bachtrack’s annual Classical Music Report, it shows that La bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca have ranked in the Top 10 Operas 2015-2017, ranking 4th and 6th respectively (read the full list here).

From heroes and heroines, to villains and comedy characters, Puccini’s operas offer all you could possibly want from opera.

Discover more: whatson.englishtouringopera.org.uk

© Alex Burns 2018
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