Giacomo Puccini lived during the age of Verismo, but he couldn’t easily be pinned down to said opera genre. In fact, much like Verdi before him, he was far greater because he defies categorization. Puccini’s works strive for the same exoticism that we find in composers that preceded him and like Verdi’s forays into “Ancient Egypt” or Rossini’s into Algiers or the world of fairy tales, Puccini explored differing mythical worlds in his harmonic and dramatic adventures. He traveled through Ancient China, the Golden West, Japan, delved into a spin-off on “Dante’s Inferno,” and even engaged with bohemian Paris, among others. All of this, of course, soaked in the waters of explosive passion and emotion, often to overwhelming effect.
It is this style that permeates his every work, apparent early on in his oeuvre. Rankings are tricky propositions and undeniably will find their detractors, especially with such a popular figure as Puccini. With the exception of perhaps two operas on this list, Puccini turned out one masterpiece after another, so the task of sifting through and providing an analytical reasoning for ranking these was no easy task. There really isn’t a “bad” Puccini opera. Still, it is an interesting exercise in re-evaluating many of the operatic masterpieces we might often take for granted and looking at them in the context of their maker.
10. Le Villi
We start with Puccini’s first opera, which for all its good intentions is far from satisfactory. It is technically an opera-ballet, but at just over an hour in length it feels incomplete. The reason? The main dramatic action of the work, wherein Roberto falls for a Siren and breaks his vow of love to Anna, leading to her death, is given an orchestral treatment. We never see the characters grapple with this pain or conflict, Puccini and librettist Ferdinando Fontana only showing us the aftermath of Anna’s death and the “reconciliation” of the two lovers at the close.
But how much better would this opera be if we actually saw Roberto grapple with his emotions of falling for the siren and leaving behind the woman he had just professed so much love to in the previous act. And how interesting it would have been to see Anna’s suffering, especially in the context of other Puccini heroines that endure a similar fate after abandonment? Regrettably, we get none of this.
The music has its moments, particularly with the arias that have been given performances from time to time, but one thing becomes clear from listening to this opera – Puccini’s sense of dramatic pacing and directness is all but absent here.
The music gets repetitive in sections (particularly the large ensemble in the first Act), no doubt the doing of a limited libretto. The style is also a bit confused with the arias giving us a sense of the Puccini to come, but the larger ensembles are poor imitations of Verdi’s music (just listen to the opening chorus). Of course, this is an early work for the composer with so much more to come.
Listening to the opera, one gets the sense of an unfinished sculpture, especially in the context of all his works. The mass is there and there is even a shape; but you can’t really make out what it is quite yet. As you listen to “Edgar,” you feel like the intensity and passion of Puccini’s music is already growing, but it’s lacking the scene-setting, the evocative magic of the composer’s more inspired works.
The bigger problem with “Edgar,” however, lies in its libretto with its repetitive reversals between the titular character and his confused obsession with Tigrana. The first two acts are almost carbon copies of one another dramatically with Edgar deciding that he wants to leave Tigrana to be with Fidelia, but then succumbs to her at the end of the first Act, while he somehow overcomes her in the second. The third Act is where things get strange with the title character faking his death to test the loyalty of the Fidelia and Tigrana; he wanted to leave Tigrana twice already so why does he want to test her loyalty? What does he care? And why would he want to be with Fidelia if he didn’t trust her?
Puccini knew that the opera ultimately didn’t work after several revisions and ultimately gave up on it.
8. La Rondine
Two of the next three operas on this list struggle with their endings. But before we delve into “La Rondine’s” elephant, we will look at what makes it such a stunning work. While lighter than previous works, “La Rondine” features some of Puccini’s most seductive melodies (here’s a look at that Act two ensemble). Its love story between Magda and Ruggero is endearing, its comparisons to Violetta and Alfredo’s great romance in “La Traviata” not exaggerations in the least. The final duet in the opera is also quite glorious from a musical perspective, the pain and suffering Puccini imbues in his melodies impossible to overcome all that easily. The coda, with its solo strings reprising the chief melody as the two lovers say goodbye, is some of the most heartbreaking music Puccini ever wrote.
But unfortunately, with “Rondine,” the ultimate question is – Which version of the opera do we stick with? Puccini left three different versions of the work and two different endings, both completely different in their intentions.
On one hand, you have Magda leaving behind Ruggero while the second has him abandon her. The former shows Magda’s own strength of character and her own understanding of the world she lives in and its limitations. The latter destroys her strength of character, having Ruggero not only abandon her, but having him do so in a cruel and unjust manner (he receives an anonymous telegram and decides that he’s not going to give her a chance); Magda loses the right to choice.
The former version, while cruel to Ruggero, is far more tragic in the grander sense than the second one; having Magda leave her lover despite both wanting to be together is on the level of Violetta leaving Alfredo in “La Traviata.” Having Ruggero abandon Magda makes the entire relationship during the course of the opera seem more superficial and vapid. Hearing Madga sing “Che sia mio questo dolore” as she walks away from Ruggero is simply devastating and nothing that happens in version two hits on that same level.
While the first version is arguably the “better” of the two, it is impossible to look at it without knowing that Puccini himself was unsatisfied with it and that he felt the need to make revisions and completely change it later.
And for good measure, the alternate ending.
7. Manon Lescaut
“Manon Lescaut” was the opera to launch the composer to fame, following after his incessant frustration with “Edgar.” And it seems fitting that after struggling with an opera about a man’s obsession with a woman, he found success with a more potent story on the same subject matter. While Tigrana and Edgar’s characterizations are rather simplistic in many respects, the characterization of the titular heroine in “Manon Lescaut” is complex and nuanced. Manon goes from an innocent ingenue to a potent seductress before transforming into a suffering and fallen heroine. Des Grieux isn’t quite as nuanced a character, suffering endlessly from the second Act onward, but the music that Puccini gives the two characters is among the most rapturous in his entire canon.
Dramatic pacing is somewhat unbalanced in this opera with each Act getting shorter than the one before it, the most intense moments and the first two Acts dragging in some bits musically and dramatically. It isn’t until the final Act that the composer really manages something quite unique and powerful. Act four is one of Puccini’s finest achievements; it is essentially an extended duet with one of his most harrowing arias, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” serving as the heart of the Act and the opera at large.
Puccini was at his finest when he grounded his fascination with exotic archetypes in gritty emotions that everyone could relate to. They are at the core of the worlds of Bohemian Paris, Golden Rush California, or early 20th century Japan. But they aren’t quite there in Ancient China. While we can relate emotionally to the nostalgia of Ping, Pong, and Pang for a long lost homeland or Liù’s self-sacrificing love, finding the veracity of the central relationship between Turandot and Calaf is never quite fully realized. It was this doubt in his storytelling of this love that delayed Puccini from ever finishing the opera and ultimately leaving it as an unfinished work.
It is undeniably a titanic opera and contains some of Puccini’s greatest and most memorable melodies, such as “Nessun dorma,” “In questa reggia,” or “Non piangere Liù,” but what makes “Turandot” so unique is Puccini’s maturing sense of dramatic structure and build, particularly in the Act two confrontation between Turandot and Calaf.
But it is precisely Puccini’s ability to frame the escalation of conflicting emotions between these characters, their perfect adversarial natures, that stymied his ability to find their common ground at the opera’s final scene. We feel Turandot’s hate so potently in this scene and thereafter that her sudden transformation to loving this man blindly has never quite rung true.
After a climax featuring three riddles, Puccini wound up leaving himself a fourth, unintended riddle he could never figure out. He wanted to emulate the transfigurative quality of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” but wound up with an absolute anti-climax only exacerbated by other composers, such as Alfano and Busoni, who tried, but never fully succeeded at solving that final riddle Puccini left behind.
The result is arguably one of the most frustrating operas of all time.
“Tosca” is one of the most famous operas in the entire canon. As a tremendous thriller filled with incredible suspense, it certainly makes for a riveting night at the opera.
Act one perfectly establishes its trio of main characters, their relationships, and their challenges, all with incredibly absorbing music. We see Cavaradossi’s ardent ways in his “Recondita Armonia,” further emphasized in his love duet with Tosca in which we see her powerful passion and insecurity. The latter trait is further developed in her ensuing scene with Scarpia, who is shown to be an evil powerhouse. Meanwhile, the MacGuffin, Angelotti, is integrated perfectly into the plot without ever detracting from the main characters.
The second Act takes all the ingredients of Act one and turns them into a delicious dramatic feast where we see these three characters come head to head in riveting fashion. The music itself seems to constantly find new gears throughout, the tension allowed release for a few moments before being throttled yet again to build up more suspense. It all leads to one of opera’s most famous scenes – Tosca murdering Scarpia after enduring all kinds of emotional, psychological, and even sexual abuse. When Tosca stands over her victim and releases her fury on him, we do so right alongside her. It is one of the most cathartic moments in all of opera.
But this perfect sense of dramatic direction all comes crashing down in the third act as the opera’s final section feels more like a necessary evil to tie the plot together than anything truly enthralling that builds on what came before it in new and unique ways. With the main antagonist gone, what could possibly be left to up the ante and tension in the opera?
The answer, as shown in Act three, is very little. Tosca recounts the ending of Act two to Cavaradossi out of necessity and they play out Mario’s sentence. We know, from Scarpia’s tone in the second act, that Mario will not survive, so there is no mystery or tension in the execution scene. And while the music has its moments (Cavaradossi’s transcendent “E lucevan le stelle”), it is never quite on the same level as what has gone before.
“Tosca” is a perfect opera for two acts, and but never manages to retain that status due to its final part.
4. Madama Butterfly
From here on out, Puccini is pretty much at his best, his works skillfully crafted opera masterpieces with no major drama faults or challenges of pacing. “Madama Butterfly” is his most psychologically immersive work, the audience essentially allowed to live inside the mind of its titular character.
We feel every emotion, thought, idea that runs through Cio-Cio San’s mind, even if the reality of the world around her is quite different. Take the love duet that ends the first Act. We all know that Pinkerton is not sincere in his proclamations of love. So why then does Puccini entrance us in his most fully realized and powerful love duet? Because we are seeing it and feeling it from Cio-Cio San’s perspective. She sees this love as all-powerful and all-consuming and we are meant to feel it as such. And it is in this manner that Puccini allows us to feel everything that his central character feels.
And while we are allowed to feel every one of her emotions acutely, we are still also allowed the knowledge of understanding the tragedy coming her way. The other characters serve as ciphers for the viewer as well, creating a major emotional conflict between identifying directly with Cio-Cio San and also keeping the realistic view of the other characters. Puccini is brilliant in how he forces us into this internal struggle, the slow pace only adding to the emotional torture.
And even as the opera comes to an end, Puccini makes it clear that this pain is not at an end. In a brilliant move, the final chord of the opera is dissonant and unresolved, leaving the tension open-ended. What does it mean?
On a story level, one might be inclined to think that this lack of resolution and tension is in reference to the future of Cio-Cio San’s son and the discrimination he might have to endure with his father and her wife.
But on a psychological level, Puccini is simply not allowing his audience any respite from the hours of emotional suffering we have endured. He wants us to walk away with that sense of continued pain the lack of harmonic resolution propagates; it’s not quite on the level of “Tristan und Isolde,” but it is certainly in that vein.
3. Il Trittico
I must admit that early on in writing this list, I separated the three operas and had “Il Tabarro” and “Suor Angelica” lower on the list. This spot always belonged to “Gianni Schicchi.”
But the more I dug into this trio of short operas, the more I realized that they can’t and shouldn’t be analyzed on their own; they weren’t conceived that way by Puccini, the composer always seeing the three as part of a collective that were unified by music.
On the surface, one might struggle to understand the three works as a parts of a whole, mainly because the style and tone of each individual narrative is so seemingly disparate. “Tabarro” is pure verismo with its ruggedness and intense emotional outbursts that is in stark contrast to the more refined but exuberant musical style of “Gianni Schicchi.” “Suor Angelica,” meanwhile, is a miniature “Butterfly,” its focus on one character over the course of one massive emotional crescendo.
And yet, the more you look at the works, the more fascinating they become in connection to one another and how they even comment on one another.
The structure of the three works operates on a number of levels. First off, both “Tabarro” and “Schicchi” are large ensemble pieces despite having three main lead characters; “Suor Angelica” is also an ensemble piece, though its focus on a central heroine creates stark contrast between the two pieces that flank its position in the trilogy. When one watches the three together, this contrast adds to the overall flow of the experience and a reminder that contrast creates unity.
But there is narrative progression as well. All three take us into diverse worlds, each one more intimate than the last. “Il Tabarro” is all about the port and its inhabitants, while in “Suor Angelica” we become participants of a more closed-off world in a monastery. But in “Gianni Schicchi” we delve into private life where only a select few are admitted, the rest of the world completely oblivious to what is going on inside the Buoso residence. The third installment of the “Triticco” even plays with this concept of insiders and outsiders throughout its interactions with characters that enter and leave the house, and by the end of the opera the ultimate insiders, the Buoso family, become literal outsiders of their own world.
Many have talked about the three works as ascensions from dark to light with reference to tone, and yet one can take away something far bigger from this trilogy. It is often forgotten that this opera premiered after the end of World War I in 1918, the first time that the entire planet had been torn apart in a way never before experienced in human history. This work reminds us of our common humanity and how we are all connected, no matter how different we are or how different the worlds we inhabit may be. Perhaps this sense of unity wasn’t at the forefront of Puccini’s artistic intention or even interest, but it was undeniably a major part of his world.
Just one note on the music. Puccini’s harmonic style and musical language are quite exploratory throughout the three, particularly in “Schicchi,” and there is no doubt that this last installment is the one most often highlighted overall as a result. And why not, as given the chance to make a comedy, Puccini, like Verdi before him, makes parodies his own work any chance he gets.
Just look at what he does with the literal showstopper “O mio babbino caro.” The sugary aria, in its original context, is literally an aria of manipulation. His sentimental arias are often used as a vehicle to win the audience’s emotions and allegiances to the character through larger-than-life emotions. Puccini is quite cognizant of this relationship with his audience and plays on that very openly in arguably his most famous melody.
“Il Trittico” is an achievement of artistic integration through differentiation and easily amongst Puccini’s finest creations.
2. La Fanciulla del West
Puccini famously noted that he felt this opera was his finest score. And he was probably right.
If you look at his oeuvre as a whole, Puccini knew that he had achieved something extraordinary with “Fanciulla;” it is the culmination of everything else that came before it. His work after also bears it out. After “Fanciulla,” Puccini’s remaining operas are decidedly different in their approach. He tried a lighter form in “La Rondine,” tried out shorter operas in “Trittico” and then looked to try and “emulate” Wagner in “Turandot,” all to varying degrees of success.
In a work that explores the duality of its characters thoroughly, there is no surprise that the music is dual in its own nature, looking forward as much as it looks backward. To this effect, Puccini bookends his opera with two pezzi concertati, a callback to Verdi and the bel canto era before him (using the same melody to anchor both ensembles, by the way) and also includes a pronounced march-like passage leading up to Minnie’s great entrance in Act three (while you might see it as a callback to the march leading to Cavaradossi’s death in “Tosca,” it’s thrust and grandness is in some ways more like Verdi’s own fugue-like manner with his battle scenes in “Macbeth” or “La Forza del Destino”). The callbacks to Verdi are also present in how the composer displays a sense of economy in the storytelling. The card scene, stripped down to ostinato pizzicati in the basses is a pure genius, as is his callback to “Otello’s” baccio motif (by Verdi) when Johnson himself begs Minnie for a kiss, the music rising and falling in the composer’s own unique style and intensity.
The work also looks forward, taking major harmonic cues from Debussy’s impressionist style.
Yet this opera is still purely Puccini. Its music luxuriates in the passionate romanticism of “Manon Lescaut” but also dips its toes into the exoticism that dominates “Butterfly.” As one might expect from any work of the great master, it is rife with melody, some of them among the richest that Puccini ever wrote (Johnson’s “Quello che tacete” is the kind of expansive melodic lyricism only matched by Bellini; and there is something to be said for the explosive lyricism at the end of Minnie’s opening monologue “Laggiù nel Soledad” or the two “love duets” in the first and second acts).
And yet, it doesn’t feel as if it is overflowing with melody like other of his works. It’s because Puccini is working at his most symphonic, using a few glorious motifs and giving them complex and complete development throughout; it’s not a stretch to call this his most Wagnerian exploration of the leitmotif.
Narratively, “Fanciulla” is a cousin to “Tosca,” but with far richer characters embroidered in a riveting love triangle that never lets up from start to finish. Rance is a more complex Scarpia, making him more relatable, while Dick Johnson, a societal rebel in the vein of Cavaradossi, is an enigma – a bandit with courage, who is also kind of cowardly.
Of course, this is also where the opera falls short of perfection. The inclusion of Wowkle and Billy at the start of Act two is the opera’s lone blemish as they are unfortunately an example of cultural stereotyping in the worst of ways (as bad as how Hollywood films treated Native Americans in their representations for decades after this opera was created). And it is an unfortunate pattern we see in Puccini’s other “exotic” operas such as “Butterfly” and “Turandot.” For the sensitivities of a modern audience it should be off-putting, but fortunately, Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit’s stay in the opera is severely limited and overall, unobtrusive. One might also be somewhat confused about a village that is only full of men (happy men at that) and see it as a stereotype of the American West.
Thankfully, the other major characters all show evolution throughout the work, especially the Miners who we come to know and love. In what other opera have you gotten to really connect with a massive group and deepen your understanding of them across an entire event? They start off showing themselves as a contradiction, helping one of their own return home before ostracizing another for cheating at cards; they are wild, unstable, yet a lot of fun. By the end of the opera they go from a lynch mob to forgiving a life; their duality is as profoundly explored as that of its three main characters.
And then there’s Minnie. She’s one of opera’s best-kept secrets. When did Puccini give another character such an adoring entrance as he does Minnie? His music bathes her with adulation and we are immediately in love. The fact that she’s fit for a heavier spinto voice only adds to Puccini’s view of her as a powerhouse.
Minnie, like other Puccini heroines, is made to suffer, but she’s the driving force of the narrative. She is a woman in control that struggles with her own self-worth and is still only learning about her own power, which she develops further by the end of the work. She cheats to save the man she loves and then at the end she risks it all for him, coming out with guns blazing to save his life (in what other opera does a woman get a chance to play the hero not once but twice?). Save for Tosca, who still winds up finding herself tricked and commits suicide, no other Puccini heroine has as much passion and power as Minnie. And it’s because of that that she gets her happy ending. Where most Puccini heroines are victims of passivity, Minnie is a heroine of action.
She’s at the core of what makes “Fanciulla” so riveting.
1. La Bohème
Puccini never created anything as perfect as “La Bohème.” It is the work that has always defined him.
As noted scholar Julian Budden once wrote, “Had Puccini written nothing else after ‘La Bohème,’ his permanent niche in the operatic repertory would have been assured.” I don’t think anyone can question that statement in the least.
The emotional power of “Bohème” and its magical music is at the core of what people love about this work. To put it succinctly, there is probably no opera that pulls at the heartstrings quite as potently as Puccini’s masterpiece. It is ripe with unforgettable melodies and shapes a world that any person can easily immerse themselves in.
But let’s take a look at something that is almost always overlooked in the opera’s overall design – it’s more than just an opera; it’s also a symphony. And that’s a major part of its genius.
Puccini is often noted for being a brilliant dramatist, though there are often critiques about the depth of his music from some circles. But here, he showcases his true brilliance in the construction of this operatic gem.
The composer himself often noted that he felt “Bohème” to be “all poetry with no drama.” And he’s right, mostly. A lot of stuff happens in its compact two hours, but it’s not the result of major conflict. Think of the external conflict in “Tosca” or the internal one of “Butterfly.” It’s not really present in “Bohème.” Sure, Mimì is ill and will die; but there’s nothing anyone can really do about it, is there?
But it is precisely in this sphere of emotional openness and rhapsodic theatrical form where Puccini can let musical poetry reign. And he does.
The entire opera itself is in sonata form with the first act serving as the exposition of the main themes and the final act a recapitulation, with a markedly darker twist. This is borne out in the fact that it takes place in the same exact setting, starting with the same two characters in dialogue and eventually featuring the arrival of other major characters one by one. We get another love duet and the reprisal of some of the major themes of the first act (Rodolfo’s Act one “Che gelida manina” returns in Act four, sung by a dying Mimí, the romanticism full of nostalgia and sadness).
In between the first and fourth act, Puccini manages to fit in a scherzo (Act two) and even the “slow movement” that is the third act (“Andantino Mosso” is the first tempo marking of Act three; every other act’s first tempo marking is some variation of Allegro, which fits into the usual structure of traditional symphonies). The fact that they are all balanced in terms of length only highlights the genius of Puccini as a craftsman.
Within this framework, people connect richly with the characters; in many ways, they are Puccini’s most realistic and yet his most archetypal. It is the perfect blend, its unique structural form putting it in its own unique genre, comparable with the likes of “Wozzeck” or even the symphonic tetralogy that is “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
Do you agree with this list? In your opinion which is Puccini’s greatest opera? Let us know in the comments below.