17 Mar 2014

Puccini’s Musical Style

by Utah Opera

Puccini’s work is viewed by historians as the culmination of the Italian bel canto tradition, a line that goes back to the works of 19th-century opera composers such as Bellini and Donizetti.  Although viewed as Verdi’s true successor, Puccini’s operas are infused with German and French musical elements as well as those associated with his native Italy.

The operatic style most often associated with Puccini is verismo, a genre that developed in the late 1880s in the late works of Verdi as well as those of Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana) and Ruggiero Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci).   Verismo operas are considered to be the predecessor of the thriller stories of television and cinema.  Their story lines are often gritty, are set in the then-present day, and portray life situations of everyday people rather than royalty, the aristocracy, or other individuals in power.  If characters from the upper class appear, they are more often the villains, as is Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca.  The typical story line of a verismo opera thus places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, forcing them to make choices and commit acts foreign to their natures out of desperation.  Again using Tosca as an example, Floria Tosca, who has done nothing but good in her life, is faced with the choice of sleeping with Baron Scarpia or killing him.  Neither choice is attractive, but she ultimately chooses to kill him rather than sacrifice her virtue to his evil.

From the beginning of his career, Puccini incorporated verismo qualities, but tempered them.  For example, La Bohème is usually categorized as a verismo opera because of its setting:  the characters are “bohemian” artists and their associates—all everyday people who are trying to scrape out a living.  Although Mimi’s death at the end of the opera is tragic, she falls victim to tuberculosis rather than at the hands of a murderer or being forced into suicide.

Puccini’s Individual Style

Beginning with Manon Lescaut, Puccini began incorporating leitmotifs (melodies associated with a character, event, or thing) as used by Wagner in his music dramas, but combined it with the Italian dramma in musica, where the emphasis is on melody.  Symphonic structures are adapted to the demands of the action on stage.  The thematic content in the opera sets up a network of relationships that links characters to situations and emotions.  The music thus plays a larger symbolic and psychological role, much the way it does in Wagner’s operas.  Puccini particularly uses melody in a similar fashion as Donizetti’s use of reminiscence motives: previously used melodies are introduced in particularly dramatic moments where both character and audience recall an earlier event, with all the emotion associated with it, often with devastating effect.

Puccini created individual musical milieus for his operas, which were native to the place or setting in which the story unfolded.   In Manon Lescaut, he draws upon elements of 18th century music to create a “local effect,” with both its charm and its lechery.  In Madama Butterfly, Puccini incorporates Japanese folk melodies such as “Sakura” into the musical fabric, thus establishing a sense of “Japan” in characterizing Cio-Cio San while quoting American patriotic tunes in his characterization of Pinkerton.  Or when Turandot enters in her official capacity as Princess, that entrance is announced by music then perceived as Chinese folk music.  Thus while  each of Puccini’s operas sound as if he wrote it, it also has its own individual voice based on local color.

As Puccini’s career progressed, the local color in the music of his operas was often achieved through the use of then-current compositional techniques and musical devices.  Although not often recognized, if one listens intently, the influence of some of his contemporaries is evident.  While maintaining more of a late Romantic or post-Romantic (and very chromatic or colorful) harmonic scheme, devices used by other turn-of-the-20th century composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, or Maurice Ravel can be heard.  Chords don’t always resolve the way you think they will, or Puccini will insert moments of outright dissonance.  This is particularly true in his later operas, such as Turandot.  The opening of the opera is almost strident in nature.  As is always the case, Puccini uses these devices to heighten or support the action and drama on stage.

One of the hallmark qualities of any Puccini opera is the doubling of key vocal lines by the strings in the orchestra.  Unlike Bellini, Donizetti, or Verdi, who were more prone to use the orchestra in an accompanimental role that did not get in the way of the voice, Puccini’s orchestras are larger and provide much fuller accompaniments.  While the influence of Wagner, who viewed the voice more as an orchestral instrument than a unique entity, is evident, Puccini seemed to understand that the voice can be supported, strengthened, and made to sound larger than it already is if doubled at key moments by instruments in the orchestra.  Rather than covering what the singers are doing, the overall effect is to help the vocal parts project.  More important, the unison of orchestra and voice heightens the drama in ways voices alone may be able to do.  The overall effect is thrilling, even passionate.  We remember the melodies Mimi and Rodolfo sing in La Bohème in part because they are doubled in the orchestra at key moments, helping the voice and the message of the text soar, perhaps taking on a life of its own.

Puccini, exoticism, and his “final musical experiment” in Turandot

The late Puccini operas, and Turandot in particular, are not considered verismo operas, but are instead labeled as “exotic” pieces. In music, the term “exoticism” is used when a composer portrays or evokes a culture that is not his/her own.  Very often musical works bearing the “exotic” label are not considered accurate representations of that foreign culture, but are instead the Western, and sometimes “modernist” perception of that culture.  Unfortunately, composers resorted to the use of stereotypes that were not always positive in portraying these cultures.

To his credit, Puccini made more effort than many of his contemporaries in achieving as “accurate” a musical portrayal of a foreign culture as was possible in turn-of-the-century Italy. In Madama Butterfly he uses perhaps the only Japanese melodies known in the West to portray Cio-Cio San, as well as quoting The Star-Spangled Banner for Pinkerton.

In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, music historians Gabriella Biagi Ravenni and Michele Girardi call Turandot “the most ambitious experiment ever attempted by an Italian composer before the radical change of direction which followed World War II.”  They further state that:

There is no Italian opera, before Turandot, in which such an organic attempt is made to integrate music and drama. Puccini set out to recreate the legendary world of ancient China, and wanted to create a close link between the exotic and fairy-tale elements by means of a particular musical tinta [or color]. It is of little importance that the source of much of the melodic chinoiserie was a music box: he did not claim true authenticity nor had he any philological ambitions. His aim was only to distance the audience from prevailing conventions by the originality of his invention. Almost as if it were one of the dramatis personae, the orchestra, handled delicately even in the most barbaric moments, sets the atmosphere step by step. Puccini was now at the height of his powers, inventing colouristic effects which are violent and jewel-like at the same time.

As always, the music of Turandot is wholly constructed to enhance and serve the drama.  What comes in this opera that had not necessarily been the case in his earlier works was the sheer immensity of the forces:  large orchestra, a fairly large cast and chorus, coupled with a more extensive use of the chromatic language of early 20th century musical composition.  The result is a Puccini opera like no other in his catalogue.  Even in its unfinished state, it is the crown jewel of his output.