Puccini's heroines: an audio guide
Tuesday, February 6, 2024
Leading conductors and singers reflect on the female characters in Puccini's operas
From the time that Giacomo Puccini first created a major public impact, when his third opera Manon Lescaut premiered in 1893, each time a new opera subsequently appeared the public were unfailingly experiencing something that looked and sounded wholly different.
Even though his music was instantaneously recognizable as his own and could not possibly be anyone else’s, Puccini conjured up an extraordinary diversity of vastly differing subjects, characters and, especially strikingly, environmental atmospheres, in his panoramically wide-ranging musical language.
There was though one element common to seven, and some people may say eight of his twelve operas: a woman was the central character, even though each one was markedly dissimilar both in her persona and in her social background.
The composer ingeniously painted the personalities and situations of all these very different women in vastly different societies and locations while vividly conjuring up the atmospheres of places as far apart as Paris, Rome, Nagasaki, Peking, and the Californian mountains.
Each time he brought the auras and colours of those settings alive with compelling realistic veracity, and in the last three mentioned cases astonishingly so considering that he had never remotely been anywhere near them in his own life.
His deeply empathetic portrayals of his very individually different heroines, if one can call them that, with their strengths, their weaknesses and their romantic and often, though not always, tragic situations in these hugely differing societies have been the ingredients that have made his operas so universally appealing, powerful and moving to audiences and performers alike.
For this feature I have mined my archive of interviews I have recorded with highly acclaimed performers over the last three decades and selected their insights into the operas in which Puccini has portrayed his women and their environmental surroundings with such unique genius. Some of these interviews consist of just a few words, while others are much more substantial. And while some of them focus directly on Puccini’s women themselves, others discuss the effects these ladies have on other characters in the operas. And there also are observations on the composer’s vivid tone painting of the locales where he sets his dramaturgies.
Finally, a word of beseeching to the reader/listener: I have compiled these interviews in celebration of the great Giacomo Puccini as we commemorate the centenary of his death this year, but the selection cannot be called balanced or resembling any comprehensiveness in content, as it has been made exclusively from what I have originated in various situations over the years. Thus I hope it will not be too annoying that whereas some operas are covered in considerable detail others are only touched upon.
Even including the latter instances, I have felt that each comment from these great artists of stature – singers, conductors, and in one instance stage director – is profoundly worthy of being preserved and brought to you via Gramophone.
The artists speaking are: Roberto Alagna, Monserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Piero Faggioni, Mirella Freni, Angela Gheorghiu, Carol Neblett, Sir Antonio Pappano, Ruggero Raimondi, Carlo Rizzi, Renata Scotto, Giuseppe di Stefano, Dame Joan Sutherland
MANON LESCAUT - JOSE CARRERAS ON DES GRIEUX AND HIS INABILITY TO RESIST MANON AGAIN:
MANON LESCAUT - PAPPANO COMPARES MASSENET'S AND PUCCINI'S DIFFERENT SETTINGS OF THE STORY:
LA BOHEME - CAROL NEBLETT ON ESSENCE OF MUSETTA'S CHARACTER:
TOSCA - ANGELA GHEORGHIU ON THE RELATIONSHIP OF POWER BETWEEN TOSCA AND SCARPIA:
TOSCA - RUGGERO RAIMONDI ON SCARPIA, HIS DESIRE FOR TOSCA, AND HER FEELINGS ABOUT HIM:
La fanciulla del West
LA RONDINE - SIR ANTONIO PAPPANO ON THE OPERA:
I am very grateful to the great baritone Thomas Hampson for agreeing that a few of the interviews which I donated to his outstanding research facility the Hampsong Foundation (https://hampsongfoundation.org/) can be included in this compilation.