The operas of Verdi and Puccini form the basic repertoire of every opera house in the world. But the two composers are very different. Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 and settled in Milan in 1839, despite the fact that the conservatory there had refused him a place seven years earlier. Despite disappointments and then having to face the tragic death of his daughters in infancy and then of his wife, his ‘Nabucco’ was a great success. A distinctive and innovative series of operas followed in swift succession and were performed far beyond Italy, despite their special appeal to his country as it struggled for unity and freedom.
Verdi continued and built on the style of his immediate predecessors and carefully chose librettos with which he had political sympathies. His music became richer in harmony and orchestration in his middle and late works. First performances of some of these were given in Paris, St Petersburg and ‘Aida’ in Cairo marking the opening of the Suez Canal.
His final operas were the darkly dramatic ‘Othello’ and the gorgeous ‘Falstaff’. He spent his last years in Milan, rich, respected and visited by the famous.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was born in the lovely city of Lucca and I have visited his home there. He was so moved by a performance of Aida in 1880 that he vowed to become an operatic composer himself. He studied in the conservatory in Milan. His first success was ‘Manon Lescaut’ and made him known outside Italy. ‘La Boheme now his most popular work, was poorly received at its first performance in Turin, unlike ‘Tosca’ which Rome loved. ‘Madame Butterfly’ in its revised form became a great favourite. The cowboy opera ‘La faniculla del West’ was given first at the Metropolitan in New York. ‘La Rodine’ regarded by many as his weakest work – I thought it delightful when I saw it a few years ago – was unveiled in Monte Carlo.
‘Il trittico’ his three one-act operas were his next published works, of which the amusing ‘Gianni Schicchi’ is the best known. Finally, ‘Turandot’ not quite finished by his death, and the most extraordinary of his operas. (I long to see it).There is the well known story of Toscanini ending the first performance, and turning to the audience in tears as he said ‘and here the master laid down his pen’.
Despite the sentimentality there is no music quite like Puccini’s, its soaring melodies, sensitive orchestration and memorable arias and duets make him perhaps the best introduction to the genre for people who come to opera for the first time.