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The best Puccini operas, as chosen by 7 leading singers and directors

Seven of the world's top opera singers and directors choose the Puccini operas they could never live without

Best Puccini operas

Tosca

Chosen by: Kristine Opolais, soprano

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Tosca is the opera that has always been in my heart – I always return to it. Floria Tosca is my favourite character, because you get everything from her. She’s like a lion with those she loves: she’s fiercely loyal. There are many colours within her – she’s a passionate woman, full of love and hate. She is dangerous and scared but also sweet and kind. She shows all possible kinds of emotion and feeling, encompassing everything a woman can be.

I try not to sing the roles that are important to me too much because I’m afraid I’ll lose that special feeling. Sometimes a lot of a good thing can become a little too much, just like certain foods or even relationships. When you see someone every day, you cannot see the beauty of their character. In my difficult days, I ask Maestro Puccini to help and support me. I always feel like I have a special relationship with him.

Check out our guide to Puccini’s Tosca, in which we explain why and how the opera was composed.

We recently named the best recordings of Puccini’s Tosca.

If you like Tosca, we named the best Italian operas to explore after Tosca.

Recommended recording of Tosca:

Maria Callas, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan/Victor de Sabata
Warner Classics 2564634103

Madam Butterfly

Chosen by: Antonio Pappano, conductor

Although I love conducting La fanciulla del West and Iltrittico, the Puccini opera that inspires me the most is Madam Butterfly. The protagonist, Cio-Cio San, is a monumental characterisation. Her trajectory and the challenging nature of the role for any performer who has the courage to undertake it are torturous yet wondrous at the same time. It’s not the easiest watch or listen in the theatre because you empathise so much with this girl. To watch her courage, strength and even, sometimes, her harshness is incredible.

Puccini has clothed the opera in what was, for him, as authentic as possible Japanese sound. It goes from sweetness and naivety to a deeper understanding of what commitment and love are. At first Puccini uses the high registers for both the orchestra and Cio-Cio San, and there’s almost a hovering quality. She is like a butterfly when she comes in. As the opera goes on, he uses the bass more, and we get inside the character. The orchestration is quite something.

We explain how Puccini’s Madam Butterfly helped launch Pavarotti’s career to global stardom.

Chosen by: Ermonela Jaho, soprano

Madam Butterfly is the most inspiring Puccini opera for me, although I absolutely love the others as well. This opera gives the artist the chance to build something really special from the beginning to the end as Cio-Cio San. If you are sincere and use your technique and interpretation masterfully you can make the character grow – not only as the story progresses but, more importantly, you can make her grow in the audience’s hearts. They need to see themselves and life itself in Butterfly, and Puccini has described this journey in music so beautifully. You feel and hear the difference between two different worlds.

Being so meticulous, Puccini uses every theme to describe each character brilliantly. The themes are introduced in a simple way and it’s only later on, as the opera progresses, that you realise their true potential and meaning. I absolutely love the introduction of Butterfly on her wedding day. It’s described with a theme that is a musical sequence that can go on forever, just like the dreams and happiness of Butterfly. It’s such a simple yet genius way to introduce the main character. I absolutely love it.

We recently named ‘Un bel vedremo’ from Madame Butterfly as one of Puccini’s best arias.

The premiere of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly was particularly eventful – we explain what happened here.

Recommended recording of Madam Butterfly:

Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Christa Ludwig, VPO/Karajan

Il tabarro

Chosen by: Isabella Bywater, designer & director

Although Il tabarro is short, I think it is quite exceptional. The opera was written shortly after the First World War when, with no real welfare state in place yet in most countries, life for a lot of people was very frightening – for someone who himself had quite a comfortable upbringing, Puccini shows an extraordinary understanding of that.

It’s a bleak opera, and though there are memories of joy, they almost have the effect of making the present darkness even darker – the moment where Michele sings about the time when their little child was still alive is particularly resonant. It is very rare for a composer to deal with relationships with the detail, subtlety and understanding that Puccini has. He just seems to get other people’s lives.

Recommended recording of Il tabarro:

Lucio Gallo (Michele), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Luigi), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Giorgetta), Alan Oke (Tinca), Jeremy White (Talpa), Irina Mishura (La Frugola), Ji-Min Park (Venditore), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Due Amanti)

La bohème

Chosen by: Carlo Rizzi, conductor

If I had to pick one opera score in the world it would be La bohème. It’s very accessible, and beautifully written with clever lyrics and orchestration. To be a great composer you don’t need to write incredible big tragedies with sociopolitical undertones.

Normal stories between normal people are incredibly interesting, and this is what Puccini does. La bohème is an opera about six impoverished young people and their lives. Yes, it’s in Paris in a loft just before Christmas. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in this place at this time. The important thing is for the relationships to be true and alive. While mankind is on this earth, there will be people who fall in and out of love, people who fight with each other, and people who have strong friendships. Puccini’s La bohème is relatable to every person in the world.

We named ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ from La bohème as one of Puccini’s best arias.

Chosen by: Graham Vick, opera director

La bohème is such a work of dazzling genius. Every time I rehearse it, I fall in love with it all over again; I’ve done five productions of it and rehearsed revivals of those. I first came across it on two Music for Pleasure LPs with Beniamino Gigli and Licia Albanese. The first time I directed it was for the company that became Birmingham Opera Company, and the last time I did it was last year in Bologna.

One of the remarkable things about La bohème is the extraordinary synthesis of words and music. It’s very hard to translate and, indeed, it’s very hard for an audience to appreciate its level of complexity and sophistication unless it’s in the native Italian. So, doing it in Italy is a completely different thing in terms of the comedy, satire and literary humour.

As a listener I just love it. The invention and the judgment are extraordinary, the architecture is astonishing and, of course, there’s the humour. The first two acts are very funny and then that just flips – the shadow of death suddenly forms. The secret of the piece is not knowing that Mimì is going to die.

Recommended recording of La bohème:

Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car, Simona Mihai et al; Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano; dir. Richard Jones

Gianni Schicchi

Chosen by: Thomas Hampson, baritone

La bohème and Tosca are such masterworks, but I’d love to do Il trittico one day and perform in Gianni Schicchi. It’s such a powerful, dramatic piece. Il trittico is such a theatrical event – it is so disparate in its three intense looks at ambition, loss, love and religion. Gianni Schicchi most interests me, because Italian comedy has more to do with the humour of life than it does with comedic events.

All Puccini’s operas are such unbelievably good musical dramas in every way. Through his musical language, you can understand the dramatic intent exactly. That’s the genius of Puccini. Verdi got the ball rolling, but it was Puccini who took musical theatre in a new direction – he essentially reformed our attitudes. Opera demands intellect and emotion in equal measure, and Puccini is the very essence of this.

We named Puccini as one of the best opera composers of all time.

Recommended recording of Gianni Schicchi:

Alessandro Corbelli, Massimo Giordano, Sally Matthews, Felicity Palmer, Marie McLaughlin, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski, dir. Annabel Arden

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