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Puccini’s operas: a bluffer’s guide

  • Giacomo Puccini once said he would like to hear one of his operas at Torre del Lago, the lakeside where he wrote so many of them, next to his home.  These days it is the setting of an open-air festival (www.puccinifestival.it) where virtually all his operas are performed over seven weekends in July and August. You’ll hear Puccini everywhere in Tuscany – in shops, restaurants, museums – but only at Torre del Lago are his operas belted out to such theatrical great effect.

    If you are planning to see an opera during your next visit to Tuscany but not sure where to start or whether you will be able to follow the storyline, be sure to read our “bluffer’s guide” before you arrive.

    La Bohème

    Four overgrown students live on next-to-nothing in 19th-century Paris. Rodolfo, the poet falls in love with Mimi, but he can’t bear the fact she’s dying of TB and they separate. Their Act III parting duet ‘Addio’ is a showstopper. Marcello , the painter has an on-off affair with Musetta, but they break up, too, because he is insanely jealous. In Mimi’s final hours, Musetta brings her to Rodolfo so she can die in his arms.

    Tosca

    An idealistic painter gets caught up in counter-revolution in Napoleon’s Rome. The problem is his silly girlfriend Tosca, who is provoked to jealousy by Scarpia, the villainous chief of police. Scarpia deceives Tosca into thinking he’ll release the boyfriend if she’ll sleep with him. Tosca stabs him instead but the boyfriend still dies. Torture and double-crossing abound and in Act II there’s a lovely aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ when Tosca asks while life can’t be nicer.

    Madama Butterfly

    An American naval lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki buys the marital services of a local woman. Unfortunately, that woman, Butterfly, thinks it’s a real marriage. After the sailor, Pinkerton, leaves she raises their son as an American and refuses all other suitors. In Act II she dreams of when he’ll return (listen out for the famous aria ‘Un bel dì, vedremo’), but when he does it’s with his new American wife to acquire the baby. Butterfly makes sure they arrive to pick up the boy just as she kills herself.

    Il Trittico

    After a domestic scandal that almost sent his wife to prison, Puccini lost his way for a few years. One of his experiments at this time was an evening of three one-act operas. The first was a grim tale of infidelity and murder, the second a weepie about a dying nun, and the third Puccini’s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi. This mediaeval story of a family squabbling over who should inherit Schicchi’s wealth contains the rapturous aria ‘O mio Babbino Caro’.

    Turandot

    This man-hating Chinese princess would be a great catch but to marry her you must answer three riddles. Get them wrong and she executes you. Undercover, Prince Calaf risks everything on the Turandot challenge and gets three out of three but, capriciously, offers that if she can guess his name she can execute him. Calaf’s great aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ is sung while Turandot is off-stage torturing people who might provide the name.

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