Few composers can manipulate the heartstrings as deftly as Giacomo Puccini. As a dramatist he advanced the verismo style: operas about everyday people, rather than kings and queens and aristocrats. Puccini’s world is portrayed with gritty realism, his operas saturated with plenty of sex and violence. He was also particularly cruel to his soprano characters, whose fates usually run tragic – yet he also wrote for them some of the most memorable arias ever composed. 

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Giacomo Puccini in 1900
© Public domain

A member of the so-called Giovane Scuola (Young School) of composers who came after Giuseppe Verdi (along with Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea), Puccini was a natty dresser, often wearing a boater. He had a distinctly wild streak: his heavy chain-smoking led to the throat cancer that killed him, and he loved gambling, speedboats and fast cars (suffering a bad car crash in 1903). He was also an inveterate womaniser. 

Puccini was a master of orchestration – just listen to the cynical orchestral commentary at the start of Gianni Schicchi, with its fake sobs and sighs, or the soundscape of Paris as dusk falls in the opening of Il tabarro, or dawn over Nagasaki in Madama Butterfly. My top ten inevitably focuses on his operas, but there is a little surprise at the end… 

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Giacomo Puccini and conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1910
© Public domain


Dismissed as a “shabby little shocker” by Joseph Kerman (Opera as Drama, 1956), Tosca is an absolute operatic masterpiece – the drama is taut and there’s not a bar of music that needs cutting. The action takes place in Rome (in three specific locations) and spans a single day in June 1800, as Chief of Police Baron Scarpia condemns artist and revolutionary sympathiser Mario Cavaradossi to death, while lusting after Cavaradossi’s lover, Floria Tosca. That the heroine is a glamorous opera singer only adds to the appeal – attracting real life divas to the role, none more so than Maria Callas.

2La bohème

Boy meets girl on Christmas Eve, falling in love by moonlight; girl dies from tuberculosis. It’s a familiar story (Traviata, anyone?) but La bohème has been moving audiences since 1896. It caused a falling out between Puccini and Leoncavallo, who accused the former of sharp practice as he was also composing a Bohème based on Henri Murger’s vignettes of Parisian bohemian life. Puccini defended himself in print in Il corriere della sera, “Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge.” The public did. Puccini’s Bohème has been a hit ever since. 

3Madama Butterfly

Puccini saw David Belasco’s play Madam Butterfly in London, 1900, and was captivated, particularly by Butterfly’s vigil, waiting for the return of the American sailor who married but swiftly abandoned her. At the turn of the 20th century, japonisme had become an obsession for European artists and ahead of composing his opera, Puccini studied Japanese folksong and saw the geisha-turned-actress Sada Yacco, whose performances ended with her seppuku scene of ritual suicide. The opera’s 1904 premiere at La Scala was a fiasco, hijacked by a claque, but Butterfly eventually became a huge success, largely down to its sympathetic treatment of the youthful but dignified title character. 

4Suor Angelica

Il trittico, Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas, is a great, well-balanced triple bill, but as the operas can be performed separately, I’ll happily let them count as three of my choices here! Suor Angelica has sometimes been tarred with the brush of mawkishness, but done well it can deliver a proper punch to the gut as the nun Sister Angelica discovers that the illegitimate child she bore, before being sent to a convent in shame, has died. Angelica, distraught at the thought, takes poison, only to realise that in committing a mortal sin, she has damned herself from ever seeing her child again. Cue a vision of the Virgin Mary leading Angelica’s son as the curtain falls… (bites lip, sobs)

5Gianni Schicchi

After the tragedy of Suor Angelica, Puccini ends his Trittico with a belly laugh. Gianni Schicchi is simply one of the best operatic comedies in the repertoire, as wily schemer Gianni gets the better of the grasping relatives of recently deceased Buoso Donati by helping them “rewrite” the old man’s will, which had disinherited them. Inspired by the tale in Dante’s Inferno, Gianni Schicchi is properly funny, the gags scripted with precision. And although Gianni acknowledges his swindle will condemn him to hell, he’s happy to do it in order that his daughter will be able to marry her beloved. 

5Il tabarro

Il tabarro (The Cloak) is the most underrated third of Il trittico, but this sweaty one-acter is dark and gripping, depicting the vengeance barge-owner Michele visits on his younger wife when he discovers her affair with one of his stevedores. Michele and Giorgetta’s marriage has not been a happy one – their child died in infancy – and one hears his suspicions roused in the brooding monologue “Nulla… silenzio” as he waits on deck at night, puffing his pipe, only for Giorgetta’s lover to mistake it for her signal that the coast is clear… 

7Manon Lescaut

Perhaps not as great as Massenet’s version of the same story by the Abbé Prevost, Puccini’s 1893 opera delivered his first big hit. “Manon is a heroine I believe in,” he wrote, “and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn't there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.” He was right and the flirtatious Manon Lescaut has been enticing audiences ever since. In Massenet’s opera, Manon dies before she is even deported, but the last act of Puccini’s version has her die in the arms of the Chévalier des Grieux in the Louisiana desert. The opera also contains one of the greatest operatic intermezzos.


Turandot is famed for “Nessun dorma”, the tenor aria which became a global hit thanks to Luciano Pavarotti. The opera itself is more problematic, a gruesome fairy tale of a cruel Chinese princess who has her suitors beheaded if they fail to answer her three riddles correctly. Calaf solves them all, but then sets his own “escape clause” challenge… 

The writing for chorus is fantastic, the mass treated like a protagonist, baying for further bloodshed. Puccini died before he composed the final duet and the opera was completed by Franco Alfano. At the premiere, conductor Arturo Toscanini put down his baton after the death of the slave girl Liù and announced to the audience, “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.” Some modern directors follow suit and, given Alfano’s duet is a bit of a scream-fest between two unlikeable characters, I can’t blame them. 


9La fanciulla del West

Once you get past the libretto and its “dooda-days”, Puccini’s spaghetti western is a touching depiction of miners during the Californian Gold Rush, a community pining for home. Minnie, the gun-toting owner of the Polka Saloon, falls for the bandit Dick Johnson and helps him evade the clutches of crooked sheriff Jack Rance. Whisky, a deadly game of poker and a tune that will seem strangely familiar to devotees of The Phantom of the OperaFanciulla has it all. 

10Capriccio sinfonico

This is an early work, written in 1883 as a graduation composition from the Milan Conservatory, although it also turned out to be Puccini’s longest orchestral piece. It has a strong, pensive opening but then, four minutes in, a very familiar theme emerges. See if you can spot it!