Techniques | Puccini & Wagner | Turn of the Century | Opera
Puccini’s lifelong interest in Wagner began when he was a student. In spite of infrequent stage productions of his operas, Wagner aroused strong sentiments in Italy. Both Puccini’s teachers were determined anti-Wagnerians and, to make life even more difficult for Puccini, so was Giulio Ricordi. Some have even given Puccini’s love of Wagner as a reason for him not winning the Sonzogno prize for Le villi.
It is in the Wagnerian system of leitmotifs, where particular phrases or colours are given specific associations, that Puccini found the greatest inspiration. It was a technique that appealed to many Italian composers since it enabled the music to be put in direct service of the drama. Puccini, though, was alone amongst his contemporaries in using the technique as a means of enhancing the narrative. In Tosca, for example, Scarpia’s theme continually threatens to break the gentle bickering of the two lovers, Tosca and Cavaradossi, in the opening scenes. We do not see Scarpia, but his threatening presence is all too clear. By creating a specific association with a small, but memorable, section of music, Puccini was able to voice his character’s unspoken thoughts or reveal to his audience something that his characters could not yet know. Unlike Wagner, though, Puccini never allowed the leitmotif to dominate his textures; to do so ran the risk of threatening the voice as the true centre of all his music. Puccini’s operas also make use of the aria to good effect – a technique that Wagner avoided in his works.
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