For me, the word that sums up Puccini’s music is passion. The surges of emotion that ebb and flow through his romantic music appeal directly to the listeners’ hearts, whether or not they know anything about music. He knows exactly how to allow a singer to soar over the orchestra in wonderful lyrical lines, and he plays with our emotions with his gorgeous twists of harmony.
Puccini was a total master of theatrical effect; he would always use contrasting context to heighten emotional impact, as in the last act of Bohème where the horseplay of the boys is shatteringly interrupted by the arrival of the dying Mimì. He is often accused of manipulating the emotions of the audience, but surely that is a fundamental building block of theatrical writing?
Puccini’s characters and emotions are so real, unlike the heroes, gods and political giants of earlier operas, right up to (and including) Wagner. Suddenly we can all identify with the real pain and happiness that the people on stage are experiencing, and, without any intellectual pretensions, we laugh and cry with them.
What so many critics fail to observe is what an extremely masterful composer Puccini was—exquisite touches of orchestration, tremendous driving energy, subtle harmonizations that tug at the heart strings. He was an ultimate professional whose every note counted, whose every twist of harmony was significant and effective, and who always gave his singers the possibility of singing to the very best of their potential.
Puccini understood staging and timing as no other composer had since Mozart. All the action is built directly into the music, and he never indulges in long musical sections which interrupt the action. His operas are very concise; Bohème, with its four acts, contains under 1 hour and 45 minutes of music altogether.