When examining opera of the Romantic era, three giants immediately come to mind: Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner. By examining each composer's melodic structures, literary sources, compositional techniques employed, and their philosophies on both music and society, one will begin to observe similarities and differences between each.
Verdi's melodies are marked by their long, flowing lines. It is clear that the Italian composer is more interested in the musical structure of his works than the poetic structure of his libretti. Verdi does not shy away from scandalous topics. During the 1850's, his operas address topics such as kidnapping, prostitution, and venereal diseases. Because of his taboo topics in addition to his political statements, Verdi had difficulty with the Italian censors throughout his career. The operatic master was in constant awe of the writings of William Shakespeare; Verdi would base three of his operas on Shakespeare's plays - MacBeth, Otello, and Falstaff - while drafting scenes for a setting of Hamlet throughout his career.
A strong nationalist, Verdi repeatedly expressed his belief that the government should have little involvement in the daily lives of its citizenry. The chorus of the Israelite captives from Verdi's early work, Nabucco, became a song of the Italian patriots and the cry in the streets became Viva VERDI! On a personal level, Verdi felt as though the strongest relationship a person had was with the family. Many of Verdi's strongest operas showcase strong father-daughter relationships, probably as a result of the loss of his young daughter early in his career.
Puccini continues the Italian opera tradition begun by Verdi. In contrast to Verdi, Puccini recognizes the beautiful musicality of the Italian language, resulting in his speech-inspired melodic lines. In an effort to be more realistic and true to actual conversations, Puccini's vocal lines are generally short and more conversational in style. Another effect of his efforts to be realistic - a movement known as verismo - Puccini focuses on historically accurate fiction for his libretti.
Although an Italian, Puccini was forever an exoticist; he was greatly interested in all things foreign. Many of his operas were set outside of the Italian countryside, in such exotic locations as Japan, the American west, and the bustling city of Paris. In order to be true to his verismo tendencies, Puccini traveled extensively in order to research the physical settings of his operas and their native sounds. Philosophically, Puccini believed that the arts could address pertinent issues in the lives of their patrons by dealing with modern issues in modern situations for a modern audience.
Richard Wagner was the most disparate of the three Romantic opera composers. Like his contemporary Verdi, Wagner was a nationalistic composer. His melodies are not tuneful or easy to sing; this can be largely attributed to his use of the leitmotif in his compositions. The leitmotif is a compositional technique that is closely akin to the concept of the idee fixe introduced by Berlioz earlier in the Symphonie Fantastique. The leitmotif served as a musical representation of a person, place, item, or concept throughout the duration of the opera. The technique was most effectively used in Wagner's masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung.
While many of Wagner's musikdrammas were based upon Nordic mythology, the literature we most commonly associate with the German composer is his anti-Semitic tract entitled "Judaism and Music." In this document, Wagner basically states that all the problems found in music are a result of the influence of the Jews.