Osborne certainly isn't alone in believing that ""Puccini was never to become a great musical dramatist,"" in finding him epically inferior to Verdi (whose canon is served well, if superficially, in Osborne's Complete Operas of Verdi). But while a lack of enthusiasm about Puccini may be esthetically defensible, it's hardly a good starting place for a ""guide"" like this one, ""addressed to the opera-lover"" who wants to know more about ""the operas he enjoys."" Indeed, the result is a highly uneven volume--often perfunctory, rarely evocative, occasionally misleading, and colored throughout by a condescending attitude. For each opera, there's a brief history of the biographical events surrounding its composition and a succinct plot summary--both areas handled adequately (with Osborne getting some wry amusement from the foolish plot of Edgar). And more than adequate is the third element of Osborne's coverage: analysis of the opera text, with close-up comparisons to the source material. (Long excerpts from the novels and plays involved are used to suggest the compressing, selective libretto-crafting process.) But when it comes to the music, Osborne is lackluster, iffy, somewhat offhand. ""The Puccinian style is fully formed in Manon Lescaut,"" we're told--a comment which is leas praise for Manon than disdain for the style itself. (Compare Andrew Porter, who sees the Puccini of Manon as ""striving to find his individual style."") Osborne's quick run-throughs of the scores--pointing out themes, tricks, tunes, bits of orchestration, etc.--are largely mechanical: the technical workings and emotional effects of popular arias are barely explored (Colline's coat song is dismissed with five words); when Osborne does find favor, it's only in the blandest, most grudging or backhanded terms; and so the carpings (""Scarpia's music is disappointing throughout the opera"") seem to dominate. True, the lesser-known works--La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, II Trittico--receive, by comparison, some boosts, including a perceptive comparison between the confrontation scene in Trittico's Suor Angelica with the one in Don Carlos. But most opera-lovers will find that Osborne has not managed what a writer on Puccini must manage--an evocation of the glories, along with the limitations--and this otherwise serviceable reference will therefore have a limited appeal.