For those not already familiar with the opera and think it is a dated music genre. Here are a few operatic numbers you might find yourself enjoying more than you thought you would. The sample clips’ URL are found on the Internet and are listed for your convenience. Their source pages are listed at the bottom of the essay.
1. PUCCINI: La Boheme: Quando m’en vo (Musetta’s Waltz)
If you have seen the film Moonstruck, you have heard this song by the flirty Musetta (tho I believe they used the instrumental version of it as the background music when Olympia Dukakis’ character gets walked home after dinner). You will have heard a modernized take of it if you have seen the play Rent, which is also a modernized theatrical take on Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme‘.
Anna Netrebko sings it very well, so does Angela Gheorghiu, but my favorite take is by Mirella Freni.
2. MOZART: Zaïde: Ruhe sanft
This opera is Mozart’s unfinished precursor to his latter work, ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio‘. The opera itself may have been long forgotten, but this soprano aria sung by Zaïde has long been a standard fare at lyric soprano recitals. If you have seen the film Amadeus, you might have caught a glimpse of it (at any rate, it is in the soundtracks CD for the film… sung by the distinguished Dame Felicity Lott). It is an easy going song beautifully highlighted by the French horns with some drop dead gorgeous upward forays into coloratura soprano high notes. I love the versions by Edita Gruberova, Natalie Dessay, and Sandrine Piau.
3. BELLINI: Norma: Casta diva
Norma, the druid priestess, is the ultimate role for the soprano repertoire. In this Act I air, she is leading a prayer for peace between the druids and the Romans. It is set at a walking pace with minimum orchestral accompaniment and the soprano voice soaring above it. A very dignified and haunting song (if done right, that is).
Look for the 2 CDs of the opera starring Maria Callas… the 1954 CD has her in glorious voice, the latter 1960 CD sees her in vocal decline (the top had became dreadfully thin and unsteady, and the vibrato (pulsation in her voice) is growing wide), though her dramatic embodiment of the role is at its best here. Other great versions are done by Dame Joan Sutherland … and I also love the very different take by Edita Gruberova (whose voice is much lighter than the other two). Another notable version is by Hasmik Papian, if you can find an air-check of it (I just have the DVD).
4. PUCCINI: Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro
This shows up in all kinds of films and recitals. Sarah Brightman and other cross-over artists have been singing it to death, too. This is the song Lauretta sings in begging her dad, Gianni Schicchi, to help her lover or she’d go throw herself off the bridge (black mail, much?). It is short and very cute, and if done right, you’d have to be a dad with a stone heart to not give in.
My favorite version is by Maria Callas…before 1960. Angela Gheorghiu does a lovely read of it, and so does Patrizia Ciofi.
5. HÄNDEL: Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga
Famous from the film ‘Farinelli: Il castrato ‘, of course. And perhaps also from Sarah Brightman’s cross-over albums. In it Almirena sings her lamentation over being abducted by the not very nice sorceress Armida (who is actually the female lead in the opera). It is one of the sweetest lamentation songs Händel ever wrote (with the added bonus of being shorter than 5 minutes).
For a good operatic take, try the Cecilia Bartoli version in her Art of Cecilia Bartoli CD.
6. CATALANI: La Wally: Ebben? ne andro lontana
Another favorite of car commercial. It is a shame that most of Catalani’s opera score are lost. La Wally is about his only one that still gets staged once in a long while. Wally, the soprano, is given the option by her dad of either marrying a man she doesn’t love or leaving the house. So she decides to leave, but not before having the last word with this gorgeous song.
Maria Callas does a killer version of this song (and you might have heard Sarah Brightman’s take of it on her ‘Time To Say Good-Bye’ CD as well. It isn’t bad there, though I like the London Philharmonics more than the singer in that version).
7. WAGNER: The Valkyries: Hojotoho Heia (Ride of the Valkyries)
sample: http://nycoperafanatic.com/birgit/nycoperafanatic.html (right column under Brünnehilde’s Entrance Act II: Die Walküre)
For those thinking opera arias are for the slowed and aged, this thing will keep even Morpheus the sleepy god awake at night. Remember that rousing music of the ‘helicopter fleet’ scene in the film Apocalypse Now? Well, the original version has Brünnhilde the ultimate Wagnerian soprano belting that tune. She is a goddess, actually. The soul of the long-winded Wagner set of 4 opera.
Go for the version sung either by Birgit Nilsson or Astrid Varnay…. and see that you put all crystals away before you play the thing or their heavy-weight high C’s might shatter it.
MEZZO SOPRANO ARIAS:
1. BIZET: Carmen: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera)
This is a seductive song Carmen, that most famous of operatic femme fatale gypsy, sings to seduce the hot blooded yet naïve soldier Don Jose. You’d have had to be born in a jungle somewhere far far away from civilization to not have heard it.
There are many wonderful recordings of this piece to choose from. My favorites so far are by Rise Steven, Regina Resnik, and Maria Callas (who was not a mezzo… but she sang everything so splendidly that I’m convinced she was actually an alien).
2. GOUNOD: Cinq-Mars: Nuit résplendissante
This is from a long forgotten political opera by Gounod, but now that so many great lyric mezzo of our days are putting it on record, a revival of the whole work may not be out of the question yet (knock on woods ). Cinq-Mars is a confidante of King Louis XIII who got caught conspiring against Cardinal Richelieu, and loses his head for it.
Anyhow, this is a very French sounding song sung by his lover, Marie, that gives me the impression of being an unsuspecting passenger on the deck of the doomed ship Titanic at night, admiring the starry sky without knowing that a deadly iceberg is looming ahead in the fog. Magdalena Kozena does a good read of it in her French Arias CD, but my favorite take is on Vesselina Kasarova’s Nuit résplendissante CD.
3. ROSSINI: Tancredi: Oh patria / di tanti palpiti
This is a splendid aria that starts out contemplative and ends heroically. Tancredi is a knight returning home from a long exile. It has a very long and pictorial orchestral introduction depicting a sea voyage, and begins with a (home at last ) lead-in sung speech that soon gives way to one of the most melodic virtuoso cabaletta around (‘di tanti palpiti’). The version to get is by Vesselina Kasarova on the RCA Red Seal CD of the opera.
The ones by Marilyn Horne is wonderful, too. I love Ewa Podles’ agile true contralto voice, but in her versions (both in the complete opera CD from Naxos and in her own Rossini CD) the tempo is set too fast for my taste, robbing the song of the required solemn undercurrent.
4. MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro: Voi che sapete
This charming little serenade is sung by the horny young page Cherubino to the Countess Almaviva. It is set to a brisk walking tempo and is full of charm and youthful energy. Very catchy (one of the best hooks around). There are many beautiful versions of it around. It was recently featured in the television ads for the final episode of the hit HBO show, ‘The Soprano.’ I’d recommend ones by Susan Graham, Angelika Kirshschlager, Vesselina Kasarova, Elina Garanca, or Frederica von Stade.
5. GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice: Che faro senza Euridice
This is a sad and wistful air Orfeo (Orpheus) sings after having caused his wife (Euridice)’s 2nd death by looking back at her before they have crossed the River Styx back to the land of the living. In real opera, the mezzo will usually be singing it in French as J’ai perdu mon Eurydice; however, and the Italian version would have a tenor singing Orfeo.
Maria Callas does a great take on this song despite being a soprano, though my favorite is by Vesselina Kasarova’s devastating take on her A Portrait CD and by Marilyn Horne in the complete CD of the opera.
6. DONIZETTI: La Favorite: O mon Fernand
More often heard in Italian version as, ‘O mio Fernando ‘, this is one of the most beautiful ballad ever written for a mezzo soprano. It is so simple and catchy (with a wonderful French horn doubling the vocal line) and even ends with a hysterical twist as Leonor, the favorite of King Alphonse, becomes indignant over how she is treated by her beloved Fernand (a former monk turned war hero).
You can find a great Italian version on Vesselina Kasarova’s ‘A Portrait’ CD, and a splendid French version on the complete CD recording of the opera on RCA Red Seal label.
7. HÄNDEL: Alcina: Mi lusinga il dolce affetto
This is sung by the knight Ruggiero (the role was originated by a castrato, but now usually sung by a mezzo soprano). He was on his way to join the Crusade, but got side-tracked onto Alcina’s enchanted island, where he was kept imprisoned by her love spell. Having finally broken loose from the love enchantment, Ruggiero now assures his fiancée Bradamante of his fidelity to her. It is a sweet and simple (though rather melancholy) sounding song with gorgeous and lung-bustingly long vocal line and requirement for some of the slowest ornamental passages around (these are even harder than the fast coloratura ones).
Vesselina Kasarova is Ruggiero incarnated. Susan Graham also does a very lovely take of it on her ‘Artist’s Portrait’ CD, but I wouldn’t pass on the version by Sarah Connolly either.
1. PUCCINI: Turandot: Nessun dorma
The most famous of tenors Luciano Pavarotti sings this thing so well you’d have to find other versions of it to realize how not so easy to sing it really is.. And if you know who Pavarotti is, then it is likely that you have heard the song.
The song is sung by Calaf, the prince in disguise who has made a wager with the blood-thirsty Princess Turandot whom he’s courting (hey, there’s no accounting for taste or prudence in opera ) that if she doesn’t learn his name by sunrise the next morning she will have to marry him (but if she does, then he will be executed). And so the heralds went out proclaiming that noone in Peking will sleep that night until someone finds out Calaf’s real name. What some people will do for love, ay? If you open a new window and paste the following link to the url, you can hear a sample of this piece.
Pavarotti’s is the version to get, but if you can find one by Jussi Bjorling or Franco Corelli, they are sublime as well.
2. GOUNOD: Romeo et Juliette: L’amour, l’amour/Ah leve-toi, Soleil
This is Romeo‘s serenade to Juliette in the famous balcony scene, of course. If you’ve read the Shakespeare play, the lyrics is practically identical (though translated into French instead). It is a very corny song the young man sings to implore his lover to rise up like the sun from the balcony so he can be blessed by her radiant light. And when it is sung well, a girl just have to respond and grant his wish… unless the girl happens to not like guys, that is (and there are girls like that in opera, if you’re wondering… try Alban Berg’s Lulu). My favorite version is sung by Ramon Vargas in his L’Amour, L’Amour CD.
3. VERDI: Rigoletto: La donna é mobile
Another opera number that’s used a lot in commercials and films. Chances are good you’ve heard this waltzy song before. It is sung by the Duke of Mantua (though under a simple soldier disguise at the moment), echoing Don Alfonso from Mozart’s ‘Cosi fan tutti’ in proclaiming how all women are unfaithful lovers. I know, I know, it’s one of the lamest excuses around for not getting laid… but when it is sung well, you just have to let the man vent
There are many many great recordings of it around, including one by Luciano Pavarotti. My favorites are tied by the very subtle Jussi Björling, the drop dead gorgeous Franco Corelli, and the very lovable Enrico Caruso however.
4. MOZART: The Magic Flute: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön
The tenor Prince Tamino is given a locket portrait of Pamina, the daughter of the mysterious Queen of the Night, and upon looking at it he falls head over heel in love with the girl (or at least with her painting… which is why operatic diva would pay thousands of dollar for professional PR photos ). This ‘love at first sight’ song is a quintessential Mozart aria with lyrical vocal line accompanied very sweetly by the clarinets, bassoons, and horns. It is one of the many beautiful songs in Mozart’s last (and probably most popular… in spite of its abstract story) opera. If you can find a version sung by Michael Schade or Kurt Streit, they really make this thing fly
5. DONIZETTI: The Elixir of Love: Una furtiva lagrima
Remember that film ‘Love Potion No.5‘? And that soothing musical theme? That’s an instrumental version of the aria Nemorino (Little Nobody, literally) sings as he sees his beloved Adina looking all sad and teary. The film itself is a modern remake of the Italian opera, L’Elisir d’amore‘. It is a slow and very subtle romantic song, requiring superbly smooth legato singing (blurring the string of notes for smooth transition… in a smooth legato line you can’t tell when one note ends and the other begins).
Ramon Vargas and Jussi Björling tie at the top of my pick for this song. The great Enrico Caruso takes the cake, however… if you can find one of his with acceptable level of static in the background.
6. ROSSINI: Tancredi: Pensa che sei mia figlia
This majestic and authoritative high flying aria is sung by Argirio, the head of the ruling counsel of Syracuse, in beseeching his daughter, Amenaide, to put duty before her own feelings and marry Orbazzano, a man she doesn’t love. It is one of the best tenor showcase arias Rossini wrote, I think (and the guy doesn’t even get to go after any girl in this opera ). Lots of touchy coloratura runs, with some exposed high notes (coloratura refers to virtuosic decorating the melodic line with many notes sung in fast succession. An exposed line has the singer singing with very little or no orchestral background… so any vocal flaw or unsteadiness is…well.. exposed).
My favorite take is sung by Ramon Vargas in the CD of the opera conducted by Roberto Abbado on RCA Red Seal Label, though Stanford Olsen also does a great take on it on the Naxos label.
7. LEONCAVALLO: I Pagliacci: Recitar …Vesti la giubba
This is a bitter aria sung by Canio the clown who puts on a smile to entertain others even as his heart bleeds (his wife Nedda loves someone else). It is a heart-break song with a subtle rage undercurrent… since Canio, it turns out, is about to put on a very murderous comedy on stage.
There are quite a few great rendition of this aria on record. The definitive version, to me, is by Enrico Caruso, though Jussi Björling is a most convincing Canio as well. There is also a great take on it by Vladimir Galouzine in the Berlin Opera Night DVD.
1. BIZET: Carmen: Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre (Toreador Song)
This is another ubiquitous opera song that most have heard but don’t know what it is from. It’s that song that always shows up in association with Spain and bull-fighting. Here Escamillo the bullfighter (Toreador) shows how to boast with style. There are lots of good renditions of this thing around. A few of my favorite takes are by Jose van Dam, and Sherrill Milne.
2. MOZART: The Magic Flute: Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja
If you have seen the film Amadeus, you might remember the scene toward the end where Mozart collapses while conducting an opera that features a guy in bird costume (with beak and all). That birdy dude is called Papageno, and this is his entrance aria. It is a very cute and catchy tune with a folksy touch, and is famous for its pan-pipe refrains.
There is no beating Simon Keenlyside in this role… though Hanno Müller-Brachmann in the Claudio Abbado CD of this opera is very engaging, too.
3. ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville: Largo al factotum
You have heard this thing. Yes, you have It is Figaro (The Barber of Seville)’s entrance aria, and it bares his cocky personality out in the open in a most catchy manner. The man knows he’s the best Jack of All Trade in town It is famous for its’ patter (fast singing of many words per each note) that bodes well for Figaro’s future as an auctioneer should he ever gets tired of his day job.
There are many great renditions of this thing on record, too. My favorite is done by Bryn Terfel.
4. MOZART: Don Giovanni: Deh vieni alla finestra
Don Giovanni (Don Juan) is considered by many to be the Perfect Opera… and with arias like this one, it is hard to argue against that label. Most of us are already familiar with the infamous literary play boy, of course. He is the ultimate equal opportunity womanizer. His primary target, Donna Anna, has just turned her back when he starts hitting on her maid with this suave aria. It is worth playing an immoral cad just to get to sing this thing, I think.
Bryn Terfel does a very slick version of it on his Opera Arias CD, but if you can find a version by Thomas Hampson, that’s sublime as well
5. MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro: Non piu andrai
sample: http://www.luc.edu/depts/history/dennis/Music_files/Mozart-Figaro/09-Non piu andrai.mp3
Another tune you hear all the time in various TV shows and commercials… and should remember if you’ve seen the film Amadeus. This is sung by the same character, Figaro, in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (which is the prequel to Mozart’s opera) who is giving an uncharacteristically sage advice to the horny page Cherubino.
It will be hard to beat Bryn Terfel in any of Figaro’s arias, though Simon Keenlyside does a great take of this song on his latest CD.
6. DONIZETTI: Dom Sébastien: O Lisbonne, o ma patrie (Oh Lisbon, oh my fatherland)
Dom Sébastien is Donizetti’s last complete opera. It is one of the lost masterpieces that has only very recently been re-introduced to the repertoire of major opera houses again thanks to the emergence of singers capable of doing it justice. This song is sung in Act III by the minor character Chamöens, the poet/soldier who follows his hero Dom Sébastien of Portugal into a doomed crusade against the Moors of North Africa. Wounded from the battle, he returns to find the country in turmoil as the Inquisition of Spain now reign over Portugal and so launches into this gorgeous patriotic song.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky does a gorgeous rendition of this on his Songs of Love and Desire CD. I haven’t heard Simon Keenlyside’s rendition of this song, but I’m willing to bet that it would be a stellar one.
1. MOZART: Don Giovanni: Madamina Il catalogo (Leporello’s Catalog Song)
The suave cad Don Giovanni has an equally slick side kick named Leporello. Who is heard here listing his master’s conquests of the women of Europe…. Some 2000 done deals with a rather alarming high number of conquested Spanish girls…Mille et tre (1003).
The German basso Rene Pape is a most devilishly delicious Leporello, and so is Sam Ramey. Close behind them is the Welsh wonder Bryn Terfel.
2. MOZART: Abduction from the Seraglio: Oh wie will ich triumphiren
This is a rage song Osmin the guard sings after his nemeses were captured during their escape attempt. It is one of the few virtuoso basso arias in opera and contains the lowest note written, a D2 for the deep bass. And since real basso profundo (deep bass) are extremely rare, I only have one favorite for it by Franz Hawlata. I would love to hear it sung by Luca Pisaroni and Rene Pape, though.
3. MOZART: The Magic Flute: O Isis und Osiris
The Priest Sarastro prays to the gods Isis and Osiris to protect his charges,Tamino and Papageno, during their temple-initiation trials. It sounds strangely similar to the Canadian national anthem… and isn’t quite a solo (since Sarastro is singing with the chorus). O well, there is no beating Rene Pape in this role nowadays.
4. ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville: La calunnia e un venticello
This splendidly gossipy air is sung by Don Basillio, who lists all the slanderous gossips he can think of to help his pal Dr. Bartolo discredit his music student (Rosina)’s lover, Count Almaviva… the man can compete with any veteran old house wives as a master gossiper
The legendary Bulgarian basso Nicolai Ghiaurov is about as good as it gets in this role. Another favorite version for me is by Ruggiero Raimondi.
ALL GIRLS DUETS:
1. DELIBES: Lakmé: Dome épais, le jasmin (Flower Duet)
Lakmé, the soprano Indian priestess, and her mezzo-soprano slave Mallika are preparing for a bath in the stream that runs through their secluded garden while singing this charming duet in praise of the beauty of their environs. This tune shows up a lot in car commercials…. I guess because it is such a relaxing number that should make you feel like you are flying or floating as you hear it… transported into the lovely Indian jungle of Lakme and her tribe (Really! Who cares if the real Indian jungles aren’t all that relaxing anyhow ).
Look for the version by Natalie Dessay/Délphine Haidan, if you could. It’s never been done better, to me anyhow.
2. OFFENBACH: Tales of Hoffmann: Belle nuit, O nuit d’amour (Barcarolle)
Tales of Hoffmann is a weird opera with each Act containing a tale (or you could call them parables, I guess) told by Hoffmann to entertain at a pub while waiting for his beloved to show. Anyhow, Act III’s tale opens in Venice, with Nicklausse (a travesti role since ‘he’ is actually the Muse in disguise) and Giulietta singing this nostalgic song with a perfect orchestral painting of a fine afternoon sailing on the Grand Canal. It is another commercial favorite, though usually you’ll only hear the orchestral introduction to it. It is one that should be on the stereo of any sailor (hey, the sea is always calm in this piece).
My favorite take by Natalie Dessay and Délphine Haidan.
3. Richard STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier : Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren (The Presentation of the Rose)
Oktavian Count Rofrano has been appointed by Baron Ochs to present his engagement token (the Silver Rose) to Sophie Faninal on the baron’s behave. But upon setting eyes on each other, the young count and the young girl fall in love with each other in stead. This is a very beautifully descriptive song of love at first sight (with cool dissonance ringing reminiscent of the Evening Prayer from Hansel und Gretel, too). This opera also ends with another gorgeous duet between Oktavian and Sophie (and it is even more singable to amateurs than this one).
I love the version captured on DVD from a performance in Zürich (Vesselina Kasarova and Malin Hartelius conducted by Franz Welser-Möst), but if you can get your hand on one by Anne-Sofie von Otter and Barbara Bonney, that is equally great, too (or any version with Lucia Popp as Sophie).
4. ROSSINI: Tancredi : Ah come mai quell’anima
This drop dead gorgeous contralto (Tancredi) and coloratura soprano (Amenaide) duet comes in Act II of Rossini’s first successful opera seria. It’s a song of misunderstanding where both lovers are trying to do their best for the other, but their ‘best’ is being misinterpreted as a slight… Sounds like a normal romantic relationship, ay? There is also another wonderful duet between Tancredi and Amenaide in Act I of this opera called ‘O qual scegliesti terribil ora .’
My favorite take is done by the combo of Vesselina Kasarova/Eva Mei on the Roberto Abbado CD. The combo of Ewa Podles/Sumi Jo on the Nicolai Zedda recording on Naxos label is wonderful, too.
5. HUMPERDINCK: Hänsel and Gretel: Abends will ich schlafen gehn? (The Evening Prayer)
Though the story this opera is based on is a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, the music is far from being nursery oriented. This is the Evening Prayer sung by the siblings Hänsel (a soprano or a mezzo) and his sister Gretel (a soprano) before spending the night in the forest. It is cute and beautiful all at once.
If you could, go for the combo of Frederica von Stade/Ileana Cotrubas, or Brigitte Fassbaender/Edita Gruberova, or Lilianna Nikiteanu/Malin Hartelius… or by the Vienna Boys Choir. Avoid the Charlotte Church version at all cost …. no, really She’s a lovely girl (at least before she discovered all the cuss words), but her take on the thing is just awful.
6. BELLINI: Norma: Mira, O Norma
The druid priestess Norma (a soprano) and her young protegee Adalgisa (mezzo soprano) realize that they were both romantically betrayed by the same man and sing their vow to be loyal to each other in this most extra-ordinary duet (that also gives rise to speculations that the girls were more than ‘friendly’ themselves). It is spectacularly virtuosic and yet so very emotionally sensitive at the same time. One repeats the other’s line and the 2 voices become united. It is essential that both singer be on the same level and are able to match each other perfectly or the whole thing will sound ‘off.’
The versions to look for? The Maria Callas/ Christa Ludwig from La Scala in 1960, and Joan Sutherland/ Marilyn Horne (this one is legendary). Honorary mention to Edita Gruberova/ Elina Garanca on the Nightingale Classics label.
ALL BOYS DUETS:
1. BIZET: Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers): Au fond du temple saint
This is sung by the friends; tenor Nadir and the baritone Zurga, getting nostalgic about their past friendship that ended over a woman they both fancied (yes, yes, Bizet had a thing for the femmes fatales. His Carmen is one, too). The opera is problematic and isn’t performed much, but this duet remains a favorite recital piece and even shows up in commercials once in a while. The best version there is, in my opinion, is caught on the legendary tenor Jussi Björling’s The Pearl Fishers’ Duet CD on RCA Label (with Robert Merrill as Zurga). This is also one of the best CD of opera duets there is.
2. GOUNOD: Otello: Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro
Iago, miffed that he was snubbed from a military promotion, takes revenge by convincing Otello of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio. This music is one of Verdi’s best in showing a magnificently murderous blend of an evil conscience and an insane jealousy, ending Act III of the opera on an ominous note.
My favorite version is sung by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill.
3. MOZART: Cosi fan tutti : La mia Dorabella capace non é
The boys are the best friends basso Guglielmo and tenor Ferrando, professing their belief in the fidelity of their fiancees Dorabella and Fiordiligi in dismissing the basso Don Alfonso’s assertion that all girls are untrustworthy lovers. This is the first number of the opera and it is infectiously fickle. It does a really nice job of setting up our perception of the 3 characters, also. The 2 boys are head over heel in love and won’t hear any less than praiseful thing about their girls while Don Alfonso is more worldly and calculating in his provocation of his hot-blooded friends. I love the version sung by Tom Krause and Ryland Davies on the Solti recording.
4. DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor : Qui del padre ancor respira
This highlight of the Tower Scene from Act III of Donizetti’s masterpiece work is one of the greatest tenor/baritone mutual dramatic rage duet around. The tenor Edgardo is being challenged to a duel by the baritone Enrico, the brother of his beloved Lucia. There are a few good versions of this around. The ones by Luciano Pavarotti and Sherill Milnes in the Joan Sutherland recording from Glyndebourne Festival is very good (I would have loved to hear it done by Guiseppe Di Stefano and Rolando Panerai who sang Edgardo and Enrico in the marvelous 1955 recording of the work starring Maria Callas and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but that scene was cut and the missed opportunity is sorely grieved indeed
5. MOZART: Abduction from the Seraglio : Vivat Bacchus
The tenor Pedrillo is trying help his girl friends escape from captivity. He has gotten the basso guard Osmin drunk, and now they join each other in singing a tribute to drunkenness…and the god of wine. It is a silly song that allows for great comic display as Osmin gets more and more drunk until he drops.
6. VERDI: La forza del destino: Solenne in quest’ora
This is a duet between the tenor Don Carlo and the baritone Don Alvaro, one is Leonora’s lover and the other is her lover. They spend the entire opera trying to kill each other and don’t disappoint in the end. Talk about an opera with a high body count, all the principals snuffs it by curtain time Naturally, this isn’t a love duet….
I have the pairing of Jussi Björling/Robert Merrill in a tie with the pairing of Franco Corelli/ Ettore Bastianini for best versions of this number.
1. MOZART: The Magic Flute : Bie Männern welche Liebe fuhlen
The soprano Princess Pamina has been rescued from Monostatos the horny Moor by Papageno the baritone bird-catcher. They hit it off incredibly fast and start discussing why Papageno doesn’t even have a girl friend yet, ending with this lovely duet that basically says, ‘all we need is love‘… a century or two before the Beatles did.
There are many good take on the thing including the one by Dame Felicity Lott and Benjamin Luxon. My favorite take is by Dorothea Röschmann and Hanno Müller-Brachmann on the Claudio Abbado CD of the opera.
2. MOZART: Don Giovanni: La ci darem la mano
‘I wanna hold your hand. ‘ Before The Beatles shook the world with their daring lyrics, Mozart had opera’s most infamous bad boy Don Giovanni courting the peasant girl Zerlina, who loves being courted just as much as she loves playing hard to get. My favorite version is by Bernd Weikl & Lucia Popp.
3. ROSSINI: Tancredi : M’abbraccia, Argirio
Sample: http://www.bobbreault.com/downloads/index.html (a clip of its ending is played on this page (#5). It is from a live concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 1997. Bob Breault is Argirio and Vesselina Kasarova is Tancredi)
Tancredi (a mezzo-soprano or a contralto) has stepped up to volunteer to fight to defend Argirio‘s daughter’s life and honor. So now he is asking the older man for a hug (or rather, recognition). A great rendition of this thing is found in the RCA Red Seal CD of the opera sung by Vesselina Kasarova and Ramon Vargas, though the version by Marilyn Horne and Ernesto Palacio is also sublime.
4. MOZART: The Magic Flute : Pa-pa-papagena
This is one of the most catchy operatic duets around. Surely you can recall it if you have seen the film Amadeus… It has an unmistakable opening…. you know, the ‘Pa Pa Pa Pa ‘ lines the guy in the bird suit is throwing at the equally avian girl on stage moments before Mozart collapses toward the end of the film. If you ever wonder how birds would court each other, you’ve got to try this! The couple doing the courting consists of Papageno and Papagena.
I love the version by Simon Keenlyside & Ailish Tynan on the DVD from the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) most, but the pairing of Olaf Baer & Eva Lind (the Solti CD) is great as well.
5. PUCCINI: La Boheme: O soave fanciulla
Well, this one is a duet solely on technicality since the consumptive soprano (at least the character is supposed to be dying of consumption… the singer isn’t) Mimi really merely accompanies her new found tenor lover Rodolfo late into the aria. This is one of Puccini’s most inventive song, I think. A good rendition of it should end Act I of the opera La Boheme (The Bohemian) with the audience in a cheering frenzy…. with the newly fallen in love couple doing a held piano high C from somewhere off-stage (they had gone out the door on the way to the cafe). Sometimes the soprano would upstage the tenor by holding her high C too long to please the crowd, but nowadays that’s considered bad taste.
For a great version, look for the husband and wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu.
6. MONTEVERDI: L’incoronazione di Poppea: Pur ti miro
sample: http://cswww.essex.ac.uk/staff/henson/Elaine/LM 2.mp3 (Clip sung by Elaine Henson/Julie Roberts with a piano)
This love duet between Nero (either a counter-tenor, tenor, or mezzo soprano) and Poppea (a soprano or a mezzo soprano) that ends the opera is a truly timeless composition. It’s been around since 1642 and still ranks as one of the most beautiful duets ever written. The 2 voices are accompanied only by a few strummed strings (sounds almost like a guitar). It is so beautiful it puts a lot of people off because it is sung by 2 of the most appallingly amoral characters in all of opera
The best take on this number for me is by counter-tenor David Daniels and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci captured on the ‘Das Bayerische Staatsoper: Live 1997-2005’ CD. At all cost, avoid the version by Dennis Bailey & Maria Ewing from the 1984 Glyndebourne Festival. They sing it as if it’s each their own individual aria and forget to blend and caress each other’s voice. A most awful rendition of the thing I’ve ever heard
7. VERDI: La Traviata: Libiamo ne lieti calici (Brindisi)
From Verdi’s most popular opera (beside Aida), this marvelous little waltz is how tenor Alfredo toasts his hostess and the object of his affection Violetta, the courtesans. It’s a tragic love story, but there is nothing tragic about the duet. This piece is yet another operatic number that shows up regularly on TV commercials.
There are many great renditions of this piece. If you search around Youtube.com, you should find many clips to your liking.
At just a few songs per category, this list omits a woeful lot of marvelous operatic numbers If you find the ones here tempting, then perhaps you would consider trying out the opera clips on Youtube, buying some opera music CDs or DVDs, or even dropping in at the opera house nearby and check out what’s playing, ay? You never know, maybe you’ll love it even more while getting to witness the next big opera stars at your local theater. These singers are really wonderful musicians and actors (well… a great percentage of them are, and the not so great ones are still much more trained than your average non-opera singers). There really is nothing quite like hearing the opera live in the theater, both the singing voices and the orchestra. No stereo system could do them justice.
The Music sample clips included are found at:
*http://www.youtube.com (just search for the song names or the singers)
*http://www.liricopera.com/Index/io canto/io canto.html