Anna Picard surveys the standout arias from Mozart and Verdi to Puccini, Dvořák and Lehár.
A chance encounter, a provocation, a dream, a smile and a sigh. Taken out of context, opera’s great arias present us with a snapshot of a single character, in a matter of minutes. That character may have just fallen in love. They may be furious, flirtatious, delighted or agonised. The focus can be cruelly close, revealing hidden weaknesses in otherwise strong individuals, but the candour of a single moment from a longer narrative, presented without costumes or scenery, has its own allure.
Consider Figaro’s aria from Act IV of Le nozze di Figaro, ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’. Here is a good-natured, resourceful man railing at the duplicity of women, and giving Così fan tutte’s misogynistic maven, Don Alfonso, a run for his money in the apoplexy stakes. Should we be sympathetic?
In the course of one chaotic day, Figaro has fibbed and parried his way out of trouble, been reunited with his long lost parents, and got married. Now he has heard that his wife is apparently preparing for an assignation with the Count. Of course he should trust that Susanna has no intention of cheating on him on their wedding night but everyone has their limits, and everyone makes mistakes. We may laugh at his invective about vixens, witches and she-bears but that laughter, courtesy of the little gasps of human pain in Mozart’s music, is affectionate. Face it, it could be any of us.
Staying in the moment
The suitcase aria, a signature showpiece that a singer would take with them from production to production, elbowing less familiar or less flattering material out of the way, was part and parcel of operatic life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It follows that composers had added incentive to write something stunning for their leading artists. Brilliant coloratura was one way to achieve this, though the coloratura in ‘Caro nome’ is less about technical display than the innocence of first love, as though Gilda were taking flight.
The fragility and sweetness of that feeling still resonates when you are not aware of the irony in Gilda’s seduction by the disguised Duke of Mantua or the fact that the ‘beloved name’ is an invention. It can be a relief to stay with Gilda’s version of the story a little while and not fear the heartbreak that a complete performance of Rigoletto brings. The same applies to the lyrical beauty of Rusalka’s ‘Song to the Moon’ and Lensky’s ‘Kuda, kuda vï udalilis’: Dvořák’s love-struck water-nymph and Tchaikovsky’s jealous poet live in separate worlds but both are vulnerable as only the very young can be.
Some arias have enjoyed a life beyond the popularity of the works for which they were composed. Until recently more people had heard Federico’s Lament than had seen L’arlesiana on stage, though Rosa Mamai’s ‘Esser madre è un inferno’ is equally if not more powerful a statement of despair. Franz Lehár’s ‘Du bist mein ganzes Herz’, often sung in translation as ‘You are my heart’s delight’, has found an international audience that eludes Das Land des Lächelns or The Land of Smiles, composed almost a quarter of a century after Lehár’s breakthrough hit, The Merry Widow. Like Lehár, Richard Rodgers knew when to allow his characters to reveal their vulnerability. In Carousel, Julie’s ‘If I loved you’ is a moment of pure honesty, despite that ‘if’ in the title. It is here that her relationship with Billy, the bad boy, the bad husband, the bad father, begins.
Introductions and seductions
Beginnings are always interesting. In Act I of La bohème the introduction arias that precede the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ are a short cut to intimacy. That Mimì is a seamstress and Rodolfo a poet is less important than the fact that they have fallen instantly in love. Issued with a challenge by Violetta in Act I of La traviata, Alfredo, another innocent, must charm not only Violetta but her guests in his ‘improvised’ toast, ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’. Zerlina’s coyness at Don Giovanni’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ has inbuilt obsolescence. As soon as she mirrors his melody and falls in step with his rhythm, it is clear he is in with a chance, even though that chance is blown with the arrival of Donna Elvira.
There is a marked difference between arias sung in reflective solitude, such as the Countess’s ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’, and those where there is an intended audience on stage. Where Musetta’s ‘Quando me’n vo’’ is ostensibly designed to silence every diner and drinker at Café Momus, the person for whom it is really intended, as Mimì observes to Rodolfo, is Marcello, Musetta’s on/off lover. Carmen’s Seguidilla is a deliberate seduction of Don José but you get the feeling that she would be just as happy singing it to herself or to anyone. How much of this extra information is brought in to a performance is down to the artist themselves. They can dial it up or dial it down, flounce or smoulder or assess and address their targets coolly.
The perfect showstopper
Perhaps the most interesting treatment of the standout aria across a life’s work comes from Puccini, whose instinct from La bohème onwards was to condense and compress a narrative to its tightest and most tense. ‘Vissi d’arte’ was famously a last minute addition to Tosca, which otherwise would have boasted a heroine without a smash hit. Cavaradossi arguably still fared better with the heroic letter song, ‘E lucevan le stelle’, but ‘Vissi d’arte’ expresses the utter bewilderment of a highly-strung diva caught in a political game in which she likely has no interest.
Cio-Cio San’s ‘Un bel dì’ is its polar opposite, a defiant statement of conviction that Pinkerton will return, which he does, ruining her life even more than he had by leaving. By the time Puccini wrote Il trittico he had perfected his art: ‘Senza mamma’ is the bruised and bleeding heart of Suor Angelica, while Lauretta’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ in Gianni Schicchi triumphs in its manipulation of the title character and the audience, prompting a delicious sigh in the middle of a caustic comedy of greed and hypocrisy. Suppress a sob, if you can. Remember previous performances, and think of those to come. These are the songs that last and are remade by every artist who sings them.