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ClassicsOnline Home » OPERA'S GREATEST MOMENTS
Opera’s Greatest Moments
In this collection of the greatest arias, ensembles and choruses from the world of opera, we take in well over two hours of music from twenty-seven operas. These cover many different emotions and situations, sung in Italian, German and French. Following are brief summaries of the dramatic circumstances in which the characters have found themselves.
Gianni Schicchi forms the first in a trilogy of operas by Puccini called Il trittico. ‘O mio babbino caro’ (‘Oh my beloved father’) is sung by Lauretta to her father Gianni Schicchi as she tries to convince him of her affections towards Rinuccio, the man she loves.
Early in the opera Lakmé, by French composer Delibes, the beautiful daughter of a Brahmin priest (Lakmé) and her servant Mallika travel down a river to collect flowers. They sing, as they go, what has commonly become known as the ‘Flower Duet’.
In Puccini’s Turandot Prince Calaf successfully answers three riddles for the hand of the icy Princess (Turandot). He agrees to let her out of this arrangement if she can discover his true name. In ‘Nessun Dorma’ (‘None shall Sleep’) Calaf sings about the Princess’s declaration that nobody shall sleep in Peking until his name is discovered.
The famous ‘Anvil’ Chorus from Verdi’s Il trovatore depicts gypsies hard at work, hammering their anvils and praising the life of the gypsy.
In Italian composer Catalani’s La Wally, the heroine Wally sings of her decision to leave her home forever in the aria `Ebben? N’andro lontana’. The opera is also notable for the fact that Wally is the only operatic character to die by throwing herself into an oncoming avalanche!
‘Au fond du temple Saint’ (‘Within the Holy Temple’—also known as ‘The Pearl Fisher’s Duet’) from Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers is a song of two friends who are reunited. They sing about their deep friendship which will never again be threatened by their love for the same woman.
Dvořák’s opera Rusalka is about a water nymph’s daughter who falls in love with a mortal. Her ‘Song to the Moon’ is an aria in which she asks the moon to convey her feelings to her beloved.
Bizet’s ‘Toreador Song’ appears in Act II of Carmen; the setting is the Inn of Lillas Pastia. The toreador Escamillo sings of the glories of the bullring and the packed crowds cheering him on.
The ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, from Verdi’s third opera Nabucco, is a stirring anthem by the Jewish people longing for their homeland after being exiled by the Babylonian King Nabucco.
In the catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the servant Leporello tries to dissuade Elvira from pursuing Don Giovanni in a romantic manner by reading out a list of the Don’s female conquests. The grand total? 2,065…impressive even for an operatic character!
Cio-Cio San has been married to the American Lieutenant Pinkerton in Act 1 of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. He has returned to America, promising to be back ‘when the robins nest again’; but after three years everyone except Cio-Cio has given up hope. In Act II she sings ‘One Fine Day’, believing that Pinkerton is still returning to her.
In Bizet’s Carmen the gypsy girl of the title, working in a cigarette factory, sings the Habenera, expounding her views about love (‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’). If you love her, she doesn’t love you… but if she loves you, you’d best beware!
Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin tells of a young woman, Tatiana, who declares her love for Onegin only to be cruelly dismissed. Many months later, Onegin sees Tatiana has matured into a beautiful woman and writes her a letter declaring his love. Tatiana has married and as she reads the letter sings what has become known as `Tatiana’s Letter Scene’. Whilst still in love with Onegin, she shows absolute loyalty to her husband.
In Verdi’s Aida the Ethiopian princess of the title is captured by the King of Egypt. She is in love and loved by Radames, the Captain of the Guard. In the ‘Triumphal March and Chorus’ Radames returns from battle in Thebes with Aida’s father as captive.
In Wagner’s Lohengrin Elsa has prayed that a Knight she has seen in her dreams will come to defend her innocence when she is accused of murdering her brother. He arrives (on a swan!), they fall in love, and in Act III they are ushered into the bridal chamber by this famous ‘Bridal’ Chorus.
One of the best-known choruses in opera is from Act I of Verdi’s La traviata. At Violetta’s salon a party is being thrown to celebrate her recovery from a recent illness. A toast is proposed and it is this `Brindisi’ that is sung.
‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci conjures up the famous image of a clown breaking down into tears and rage. Canio, the head of a touring show, plays the clown, Pagliacci. Before the play goes on in a small town in Italy, Canio discovers his wife has a lover; as he puts on his make-up for the performance, he sings ‘Vesti la giubba’ – ‘Put on the costume’.
Mozart’s bittersweet comedy Così fan tutte plays with the emotions and fidelity of two young couples. The young men disguise themselves as Albanians to woo each other’s loved ones. After the first rejection Ferrando sings of his love for his partner in `Un’aura amorosa’.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser deals with supposed episodes in the life of the medieval knight and minstrel of the title, divided in his heart between the sensual delights of Venus and the demands of religion and his true love, Elisabeth. Tannhäuser is forced to undertake an unsuccessful pilgrimage to Rome. The ‘Chorus of the Pilgrims’ comes at the end of the opera when they announce that he has been saved by the prayers of Elisabeth.
In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the hero Tamino, lost in a forest after slaying a dragon, is given a portrait of the great Queen’s daughter Pamina by the Queen’s ladies in waiting. He instantly falls in love with her and, singing this aria, vows to rescue her from her abductor.
‘La donna è mobile’ is sung by the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Gilda, the daughter of the Duke’s Court Jester Rigoletto, has fallen in love with the Duke. To prove his infidelity, Rigoletto takes his daughter to an Inn where the Duke is wooing another woman. ‘La donna è mobile’, he sings—‘All women are fickle’!
The Queen of the Night’s famous aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a vocal fireworks display in which she tells her daughter that she will be disowned if she does not stab her father to death, proving that dysfunctional families are as ubiquitous in opera plots as they are in the real world.
‘Largo al factotum’ is essentially a self-congratulatory song that introduces the character of Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Figaro is the barber of the title and in this aria he sings of how busy he is, constantly attending to everyone’s needs in the town.
In Bellini’s I puritani, set in the southern English town of Plymouth, Queen Henrietta, widow of King Charles I, is held prisoner by the Puritan Lord Walton; however, his daughter Elvira is in love with the royalist Lord Arturo Talbot, who helps the Queen to escape disguised in Elvira’s bridal veil. Elvira loses her reason, thinking herself betrayed, but is restored to sanity and eventual union with her lover, who is pardoned by Cromwell. In ‘Qui la voce sua soave’ (‘Here in sweetest accents’) Elvira sings in madness.
Back to an earlier scene in Verdi’s Rigoletto (discussed above), Gilda has been going to church every Sunday where she meets a man who introduces himself as a Gualtier Maldè, a poor student. He is, of course, the licentious Duke of Mantua. Left by herself, Gilda sings ‘Caro nome’ (‘Dearest name’) expressing her love for him.
Tosca is a famous opera singer in Rome and the lover of the painter Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca. As Cavaradossi paints a portrait of St Mary Magdalene in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, he takes out a miniature of Tosca. He gazes at it, praising her beauty (‘Recondita armonia’) and comparing her with the subject of his portrait.
In Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro Susanna and the Countess are plotting to trick the Count, who has been attempting to seduce Susanna. They have planned for Susanna to meet the Count this evening. The Countess dictates a letter to Susanna (‘Sull’aria’), telling the Count where he can meet her. This becomes a duet as Susanna repeats the words back to the Countess.
In the last act of Puccini’s Tosca we find the painter Cavaradossi in a spot of bother. There is an hour to go before his execution but he rejects the offer of a priest, asking instead to write a last letter to Tosca. He sits down and starts to write, but breaks off to reflect on his love for Tosca in happier times (‘E lucevan le stelle’ – ‘And the stars were shining’).
Earlier in Mozart’s Così fan tutte Guglielmo and Ferrando have told their lovers that they must go to war (which is an excuse to return dressed as Albanians and woo each other’s partners). A boat sails in and, to the tears of the women (sisters), the two young men embark. With promises to write, the sisters wave goodbye, and with Don Alfonso they speed the men on their way in the brief ensemble ‘Soave sia il vento’ (‘May the winds blow gently’).
In Bellini’s Norma we find that the high-priestess of a druidical temple in Gaul (Norma) has broken her vow of chastity by having a long-term affair with a Roman pro-consul, bearing him two sons. The Roman (Pollione) has since fallen in love with another priestess. As the Gauls are urged to go to war with the Romans, Norma prays (‘Casta Diva’) to the moon to keep her lover safe.
Der Freischütz (‘The Marksman’), by Carl Maria von Weber, is set in the Bohemian forest and concerns the marksman of the title, Max. He is induced to seek the help of the Devil, whose magic bullets will help him win a shooting contest as well as the hand of his beloved Agathe. The ‘Huntsmen’s Chorus’ celebrates the joys of a huntsman’s life before the climax of the opera, when Max shoots a white dove which is in fact Agathe; she is saved by the timely intervention of a hermit.
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OPERA'S GREATEST MOMENTS