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Twenty Favourite Italian Tenor Arias

Tenors have had a varied fate in operatic history and have not always had the heroic identities they now generally possess, with fathers and villains singing in a lower register, heroines as high-flying sopranos, and duennas, mothers, confidantes and nurses confined to mezzo-soprano or even contralto registers.

The tenor voice enjoyed early favour as opera developed, in the first years of the seventeenth century. By the 1640s, though, matters had started to change. Now the principal heroic rôles were allotted to castrato singers, male sopranos or male altos, while the tenor all too often took character parts, comic servants or even pantomime dame nurses. The fortunes of the voice began to revive in the eighteenth century, notably with the operas of Handel, while the French continued to use their own version of the high tenor, the haute-contre, with its tendency to falsetto in its highest range.>

The nineteenth century brought marked changes in society and culture. While Mozart had tailored his arias to particular singers, with music that was essentially occasional, designed for those very singers on a particular occasion, later composers wrote more as they wished, providing a continuing repertoire of operas that might be revived again and again, as they are today. Nevertheless they remained fully aware of the voices for which they were initially writing, inspired and influenced by the great singers of their time. Here the tenor voice won gradual pre-eminence, although singers might be classified according to the type of music in which they specialised, with the heroic Heldentenor for Wagner, lyric tenors for Puccini or dramatic tenors for Berlioz.

The present collection of favourite tenor arias includes, as it must, a preponderance of Verdi, almost equalled in quantity by Puccini, with a necessary modicum of Mascagni and Leoncavallo and a touch of Giordano and Ponchielli, and more than a nod to the earlier composer Donizetti.

Gaetano Donizetti had a relatively short career. He was born in Bergamo in 1797, the year of Schubert's birth, and died in the same town in 1848. His career started in Rome in 1822 with Zoraida di Granata and ended in 1843 with the production of Dam Sébastien, roi de Portugal (‘Dom Sebastian, King of Portugal’) at the Paris Opéra. The comic opera L'elisir d'amore was first staged in Milan in 1832 and deals with the love of the simple-minded Nemorino for Adina, which has notable assistance from the home-made aphrodisiac supplied to him, for a price, by the quack doctor Dulcamara. In Una furtiva lagrima (‘A furtive tear’) Nemorino realises that Adina loves him, seeing in her eyes the tears that she tries to hide.

Giuseppe Verdi dominated the second half of the nineteenth century in Italian opera, scoring his first great success with the opera Nabucco at La Scala, Milan, in 1842. After that began his years in the galley, as he said, writing opera after opera. Rigoletto is the story of a hunchback jester, who helps his master the Duke to seduce women and is then tricked by having his own daughter a victim of his master. The opera ends in tragedy, when Rigoletto's plan to have the Duke killed results, instead, in the murder of his own daughter, Gilda. Questa o quella allows the Duke to express his essential inconstancy, never to be confined in his amorous attentions to this or that woman. La donna è mobile (‘Woman is fickle’) expresses his philosophy still more cynically, with particular dramatic effect when Rigoletto, thinking the Duke dead, his body in a sack at his feet, hears the song and realises that another victim has died in his place.

Un ballo in maschera (‘A Masked Ball’) was originally set at the Swedish court, and then, through the complaints of the censors, transferred, with great improbability, to North America. In Di' tu se fedele (‘Say if the flood awaits me’) Riccardo Count of Warwick, or, in the original version, King Gustavns III of Sweden, consults the witch Ulrica, who tells him he will be killed by the hand of a friend, a prophecy that comes true. In Ma se m'è farza perderti (‘But if I must lose you’) the King, or Riccardo, has resolved to send his beloved Amelia and her husband away. His decision is too late and he falls victim to the wronged husband's revenge.

La traviata is an operatic treatment of La dame aux camèlias (‘The Lady of the Camelias’) by Alexandre Dumas. The courtesan Violetta unselfishly gives up her young lover Alfredo, at the request of his father, and is only reconciled to him in her final death from consumption. In De'miei ballenti spiriti (‘From my fervent spirits’) Alfredo sings of his happiness with Violetta, so soon to be brought to an end.

The opera written by Verdi for the new Cairo Opera House, Aida, is set in Egypt, where the Egyptian general Radames is divided between his loyalty to his country and his love for the captured princess Aida, who is instrumental in his betrayal and joins him in death. In the testing aria Celeste Aida (‘Heavenly Aida’) Radames sings the praises of his beloved.

Verdi's Il trovatore is based on a complex story of fraternal enmity, gypsy revenge and the revelation of the identity of Manrico, the troubadour of the title, as the long-lost son of the old Count di Luna, taken by the gypsy Azucena. In Ah, si, ben mia (‘Ah, yes, my beloved’) Manrico prepares for his marriage with Leonora, an event interrupted by news of the seizure of Azucena by the Count di Luna, Manrico's brother. With Di quella pira (‘From that pyre’) he rushes away, determined to save from death the woman he has long regarded as his mother.

Leoncavallo's I pagliacci (‘The Players’) and Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’) are often coupled in a double bill. Both are examples of late nineteenth century verisma, operatic realism. In the first a drama of love and jealousy presented in a play becomes reality, when the actor Canio, the jealous husband of the play, really kills his wife Nedda and her lover. With Vesti la giubba (‘On with the motley’), Canio prepares to act out the comedy and its hidden tragedy. Love and jealousy in a Sicilian village are the basis of Cavalleria rusticana, in which Santuzza provokes a duel between her former lover Turiddu and Lola's rightly jealous husband Alfio. Before going to his death, Turiddu, in Mamma, il vino è generoso (‘Mamma, the wine is too good’) begs his mother to look after Santuzza, when he is dead.

Giacomo Puccini also belonged to the school of operatic realism, although this he found sometimes in exotic or historical settings. Manon Lescaut, the fallen heroine of the novel by the Abbé Prévost, is seduced by the young Chevalier Des Grieux, leaves him for a rich older man and is eventually condemned to transportation, to die in the arms of her lover in the wild deserts of Louisiana. Des Grieux praises Manon's beauty, as he first catches sight of her, in Donna non vidi mai (‘I never saw a lady so fair’).

Puccini's Il trittico (‘The Triptych’), a group of three shorter operas, includes, in Gianni Schicchi, a story of greed and trickery reminiscent of Ben Jonson's Volpone. By impersonating a dead man, at the request of eager relatives, Schicchi writes a will in his own favour, something they cannot contest. Firenze è come un albero fiorito (Florence is like a tree in flower) is sung by the young lover Rinuccio, who is to marry Schicchi's daughter Lauretta.

In La fanciulla del west (‘The Girl of the Golden West’) Puccini turned to the primitive world of an American mining camp, with sheriffs and outlaws pitted against each other. The bandit Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez, condemned to hanging, begs that his beloved Minnie should only be told that he has gone free, Ch'ella mi creda libera. Minnie's intervention ensures that this actually happens, and the couple leave town to start a new life elsewhere.

Ponchielli's La Gioconda represents an earlier generation of composers in a plot that centres on the jealousy of Alvise Badoero, a Venetian nobleman, and his justified suspicions of his wife Laura and her lover, the Genoese nobleman Enzo Grimaldo. At night on his ship Enzo sings of his love in the famous aria Cielo e mar (‘Sky and sea’).

With La Bohème Puccini turned to a story of impoverished artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The poet Rodolfo meets the little seamstress Mimi, when she comes to the door to seek a light for her candle. Their hands meet, when she drops her key, and Rodolfo sings of the coldness of her hand, Che gelida manina (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’).

Tosca found Puccini dealing with a story of political intrigue and murder set in Rome. The painter Cavaradossi, lover of the singer Tosca, is suspected by the chief of police, Baron Scarpia, of involvement in the escape of apolitical prisoner. In Dammi i colori ... Recondita armonia (‘Give me the colours ... Hidden harmony’) Cavaradossi, painting a picture of a fair-haired Mary Magdalen, thinks of the dark-haired beauty of his beloved Tosca. Later, imprisoned and sentenced to a death from which Tosca has sought to release him by a false bargain with Scarpia, whom she has then murdered, Cavaradossi contemplates his love, E lucevan le stelle (‘And the stars shone’).

Umberto Giordano's reputation depends very largely on his opera of the French revolution, Andrea Chénier, the story of a poet who fell foul of the revolutionary tribunal, to die under the guillotine. Awaiting execution, Chénier sings his last poem, Come un bel dì di Maggio (‘Like a fine day in May’), before being united with his beloved Madeleine, to die with her on the scaffold.

Puccini left unfinished his opera Turandot, an opera set in China, where the cold-hearted princess of the title rejects suitors who cannot answer the riddles she sets, sending them to execution when they fail. The young prince Calaf solves the puzzle she sets and allows her a chance of reprieve from marriage by finding his own name. Turandot orders that Calaf’s name be discovered, in a proclamation echoed by his own Nessun dorma (‘Let no-one sleep’), but in vain, even when the slave-girl Liù, loyal to Calaf, prefers torture and death to revelation. Finally Calaf and Turandot are united, when Turandot finds that the true name of Calaf is Love.

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