Top 10 Underrated Puccini Arias

Monday, August 22, 2011 - 03:23 PM

The Metropolitan Opera is back this week with the return of its Summer HD Festival, kicking off on Sunday with Don Pasquale and including among its highlights 2008's simulcast performance of Puccini's La Rondine (Tuesday, Aug. 30th). Puccini wrote some of the standard-est of standard canon arias — "O mio babbino caro," "Un bel di," "Nessun dorma" and Rondine's "Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta" — but what are his lesser-known arias?

Prior to Rondine's resurgence in the '90s, how many people knew of the work's other major numbers beyond its trademark tune? La bohème cannot live by "Quando m'en vo" alone, so why does Musetta get much of the love? That's why, instead of rounding up the tired old top Puccini arias, we're looking today at some of the lesser known works with WQX-Aria's Top 10 Underrated Puccini Arias. Read on for more, and let us know: underrated or not, what's your favorite Puccini aria?

10. "Inno a Diana" (1897)
Yes, Puccini was a master of writing opera arias, but his art songs are equally captivating. An avid hunter, he wrote this hymn to the goddess of the hunt the year following La bohème. Listen closely and you hear echoes of Tosca's first act musical lines, played to the public three years later. The exultant jubilation of the piece blends, in that coyly Puccini-esque way, with an earthy object of the text's affections. And yet this aria is so underrated that no copy of it, as of this writing, exists on YouTube. You can, however, hear it on Krassimira Stoyanova's beguiling Puccini art-song album, Sogno d'or.

9. "Non piangere Liù" (Turandot; 1926)
I put this aria pretty low on the list because it does get a pretty decent amount of attention, albeit paling in comparison to "Nessun dorma." Turandot is a string of powerful and adored arias—from Liù's "Signore ascolta" (the aria preceding this gem) and death scene to Turandot's "In questa reggia" to that little Act III ditty for the Calaf. But if "Nessun dorma" is a superman aria of epic proportions, "Non piangere Liù" is the humanistic side, the very raw and conflicting emotions sung by a man in love with one woman to another woman who loves him—never a comfortable situation. It's tender and heart-wrenching and leads into (and is repeated in) one of the greatest finales ever written for opera.

8. "Gratia agimus tibi" (Messa di Gloria, 1880)
Puccini composed his Mesa a quattro voci as part of his graduation exercises from Lucca's Istituto Musicale Pacini. Despite being one of his earliest works (a work from which he borrowed in later years to fashion operas such as Manon Lescaut), the tenor solo "Gratia agimus tibi" is beautifully structured and sublimely complex, tempering religious reverence with a trademark Puccinian passion. Austere though the Roman Catholic church may be, listening to this air makes you understand the ecstasy of the saints.

7. "Che faranno i vecchi miei?" (La fanciulla del West, 1910)
La fanciulla del West doesn't suffer for gorgeous arias, but one of the most tear-jerking moments comes at the beginning. Displaced miners gather in their loneliness, separated from their families and homes while hoping (perhaps in vain) to strike gold. At the onset of the opera, wandering minstrel Jake Wallace makes a brief appearance singing a song that gives voice to the thoughts of the gold diggers who dwell on how much their families—particularly their aging mothers—may miss them. The musical theme is echoed throughout Acts I and III, and refrained at the end, but the balladeer Jake Wallace's initial run is what immediately grabs you and refuses to let go.

6. "Se come voi piccina" (Le Villi, 1884)
One look at this list and you'll notice that there are very few arias written for the female voice. Puccini's heroines have some of the most memorable moments in opera, from Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly to Tosca and Turandot. But every now and then, one slips through the cracks, as is the case with Puccini's first opera, Le Villi. Floral imagery has its place in the worlds of Cio Cio San and Mimì, and you see the roots of the composer's florid tendencies with this aria, sung by Le Villi's heroine, Anna. She puts her engagement bouquet in her fiancé's suitcase before he leaves to collect an inheritance, in hopes that it will remind him of her. Unfortunately, like subsequent Puccini operas involving plant-based tunes, things don't end so well.

5. "Tu il cuor mi strazi" (Edgar, 1889)
Unlike Puccini's Manon, his Tigrana in Edgar is a woman wholly without scruples or moral compass. In this respect, she is unique among Puccini's leading ladies, but she's also a hell of a lot more fun. And if Edgar is considered to be Puccini's Carmen (leaving the girl next door soprano to go party with the evil woman mezzo), "Tu il cuor mi strazi" is its habanera. Tigrana mocks the devout villagers at prayer with a sexy little number mocking religion. It's so seductive that it causes Edgar to abandon his pious life and burn down his house to go live in sin. It's also rare in that it's a showcase number for a mezzo—not a common fach in Puccini's world. No clips exist on YouTube, but a recent recording made with Domingo in the title role does the aria justice.

4. "Scorri, fiume eterno" (Il tabarro, 1918)
This alternate aria, heard on a handful of recordings, is an alternate song for Michele that was replaced by the über-verismo "Nulla! Silenzio!" While the latter fits in with the figurative blood and guts of Tabarro, "Scorri, fiume eterno" is a much more psychological exploration of the cuckolded Michele, who compares his grief at his wife's infidelity and the loss of his child to the never-ending Seine river, hoping that its waters will either wash away his sorrow or drown him. Perhaps this makes his murder of Luigi more abrupt, but it amplifies the moral ambiguity of Michele's character.

3. "Parigi è la città dei desideri" (La rondine, 1917)
Originally, this first act aria for Ruggero Lastouc was not a standard inclusion for La rondine, appearing in a later and abandoned revision of the opera. However, with very little material for Puccini's leading tenor in Act I, this aria (added in the 1920 version) was later reinstated, most notably on the Alagna-Gheorghiu recording of the work. It captures the sun-soaked optimism that is characteristic of so many of Puccini's characters at the onset of his operas, and such innocence and naivete makes Puccini's inevitable tragic ends all the more…well…tragic. The bittersweet, yet bloodless breakup that closes out Rondine? Even more tragic.

2. "Or son sei mesi" (La fanciulla del West, 1910)
Two instances of Fanciulla in one list? Among the highlights for the tenor voice in Fanciulla, including "Ch'ella mi creda" and "Quello che tacete," Dick Johnson's Act II aria: "Una sola parola!…Or son sei mesi" often gets short shrift. Yet it is one of the most revealing songs in terms of text and musical subtext, allowing the bandit hero to reveal his sordid past while simultaneously renouncing it in order to forge a new, honest life with Minnie. It's unabashed emotion, wrong-side-of-the-tracks verisimilitude and Romantic anguish—and all from a character who makes it to the end of the opera relatively unscathed.

1. "Vecchia zimarra" (La bohème, 1896)
La bohème is rife with arias about love and loss, though none rings so poignant as Colline's farewell to his coat, sung as he goes to pawn it to buy a dying Mimì some medicine. Reading the source material in The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, this may be the opera's one aria most faithful to Murger's original bohemian spirit as the philosopher thanks his outerwear for holding books, warming the hands of poets and not bowing to the Man. There's something unabashedly romantic about this being the most somber moment of the opera, even more dirge-like than Mimì and Rodolfo's break-up in Act III or Mimì's actual death in Act IV. 


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Comments [4]

Melissa Yorks

I have always loved Colline's farewell to his coat and was happy to see it as number 1 on the list! Glad to know I'm not the only one who likes it.

Aug. 25 2011 10:27 AM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

I don't know if this qualifies as an aria but I love 'Ho un casa nell' Honan", three minutes of peace and sanity in the Oriental whirl of "Turandot." It starts as a solo for baritone before joined by two tenors. Viva Ping! Viva Pang! Viva Pong!

Aug. 24 2011 03:47 PM
Concetta Nardone from Elmont, NY

My Bel Sogno (Beautiful dream) is that I never have to hear that boring aria again. The opera is a bow-wow. Boheme light.
Now some of the other arias on the list are worth listening to, Vecchia Zimarra, sad and very moving. The Signora Ascolta and Non Piangere Liu from Turandot lead into a wonderful finale. There is so much more to this opera than Nessun Dorma. I love the Ping, Pang and Pong singing about their homes and their lives being wasted catering to the murderous Turandot.

Aug. 24 2011 10:23 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I like Roberto's aria or arietta "Torna ai felici di' " from "Le Villi." It has that ring of "morbidezza" about it that triumphed later in "Manon Lescaut." I'm struck by how much Puccini gets out of some simple scale passages. I love what I call the "confession duet" from "Il Tabarro" when Michele sings "Ora le notti" through "la notte e' bella!" I liken that to Johnson's "Or son sei mesi" in "La Fanciulla del West." And Giorgetta's answer "Che vuoi S'in vecchia!" while the cellos underscore that by playing D flat and A flat after "notte e' bella!" in E flat and B flat always gets me because I can hear Giorgetta's getting older in the orchestra as well as her saying it.

Aug. 24 2011 08:52 AM

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