Perhaps as a critic I get too…well…critical from time to time. But when Thanksgiving rolls around, it's not too hard to abandon critical thinking for things that bring us pure joy (that's the excuse I use, at least, for having both apple and pumpkin pie on Turkey Day).
With that in mind, I'm bringing to the table my own list of operatic moments for which I'm most thankful. And in the spirit of holiday excess, we're upping the count from top 10 to a top 15. They're not necessarily the best or most-likely-to-anything, but they are fifteen desert-island picks for me. And while we're all giving thanks this week, tell us: What operatic moments are you most thankful for? Leave your picks in the comments below.
15. “Donde lieta uscì” (La bohème)
La bohème suffers no dearth of memorable tunes that hit at a heart and gut level. But the tuneful familiarity of “Che gelida manina,” “Si mi chiamano Mimì,” “O soave fanciulla” and “Quando m’en vo” have nothing on Mimì’s delicate farewell to Rodolfo. Maybe it’s not as peppy as the first act ditties, but its complexity and fragility are what tug at the heartstrings. And the final line, “Addio, senza rancor,” gets my waterworks going every time.
14. “Connais-tu le pays?” (Mignon)
Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon is an opera well repped on recital discs (it features several top-shelf arias for mezzo, coloratura soprano and tenor) but criminally underused on the opera stage. Pity that, because it’s the balance of all these standalone numbers that makes the opera truly remarkable. While waiting for that to change, however, I could listen to the yearningly imagery-laden aria the amnesiac title character sings of her native provenance.
13. “Verdi allori” (Orlando)
Sometimes, one aria makes the entire oeuvre of one composer click. I’d seen a lot of Handel before I caught Orlando, but for whatever reason the taste for the composer had eluded me. Medoro’s aria, sung as he carves his and his lover’s initials into a tree, was the tipping point. There’s no fireworks here found in many of the composer’s arias, just a sublime lento that flows like a stream, creating an idyll that is warm and lovely.
12. “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung” (Nixon in China)
I was in high school when I first heard Nixon in China, and to me it was the cataclysmic moment many of my friends had upon hearing the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Pink Floyd for the first time. What most stuck with me was Madame Mao’s grandiloquent showstopper, an ode to the unhinged and power-hungry (required listening for any teenage girl). This is one of the most unapologetic arias I’ve ever heard, and the line “let me be a grain of sand in Heaven’s eye and I shall taste eternal joy” is delightfully perverse.
11. “Dir Töne Lob!” (Tannhäuser)
Much like Orlando became my gateway to Handel, Tannhäuser made Wagner finally click in my gray matter. The overture is ravishing, but it’s the regal final theme thereof, reflected in the title character’s parting blows with Venus, that hit me on a deep level. The bombast of Wagner is reduced to a heldentenor and harp, gradually adding instruments in response to the protestations of Tannhäuser’s mythic lover. The libretto may be full of chaste morals, but the score leaves one with a wanton blush.
10. “Ja vas lyublyu” (Pique Dame)
I’m trying to remember the first time I heard Prince Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s other Pushkin-based opera and am coming up empty. What doesn’t come up empty, however, is this poignant declaration of love and realization that it’s not mutual. But the aria doesn’t give its hand away straight-off, what starts as a florid wooing is cut with the line “Yet I see clearly and now feel how I allowed myself to be misled by my dreams, how little trust you have in me, how alien and how remote I seem to you.” It’s so laden with suffering, so gorgeously dour, and at its heart so Russian.
9. “Or sai chi l’onore…Dalla sua pace” (Don Giovanni)
This pairing never fails to give me chills. On the one hand, you have Dona Anna, realizing (or perhaps accepting) that Don Giovanni is the Commendatore’s murderer. She erupts into a frenzied flurry of coloraturas, demanding revenge while reconciling her inner torment over losing her father. The strings in the finale trip over one another, before catching their footing in a final three notes. The subsequent aria, “Dalla sua pace” is not always included, but it is such a vital, soothing complement to the preceding fire. Dona Anna is all emotion, while her intended Don Ottavio brings some supportive rationale to the relationship.
8. “O Carlo, Ascolta” (Don Carlo)
Verdi has no shortage of swoony death scenes, but there’s something about the fluttering, bittersweet happiness that runs through Rodrigo’s exit aria that makes his expiration more affecting to my ears than Aïda’s, Leonora’s, Desdemona’s or Gustavo’s. Perhaps it brings a humanity to the surrounding political intrigue of the opera, perhaps it’s Rodrigo’s sentiment that his death will better serve his cause. Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to get chills when the flutes recall the theme of Rodrigo’s and Carlo’s oath of friendship, “Dio, che nell'alma infondere.”
7. “Scintille, Diamant” (Les Contes d’Hoffmann)
There comes a moment when you go from finding many opera villains to be terrifying to seductive. There are the manifold Mephistopheles in the various operatic settings of Faust, Scarpia when played right and the title role of Don Giovanni (yeah, he scared me as a kid—he kills a man in the first five minutes of the opera). One of the most enrapturing moments is Dapertutto’s enchanting aria about his mind-controlling diamond. It’s so mesmerizing, you can’t help but fall under its spell.
6. “N’est-ce plus ma main?” (Manon)
Opera teems with inappropriately paired couples. Opera wouldn’t exist were it not for inappropriately paired couples. It gives way to a dearth of melodrama, none of it perhaps so catchy as in Massenet’s Manon. As Rodney Milnes pointed out, Guy de Maupassant called the source material’s heroine (by Prévost) instinctively perfidious, “sincere in her deception and frank in her infamy,” and that balance is captured expertly by Massenet. It may not be the most progressive score to listen to, nor the most original, but the sheer pleasure, feminine essence and ardent passion never shows its age.
5. “Wo ist er, Dessen Sündenbecher Jetzt Voll Ist?” (Salome)
The meeting between Salome and Jochanaan is so sinfully and sexily taboo as to make The Thorn Birds look like Dr. Seuss. In the midst of his stately sermonizing and condemnation of Salome’s mother and stepfather, the young girl is experiencing a sexual awakening, drawn to Jochanaan’s flesh as he preaches of the spirit. Salome on the whole is an opera for which I’m hugely thankful to have heard during my own tumultuous teenage years, and the score’s unsettling exoticism has resonated with me long after I ditched some of the less-timeless relics of my high school days (forget the head of John the Baptist: wearing sweatpants with words on the butt or midriff-baring tank tops is reason enough to strip, pronto).
4. Coronation Scene (Boris Godunov)
Many argue that recordings are a poor imitation of the real thing when it comes to opera, but Mussorgsky’s score—especially in this moment of his Macbeth-ian magnum opus—provides all of the visuals you could want without any staging or set pieces needed. The synesthetic experience veers into overwhelming with the multifarious clanging of bells against smoky, turbulent brass and whirling dervishes of woodwinds, and the chorus comes in like a crisp winter morning’s breeze. All leads into a probing inner monologue from the composer’s eponymous Tsar and shows that a mere 10 minutes of opera can knock you flat just as deftly as a full 240 minutes.
3. “Ah! Per l’ultima volta” (Turandot)
You can keep your “Nessun dorma” and your “In questa reggia,” if I could only listen to one piece from Turandot for the rest of my life, I would pick the Act I finale. It swells with overlapping lines and motives of Calaf, Liù, Timur, Ping, Pang and Pong, building to chorus with a taut tension. When it’s broken with no less than the bang of a gong and a ringing high A, the piece explodes into complete, melodic chaos. Puccini was a master of the intimate, internal monologue, but he also turned out a great ensemble number every now and then.
2. “Tu che a dio spiegasti l’ali” (Lucia di Lammermoor)
Among my favorite moments in Joan Sutherland’s Who’s Afraid of Opera? series was their 30-minute condensation of Lucia, which starts off with Edgardo’s final aria so that the program can end on the literal high note of La Stupenda singing “Spargi d’amaro pianto.” Thus the opera’s final aria was the first I’d ever heard of it, and it’s stuck with me since then as perhaps the most memorable part for me of the work. I particularly love watching how tenors change their delivery upon stabbing themselves. You gotta hand it to them for hitting that top B-flat while bleeding profusely.
1. “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (Faust)
One could say I have the most brand loyalty to this aria—its titular first five words make up my tattoo. There’s a lot to love in Faust, but there’s something about the regal, brassy introduction to this piece, the pulsating string underscore and the beautiful, pure sentiment behind it that leaves “Avant de quitter ces lieux” indelibly inked on my right shoulder (Faust was one of the first operas my grandparents showed me, so that played into it as well). Gounod wrote this aria for English baritone Charles Santley when the opera was first given in London; a means of amping up the renowned baritone’s presence, and it has since lived on in the score. And I couldn’t be more thankful for that.