The Most Beautiful Tenor Aria? Hear Plácido Domingo Sing Them All

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 12:00 PM

The other day I gave a lecture about Massenet’s Werther, after which a few audience members came up to say that its act three lamentation, “Porquoi me réveiller?” is the most beautiful aria for tenor in all of opera. It is beautiful, of course, although beauty is in the ear of the listener. 

But is it the most beautiful tenor aria of all? I pondered this question on March 15 before attending The Enchanted Island, the delightful baroque pastiche at the Met with a superb cast, including Susan Graham, Danielle DeNiese, Andriana Chuchman, David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Ruling the waves as King Neptune was the tenor of all tenors, Plácido Domingo, who now is conquering important roles in the baritone repertory as well. There is only one more performance of The Enchanted Island, on March 20, and I heartily encourage you to go. It may not come back for a long time, and certainly not with a cast of this caliber.

Plácido Domingo's name was appearing in a lot of social media that evening. According to some posts, he was either observing his 700th singing performance at the Met (he conducts too, you know) or his 3,700th career performance. While a representative at the Met could not confirm these figures, there is no question that Domingo is an artist of unprecedented precedents. The cast and audience animatedly cheered him during and after the performance. Later, I am told, he threw a party at the opera house attended by many colleagues and friends.

As I walked home, it dawned on me that Domingo might be one of the very few tenors to have sung all of the tenor arias one might count among the most beautiful. Perhaps a few singers (Nicolai Gedda among them) have recorded them, but I doubt there is another tenor who has performed them all on the stage, whether in opera or concert.

I paused for a late-night coffee to draw up a list of what I think are the most beautiful tenor arias. Note that I am emphasizing those that are beautiful rather than stirring (such as “Di quella pira” sung by Manrico in Il Trovatore) or infectious (“La donna è mobile" sung by the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto). Your opinion might differ and I welcome your comments following this article.

When I got home, I decided to see if there were YouTube recordings of the great Domingo singing all the arias I selected. Of course there were! I list them for you in alphabetical order by composer’s name:

Una furtiva lagrima,” sung by Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. 

"The Improvviso" from Andrea Chénier. Umberto Giordano created one of the most amazing roles for tenor in this opera, which returns to the Met on March 24. Many lovers of Chénier think another aria, "Come un bel dì di maggio” is even more beautiful.

Porquoi me réveiller?” from Massenet’s Werther.

Dalla sua pace” sung by Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Poor Ottavio is a rather spineless fellow and hardly the romantic lead most tenors are keen to sing. In compensation, Mozart gave him this aria and the gorgeous “Il mio tesoro," both of which may be the most beautiful music in this opera.

E lucevan le stelle," Mario Cavaradossi’s mournful farewell to his beloved and to life in Puccini’s Tosca. For good measure, the first act also has “Recondita armonia." To me, Calaf’s aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot is more stirring than beautiful and loses points because the character is fundamentally selfish and unlikable.

Di rigori armato,” the aria by the Italian tenor from Der Rosenkavalier. Richard Strauss did tenors no favors in the music he created for them in that it was often difficult and meant more as supporting sounds for the soprano. In the case of this aria, the characters on the stage ignore or even disdain the tenor as he makes beautiful music.

Lenski’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The poet knows he is about to die in a duel of pistols with the title character, but gets to sing this marvelous aria first.

Quando le sere al placido” sung by Rodolfo in Luisa Miller. Verdi created so much stupendous music for tenors, who should give thanks every day for this composer. I could name numerous other arias, but more than a few tenors have told me they think this one is Verdi’s most beautiful.

In fernem land," sung by Lohengrin. In his operas, Wagner created what seem like hours of glorious and often dramatic music for tenor that is really hard to sing. You might think “Morgenlich leuchtend” from Die Meistersinger con Nürnberg is even more beautiful, but I am drawn to Lohengrin for the entire role and the music Wagner gave him.

I think an obvious but important point must be made: There are many kinds of tenors and not everyone suits each kind of role in the same way. If Domingo, or perhaps Jonas Kaufmann, is able to sing more of these arias well than most tenors, the way we perceive them relates to the timbre of their voices, their use of language, and whether they are singing an aria in concert or as part of a complete opera performance.

Let me know what you think is the most beautiful tenor aria and whom you would like to hear sing it. If you wish, post a YouTube link of the performance you prefer.


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Comments [54]

Andrew C from Sheffield UK

I'm surprised there's been no mention of Paul's aria 'Du weisst dass ich in Bruegge blieb' from Erich Korngold's 'Die tote Stadt'.

Dec. 03 2015 05:22 PM

The finest recording of the tenor aria from 'The Pearl Fishers' is "Je cross entendre encore" is sung by
Leopold Simoneau.

Jan. 01 2015 05:49 PM
Gucio from US

Wherever I turn, I can hear Domingo either singing or directing. Is there a task he has not attempted yet? His voice is not getting any better, e.g. his di Luna role. I think it is time for him to retire, please.

Sep. 20 2014 05:14 AM
Byron Nelson

My vote is for "O Paradiso," as sung by Jussi Bjoerling. Is there another performance of a tenor aria so instantly magical and evocative?

Mar. 31 2014 08:41 AM
Mrs Newman

the song of India,transposed for tenor and sung by Jussi is on the playlist for my funeral

Mar. 26 2014 07:16 PM
Elizabeth K. Stratton from Woodstock

Nessun dorma, Pavoratti

Mar. 26 2014 06:43 PM

I saw Eric Cutler do I Puritani here some while ago. It all tops my list. He simply stole the show.

Mar. 23 2014 09:18 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

Fast-slow, Soft-loud, Lyrical-contrapuntal, Whatever, as long as what is being performed is done with technical skill and musical temperament, I'll be happy (and be mightily upset when it isn't, i.e. Maazel's abominable 'Don Carlo' last season at the Met - unfortunately, it still plays in my mind, sorta like a recurring nightmare). Now there's a subject for you, Fred: performances that remain in the mind because of their awfulness.

Mar. 23 2014 11:52 AM
Nelly from The Netherlands

There are so/too many beautiful tenor-aria's that I simple can't make a choice. One of them is also for me "Abendstern" from "Tannhaüser", which Plácido Domingo also has in his repertoire, not on record but he sang it in his concerts in Hasselt (Belgium) and bythe Loreley (Germany)last year.

Mar. 23 2014 09:07 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Mr. Rick: thanks for pointing that out to me. Do not know how I missed that one. I have a two set cd of his songs and arias, sung in German. What a great tenor he was.

Mar. 23 2014 07:46 AM
Pat from NJ

For beauty that takes your breath away I would choose Un' aura amorosa from Cosi over either Dalla sua pace or Il mio tesoro. Thank goodness we get to hear them all.

Mar. 22 2014 04:40 PM
rick o'connell

to Concetta Nardone- Fritz Wunderlich was indeed mentioned (see my previous message seven messages below yours). To me he had the most beautiful voice of post war tenors. Just to mention two obvious examples of his art, I would point out his "Magic Flute" aria and (though sung in German) Lenski's aria from "Eugen Onegin".

Mar. 22 2014 09:17 AM
CONCETTA Nardone from Nassau

I am open to all tempos of music and old age has not really changed my preferences. Many fine tenors have been mentioned but I noticed Fritz Wonderlich has not been mentioned. Therefore, I will mention what a fine tenor he was and too bad he died so young.

Mar. 22 2014 06:34 AM
MAK from Not Over The Hill, Yet

Unlike my Irish Mom, who describes her birthday as "one year closer to the grave", I don't usually think about my dotage. I do try to live in the moment. But the answer to your question, Fred, is no. I'm open to good music of all kinds-slow, fast, old and new, not because it's age appropriate, but to enjoy & grow. All of these favorite arias and voices make my heart skip a beat, regardless of tempo or how many years I have listened to them.

Here's another golden oldie for the list-"Donna non vidi mai" (Manon Lescaut-Puccini)and for the young at heart "Quanto e bella, quanto e cara"-again, from L'Elisir d'Amore.
Salute! Fred

Mar. 22 2014 12:21 AM
Richard De Luca from Wayne, N.J.

I vote for Una Furtiva Lagrima sung by Ferruchio Tagliavini. His voice control and his final expression at the conclusion of the aria is without equal, in the opinion of a sixty-year opera goer who has seen or heard most of the great tenors since 1954.

Mar. 21 2014 09:58 PM
Fred Plotkin from Chicago

Commenters, thanks for your excellent choices and remarks. I have an erudite readership. And Emma from Long Island: very good choices and it is great to be young and like faster paced music. I would love to know from other commenters: do you like slower music more that you have gotten older? In my case, I love music that is musical and lyrical at times but supercharged at others. A good example of this might be the overture from La Forza del Destino.

Mar. 21 2014 03:49 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Agree with Mr. Beatty. Grigolo is a pretty tenorino. Must agree with comments about Bjoerling, Gedda, Gigli, wonderful tenors. Another tenor who sang with great artistry was DiStefano but unfortunately, he burned himself out early in his career. Another tenor who was not well known in the United States was Francesco Albanese who possessed a beautiful voice and fine technique.

Mar. 21 2014 11:12 AM
james jagiello

What about "Che Gelida Manina' from "la Boheme"?

Mar. 21 2014 03:21 AM
Gerry Beatty from Maplewood, N. J.

Be brief. Hah!
(1) First: Thanks for an informative pre-concert lecture on Nielsen. I'm looking forward to QXR's broadcast next week: Nielsen needs a 2nd (& 3rd) hearing.
(2) Many great tenor choices above. Falstaff is my favorite work of art; how about Fenton's III-2 Dal labbro del canto estaslato vola?
(3) While I'm at it: am I the only one distracted by excessive tenor sobbing? Beczala; Grigolo is especially bad with his distortion of note values; now Kaufmann spoiled Werther for me. They have beautiful instruments aynd ayll thyey dyo is syob, syob, syob.

Mar. 20 2014 10:44 PM
rick o'connell

The easy answer would be just about any tenor aria sung by Fritz Wunderlich, but to pin down a specific aria (one I'm not sure even Domingo has recorded)which is arguably the most beautiful, I would say "Vainement ma bien aimee" from "L'Roi D'Ys" by Edward Lalo. It is a truly beautiful, exquisite melody. My preferred version is from the 1920-30's Belgian tenor Andre D'Arkor (it can be found on You Tube).

Mar. 20 2014 10:41 PM
Gene Bivins

I will add Des Grieux's aria, "Ah fuyez, douce image!" to the mix. I'm amazed no one else has mentioned it.

Mar. 20 2014 09:05 PM
Dave Rudin from Brooklyn, New York, United States

"Nessun dorma" is also an aria for tenor and chorus. Take away the chorus and it loses a lot.

Mar. 20 2014 07:52 PM
Barry O'Neal from NYC

MANON by Massenet in total, can be a bit of a trial, but the tenor's act2 aria "En ferment les yeux.." is one of the most beautiful ever written. Hear Bjorling or Gedda sing it and die a little!

Mar. 20 2014 06:03 PM
Raquel from Muri bei Bern, Switzerland

Difficult to say which is the most beautiful - they are all gorgeous.
But more beautiful than any tenor aria is a baritone aria, O du mein holder Abendstern (Tannhäuser). Goose bumps!
Even with all his versatility, Domingo has not got there yet. ;)

Mar. 20 2014 03:28 PM

I agree with the person who said they love them all. As a musician, I was often asked what my favorite piece of music was. I almost, invariably replied, the piece I'm working on now. Same thing with listening, often my favorite piece is the one I'm presently listening to.

Mar. 19 2014 10:36 PM

I have enjoyed this topic throughout the day, listening to all of the beautiful suggestions again. Another Giordano for the list-short, sweet (and slow)-"Amor ti vieta" from Fedora. Thanks, Fred!

Mar. 19 2014 10:32 PM
Bob from NYC

Easy! Un' aura amorosa, from Cosi fan tutte.

Mar. 19 2014 10:01 PM
Emma from Long Island, NY

I love Don Ottavio's lesser appreciated "Il mio tesoro" (I'm young, though, and I know that the older you get the more you like those slower pieces, but I'm not there yet) from Mozart's Don Giovanni and "Firenze è come un albero fiorito" from Gianni Schicchi (Puccini) sung by Juan Diego Florez.

I also like "Più bianca di giglio" from "Una Cosa Rara" by Martìn y Soler (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte) - yet again, not very well known, and I haven't found a very nice recording yet (in the one I have, the tenor singing sounds like he's Mario Cavaradossi dying, not a Prince thinking about someone who he loves).

Mar. 19 2014 09:04 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

How could I leave out Bjoerling singing the aria from Faust. I have the recording.

Mar. 19 2014 03:35 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

I'm surprised that Edgardo's aria in the final scene of "Lucia di Lammermoor" hasn't yet been mentioned. Not only is it beautiful but it is a powerful aria at the same time and gives the tenor a chance to even the score with the titular character. I read somewhere that sopranos disliked (to put it mildly) performing the opera with Caruso because of the huge ovations he regularly received.

Mar. 19 2014 02:45 PM
Hendrik E. Sadi from Yonkers, New York

I don't see "Salut!demeure chaste et pure" (Gonoud:Faust) on this list, which surprises me? Sung so elegantly by Jussi Bjorling.

Mar. 19 2014 09:30 AM
Zvi Stone from Jerusalem Israel

Raquel Quand du Seigneur

Mar. 19 2014 07:42 AM
Concetta nardone from Nassau

Thank you Fred. Thank you Mr. St.Onge. I heard Gigli sing the aria many years ago. Lovely aria. Bjoerling also sings this one. Beautifully of course.

Mar. 19 2014 07:35 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'm very partial to "Io conosco un giardino" from "Maristella" by Pietri, especially sung by Beniamino Gigli. He recorded it with Umberto Berrettoni conducting in 1940. Carlo Bergonzi sang it beautifully at a recital of his in the 1980's in New York City. The melody and the words are beautiful; and I'd love to know if any blogger here has ever seen this rarity in a live performance, and if so, if he/she would care to comment on it. I resoundingly "second" all the other choices made so far. Mr. Rose stole my thunder with "Magiche note", recorded by Caruso in 1908, because that was my original thought. My second is "Ch'ella mi creda" from "La Fanciulla del West" sung by Jussi Bjoerling in the 1937 Italian version conducted by Nils Grevillius.

Mar. 19 2014 06:55 AM
ken kirsh from az

Not listed but I always liked che gelida lamina sung by tucker or Pearce.

Mar. 19 2014 04:07 AM
Angela Blasi from Los Angeles

Werther in the top three, but also Federico's Lament. Vesti La Giubba...don't see it on here.

Mar. 18 2014 11:04 PM
Antoinette Lopez

It's impossible to pick just one, but of the ones you listed my favorites are Porquoi me réveiller, E lucevan le stelle, Recondita armonia, and Lensky's aria. You also left out Lamento Di Frederico. I think Jonas Kaufmann has the most exquisite voice. His pitch is perfect and the timbre and emotion of his voice are so moving. I'd love to hear him do Lensky's aria too.

Mar. 18 2014 06:40 PM
Lan Xiao

I would like to suggest three of the most beautiful tenor arias in my opinion, which all have been sung most wonderfully by Placido Domingo:

“Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller;

“E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca;

“Allmächt'ger Vater” (Almighty Father) from Rienzi.

Here is the Youtube link to Placido’s sublime rendition of “Almighty Father”:

Mar. 18 2014 06:31 PM

Credeasi, misera from Bellini's i Puritani is my vote.

Mar. 18 2014 05:54 PM
beachsiggy from NYC

As for the statistics, Maestro Domingo is the master of his statistics. It was indeed his 3700th singing performance, and his 700th singing performance at the Met.

Mar. 18 2014 04:28 PM
Carol Hope

I can't possibly pick one! All of them are beautiful when sung by the great Placido Domingo.

Mar. 18 2014 03:52 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

The name of the tenor aria from 'The Pearl Fishers' is "Je crois entendre encore" and I agree that it is one of the most beautiful tenor arias, especially sung by Gedda. I don't believe Domingo ever recorded it. Eric Cutler sang it beautifully and with a fine pianissimo high note here at the Santa Fe Opera a couple of seasons ago.

Mar. 18 2014 03:44 PM
Diana from Spain

"La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" from Carmen, beautifully sung by Plácido Domingo

Mar. 18 2014 03:41 PM
Stefano from Roma

Fred, I may have found an aria that Domingo has not recorded that is among the most beautiful in the standard repertory: Com' e gentil from Don Pasquale. My favorite interpreter of this serenade is the incomparable Alfredo Kraus.

Mar. 18 2014 03:41 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Yes to all of these suggestions, especially Il Lamento di Federico

Mar. 18 2014 03:07 PM

1. O Fiamma Soave (La Donna del Lago)
2. Pour me rapprocher de Marie (La Fille du Régiment)
3. Lamento di Federico (L'arlesiana)
4. Pourquoi me reveiller (Werther)
5. O Paradiso (L'africana)

Mar. 18 2014 02:58 PM
Veronica and LeRoy from Albququerque, NM

We think Nicolai Gedda probably sang as many of the most beautiful arias, if not more, because of all his recordings of not-as-well-known operas. We are also surprised NOT to see the Meistersinger PRIZE SONG listed yet!! That is his choice; Lenski 's aria is mine, and Il mio Tesoro works for both of us.

Mar. 18 2014 02:40 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Signora Nardone: Click “Porquoi me réveiller?” in blue in my article and you will be able to hear Domingo sing the aria!

Mar. 18 2014 02:19 PM
Marlis Opel from Koblenz, Germany

Sorry, but I love them all! Therefore I am not able to decide which one I like most :-(

Mar. 18 2014 02:11 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Pourquoi me reveille. Do not know if Placido sings this but I think I heard him sing this many years ago, then Nessun Dorma and Flower Song. There is a lovely tenor aria in the Pearl Fishers but I forget the title.
Best wishes and fine article, as usual.

Mar. 18 2014 02:10 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Perhaps it is next to impossible to separate "the most beautiful tenor aria" from "the most beautifully sung tenor aria," yet Magische Töne from Goldmark's Die Königin von Saba as sung by Gedda, (but also, Caruso) is mesmerizing in its beauty.

Mar. 18 2014 02:09 PM
Brad Cresswell from Toledo, OH

Hi Fred!

I would nominate another (lesser-known, perhaps) Tchaikovsky tenor aria: "Prosti, prelestnoe sozdanye" ("forgive me, beautiful creature") from the first act of "The Queen of Spades." Heart-wrenching, full of pathos, sort of a cross between Werther and Lensky. And, Placido sings it gorgeously - although I can't find a video of him singing it online anywhere.

Mar. 18 2014 01:43 PM
Harvey Steiman from San Francisco

One more nomination: "Ach, so fromm" (better known as "M'appari"), from Flotow's "Martha."

Mar. 18 2014 01:42 PM
Alan Fletcher

I like Don Jose's Flower Song, also gorgeously sung by Domingo

Mar. 18 2014 01:22 PM

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