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The best-kept secret about opera is that it can make you feel alive from the inside out.
Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, and to be honest, I haven’t taken this holiday too seriously since elementary school when I ate and giggled over Brach’s tiny conversation hearts with my friends.
But there is no denying that big love is at the heart of opera.
Weddings, matchmakers, torrid love affairs, happy and tragic endings — you name it, opera has it.
In La bohème, Mimì says to Rodolfo…
I have so many things that I want to say to you
Or just one, but it’s as big as the sea
As deep and infinite as the sea...
You are my love and my whole life!
Ho tante cose che ti voglio dire,
o una sola, ma grande come il mare,
come il mare profonda ed infinita...
Sei il mio amore e tutta la mia vita!
Or when Leonora sings in Il Trovatore:
Have you come down from heaven,
or am I in heaven with you?
Sei tu dal ciel disceso,
o in ciel son io con te?
Or when Cherubino sings about his love of women in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro:
I speak of love while I'm awake,
I speak of love while I'm sleeping,
to rivers, to the shadows, to mountains,
to flowers, to the grass, to fountains,
to echoes, to the air, to winds,
until they carry away
the sound of my useless words.
Parlo d'amor vegliando,
parlo d'amor sognando,
all'acqua, all'ombre, ai monti,
ai fiori, all'erbe, ai fonti,
all'eco, all'aria, ai venti,
che il suon de' vani accenti
portano via con sé.
Love is everywhere in opera, and while it may not always end happily, it makes us feel alive.
Mimì and Rodolfo – Puccini's La bohème
In the fourth and final Act, Mimi’s illness has worsened. She and Rodolfo have a duet, “Sono andati?” (Have they gone?), in which they reminisce about their first meeting (from Act I). Their memories are happy ones, but dread hangs over them. They have turned to happy memories because the future is too sad to take.
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): “Sono andati” from the 1961 RCA recording of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, Anna Moffo (Mimì), Richard Tucker (Rodolfo)
Full-length opera recommendation: LISTEN HERE Puccini’s La bohème, Mirella Freni (Mimí), Luciano Pavarotti (Rodolfo), Elizabeth Harwood (Musetta), Rolando Panerai (Marcello), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Colline), Gianni Maffeo (Schaunard), Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
Leonora – Verdi’s Il Trovatore
In the convent scene, Leonora sings “Sei tu dal ciel disceso, o in ciel son io con te” (“Have you come down from heaven, or am I in heaven with you?”)
🎧 Listening Example (2 minute listen): Sherrill Milnes (Conte), Leontyne Price (Leonora), Placido Domingo (Manrico), “E deggio...e posso crederlo?” from Act 2 of the Italian opera Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi, 1970
Full-length opera recommendation: LISTEN HERE 1969 studio RCA recording of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Plácido Domingo (Manrico), Leontyne Price (Leonora), Sherrill Milnes (Conte di Luna), Fiorenza Cossotto (Azucena), Conductor: Zubin Mehta, New Philharmonia Orchestra
Cherubino – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
After being dismissed from his position as the Count’s page for being discovered alone with the gardener's daughter, Cherubino tells Susanna that, suddenly, every woman excites him to no end.
This aria is an example of an aria agitata: an aria sung in a breathless manner that signified “virtue in distress.” These arias were often cued in the libretto by signs of physical suffering, shortness of breath, and the inability to speak clearly. The accompaniment moved rapidly, had offbeat accents and a general sense of excitement. That’s love for you.
🎧 Listening Example (3 minute listen): “Non so piu” from Act 1 of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Full-length opera recommendation: LISTEN HERE Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1973, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Ileana Cotrubaș, Benjamin Luxon & Knut Skram
Aeneas and Dido – Berlioz’s Les Troyens
Act IV ends with this duet between Aeneas and Dido, who finally admit their love. The lines Berlioz uses in this duet are based on Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (“On such a night ...”).
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): Shirley Verrett, and Nicolai Gedda singing the love duet, “Nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie” from Act IV of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, live concert performance, Rome, 1969
The greatest love stories have been tied together by music, and they represent real-life by often putting us on the border of chaos and order.
Moments that are predictable enough to be coherent but unpredictable enough to surprise us.
What are your favorite operatic love stories? Share them below, and we will share any links we can find.
Thank you for reading (and listening),
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