Happy Birthday, Giacomo!
Those of you who have been readers of Whiskers on Kittens for any length of time know how much I prize the opera. I adore the drama and majesty, the grandeur and pathos, the highs, the lows, the bel cantos (sink me, but that rhymes). It is one of my favorite musical forms.
I’ve discussed a few of my favorite operas with you in the past, dear readers, and in looking over those posts, I realized, I’m a rather big fan of the Italian Giacomo Puccini. And, if the title didn’t give it away already, today is that fine composer’s birthday.
I find I cannot decide whether La Bohème or Madame Butterfly is my favorite opera by Puccini. I have pondered on it long and often. Sometimes I declare it’s Madame Butterfly; her tragedy undoes me, especially after living through her stoic optimism and hopeful love. Other times, I wholeheartedly believe my favorite to be La Bohème with the painters, singers, musicians, embroiders, and other bohemians living out their art in stark poverty and angst-riddled love. But then there are the times when Turandot is my absolute favorite with Caliph’s unconditional love, or Tosca with her core of steel that allows her to write her own fate (see post here). While I might not be able to pick my favorite opera by Puccini, I can give you a few of my favorite pieces.
Each of these has made me wish I had a better grasp on my Italian. As it is, I have barely the barest grasp, leaning largely on my Latin laurels when it comes to sight translations. At the phonetic, I’m rather hopeless. Regardless, these next few songs each has rendered me silent and attentive, often with my eyes closed so to better admire their beauty.
Nessun Dorma from Turandot
If you missed it, I did an entire post about the absurdity of this particular opera plot (see post here). I even did another post about how Christopher McQuarrie expertly inserted this aria (and opera) into his action packed Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (see post here). Nessun Dorma is one of of the most famous and beloved arias. Even the layperson who’s not a fan of opera in general might get a little teary eyed recalling how Paul Potts shocked the world (and perhaps, even more laudably, Simon Cowell) when he walked on stage Britain’s Got Talent, opened his mouth, and belted out this tune with aplomb. (I’ll be honest. My eyes still get a tad misty at this.) While I can discuss all the things that drive me bonkers about Turandot, Nessun Dorma is one of the saving graces of this opera. It’s magnificent. Nearly every rendition that I’ve heard of it causes me to pause and listen. Those selah moments highlight true greatness to me.
O Mio Babbino Caro from Gianni Schicchi
I remember the first time that I heard this song. It was on the opening credits to A Room with a View starring Helena Bonham Carter and it was sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. While there have been many people who have recorded it, I can’t quite get past her version of it. It’s my favorite. While the lyrics are tragic- imagine Juliet singing about Romeo to her father, imploring him to allow her to marry the young man she loves to no avail- the music is superb.
Quando me’n vo’ from La Bohème
This song is more commonly known as Musetta’s Waltz. It’s a rather famous piece of music, although, when discussing Puccini, the famous factor feels sort of redundant. In La Bohème, Musetta is a beautiful singer- who also has a bit of a side job as a lady of the night, you know, in order to pay the bills and keep whatever meager food she can on the table. Another bohemian, Marcello, who is a painter, is madly in love with her. She knows this. However, because of the fact that so many men touch her (given her profession), he doesn’t present himself as a suitor. She means too much to him to have her confuse him with her other conquests. Quando me’n vo’ is her flirtatious and somewhat derisive response to him. She wants to make him jealous enough to declare himself. The song is ripe with flirtation; it percolates in the 3/4 time. (It’s also the background scoring in Moonstruck, see post here.)
O Suave Fanciulla from La Bohème
The passion of newfound love pours out of this duet. I have heard it done by many, many opera singers, but I find myself going back to the live performance by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Kristine Opolais. These two do an excellent job portraying Rodolfo and Mimi, the two star-struck principals in Puccini’s La Bohème. While the piece attached is not done by moonlight, the poignancy and pathos of the aria is conveyed, even the shyness between the two lovers. The song simply exudes that tenable hope of happiness and joy found between two people newly in love.
Coro a bocca chiusa from Madame Butterfly
More commonly known as The Humming Chorus, this piece plays during Butterfly’s vigil. Cio Cio-san, Madame Butterfly, has just learned that Pinkerton, her long awaited husband, is returning to Japan, his ship having been sighted. For three years, she has been waiting for his return, having remained faithful to him, even giving birth to their son in his absence. In eager anticipation, she kneels, and for several long minutes in the middle of this passionate opera, the stage is calm. But, then, softly, the humming chorus begins. The gentleness and reverence of the music further evokes the tragedy of Butterfly’s love for Pinkerton, whose behavior clearly shows how little he thinks of or loves her. (Sharpless, the US consul to Japan, tried to tell her that he’s returning with his American wife, but was unable to because she was so exuberant and hopeful, he didn’t want to be responsible for delivering the news that would break her heart.) Yet, we, the audience, are left with this picture of fidelity, a woman kneeling in prayerful silence, fully devoted to this man who has betrayed her. Before the final unraveling of her tragic end, this chorus plays, almost heartbreaking in its serenity and poignancy.
Vissi d’arte from Tosca
Tosca is full of interwoven terror and ultimate tragedy. Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, is caught up in political intrigue that leads to his capture by the hands of the vile Scarpia, who has been looking for any reason to get rid of the man in order to possess Tosca fully for himself. Right before this aria is sung, Scarpia has found his entrée into Tosca’s boudoir. He’s holding her lover hostage, torturing him within earshot. The blackmail: If Tosca becomes Scarpia’s lover, he’ll let Cavaradossi go. He gives her this option and promptly leaves her to think over his offer. That is when this song is sung. Tosca is imploring heaven to help her. She’s reminding God that she’s been generous to the impoverished and downtrodden, as well as devote and faithful in her duties as a Christian, but now she feels it’s all for nought. Now she is forsaken. The heartbreak and pain almost leaves me teary, particularly when Maria Callas performs it. This one I can’t just keep on in the background; I must watch it. And, no matter how many times I watch it, still the notes wrench at my heart. (Leontyne Price also does a magnificent rendition of this one. Listen here.)
There are numerous others I could list. Addio, Addio Mio Dulce Amor! sung by Jane Eaglen; Che Gelida Manina by Placido Domingo; E Lucevan Le Stelle by Luciano Pavarotti; to name a few. Puccini understood the romance and realism he could convey on stage. His music is full of passion, tragedy, despair, hope, and beauty.
Are there any favorites pieces you have by Puccini?