The Greatest Opera Arias

With so many arias out there, it’s frankly impossible to make an objective list of the best or most beautiful or most beloved. From soaring bel canto numbers in Puccini, to Tchaikovsky’s harmonically complex aria-cum-recitatives, there are so many to choose from, and there’s something different for every voice tessitura and personality! 

We’ll often talk of the singular interpretation of an aria, for example Dame Joan Sutherland’s “Casta Diva” or Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma,” and yet every interpretation brings something different to the score, equally artistically justified because it paints from a different emotional palette. The world of opera is constantly uncovering young talents who breathe new life into our favorite classic arias – Plácido Domingo’s Operalia (whose hotly-anticipated final you can catch on medici.tv this Friday) will surely see new interpretations and their young interpreters enter the spotlight!

But whilst we wait, here’s a showcase of stars who, in a given time and place, made their mark on those arias we know and love. Sometimes olden really is golden…


O mio babbino caro

Meaning “O my dear father,” this soprano aria comes from Puccini’s 1918 opera Gianni Schicchi. Sung by Lauretta, it provides a moment of lyrical respite in the fiery score, not least in medieval Florence, a city wracked with familial and political tensions. Can love (and the voice of Maria Callas) cure the world from pain?

La donna è mobile

“Woman is fickle” was a stroke of genius on Verdi’s part. The canzone, which is sung by the Duke of Mantua at the beginning of act 3 in Rigoletto (1851), is both appealing and appalling. Our heart bleeds for Gilda, but the loveable rogue’s tunes are deliciously catchy. It is a much-loved tenor showpiece, and was a firm favorite amongst 19th-century Venetian gondoliers! Here’s Juan Diego Flórez being a heart-breaker…

The “Queen of the Night’s Aria”

“Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart), is the coloratura soprano aria to end all coloratura soprano arias. Sung by the Queen of the Night (here played by Ana Durlovski) in Act II of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, the aria depicts the Queen’s vindictive exhortation – Pamina must either kill Sarastro or submit to her mother’s curse…

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle

Popularly known as the “Habanera” this aria from Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen is about as sultry as it gets. Carmen’s teasing chromatic line, slipping effortlessly between the major and minor, is accompanied by jaunty Latin rhythms in the double bass. Sung here by Marina Domashenko, it’s a feminine tour(eador) de force. 

Onegin’s aria

Onegin’s desperate attempt to seduce Tatyana in Act 3 of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin opens with a fleeting reference to that same music by which he had rejected her in Act 1. His aria, perhaps less famous than Lenski’s “Kuda, kuda, vi udalilis” is nevertheless a tour de force, playing with the same sixthy musical motifs as the Letter Scene.

Largo al factotum

This baritone pièce de résistance from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville might best be translated as “Make way for the jack of all trades!” With its allegro vivace triplets and tongue-twisting -issimes, Figaro’s energetic (and devilishly difficult!) opening aria is the perfect opera buffa amuse-bouche – a delightful combination of pomp and playfulness. Glyndebourne struck gold with this production featuring Björn Bürger as Figaro. 

Dido’s Lament

“When I am laid in earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is another opera aria that sets itself apart – this time by its understatement.

The vocal line seems to pull upwards and sink downwards at the same time, hopelessly chained to earth by a chromatic fourth sequence in the ground bass. Only once does tentative, stepwise movement and chromaticism give way to a desperate, surging upward 4th on “Remember me.” Joyce DiDonato gave an emotionally charged interpretation of the aria for her philanthropic War and Peace concert-recital.

Liebestod

No less than 4 hours into to Wagner’s iconic 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde, Isolde’s final aria “Liebestod” provides the long-deferred climax. As Isolde mourns Tristan’s dead body, the opera’s complex harmonies start to resolve. The fated pair sink into love’s embrace, finally consummated in the ultimate expression of an erotic love-after-death.

Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!

This tenor number from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment has become something of a cult aria. Tonio, a recent recruit of the French Grenadiers, confides in his comrades that he loves the regiment’s “daughter” Marie. His joy at their approval is sung far and wide with no fewer than eight high Cs – but given the recent vogue for encores, this number has been closer to 20! Singing it here is the man who broke Toscanini’s La Scala golden-rule…

Nessun Dorma

Puccini makes the Top 10 again with his “None shall sleep” from Turandot. Premiered in 1926, it was popularized by Luciano Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup. In the opera, Calaf (the unknown prince), sings with all the surging, triumphant, and unfeigned emotion of love at first sight. Pavarotti sings his definitive version here, in the 1994 Three Tenors concert…


We’re excited to hear which gems the 10 Operalia finalists have picked out for their programs. There’s no doubt that they’re spoilt for choice!

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