Six of the best Puccini arias

The BBC Music Magazine team share their thoughts on the finest arias from Puccini's great operas

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Six of the best Puccini arias
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‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut (1893)

Things aren’t looking up for the young student and nobleman Renato des Grieux. Just as he falls in love with Manon Lescaut, he discovers that her father intends her to spend her life in a nunnery. What else to do but sing? In his brief but powerful aria from Act One, Des Grieux digs deep. ‘I have never seen a woman, such as this one!’, he sings. ‘To tell her “I love you", my soul awakens to a new life.’ It’s typical of Puccini’s ability to distill intense emotion into a mere two-and-a-half minutes. Masterful. Oliver Condy, Editor

 

 

 

‘Signore, ascolta’ from Turandot (1926)

For all the glories of the music, the plot of Turandot is morally pretty dubious. The title character herself is a nasty piece of work, and her theoretically heroic suitor Calaf is little better – his desire to win her hand in marriage is based purely on sight and when he sings ‘Vincero’ (I will win) in his famous ‘Nessun Dorma’, he does so in the knowledge that if he does indeed win, Turandot execute her own people as a punishment. Nice.

Thank heavens, then, for the humble slave girl Liù who harbours a secret crush on Calaf. In ‘Signore, ascolta’ near the opera’s beginning, she begs Calaf not to get involved with the Peking ice queen’s wiles, as it will surely end in tears. The aria is restrained, heartfelt and infused with exquisite orientalism. Calaf listens, responds sensitively… but then carries on in his pursuit anyway. Jeremy Pound, Deputy editor

 

 

 

‘Senze Mamma’ from Suor Angelica (1917)

‘Favourite’ seems an odd description for an aria that describes a situation of unimaginable heartbreak: Sister Angelica has just learnt that her child, who she had been separated from, had died two years before. The words speak of loss and love, the music is a great lament. I defy anyone to listen to ‘Senza Mamma’ without welling up. The orchestra cradles the vocal line as a mother might a baby; this is a haunting, mournful lullaby that blossoms as Angelica dreams of being reunited with her son in heaven. Yet the spectre of tolling bells never seems far away. Rebecca Franks, Managing editor

 

 

 

‘Un bel vedremo’ from Madama Butterfly (1904)

Poor Cio-Cio-San, falling in love and marrying an American naval officer only to be quickly abandoned by the blighter! In this aria, sung three years down the line, she imagines the scene of his return to her and a romantic reunion that will ultimately never be. It’s tear-jerking stuff even without Puccini’s emotional score and Butterfly’s yearning soprano solo. I’m not crying, you’re crying… Michael Beek, Reviews editor

 

 

 

‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ from La Bohème (1895) 

At its heart, La Bohème is a love story between Rodolfo and Mimì, a relationship that ultimately ends in tragedy. This aria falls right at the beginning of the story in Act One, just after the pair have met. Rodolfo has just introduced himself, declaring his immediate affections for Mimì, who responds with this aria: ‘Yes, they call me Mimì’. With none of the darkness that comes later in the opera, it is tender and in the throes of immediate passion. She discusses her simple existence – ‘My story is short’ – and her life of solitude. Motifs from this aria figure in various guises throughout the rest of the opera. Freya Parr, Editorial assistant

 

 

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