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Bill Bergeman


The 10 Hands-Down Greatest Puccini Arias

I've been a huge fan of Puccini ever since I took a course on opera in college. Even if you do not listen to opera, I would bet you've heard at least a couple of these arias before. That's how famous some of Puccini's works are.

Writers, take note! We can learn from music composers as well as "word composers." Puccini's composition style is simple, clear, beautiful, highly emotional, and he always tells a compelling narrative. There's not a lot that's fancy, but his music has made millions of people weep. I challenge anyone to watch any of these videos and not feel the urge to do the same.

    1. Tosca, Act III: "El lucevan le stelle"

    Sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution, our hero Cavaradossi speaks of losing his love, Tosca.

    2. Madame Butterfly, Act I Love Duet ("Bimba dagli occhi" and "Vogliatemi bene")

    This video actually features back-to-back aria duets. This is the moment in the story when Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San declare their love for one another...at least for the moment.

    3. La Bohème, Act I: "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì"

    The magic moment in Act I when Rodolfo and Mimi realize they have feelings for one another, as Mimi sings a short aria about her life to Rodolfo.

    4. Tosca, Act II: "Vissi d'arte"

    One of the most dramatic acts in opera, and this video features arguably the best performance of it, by the great Maria Callas. Knowing her and her lover's fate at the hands of the devious police chief, Scarpia, she sings how she has only "lived for art and lived for love."

    5. Turandot, Act III: "Nessun Dorma"

    No doubt you've heard this one. It's a staple of many television commercials and public radio pledge drives. Pavarotti owns this one, and helped to make it popular in the 90's thanks to his powerful voice and interpretation.

    At this point in the story, the prince and protagonist, Calaf, has answered Princess Turandot's three riddles to win her love, despite her objections, and now he challenges her to tell him his name lest she must fall in love with him.

    6. Tosca, Act I: "Recondita armonia"

    This short, delightful aria shows the great painter Cavaradossi at his apex, painting an image of Mary Magdalene in the church while singing of his love for Tosca.

    7. Turandot, Act I Finale: "Non piangere, Liù" and "Ah! Per l'ultima volta!"

    This remarkably powerful close to the first act of Puccini's final opera, the protagonist Prince Calaf is in ancient Peking and prepared to take the challenge of answering the icy Princess Turandot's three riddles in order to win her heart. His blind father, as well as his aide, Liù (who happens to love Calaf), try to talk him out of it, but he will not be deterred.

    8. La Fanciulla del West, Act III: "Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano”

    Set in the American West of the mid-1800s, this aria features the bandit Dick Johnson at the moment before he was to be murdered by a mob of gold rush prospectors. He sings of his love for Millie, and to not let her know of his fate.

    9. Manon Lescaut, Act I: "Donna non vidi mai"

    A good old-fashioned aria about a man (Des Grieux) proclaiming his love for a beautiful young woman (Manon Lescaut).

    10. Tosca, Act I: "Qual'occhio al mondo"

    Perhaps my favorite aria of all time. Tosca questions her lover Cavaradossi's love for her, and he responds with one of the most moving declarations of love ever.

    An absolutely perfect piece of music.

    This is the best interpretation I've ever heard:

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