You Gotta Know These Arias
- When I am laid in earth (also known as “Dido’s Lament”) is the final aria sung by the Carthaginian queen Dido in Act III of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (1683). Dido, who has fallen in love with the Trojan prince Aeneas, is heartbroken when she learns that he is planning to leave because of what he believes in an order from Mercury. Dido sings this aria as she is dying of grief following Aeneas’s departure, after a recitative in which she asks for “Thy hand, Belinda” (her sister and handmaiden). In her aria, she urges “Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.” The aria uses a chromatic “lament bass,” a common feature in Baroque opera involving a descent from tonic to dominant in a minor key, first introduced by Claudio Monteverdi.
- Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”) is an aria sung by the Queen of the Night in Act II of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791). The aria is commonly known as either just “Der Hölle Rache” or simply as “The Queen of the Night’s aria.” In the aria, the Queen of the Night gives her daughter, Pamina, a knife, and orders her to assassinate Sarastro; if Pamina does not kill Sarastro, the Queen will disown her. The aria is renowned as one of the most spectacular and most difficult soprano arias in the common repertoire; it requires the singer to not only hit several staccato high Cs in succession, but also for the singer to leap up to the F higher than that. Josepha Hofer, Mozart’s sister-in-law, played the Queen at the premiere of The Magic Flute; Mozart wrote “Der Hölle Rache” to showcase her high range.
- Largo al factotum (“Make way for the factotum [servant] of the city”) is an aria sung by Figaro in Act I of Gioacchino Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville (1816). This is Figaro’s first major aria of the opera, and he sings it when he first appears on stage. In it, he describes himself as a “barber of quality,” notes that “everyone asks for me,” and describes himself as equally skilled with a “young lady” as he is with “razors and combs.” Figaro sings this as he is walking along the street; he is subsequently approached by Lindoro—really, Count Almaviva in disguise—who asks for Figaro’s help in wooing Rosina, the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo. In the oft-parodied, best-known moment of the aria, Figaro repeatedly sings his own name.
- Il dolce suono (“The Sweet Sound”) is an aria sung by Lucia in Act III of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). In the opera (which is based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott), Lucia and Edgardo love one another; however, due to her brother Enrico’s machinations, Lucia is forced to marry Arturo instead. Lucia goes insane and stabs Arturo to death in the bridal chamber. In the aria—which is commonly referred to as Lucia’s “mad scene”—Lucia appears covered in Arturo’s blood, and hallucinates a scene in which she is marrying Edgardo. Donizetti maximized the eerie nature of the scene by calling for a glass harmonica in the accompaniment. “Il dolce suono” was a signature piece for soprano Joan Sutherland.
- La donna è mobile (“Woman is fickle”) is sung by the Duke of Mantua in Act III of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto (1851). The aria is a canzone (literally, a song), with verses and a repeating refrain that compares a woman to a “feather in the wind.” In Rigoletto, the title hunchbacked court jester swears revenge on the Duke of Mantua after the duke seduces Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda. Rigoletto pays the assassin Sparafucile to kill the duke; however, Gilda—in love with the duke—offers herself to die in the duke’s place. The Duke first sings “La donna è mobile” after arriving at Sparafucile’s house (having been lured by the promise of sex with Sparafucile’s sister). Later, as Rigoletto is dragging the sack with what he thinks is the Duke’s dead body, he hears the Duke again singing “La donna è mobile.” His daughter—not the duke—is in the sack.
- L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (“Love is a Rebellious Bird”) is an aria from Act I of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875); it is sung by the title character the first time she appears on stage. The aria is in the style of an habanera, a dance developed in Cuba (and whose name refers to the city of Havana), and is often simply known by the name of the dance. Bizet adapted the aria’s music from a piece by composer Sebastián Iradier, thinking it was a traditional folk melody rather than an original work. In the aria, Carmen sings that “love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame” to a seductive, chromatically-descending melody, proclaiming “if you don’t love me, then I love you” and “if I love you, be on your guard.” At the end of the aria, Carmen throws a flower to Don José, who subsequently falls in love with her and eventually kills her.
- Vesti la giubba (“Put on the Costume” or “On with the Mottley”) is sung by Canio at the end of Act I of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci (1892). Canio and his wife Nedda are members of a commedia dell’arte performing troupe; Canio’s role is that of Pierrot (the clown), while Nedda’s role is that of Colombina, Pierrot’s unfaithful wife. At the end of Act I, Canio has discovered that Nedda has been unfaithful in reality; however, they have a performance scheduled, so Canio is faced with the torture of having to dress up as Pierrot and play out humorously, on stage, what is actually happening in his real life. In the aria’s signature moment, Canio sings “Laugh, clown, at your broken love!” Enrico Caruso’s 1902 recording of the aria became the first record to sell more than one million copies.
- Nessun Dorma (“None Shall Sleep”) is an aria sung by Prince Calaf at the beginning of Act III in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot (1926). The Chinese princess Turandot swears she will only wed any man who can answer her three riddles; she executes any who fail. The disguised Prince Calaf correctly answers Turandot’s riddles and poses one of his own: if she can learn his name by sunrise, then she can still execute him. Calaf sings “Nessun Dorma” as all of Turandot’s subjects frantically try to discover his name. In the aria, Calaf claims he will only speak his name on the princess’s mouth, when he kisses her. The aria ends with three triumphant cries of “Vincerò,” or “I will win!” The aria was the signature performance piece of tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who also performed it in concert as part of the “Three Tenors” supergroup.
- Summertime is an aria sung by Clara at the beginning of Act I in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935). “Summertime,” which is the first significant number in the opera, is sung by Clara as a lullaby to her baby. A languid, undulating harmony accompanies Clara, as she sings “Summertime and the livin’ is easy / fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high.” Clara and her husband Jake die in a hurricane at the end of Act II; in Act III, Bess reprises “Summertime” by singing it to their baby, who is now an orphan. Gershwin wrote “Summertime” in an attempt to capture the feel of a Black spiritual; the piece subsequently became a jazz standard. The lyrics for “Summertime” were written by DuBose Heyward, who also wrote the novel on which the opera is based.
- News has a kind of mystery is sung by Richard Nixon in Act I of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China (1987). The “News” aria is Nixon’s first significant aria, sung after the Spirit of ’76 touches down, he exits the plane, and greets Zhou Enlai (stylized as Chou En-lai in the opera’s libretto). Nixon marvels at the instantaneous nature of the moment, and of news in general, singing that “when I shook hands with Chou En-lai on this bare field outside Peking, just now, the world was listening.” As Chou introduces various officials, Nixon continues to sing about the news, noting “It’s prime time in the U.S.A., yesterday night” and that the meeting is being broadcast on all three major U.S. networks. The aria features Adams’s signature minimalist style; Nixon at first repeatedly sings the word “news,” then repeats the phrase “has a” several times before singing the full sentence.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Jason Thompson.