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Aria Talk
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Gian Carlo Menotti, Amelia Goes to the Ball (1937): Amelia’s aria, "While I waste these precious hours"

This piece displays legato control to ravishing effect. Perhaps the tonal reserves needed at the climax have intimidated some sopranos, but a really "juicy" lyric — a Mimì at the very least — can do splendid justice to Amelia’s aria. It is acceptable in two languages: The world premiere in Philadelphia was given in George Mead’s English translation, but a year later in San Remo audiences heard Menotti’s own Italian text.

Amelia’s husband discovers a love letter written to her by another man. In exchange for her husband’s promise to take her to the evening’s ball, Amelia reveals the letterwriter’s identity: the gentleman on the third floor! After the husband races upstairs with pistol in hand, Amelia goes to her balcony and signals to her lover to climb down. As she awaits him, she laments to "ye heav’nly Powers" that women, unlike men, ask for so little in life; all she wants is just to go to "an innocent ball!"

The leaps may be treacherous (e.g., from low D to high A in the concluding phrase), but Menotti’s heartfelt expressiveness is a joy. If vocal velvet and textual eloquence are working in tandem, the aria can transform a flighty, frivolous creature into an appealing, sympathetic young woman.

Score — Ricordi
Recording — Leontyne Price in "The Prima Donna Collection" (RCA/BMG label)
Timing — 3:30


Gaetano Donizetti, Roberto Devereux (1837): Sara’s aria, "All’ afflitto è dolce il pianto" One often hears an auditioning mezzo-soprano overextending herself with Cavalleria, Gioconda or Adriana Lecouvreur. Rather than struggling to impress with a dramatic force beyond her means, she could show off her musicality and vocal beauty in a bel canto cavatina.

In the court of Elizabeth I, the Earl of Essex is adored by two women: He loves Sara, wife of the Duke of Nottingham, but in secret — not only because Sara is married, but also because Essex is very publicly the favorite of the Queen herself. Sara is first seen reading the tragic story of Rosamond (mistress of King Henry II, centuries previously). In her aria, Sara laments that, while Rosamond’s suffering ended in death, she herself must continue her life of misery.

This is a restrained yet very touching number, and not without its challenges. The phrasing must convey a deep sincerity, and the emotion, while intense, must remain in proportion to the needs of the line. A solid technique will be troubled neither by the legato nor by the several unprepared attacks at the top of the staff (and one descent well below it). The singer should present a young woman in turmoil, bewildered and frightened by her feelings.

Score — Ricordi
Recording — Delores Ziegler in the complete opera, conducted by Friederich Haider (Nightingale Classics label)
Timing — 2:50


Leo Delibes, Lakmé (1883): Gerald’s recitative and aria, "Prendre le dessin...Fantaisie aux divins mensonges"

In 15 years of hearing auditions, this writer has never heard a tenor offer "Fantaisie. " Roméo’s "Ah, lève-toi" has great B-flats and Faust’s "Salut, demeure" a grand high C, but when it comes to the detailed artistry required, "Fantaisie" surpasses both. In an unnamed Indian city during Britain’s occupation, five British subjects — Gerald, his fellow officer, and three female companions — are on an outing. Although it is forbidden, they enter the garden of Nilakantha, the Brahmin priest. When Ellen and Rose spy some jewels (they belong to Lakmé, Nilakantha’s daughter), Ellen’s apprehensive governess insists they leave immediately. Gerald remains behind to sketch the jewels for Ellen, his fiancée. Once alone, he muses on the appearance and voice of the jewels’ owner, vainly attempting to resist his fantasy. The recitative calls for great delicacy, as does much of the aria — and the floated phrases must be voiced in true head tones, not falsetto cheating. The aria’s structure is basically A-BA, the "A" section rising repeatedly to full-voiced A-flats. The "B" section builds gradually in intensity, with "tout tresaillant au nom du bien-aimé" becoming a vigorous, ringing point of arrival. Delibes’s coda tests a tenor’s command of diminuendo, letting the voice fade into nothing on a sustained A-flat.

Score — International Music
Recording — Alain Vanzo in the complete opera, conducted by Richard Bonynge (London label)
Timing — 5:13


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Iolanta (1892): Robert’s aria, "Kto mozhet"

Baritones have few genuinely romantic solos (that is, pure romance rather than mere seduction). Fortunately, there’s Tchaikovsky; if you already sing Yeletsky’s aria but crave something more overtly passionate, look no further.

Count Vaudémont and Robert, Duke of Burgundy, get lost on their adventures and find themselves in a garden that, unbeknownst to them, belongs to King René’s castle. Robert is engaged to Iolanta, René’s daughter. Although he hasn’t met her, Robert has no wish to marry Iolanta, since he’s in love with a certain Mathilde (whom we never see). He sings Mathilde’s praises to Vaudémont, describing her eyes, her laugh, and her caresses.

The aria’s length and sheer excitement make it an ideal audition-opener. In short order it can show off vocal color, range, warmth, and thrust, not to mention textual incisiveness. It seems to have been written in one enormous emotional outpouring, in order to communicate the flame burning in this man. Each line surges forward, and just when one feels Robert has reached his peak of intensity, Tchaikovsky takes him beyond it. A listener instantly capitulates to such passion, provided the singer doesn’t exaggerate it unnecessarily.

Score — Warner/Chappell
Recording — Sergei Leiferkus on "The Tchaikovsky Experience," conducted by Neeme Järvi (BMG/Conifer label), or Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the complete opera, conducted by Valery Gergiev (Philips label)
Timing — 2:30


Richard Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer (1843): "Mögst du, mein Kind" Of Wagner’s important bass arias, Daland’s is the lightest. If you need a new German aria, give Sarastro a rest and try Daland instead. He’s a great deal more fun to perform, also presenting substantial vocal demandsBad weather forces Daland, a Norwegian sea captain, to bring his ship to an unnamed rocky shore, prior to sailing home to his own village. Another captain anchors his ship there as well. This stranger, obviously rich, immediately strikes Daland as a wonderful match for his daughter Senta. He brings the stranger home to meet her, little knowing that his prospective son-in-law is the Flying Dutchman, with whom Senta is obsessed. As the Dutchman and Senta — oblivious to Daland — gaze at each other, Daland asks Senta to welcome their guest and displays the riches the Dutchman possesses. He leaves the two alone, but not before assuring the Dutchman, "Believe me, she’s as true as she is beautiful."

The aria’s mood is generally bluff
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