Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir D’Amore is a great masterpiece, yet great as it is it has been overshadowed by it’s wildly popular tenor aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. There are more recordings of it than there is time to listen to them. I picked out 13 of them performed by tenors past and present which give a good representation of what can be done with this great tune. There are many ways to sing it. It’s range is not great but the demands it makes on a tenor’s ability to float a smooth line and negotiate the coloratura at its end make the song a great challenge. Below is the Italian text followed by an English translation.

Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò.
Che più cercando io vo?
Che più cercando io vo?
M’ama! Sì, m’ama, lo vedo. Lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a’ suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir…
Cielo! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Ah, cielo! Si può! Si, può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Si può morir! Si può morir d’amor.

One furtive secret tear
from her eyes did spring:
as if those youths who can be playful
it ( or she ) seemed to be envious of.
What more searching do I want?
What more searching do I want?
She loves me! Yes, she loves me, I see it. I see it.
Just for an instant the beats
of her beautiful heart if I could feel!
My sighs if they were mingled
for a while with her sighs!
The beats, the beats of her heart if I could feel,
to fuse my sighs with hers…
Heavens! Yes, I could die!
I ask for nothing more, nothing.
Oh, heavens! Yes, I could, I could die!
I ask for nothing more, nothing.
Yes, I could die! Yes, I could die of love.

The first recording here is one of the most famous made of this tune. It’s the 1904 recording by Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) just a few months after his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s the second time he recorded the aria. This version, with piano like the first made in Milan in 1902, shows the sweetness and lyrical beauty that characterized Caruso’s singing when he was young before his voice became the great trumpet of his more mature years. Though his voice darkened he continued to sing this role throughout his career. Despite the fog of more than century the great Neapolitan still touches the listener’s heart. Caruso – Una furtiva lagrima

Tito Schipa (1888-1965) was the the 20th century’s finest tenore di grazia. His filature were second to none. The fioritura at the end is rushed. Ornamentation was not Schipa’s strength. But this rendition captures the music’s great and simple beauty. Schipa – Una furtiva lagrima

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) was almost as popular as Caruso. A pure lyric tenor he was able to sing spinto roles without damaging his voice because of the solidity of his vocal technique. His beautiful voice was perfect for Nemorino. Like Schipa he was not as successful with the runs at the end of the number as with the rest of the aria. Gigli – Una furtiva lagrima

Schmidt’s grave in Zurich

Of all the singers presented here only Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942) had everything you could possibly bring to ‘Un furtiva lagrima’ – beautiful voice, matchless legato, blazing high notes, flawless coloratura, and the world’s best trill. Schmidt was a tenor for the ages. This recording was made in performance at Schmidt’s American debut in 1937 at Carnegie Hall. His story is too sad for me to recount again. You can read about it here. Schmidt – Una furtiva lagrima

Next is Jussi Björling (1911-1960). He doesn’t do anything fancy with the piece except for an interpolated high note at the end; but when you have just about the greatest voice God ever created all you need to do is sing it come scrito. Björling – Una furtiva lagrima

Another candidate for the greatest voice God ever created was Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921-2008). The recording presented here was part of the complete opera made in 1955.  This was just before his premature vocal decline began. Di Stefano’s combination of beautiful tone, piano singing, and unique diction set him apart from all his competitors. When one praises his diction it’s not his pronunciation (though it was excellent) that’s being lauded it’s the emotional content that he was able to bring to every word he sang. You have to hear it to understand it. There’s nothing like it in all the operatic world. The only vocal comparison I can think of is to Frank Sinatra. Di Stefano – Una furtiva lagrima

Carlo Bergonzi (b 1924) is noted more for his style and vocal taste than for the beauty of his voice. I heard him quite often in his early years at the Met. He was always first rate, but you never left the theater thinking you had heard the voice of a lifetime. I last heard him live in Chicago where he sang Nemorino as a last minute replacement for Luciano Pavarotti who had decided not to show up. He was about 60 years old, looked like a giant size bowling pin, but was in magnificent vocal condition. His superb technique had conquered the years. The following interpretation is very good except for a little crooning in the aria’s opening. Bergonzi – Una furtiva lagrima

I heard Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) sing this aria several times in recital, but never as part of a complete performance of the opera. Pavarotti’s ability to communicate with almost everyone is readily apparent on this 1982 recording.Pavarotti – Una furtiva lagrima

Placido Domingo (b 1941) sings the aria with the rich tone typical of his voice. The range of the piece is right in his comfort zone. This is a great reading of this great work. Domingo at his peak could seemingly sing anything. Domingo – Una furtiva lagrima

Roberto Alagna (b 1963) sings a version of this aria somewhat different from that usually performed. Supposedly he found it in Donizetti’s hand in the archives of the Paris Opera or maybe he just made the whole thing up. Regardless, it’s an interesting approach to the tune. This recording was made before Alagna went on a steady diet of spinto roles. The harshness to tone that now characterizes his work is much less evident on this recording. The tempo is much faster than on the other versions of the song. Alagna – Una furtiva lagrima

Rolando Villazon (b 1972) started out as the greatest tenor since the prime of Placido Domingo. But in 2007 his voice left and has yet to return. This recording from a complete performance of Donizetti’s opera in Vienna was made just weeks before Villazon lost his voice. He’s in great form and it’s hard to recognize that vocal disaster was in the wings. The voice is lustrous and the technique is wonderful. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Villazon – Una furtiva lagrima

Juan Diego Florez (b 1973) is a bel canto specialist. He’s best know for his feats of pyrotechnics and his high notes neither of which is required in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’. He takes the piece at a very slow tempo. But his voice doesn’t have the warmth and color needed to fully realize this music. His technique is fine, but this not the best vehicle for his great talent. Florez – Una furtiva lagrima

Joseph Calleja (b 1978) is the youngest tenor in this compilation. He has a bright sound that has a rapid vibrato, though on this 2007 recording the vibrato is not as prominent as it sometimes is. He is quite good and may yet get better; but he’s not in the same class as some of the giants that precede him in this baker’s dozen. As I write this Calleja is in the middle of a run of performances of The Elixir in Munich. Calleja – Una furtiva lagrima

There are many other tenors I could have included in this compendium, but 13 is enough to give anyone interested a feel for what can be done with this inspired aria.