The days are short; accordingly there’s a lot of darkness around. So, I thought I might brighten things up a bit with a few love duets. Of course, the best of these duets portray characters who typically don’t survive the opera’s end. But they are lovely and make us forget that they lead to death. Of the eight pairs below, only five characters survive – two tenors, two sopranos, and a bass-baritone.
First is the opening act duet from Lucia Di Lammermoor. The title character in Donizetti’s opera has a tenuous grasp on reality right from the get go. She completely loses her grasp of reality in the third act in opera’s most famous mad scene. Her bout of madness proves fatal. Her lover, Edgardo, kills himself when he hears of her demise. In the first act things are pretty good and the lovers pledge eternal love. This recording is from a 1950 recital in San Francisco. It features Giuseppe Di Stefano still in his twenties and in full possession of the glorious voice that made him one of the greatest tenors of the last century. Lucia is the Brazilian soprano Sayão nearing the end of her illustrious career, but still in very good voice. Verranno a te
Another duet with Di Stefano was recorded the following year. It’s the one that ends the first act of Puccini’s La Bohème. The tenor’s voice began to deteriorate when he was about 35, an age when he should have had his best years in front of him. His premature vocal decline is one of opera’s greatest losses. His partner here is the great Puccini soprano Licia Albanese. In this opera the soprano, Mimì, is the only fatality and she survives almost to the final curtain, though she’s puny for the opera’s duration. The Met has done the opera so often that it’s started performing itself without any need of singers or orchestra. Last month it bled into the fourth performance of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. The audience, save a few cognoscenti, failed to notice anything untoward. They left convinced that Glass’s opera took place in Paris. O soave fanciulla Di Stefano Albanese
Another Puccini first act duet that also concludes the act is from Madama Butterfly. I’m surprised that today’s woke crowd allows this opera to be still performed. The tenor, Lt BF Pinkerton, is a child molester and a rapist, at least according to American law. The title character is only 15 years old in the first act. But as in most things operatic, glorious music covers all sins. And the music of this duet is about as glorious as it’s possible to be. The long duet features Maria Callas at her very best. Her reading of the part is exquisitely nuanced. She’s as good as one can get with this music. Her partner is the young Nicolai Gedda who’s fine, but was to get better in a few more years. Pinkerton, the cad, survives. Butterfly’s end is well known and utterly predictable. Viene la serra Gedda Callas
Now two by Verdi. The first, from Act 2 of Un Ballo in Maschera, alternates between agitation and searing emotional intensity. The tenor (either the King of Sweden or the Governor of colonial Massachusetts, depending on the version performed) is in love with his best friend’s wife, Amelia. Their love has been chaste though one wonders if this state of retained passion would have persisted had the lovers not been interrupted by the appearance of the third member of the love triangle. After a convoluted series of events the husband, a baritone obviously, kills the tenor. The soprano survives. This version is from a 1940 performance of the opera at the Met. The singers are two of opera’s supremely gifted artists – Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling. As this is from a live performance there are a few missteps, but so what. Teco io sto
The long duet that concludes Act 1 of Otello is the work’s only period of true calm. It’s a depiction of marital bliss – a condition as rare in opera as in real life. It makes Otello’s subsequent descent to homicidal madness particularly poignant. Both characters are dead at the final curtain. This recording is from the 1930s. It features the great soprano Claudia Muzio. She was a mainstay at the Met where she sang 198 performances between 1916 to 1922. She then left the house because of a dispute and didn’t return until 1934. She sang three shows and was gone for good. She died in 1936 in a Rome hotel room under mysterious circumstances. Her partner here is the fine Italian dramatic tenor Francesco Merli. He appeared only 10 times at the Met – all in 1932. His was a major presence in Europe and South America. He was particularly renowned for his portrayal of Otello. Gia Nella Notte Densa
Another married couple is Romeo and Juliet, though they’re married under wacky circumstances and don’t get to spend very much time together. Gounod’s take on the story (Roméo et Juliette) has them sing a duet in the nuptial bed before dawn and Frère Laurent spin their fate which is too well known to relate. The lovers are the Americans Michael Spyres and Tara Stafford. Spyres who has been tearing up Europe is finally due to make his Met debut this coming February as Berlioz’s Faust. He’ll only do two performances, but one is the Saturday broadcast. If Costco judged beef as effectively as the Met evaluates vocal talent, we’d all be eating vegetable burgers. Va! je t`ai pardonné
Here’s Spyres in another French duet. It’s the stupendous one that concludes Act 4 of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. No one has ever written a better love duet than this one and that includes Verdi. The duet above from Ballo is obviously strongly influenced by Meyerbeer’s masterpiece. The duet ends with Raoul, the tenor, leaving his lover by jumping out of a window. He’s not the only tenor to make such an exit, see La Battaglia di Legnano. The soprano is the French-Canadian Alexandra Deshorties. Both characters are murdered in the opera last scene. Tu m’aimes
George Gershwin’s only opera Porgy and Bess will be broadcast and televised on February 1, 2020 as part of the Met’s HD series. The company’s new production opened the current season. Here’s the duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now Now sung in a now classic recording by Leontyne Price and William Warfield. Though geographically apart, both are still alive at the end of the opera.
And now for something for something completely different. It’s here because it’s great, it’s the holiday season, and I really like it. Sing Sing Sing is from the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert led by Benny Goodman. Goodman,of course, was in great form. Gene Krupa was on the drums. Harry James trumpet solo is dazzling. Jess Stacy’s piano solo at end of the number sounds like Debussy had improvised a jazz impression – Stacy is beyond brilliant. Obviously, these white musicians had learned a lot from the black players from New Orleans and other places like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines who had invented and perfected the genre. The performance is wonderful regardless of whether your hearing it for the first or 100th time. Despite the title the music has no lyrics. It was written by Louis Prima three years before the renowned concert.