Tosca has two great tenor arias. Everyone knows the third act’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’. ‘Recondita armonia’, the subject of this article, appears in the first act only minutes after the show has started. It requires a different approach from its more famous brother. It needs a full voiced sound without the filatura and pianissimo singing that gets the most from ‘E lucevan…’ The Italian text (minus the Sacristan’s lines) and a English translation are at the end of this article.
I’ve collected 15 versions of the aria going from the start of the recording age to the present. Of the 15 tenors presented her, I heard six in performance. I’ll start with Enrico Caruso’s early recording. It was made in Milan with piano accompaniment. At this stage in his career the tenor was still a lyric without the stentorian tones that characterized his later work. Someone called him the world’s most spectacular case of emphysema – referring to his two pack a day cigarette habit that may have contributed to the darkening of his voice as his career progressed. Pulmonary disease eventually killed him. Caruso Recondita armonia
Cavaradossi (Tosca’s lover) was a regular part of Beniamino Gigli’s repertoire. He sang the part in his first season at the Met and during his last. This acoustical recording was made a couple of years before his Met debut. Gigli Recondita armonia
I wrote about Antonio Cortis here in 2018. Though he never sang at the Met, Chicago was his American base, he had a major international career cut short by the Spanish Civil War. His bright voice and subtle singing is well suited to this music. Cortis Recondita armonia
Tito Schipa had a voice too light for Cavaradossi. He may have sung the role very early in his career, I’m not sure. But it was not part of the few roles he regularly sang after his international career was assured. He was a tenore di grazia with a limited high range. His singing of the piece is refined at the expense of the passion it requires. Schipa Recondita armonia
Jussi Björling had one of the greatest voice of the past century. I heard him one time as Cavaradossi. Beautiful singing, a little underpowered for the old Met, and minimal involvement with the character. His was a voice best heard in recital, in a smaller house, or on recordings. Between 1938 and 1959 he gave 123 performances with the Met. The relatively small number was because of World War II and because he purposely kept his Met appearances limited. There was much more money in recitals. Björling Recondita armonia
Richard Tucker sang Cavaradossi 38 times with the Met. I heard him in this part several times. His was a full throated interpretation. His voice is perfect for this part. Tucker who was nerveless, never gave a bad performance. Tucker Recondita armonia
Mario Del Monaco blows this aria into the ionosphere. But with a voice like he had, fire away. His voice is so dark that one might think he could sing Scarpia as well. Del Monaco Recondita armonia
Now for three tenors born in 1921. Giuseppe Di Stefano had for a short while the most beautiful Italian tenor I ever heard. His Cavaradossi is, in my opinion, the best there is. He sang only two performances of Tosca with the Met. The first, in New York, on Jan 13, 1956 was the occasion of Tito Gobbi’s debut and the only time he ever sang onstage anywhere with Zinka Milanov (the second Tosca was in Philadelphia). I was at the New York performance. Di Stefano sang exactly as he did on the famous recording of the opera with Callas and Gobbi under Victor De Sabata’s direction. Jay Harrison the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, now in newsprint heaven or the other place, wrote: “For his part, Mr. Di Stefano was not to be bested by a newcomer to the Met’s roster. His singing was the most beautiful I have heard from a tenor in longer than I care to recall, and his work of the evening clearly announced that, with the singular exception of Björling, his voice is the most lavishly lovely in opera today. Throughout, his larynx curved with ineffable grace, and tones were set free with effortless purity and élan. In every way his Cavaradossi was a character worth remembering.” The following excerpt is from the De Sabata classic. Di Stefano Recondita armonia
Franco Corelli was capable of vocal finesse when he was in a soft mood. Most of the time he was a muscular Cavaradossi. Corelli Recondita armonia
Mario Lanza is opera’s greatest could have been. Seduced by the movies he became too famous to risk an onstage appearance. He should have been as big a star as any of his coevals. And he wouldn’t have had to watch his weight. Lanza’s distinctive and brilliant sound is instantly recognizable Lanza Recondita armonia
Luciano Pavarotti sang in Tosca 60 times with the Met. It was the last role he sang with the company in 2004 when he was 69 years old. In some ways his voice was a little light for the role. He was basically a lyric tenor. No matter, the audience loved him in the part. Pavarotti Recondita armonia
Placido Domingo had all the voice needed for Tosca’s painter. I first heard Domingo as Pinkerton in a Fort Worth production of Madama Butterfly. The time was around 1967. I wasn’t very impressed. His voice seemed thin and forced. When I heard him as Cavaradossi to Nilsson’s Tosca at the Met in 1969, I couldn’t believe it was the same singer. His voice had become the rich and refulgent tenor that made him a salesman for Rolex. He sang this part 37 times at the Met. Domingo Recondita armonia
Giuseppe Giacomini had an unusual arc to his career. I heard him several times at the Met during the 80s. He sang there 87 times between 1976 to 88. I didn’t find his singing particularly outstanding. Then I heard him in an outdoor production of Turandot in the Giardini Bellini outside of Catania, Sicily. He was great, the rest of the cast awful. The Sicilians almost rioted after ‘Nessun Dorma’ – they wanted an encore which they didn’t get. In his post-Met singing he seems to have morphed into a dramatic tenor. In this recording his voice rivals that of Del Monaco – no surprise as he studied with Mario’s brother Marcello. Giacomini Recondita armonia
I’ll conclude with two contemporary tenors. Jonas Kaufmann is the today’s leading tenor. I heard his American debut without really being aware of who he was. It was in 2001; the opera was Otello at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. It was Ben Heppner’s first go at the role. Heppner was in trouble from the get go, cracking at random intervals. Cassio was Kaufmann. I don’t remember anything about his performance as I was focusing on Heppner. Kaufmann got very good reviews. Of course, today he sings Otello. He has only sung three performances of Tosca at the Met. His full voiced rendition of the aria ends with a diminuendo on the last note. Kaufmann Recondita armonia
Joseph Calleja has been singing at all the world’s leading opera houses for more than a decade. He’s sung Tosca 13 times at the Met so far. His bright voice has a rapid vibrato that sometimes gets close to a flutter. This vibrato is minimal on his recording of the aria. Calleja Recondita armonia
E bruna Floria,
L’ardente amante mia.
E te, beltade ignota,
Cinta di chiome bionde!
Tu azzurro hai l’occhio,
Tosca ha l’occhio nero!
L’arte nel suo mistero
Le diverse belleze insiem confonde:
Ma nel ritrar costei
Il mio solo pensiero,
Ah! il mio solo pensiero, sei tu,
Tosca, sei tu!
What strange and lovely harmony
of such different beauties! How dark is Floria,
this ardent love of mine.
And you, mysterious beauty, long blonde and flowing tresses,
how your eyes are sky blue, Tosca’s eyes are black-night.
Art, too, with its many mysteries,
blends all together such different beauties.
But though I paint another,
my only thought is you,
oh, my only thought is you,
Tosca, is you, is you!