The title refers to aria, duet, trio, quartet, quintet, and sextet. I’ve picked examples of each that I feel should be at the top of any short list for the best yet composed. Readers can make their own list.
D’amor sull’ali rosee from Act 4 of Verdi’s Il Trovatore is the last bel canto soprano aria from the last bel canto opera. With La Traviata, written at the same time as Trovatore, Verdi took Italian opera permanently in a new direction. The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler thought music’s two greatest melodists were Bach and Verdi. This aria gives proof to his declaration. The aria’s elegant beauty asks more of its interpreter than almost any solo in Italian opera. Milanov’s 70 year old recording still sets the standard for the piece.
Opera is full of great duets. I’ve picked one from Scene 1 Act of Bellini’s Norma. The tenor, Pollione, has ditched Norma for a younger woman – Adalgisa. The two women get together and in a long and often florid duet agree to cooperate and ditch the two timing tenor. Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne were the leading exponents of Bellini’s masterpiece during the second half of the last century. Mira O Norma Sutherland Horne. The opera has another great duet in its final scene. Norma and Pollione argue over their mutual problems without resolution. This argument shortly leads them to settle their problems by being burned alive. Operas often don’t end well. In mia man alfin to sei alfin is sung by Montserrat Caballé and Jon Vickers. Bellini’s melodic magic still dazzles.
The trio that comes near the end of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier was likely the most beautiful music he ever composed. He certainly thought so. He asked for it to be performed at his funeral and it was. It took place in war ravaged Munich in 1949. “Georg Solti conducted; as the soaring, overlapping lines arched out over the orchestra, each of the three singers, Marianne Schech, Maud Cunitz and Gerda Sommerschuh, broke down, overcome by emotion, the words, speaking of valediction and the hope of new life, unbearably poignant in the circumstances.”
Another great trio, though nothing can touch the Rosenkavalier trio, is from Verdi’s I Lombardi. Qual volutta trascorrere is sung by Enrico Caruso, Frances Alda, and Marcel Journet. I’ve posted it here before, but it deserves an encore.
The quartet from the last act of Rigoletto stands by itself. It not only is beautiful, but it moves the action along. It is also the first use of the “split screen” technique – of course, it’s a split stage. The lecherous duke is trying to get it on with a murderous hooker inside a seedy tavern, while Rigoletto is trying to show his daughter what a wretch the duke is. That he raped her in the previous act and is after another woman has no effect on the jester’s teenage daughter – she still thinks she loves him. The following performance features Joan Sutherland, Isola Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, and Leo Nucci. Rigoletto Quartet
Selig, wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht is the quintet that ends the penultimate scene of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Sachs suppresses the romantic feelings he has for the much younger Eva and approves of her union with Walther as well as that of David and Magdalena. The quintet is the only example of the stand and deliver ensemble found in Wagner’s mature works. It’s so good that you wish he’d done it more often. The quintet over, the five leave to join the xenophilic rally that ends the opera. The singers are Karita Mattila, Jill Grove, Ben Heppner, Matthew Polenzani, and James Morris. James Levine conducted.
The pick for sextet is obvious. Its the ultimate stop and declare your emotions ensemble – Chi mi frena in tal momento from Act 2 scene 2 of Lucia Di Lammermoor. This version featuring Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano is from the famed 1955 Berlin performance. It was encored.
Speaking of encores, here’s a larger ensemble number Dal tuo stellato soglio from Rossini’s Moïse. that sets the bar for vocal beauty sung by multiple voices. It’s simpler than pick-up-sticks but its great tune sweeps all before it.