Giacomo Puccini knew as much about the workings of the theater as anyone whoever entered one. Accordingly, his mature works are models of dramatic cohesion. He lashed his librettists like galley slaves until they gave him scripts that satisficed his very high standards. These standards are why he produced only 12 operas in 40 years – three are one act works, while the last is incomplete. Tosca, his fifth opera, assigns the title role to a soprano who plays a soprano in Rome in 1800. The opera is a masterpiece of dramatic intensity combined with with a score full of inspired melodies backed by an orchestra that has Puccini’s unique sound and instrumental sheen.

The opera is through written such that the story affords little space for a traditional soprano aria. The two tenor arias come during moments of repose that allow a set piece. But how does a composer of Puccini’s genius offer an opera to the public about an operatic soprano who has no aria? He had to find a spot for a big soprano solo so he put it in the middle of the second act where it stops the action like a government mandate. The evil Baron Scarpia has to put his wicked lust on pause while Tosca emits a beautiful complaint. Later, Puccini thought about removing ‘Vissi d’arte’, but he couldn’t. First, as stated the title character has to have an aria. Second, it’s a really good piece irrespective of the plot stasis it induces.

I’ve collected 10 readings of the aria, all by famous sopranos. So often has the piece been recorded that I probably could have gone to 100. The words are below with an English translation. The vocal score is at the very bottom.

The first is by the most famous Tosca of all – Maria Callas. That Callas was a great singing actress is beyond dispute. Equally apparent is that she was also the most overpraised singer in musical history. She had, and still has, a coterie of critics who praised her beyond the realm of possibility. This recording is taken from her appearance in London in 1964. Given how much her voice had deteriorated by then, she sounds remarkably good. Of course, she can’t match her portrayal of the doomed singer that she had given in the famed complete recording of the opera in 1953. The one that also featured Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi under the fierce baton of Victor de Sabata. The year after this recording marked the end of Callas’s career. She was only 40. Callas Vissi d’arte

Zinka Milanov was best known as a Verdi soprano. Nevertheless, she sang Tosca 21 times at the Met, beginning in 1955 when she was well into her Met career and was 48 years old. Vocally she was superb, dramatically less so. Milanov Vissi d’arte

Leontyne Price was a great singer who got even better as she aged. Her singing of Tosca’s lament over her choice between rape or her lover’s life is lushly delivered with all the naïve sentiment the aria requires. Price Vissi d’arte

Magda Olivero made her Met debut as Tosca when she was 65 – she lived to 104. Famous in Europe for decades before the Met gave her a shot, she still had some voice left when her New York performances occurred. Why the Met waited until she was at retirement age to engage such a prominent artist is a mystery. This recording was from taken from one her 10 performances of Puccini’s diva with the company. Olivero Vissi d’arte

Birgit Nilsson was world renowned for her Puccini interpretations. But is was for her portrayal of Turandot. She also could do Minnie in La Fanciulla De West which requires a tough voiced spinto soprano. ‘Vissi d’arte’ doesn’t seem right for her cannon of a voice, one that could be heard round the world. Yet she offers a restrained and lovely rendition of the aria. Nilsson Vissi d’arte

Montserrat Caballé was famous for her dazzling pianissimo high notes. She was really a lyric soprano, but so good was her technique and vocal production that she successfully sang big roles without accumulating any collateral damage. Note how she takes the high B flat at the aria’s end and continues the phrase without taking a breath even though one is indicated in the score. No one else I can think of manages this feat. Caballé Vissi d’arte

Renée Fleming has a luminous lyric soprano voice. Though the Tosca aria is part of her concert repertoire, she has never sung the role onstage. Fleming Vissi d’arte

Angela Gheorghiu has the most beautiful sound of all the singers presented here. Tosca is at the center of her repertoire. Her combination of rich sound and elegant phrasing is hard to match Gheorghiu Vissi d’arte

Anna Netrebko is the current reigning diva. She started as a light soprano, but over time her voice matured and she added the heavy Verdi roles to her list. She sang Tosca at the Met in 2017. The version presented here starts with a bobble and a flat note, but settles into a fine rendition. Netrebko Vissi d’arte

Sonya Yoncheva is a Bulgarian soprano who has recently appeared at most of the world’s major opera houses. She set a record as first singer to appear in leading roles in three Met Opera HD telecasts in one season (Tosca, Mimi in La Bohème and Luisa Miller in the 2017/18 season). Her singing is splendid, though she clearly is not a spinto soprano, at least for now – she still on the sunny side of 40. Yoncheva Vissi d’arte

Italian opera seems to have died with Puccini. Though his glorious melodies and dramatic insight endure. ‘Vissi d’arte’ remains a showstopper in every sense of the word.

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.

Sempre con fe’ sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fe’ sincera
diedi fiori agli altar.

Nell’ora del dolore
perché, perché, Signore,
perché me ne rimuneri così?

Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolore,
perché, perché, Signor,
ah, perché me ne rimuneri così?
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.

Always with sincere faith
my prayer
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.

In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?

I donated jewels to the Madonna’s mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and to heaven,
which thus did shine with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?