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10 Classic Three Tenors Pieces

Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo [Source: Wikipedia]
Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo [Source: Wikipedia]

January 2023 saw two of the original three tenors, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, perform together in Tokyo’s Garden Theatre. The concert was to mark 20 years since the last three tenors concert, held in Columbus, U.S. It was dedicated to the memory of Luciano Pavarotti, who died in 2007.

Given the controversy surrounding Domingo’s career and the age of both singers, the concert was slammed by some for its tackiness.

Perhaps then better to remember the heyday of three tenors mania, when Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti wowed concertgoers with their interpretations of great works from the opera and song literature.

Here is a selection of some of their greatest hits, the perfect source of inspiration for aspiring singers and for instrumentalists who like to play a good opera tune once in a while…

1. Puccini—Nessun Dorma from 'Turandot'

Puccini’s final opera contains perhaps his most celebrated aria, 'Nessun Dorma' (‘No one is sleeping’), sung by the Unknown Prince as he contemplates victory. Popularised by Pavarotti in the 1990 World Cup, it became the three tenors aria par excellence. Even though all three sang it, however, it always seemed to be Pavarotti’s piece, partly because of the World Cup, but mostly because the purity and power of his voice makes the journey towards the aria’s ecstatic peroration so magical.

2. Puccini—E lucevan le stelle from ‘Tosca’

Tosca’s themes of love, lust, jealousy and corruption may seem standard operatic fare, but the lurid nature of the story, with depictions of torture, murder and suicide, means its ‘shabby little shocker’ sobriquet is well earned. There is no happy ending in it either—the abusive baron that forms one part of the work's love/lust-triangle does not get his just rewards, Don Giovanni style, but instead engineers the death of his rival, Cavaradossi, causing Tosca to kill herself. The tragic aria, ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ one of the most celebrated of the opera, is sung by Cavaradossi as he contemplates his execution.

3. Guy d’Hardelot—Because

A luscious song about love with a belting main theme and some crunchy harmonies. It also builds to a very satisfying finish in proper operatic style. It is surprising therefore to realise that this does not come from a late nineteenth century grand opera, but is a standalone song by French composer Guy d’Hardelot, whose real name was Helen Rhodes. Earning most of her living from teaching she nevertheless built a very successful second career penning masterful songs such as this.

The Neapolitan connection…

A common thread in all of the three tenors concerts is the Neapolitan song. These are popular songs that originate from Naples and the surrounding area, originally sung in the Neapolitan dialect. They are often love songs, intended to be sung by men, and have a profound feeling of place. The next four in the list are all neapolitan songs.

4. Eduardo di Capua—O Sole Mio

If you’re from the UK, think ‘One Cornetto.’ From anywhere else just enjoy that lovely chorus, which so perfectly encapsulates the lines ‘Ma n'atu sole cchiù bello, oi ne.’ (‘But another sun, even more beauteous, oh my sweetheart’).

5. Luigi Denza—Funiculì, Funiculà

A homage not to a lady but to a train line! Denza wrote this piece to celebrate the opening of funicular line on Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps unsurprisingly the emphasis here is on fun rather than sentiment, the rollicking 6/8 rhythms seeming to suggest the excitement of the climb and the magnificent views.

6. De Curtis—Torna A Surriento

Some claim that this song was written as a plea to the Prime Minister of Italy to install a new sewage system in the town of Sorrento! Others merely that is was meant as a homage to the area. Whatever the truth, its seamless swapping between minor and major keys lends it a lovely nostalgic quality.

7. Trad—Santa Lucia

'Santa Lucia' is in some ways the ultimate celebration of Naples. It is a depiction of a beautiful evening on waterfront area of Borgo Santa Lucia with its gentle breezes, glittering waves and nimble boats. The gentleness of these sentiments are perfectly captured in its melody, which lacks artifice or exaggeration.

8. Leoncavallo—Vesti la giubba from 'Pagliacci'

'Vesti la giubba,' is from the opera ‘Pagliacci’ (literally ‘Clowns’). It is often paired with the opera that inspired it, Pietro Mascagni's 'Cavalleria Rusticana,' the two known affectionally as ‘Cav and Pag.’ An operatic shocker in the manner of 'Tosca,' the lead character, a clown named Cannio, murders his wife and her lover during a stage performance. He sings the aria 'Vesti la giubba’ just after discovering his wife’s infidelity. As he sings ‘And if Harlequin steals away your Columbina, laugh, clown, and all will applaud!’ the aria becomes an encapsulation of the figure of the clown—happy on the outside but tragic within.

9. Verdi—La donna è mobile from ‘Rigoletto’

An aria so catchy that Verdi had to make the tenor who first sang it swear he would not even whistle it outside rehearsals in Venice’s La Fenice, lest the tune went viral before its time! He was right to do so, since the day after the first performance it was heard in the streets and canals of the city. The aria is sung in the third act, and is a lighthearted reflection on the changeable nature of women ('La donna è mobile' translates as ‘The woman is fickle’).

10. Stanislao Gastaldon— Musica proibita

Written at the age of 20 Stanislao Gastaldon’s ravishing ‘Musica proibita’ was an immediate hit. It has since been performed by a line of famous tenors that run from Enrico Caruso in 1917 through to the three tenors and beyond. Unusually, although sung by a man, the protagonist is a woman who describes how a man sings to her every night from beneath her balcony. An obvious metaphor, she wonders why her mother forbids her to sing the song.

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