Sunday, October 31, 2010

Puccini, E lucevan le stelle: three (separate) tenors

Although I am not an opera lover, I cannot resist the most beautiful arias, and of all the famous arias, Tuscan Giacomo Puccini's E lucevan le stelle is my favorite. Lyrics are by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica; poor guys, no one ever mentions them, although the words are booful.

Let's take a musical-linguistic look at the aria by examining three versions by three different tenors. Lyrics and my literal translation will follow, with comments about the vocabulary and tenses for you language students. But first a bit of background, as an aria isn't really a song but a part of an integral whole, the opera. In Rome in 1800, beautiful singer Tosca loves the artist and politically suspect Cavaradossi (Cah-vah-rah-DOE-ssee), but is lusted after by the nasty Chief of Police, Scarpia (SCAR-pee-ah). The latter has his rival arrested, and tells Tosca she can only save her beloved from execution by giving herself to him (Scarpia). But nasty Scarpia has no intention of saving Cavaradossi and Tosca has no intention of giving in to Scarpia: Scarpia allows Cavaradossi to be executed, and Tosca stabs Scarpia rather than becoming his lover. Cavaradossi is executed and Tosca commits suicide. Our aria comes in at the point when Cavaradossi is awaiting execution.

Our first tenor is Spaniard Placido Domingo giving a fine performance in the same setting as the opera called for. Although excellent, I was distracted by Domingo's imperfect Italian pronunciation. The word disciogliea is positively mangled. Unfortunately, this word comes at a crucial moment in the work, a moment of great longing and eroticism. So I turned to an Italian, Luciano Pavarotti.

Pronunciation is much better. Acting ability also better. Voice also better. And he can pronounce disciogliea. Bravo!

Just one more. Famed tenor Enrico Caruso. Domingo should have listened to this recording several times to get the disciogliea right.

As in a reality show, I give my verdict. Caruso wins. The little Neapolitan confirms his status as the greatest tenor of all times. Italian Idol.

Here are the original lyrics:

E lucevan le stelle... e olezzava la terra.
Stridea l'uscio dell'orto...
E un passo sfiorava la rena...
Entrava ella, fragrante... mi cadea fra le braccia.
Oh, dolci baci, o languide carezze,
mentr'io fremente...
le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!
Svani' per sempre il sogno mio d'amore!
L'or'e' fuggita... e muoio disperato!
E muoio disperato. E non ho amato mai tanto la vita, la vita!

My literal translation:

And the stars were shining... and the earth was perfumed.
The gate to the vegetable garden creaked...
A light step crossed over the sand...
She entered, fragrant... she fell into my arms.
O sweet kisses, oh languid caresses,
while I, trembling,
freed the beautiful form from its veils!
My dream of love vanished forever.
The hour has fled, and I die, desperate.
And I die desperate.
And I have never loved life more, life!

Linguistically, the text derives its power from the alternation of tenses. The imperfects in the first part evoke the way things were over time in the past for Cavaradossi and Tosca, when they were happy. The tense (along with the music) abruptly shifts to a definitive and brutal passato remoto as the past changed, irrevocably: svani' per sempre il sogno mio. Finally, he reverts to the present tense as he hopelessly is brought back to his actual, dire situation.

The language is poetic, with shortening of verb forms (lucevan for lucevano, stridea for strideva, cadea for cadeva, disciogliea for discioglieva) and special diction (rena for sabbia).