Like everything else in the world, arias come in different shapes and sizes. They’re the ‘songs’ in an opera, the famous tunes that we know and love, and are used by the composer to communicate what characters are thinking and feeling. Here are just some of the unique forms that crop up in our favourite operas.
Che puro ciel (What pure sky) from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is an arioso - a short aria with a freer structure, falling somewhere between recitative (sung dialogue) and a traditional da capo aria.
They were useful to opera composers for a melodic alternative to a recitative, used by Mozart for the Speaker’s Sobald dich führt der Freundschaft(As soon as friendship's hand has led you) in The Magic Flute and Handel’s Comfort ye in his Oratorio Messiah.
The catalogue aria was a hugely popular aria in opera buffa (comic opera) of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most often sung by the opera’s principal comic character, they would quickly reel off lists of information to other characters, whether it be food, places or lovers.
The most famous catalogue aria of all is from Mozart's Don Giovanni: Madamina, il catalogo è questo (My dear lady, this is the list) is sung by Don Giovanni’s manservant and companion, the cheeky Leporello, who recounts to Donna Elvira all his master’s romantic conquests with the ladies.
Da Capo Aria
The Da Capo aria was by far the most popular type of aria sung in early 18th century Italian opera. It is composed of three sections; a main melody introducing the aria’s subject and mood, a contrasting section with a different text (often in the minor key), before a return of the first section. When the principal or main melody returns the singer decorates and enhances their vocal line to show off their vocal agility and virtuosity.
Tornami a vagheggiar (Return me to languish) from Handel’s magical opera Alcina is a brilliant example of a Baroque Da Capo aria in action.
Double Aria: Cantabile and Cabaletta
A stand-out aria during the bel canto era of the 19th century was the double aria, two opposing arias that brought together a slow and expressive cantabile section with the faster and showier, often virtuosic cabaletta. Verdi’s ever-popular cantabile-cabaletta È strano (How strange) - Sempre libera (Always free) from his La traviata was the culmination of this style of aria.
The operatic rondò is an aria in two parts, opening with a slow section before alternating with a faster, main section of music. It was a principal singer’s great musical showpiece, generally reserved for a poignant and sentimental moment in the opera towards the plot’s climax.
Fiordiligi’s beautiful rondò in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Per pietà, ben mio, perdona(Have pity on me, my beloved), expresses her inner psychological turmoil, where she asks for forgiveness for cheating on her boyfriend, Guglielmo.
Welsh National Opera’s brand-new production of Così fan tutte is full to the brim of poignant, evocative, and dramatic arias, so don’t miss your chance to see some of the world’s best opera singers bring them to life, in Cardiff and on tour in Llandudno, Southampton, Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham until 10 May 2024.