18 Friendly OPERATIC DUETS for the Non-Opera Fans.

Jan 21, 2007 (Updated Mar 9, 2008)

The Bottom Line Opera tunes are cool. Here are some great duets that even non-opera fans might have heard without knowing where they're from


Long essays get on my nerves... especially when they are mine, so this list of opera duets that should appeal even to non-opera fans is kept to 18 numbers to keep my blood pressure at a level my overtaxed veins can handle. Lots of great duets are omitted as a result, oh well.... you’ll just have to do some explorations of your own to discover them, I’m afraid. A richly rewarding quest if there is ever one!

DÉLIBES: Lakmé: Dome epais, le jasmin (Flower Duet)
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWqup5t1FHU (N Dessay & E Maurus)
Lakmé, the soprano Indian priestess, and her mezzo-soprano slave Mallika are preparing for a bath in the stream that runs through their secluded garden while singing this charming duet in praise of the beauty of their environs. This tune shows up a lot in car commercials.... I guess because it is such a relaxing number that should make you feel like you are flying or floating as you hear it... transported into the lovely Indian jungle of Lakmé and her tribe (I don't care if the real Indian jungle isn’t all that relaxing to hang in!).
Look for the version by Natalie Dessay/Delphine Haidan, if you could. It’s never been done better, to me anyhow.

2. OFFENBACH: Tales of Hoffmann: Belle nuit, O nuit d’amour (Barcarolle)
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-XhGFfiGwg (J Larmore & HK Hong)
Tales of Hoffmann is a weird opera with each Act containing a tale (or you could call them parables, I guess) told by Hoffmann to entertain at a pub while waiting for his beloved to show. Anyhow, Act III’s tale opens in Venice, with Nicklausse (a travesti role since ‘he’ is actually the Muse in disguise) and Giulietta singing this nostalgic song with a perfect orchestral painting of a fine afternoon sailing on the Grand Canal. It is another commercial favorite, though usually you'll only hear the orchestral introduction to it. It is one that should be on the stereo of any sailor (hey, the sea is always calm in this piece). My favorite take by Natalie Dessay and Delphine Haidan.

3. Richard STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier: Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren (The Presentation of the Rose)
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=duCLxR6tIIw (V Kasarova & M Hartelius)
Oktavian Count Rofrano has been appointed by Baron Ochs to present his engagement token (the Silver Rose) to Sophie Faninal on the baron’s behave. But upon setting eyes on each other, the young count and the young girl fall in love with each other in stead. This is a very beautifully descriptive song of love at first sight (with cool dissonance ringing reminiscent of the Evening Prayer from Hansel und Gretel, too). This opera also ends with another gorgeous duet between Oktavian and Sophie (and it is even more singable to amateurs than this one).

I love the sample from a performance in Zurich (Vesselina Kasarova and Malin Hartelius conducted by Franz Welser-Moest), but if you can get your hand on one by Anne-Sofie von Otter and Barbara Bonney, that is equally great, too (or any version with Lucia Popp as Sophie).

4. ROSSINI: Tancredi: Ah come mai quell’anima
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGH3mkcYxfk (V Kasarova & E Gruberova)
This drop dead gorgeous contralto (Tancredi) and coloratura soprano (Amenaide) duet comes in Act II of Rossini’s first successful opera seria. It’s a song of misunderstanding where both lovers are trying to do their best for the other, but their ‘best’ is being misinterpreted as a slight... Sounds like a normal romantic relationship, ay? There is also another wonderful duet between Tancredi and Amenaide in Act I of this opera called O qual scegliesti terribil ora!.

My favorite take is done by the combo of Vesselina Kasarova & Eva Mei on the Roberto Abbado recording. The team of Ewa Podles & Sumi Jo on the Nicolai Zedda conducted recording on Naxos label is wonderful, too.

5. HUMPERDINCK: Hänsel and Gretel: Abends will ich schlafen gehn? (The Evening Prayer)
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck1w1E71PU4 (F Von Stade & K Battle)
Though the story this opera is based on is a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, the music is far from being nursery oriented. This is the Evening Prayer sung by the sibling Hansel (a soprano or a mezzo) and his sister Gretel (a soprano) before spending the night in the forest. It is cute and beautiful all at once. If you could, go for the combo of Frederica von Stade & Ileana Cotrubas, or Brigitte Fassbaender & Edita Gruberova, or Lilianna Nikiteanu & Malin Hartelius... or by the Vienna Boys Choir. Avoid the Charlotte Church version at all cost .... no, really! She's a lovely girl (at least before she discovered all the cuss words), but her take on the thing is just awful.

6. BELLINI: Norma: Mira, O Norma
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCYNHEpl85s (V Kasarova & E Gruberova)
The druid priestess Norma (a soprano) and her confidante Adalgisa (mezzo soprano) realize that they were both romantically betrayed by the same man and sing their vow to be loyal to each other in this most extra-ordinary duet (that also gives rise to speculations that the girls were more than ‘friendly’ themselves). It is spectacularly virtuosic and yet so very emotionally sensitive at the same time. One repeats the other’s line and the 2 voices become united. It is essential that both singer be on the same level and are able to match each other perfectly or the whole thing will sound ‘off.’
The versions to look for? The Maria Callas & Christa Ludwig from La Scala in 1960, and Joan Sutherland & Marilyn Horne (this one is legendary). Honorary mention to Edita Gruberova & Elina Garanca on the Nightingale Classics label.

As a side note... anyone who taped the concert performance of The Edita Gruberova’s 1st Norma in Tokyo with The Vesselina Kasarova as Adalgisa is sitting on a golden disc! I’m sure I’m not the only one who’ll almost kill for it. Talk about matching voices, these two actually sound like the extension of each other’s voice when they sing together.

7. TCHAIKOVSKY: Pique Dame (The Queen of Spade): Act II- Lisa/Pauline Duet
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoAw623e5sc (E Gruberova & V Kasarova)
I'm not a fan of this morbid Russian opera, but it isn't a favorite in the Russian repertoire for no good reasons. This little duet between Lisa and her friend Pauline is perhaps the lightest little moment of the show (and so the subdue nature of it should give you quite a hint about how dark the rest of the opus is). The girls are afford a little girl time before Lisa's oppressive grandmother (the Old Countess who is actually the title role) comes around to drive the last bit of sunshine right out of their day. When it is done really well, it haunts us audience later in the show when we see what later happens to Lisa and the Countess... and recall 'what could have been'. This sample clip is a splendid performance.

1. BIZET: Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers): Au fond du temple saint
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tLrPVkfCIQ (R Alagna & B Terfel)
This is sung by the friends; tenor Nadir and the baritone Zurga, getting nostalgic about their past friendship that ended over a woman they both fancied (yes, yes, Bizet had a thing for the femmes fatales. His Carmen is one, too). The opera is problematic and isn’t performed much, but this duet remains a favorite recital piece and even shows up in commercials once in a while. The best version there is, in my opinion, is caught on the legendary tenor Jüssi Björling’s The Pearl Fishers’ Duet CD on RCA Label (with Robert Merrill as Zurga). This is also one of the best CD of opera duets there is.

2. GOUNOD: Otello: Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=f54WPJLOe1o (M Del Monaco & T Gobbi)
Iago, miffed that he was snubbed from a military promotion, takes revenge by convincing Otello of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio. This music is one of Verdi’s best in showing a magnificently murderous blend of an evil conscience and an insane jealousy, ending Act III of the opera on an ominous note.
My favorite version is sung by Jüssi Björling and Robert Merrill.

3. DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Qui del padre ancor respira
This highlight of the Tower Scene from Act III of Donizetti’s masterpiece work is one of the greatest tenor/baritone mutual rage dramatic duet around. The tenor Edgardo is being challenged to a duel by the baritone Enrico, the brother of his beloved Lucia. There are a few good versions of this around. The ones by Luciano Pavarotti & Sherill Milnes in the Joan Sutherland recording from Glyndebourne Festival is very good (I would have loved to hear it done by Guiseppe Di Stefano and Rolando Panerai who sang Edgardo and Enrico in the marvelous 1955 recording of the work starring Maria Callas and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but, alas, that scene was cut from that performance and the missed opportunity is sorely grieved indeed!

5. MOZART: Abduction from the Seraglio : Vivat Bacchus! (Long Live Bacchus!)
The tenor Pedrillo, who is trying help his girl friends escape, has gotten the basso palace guard Osmin drunk, and now they join each other in singing a tribute to drunkenness...and the god of wine. It is a silly song that allows for great comic moment as Osmin gets more and more drunk until he drops.

6. VERDI: La forza del destino: Solenne in quest’ora
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=djl_bmEib8A (P Domingo & V Chernov)
This is a duet between the tenor Don Carlo and the baritone Don Alvaro, one is Leonora’s lover and the other is her lover. They spend the entire opera trying to kill each other and don’t disappoint at the end. Talk about an opera with a high body count, all the principals snuff it by curtain time! Naturally, it isn’t a love duet....
I have J Björling & Merrill in a tie with the pairing of Franco Corelli & Ettore Bastianini for best versions of this number.

MOZART: The Magic Flute : Bie Männern welche Liebe fühlen
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mO-h1sPcsKQ (D Röschmann & S Keenlyside)
The soprano Princess Pamina has been rescued from Monostatos the horny Moor by Papageno the baritone bird-catcher. They hit it off so immediately and start discussing why Papageno doesn’t even have a girl friend yet, ending with this lovely duet that basically says, ‘all we need is love’... a century or two before the Beatles did.

There are many good take on the thing including one by Dame Felicity Lott & Benjamin Luxon. My favorite take is by Dorothea Röschmann & Hänno Müller-Brachmann on the Claudio Abbado recording of the opera.

2. MOZART: Don Giovanni: La ci darem la mano
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=njUNf2TC2mc (Bo Skovhus & Vesselina Kasarova)
... basically, ‘I wanna hold your hand!’
Before The Beatles shook the world with their daring lyrics, Mozart had opera’s most infamous bad boy Don Giovanni courting the peasant girl Zerlina (yeah, that flirty Zerlina who sings Vedrai carino to her Masetto in my previous piece on the girls’ arias), who loves being courted just as much as she loves playing hard to get. My favorite commercial version is by Bernd Weikl & Lucia Popp.

3. ROSSINI: Tancredi: M’abbraccia, Argirio!
Sample: www.bobbreault.com/downloads/index.html (a clip of its ending is played on this page (#5), with a thrilling interpolated high C ending by Vesselina Kasarova from a live concert performance of the opera at Carnegie Hall in 1997)
Tancredi (a mezzo-soprano or a contralto) has stepped up to volunteer to fight to defend Argirio’s daughter’s life and honor. So now he is asking the older man for a hug (or rather, recognition). A great rendition of this thing is found in the RCA Red Seal CD of the opera sung by Vesselina Kasarova & Ramon Vargas, though the version by Marilyn Horne & Ernesto Palacio is also sublime.

4. MOZART: The Magic Flute : Pa-pa-papagena!
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=87UE2GC5db0 (D Roth & G LeRoi)
This is one of the most catchy operatic duets around. Surely you can recall it if you have seen the film Amadeus... It has an unmistakable opening.... you know, the ‘Pa! Pa! Pa! Pa!’ lines the guy in the bird suit is throwing at the equally avian looking girl on stage moments before Mozart collapses. I love the version by Simon Keenlyside & Ailish Tynan most, but the pairing of Olaf Baer & Eva Lind is great as well.

5. PUCCINI: La Bohème: O soave fanciulla
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD-CcKrndfA (L Pavarotti & I Cotrubas)
Well, this one is a duet solely on technicality since the consumptive soprano (at least the character is supposed to be dying of consumption... the singer isn’t) Mimi does nothing more than accompanying her new found tenor lover Rodolfo late in the aria. This is one of Puccini’s most inventive song, I think. A good rendition of it should end Act I of the opera La Bohème (The Bohemian) with the audience in a cheering frenzy.... with the newly fallen in love couple doing a held piano high C from somewhere off-stage (they had gone out the door on the way to the cafe). Sometimes the soprano would upstage the tenor by holding her high C too long to please the crowd, but nowadays that’s considered bad taste.

6. MONTEVERDI: L’incoronazione di Poppea: Pur ti miro
Sample: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiU9alaW_v8 (Anna-Caterina Antonacci & David Daniels)
This love duet between Nero (either a counter-tenor, tenor, or mezzo soprano) and Poppea (a soprano or a mezzo soprano) that ends the opera is a truly timeless composition. It’s been around since 1642 and still ranks as one of the most beautiful duets ever written. The 2 voices are accompanied only by a few strummed strings (sounds almost like a guitar). It is so beautiful it puts a lot of people off because it is sung by 2 of the most appallingly amoral characters in all of opera!

The best take on this number for me is by counter-tenor David Daniels and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci captured on the Das Bayerische Staatsoper: Live 1997-2005 CD. At all cost, avoid the version by Dennis Bailey & Maria Ewing from the 1984 Glyndebourne Festival.

Anyhow, at just a few per category, this list omits a woeful number of wonderful operatic duets indeed! If you find the ones here tempting, then perhaps you would consider dropping in at the opera house nearby and check out what’s playing, ay? You never know, maybe you’ll love it even more while getting to witness the next big opera stars at your local theater. These singers are really wonderful musicians and actors (well... a great percentage of them are, and the not so great ones are still much more trained than your average non-opera singers). There really is nothing quite like hearing the opera live in the theater, both the singing voices and the orchestra. No stereo system could do them justice.

More about the opera:
A Few Words To Opera Newbies,
Dance Thru Opera History with Munkus, Commandments for the Opera Fans, 10 Beginners-Friendly Opera, Some Friendly Diva Opera Arias (the ladies), Some Friendly Divo Opera Arias (the gents), Some Friendly Operatic Duets, Some Friendly Operatic Ensembles, Tips In Opera Reviewing, 15 Favorite Opera Youtube Clips (2007), Newbies' Guide to German & French Opera, Newbies' Guide to Operetta

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