"Nessun dorma," the tenor aria that opens Act 3 of Puccini's Turandot, is probably the world's most famous opera excerpt. Since tenors Miguel Fleta and Franco Lo Giudice first sang it — they alternated in the opera's original 1926 production — the aria has been championed by nearly every major tenor, from Beniamino Gigli to Vittorio Grigolo. It was the official song of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. The Three Tenors turned it into a trio. Guitarists play it. Even Aretha Franklin has taken a stab at it.
Has the popularity of "Nessun dorma" served — as hoped — as a gateway to the larger operatic repertory, bringing in new fans for the genre? Possibly. But we suspect it's still the only tenor aria that most people know, which is sad, since there are so many great ones out there.
If you get goosebumps during the final, stirring "vincero!" of "Nessun dorma" and would like to discover more opera excerpts in this vein — short, intense, lavishly romantic — look no further than the nine arias presented in the list below.
1. 'Che gelida manina' from Puccini's La Bohème
There'll be a few Puccini arias on this list because, well, he's the best. This one is longer than most of Puccini's arias because Rodolfo needs more than two minutes and 30 seconds to tell his life story to his newfound love, Mimì. His little exposition builds to a high C (3:50 in the video) on the word "speranza" (hope). Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas nails it in this 2008 performance from the Metropolitan Opera.
2. 'Vesti la giubba' from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci
Canio, who plays a clown in a travelling theatrical production, has discovered that his wife is having an affair with another member of the troupe, and he loses it. In this aria, he plans his revenge as he dons his clown suit and makeup for their next performance. Enjoy the sinister laugh (0:32) and the big climax (2:15). Tenor Roberto Alagna has the vocal heft to pull it off.
3. 'Pourquoi me réveiller' from Massenet's Werther
Italian opera doesn't have a monopoly on romance. In this French aria from Massenet's Werther, the title character is in love with a married woman. He resigns himself to sadness and resolves to end his life. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann's French diction may not be perfect, but he sure knows how to shape the aria's two climactic phrases (1:16 and 2:40).
4. 'Ch'ella mi creda' from Puccini's La fanciulla del West
This aria is a highlight from a Puccini opera that never really caught on. Dick Johnson is a bandit in the American West during the Gold Rush. Captured by angry miners who intend to kill him, he begs his captors not to inform his beloved Minnie about his fate. Rather than building to one climax, this aria has two identical verses, each culminating in a thrilling, high A-sharp. We love this rendition by tenor Giacomo Aragall not so much because of the high notes, but for the way he draws you in during the soft passage (1:33) between the verses.
5. 'E lucevan le stelle' from Puccini's Tosca
Here's another tenor who, sentenced to death, reflects passionately on the lover he leaves behind. Mario's loneliness is underpinned by an introductory clarinet melody that returns in the vocal line for the climactic phrase (2:27), "E non ho amato mai tanto la vita" (And never was life so dear to me). This was one of tenor Placido Domingo's best roles.
6. 'Ah, fuyez douce image' from Massenet's Manon
Like Maria in The Sound of Music, Massenet's Chevalier Des Grieux uses religion to escape from the turbulence in his love life. By Act 3, he is a priest at St. Sulpice in Paris, and tries to banish distracting, arousing thoughts of his former lover Manon. (It doesn't work.) Listen how the timpani and strings underscore Des Grieux's passionate outpouring, "Ah! fuyez!" (Ah! Vanish!), at 2:25 and 4:15. Tenor Rolando Villazon delivers the goosebumps.
7. Lamento di Federico from Cilea's L'arlesiana
Federico is a young man whose family has arranged his marriage to a woman he doesn't love. Instead, he's infatuated with a woman from Arles (hence, the opera's title). In his Act 2 lament, "È la solita storia del pastore," Federico envies the proverbial shepherd who, asleep, is oblivious to life's miseries. The aria's mysterious opening leads to its first verse (1:55), with climbing phrases that build irresistibly. The second verse takes it up a notch with an optional high C (4:25). Tenor Jonas Kaufmann leaves it all on the stage.
8. 'La fleur que tu m'avais jetée' from Bizet's Carmen
Poor Don José. He pours his heart out to Carmen, and she's like, "Whatever." In this aria from Act 2, he explains how a flower Carmen had given him helped him get through his recent incarceration, kept his love for her alive. Anyone else would yield to such tenderness, but Carmen won't have it. Let the big phrases starting at 2:45 wash over you and wait to see if the tenor can manage a diminuendo on the rising phrase at 3:23. (Thank you, José Carreras.)
9. 'Amor ti vieta' from Giordano's Fedora
Count Loris Ipanov has fallen for Fedora, not realizing she was the fiancée of a man he killed and that duping him is all part of her plan to avenge her fiancé's death. But those are unimportant details, really, since this two-minute aria is just a beautiful outpouring of love. Placido Domingo gets warm applause for his rendition.
10. 'Nessun dorma' from Puccini's Turandot
And of course, we can't forget the aria that got us started. Here's Luciano Pavarotti in 1994.