The first operatic pop tune?

Opera became Italy’s pop music in the 19th century as a rising middle class democratized the audience. Singable, memorable melodies became a sine qua non for successful composers, and everybody everywhere knew the best tunes. The standard was set by Tancredi’s “Di tanti palpiti.” 

The catchy simplicity of the opening phrases hit the spot. There is also virtuosic coloratura, but that comes later; anybody could sing the tune. At least fifty different sheet-music editions appeared, and almost as many sets of variations for piano, harp, flute, clarinet, and every other instrument played by amateurs at home. Wagner made the chorus of tailors sing it as they arrive for the festival in Die Meistersinger (tailors, because Italian arias are cut-to-fit from standard patterns, right? get it? Poor Wagner! Humor was not his key gift.) 

Frontispiece of an arrangement of “Di tanti palpiti,” circa 1820

Legend has it that Rossini composed the aria in the time it took to cook a pot of rice, after the original Tancredi (Adelaide Malanotte) had objected that his first attempt to write her entrance aria was insufficient. For years it was called the aria del riso. It makes a better story than the true one: “Di tanti palpiti” was the first attempt - it was the one Malanotte didn’t like - and so a more ambitious aria, “Dolci d’amor parole,” with a spectacular violin obbligato and an offstage echoing voice, was cooked up to replace it. Both are delicious; Teatro Nuovo’s audiences can compare them when the second aria is featured in Tancredi rifatto.

Another legend is impossible to verify. One of the catchiest lines is “Mi rivedrai; ti rivedrò” - “You will see me again, I will see you again.” According to endlessly repeated accounts, humming this bit of melody became a coded way to threaten a witness who was about to testify against a powerful criminal. It seems judges eventually had to ban even the wordless tune in court.