Every opera fan knows “Una furtiva lagrima,” and every opera professional knows that it doesn’t end the way it says in the score. At the final cadenza, where Donizetti wrote this


the tenor sings this instead

Why? Well, it’s traditional. Meaning it’s one of those things you learn from teachers, coaches, and role models, not from your score. Meaning the community has decided this way of doing it is good, and has agreed upon it as a substitute for the original text. But how did that happen?

I suppose most of us, if we ask this question at all, assume that somewhere back in the day of interpretive freedom, some tenor came up with this ending, and its charm was so generally recognized that everyone eagerly adopted it. And in a way there is truth to that - but it omits a crucial factor that is worth some thought.

The history of “the cadenza” - the spot at the end of an aria where singers were expected to show their own musical imaginations - is long and fascinating. So is the history of “tradition” - concepts, ideas, choices, and habits evolving through communal experiment as opposed to singular events of authorship. But the “tradition” of singing this cadenza is not an example of those things. It is a fossil created by their death.

Here are three early cadenzas for “Una furtiva lagrima.” The first two are by the composer, written down eight or nine years after the opera’s premiere; the third is by the tenor Giovanni Mario, Donizetti’s collaborator in the original production of Don Pasquale in 1842.  

What can we say about the “tradition” thus far? The cadenza in the original score is on a single syllable in a single breath, has no chromatic notes, and resolves stepwise to the final tonic. About a decade later, both Donizetti and Mario were inclined to divide the ornament into two parts, to repeat a bit of the poetic text during it, to add some chromatic notes, and to finish with a falling fifth. If we took in some other examples we would find different details, but these are pretty typical, and they do suggest some kind of shared tradition - a communal inclination to do certain kinds of things, to go in certain directions.  

That’s the snapshot from the early 1840s, but now we come to the part most people don’t know. This tradition was still alive sixty years later, but dead and gone within twenty years more. Where had the evolving tradition led by the time recordings arrived to allow direct observation? Farther along the path already seen: still more divisions for breath, still more chromatic notes, still more inclusion of text - all within that communal inclination to share certain ideas while pursuing them differently. The basic model was to start with a rise and fall that was mostly or partly florid (usually a run on the syllable “chie-do”), and then proceed to a conclusion that was mostly text-based. Here are nine examples of the starting portion and nine of the concluding one:


Notably missing: any particular inclination for different tenors to sing the very same cadenza.

So what happened? Simple: Enrico Caruso used the cadenza shown up at the top. At the time it was just one of several in a similar vein, and to that extent it was “traditional” - but the Victor Recording Company sold over a million copies of it. Younger tenors could emulate Rubini or García a century earlier, but they could imitate Caruso, and listeners could get used to one frozen rendition, heard as many times as they felt like it putting it on the turntable. Since Caruso’s death over 200 tenors have recorded the aria, and today with a couple of clicks one can find hundreds more captured in live performance. As far as I know, all but four of them copy Caruso’s cadenza.

This happened over and over to all kinds of interpretive choices in Italian opera. Why do two bars of Lucia’s first-act cabaletta suddenly go at half-tempo? Why must Tonio sing a high A-flat in Pagliacci? And so on through dozens of other examples. What they have in common is that the imitation of selected recordings converted them from interpretations to assumptions, or even to obligations - from “one way it might be done” to “the way it’s done.” Is this a good thing?

Depends who you ask - because the same phenomenon changed listeners too. Maybe the opera public today has a higher proportion of people who honestly prefer to hear the same notes every time they hear a piece. And who is to say that’s bad? After all, from Wagner onwards it became the normal expectation in new operas. But the way it happened - the sudden switch to rote imitation in music that had been open-ended - raises some doubts.

The “early music” movement has been interested in something else: reviving scores from the era when soloists were co-composers and their pieces were never the same twice. For those curious about reclaiming some of this creativity in mainstream opera, an easy place to start would be the long list of imitation-cadenzas. If we went back to making them up, we would not be rejecting tradition, but reconnecting with it.

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.

Note: The tenors in the audio mashups are:

Cadenza beginning: Fernando de Lucia; Aristide Rota; Giuseppe Godono; Francesco Daddi; De Lucia (2nd version); José Mojica; Umberto Pini-Corsi; Giuseppe Vogliotti; Giuseppe Anselmi

Cadenza conclusion: Alessandro Bonci; Giovanni Manuritta; José Mojica; Giuseppe Anselmi; Ottokar Marak; Umberto Pini-Corsi; Fernando de Lucia; Isidoro Agnoletto; Florencio Constantino