A Close Look at “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s “La Rondine”

Am I a crank? No, don’t answer that! But I can’t help being bothered whenever I hear someone refer to “Doretta’s aria.” While “Chi il bel sogno” is published as the “canzone di Doretta,” in this case “di Doretta” means “about Doretta.” It is Magda’s first aria, not Doretta’s. Magda is being kept by the wealthy Rambaldo, and in the first act of La Rondine, a group of friends join them in her salon. One of them, the poet Prunier, sings the first verse of a song he has begun to compose but has not finished. This verse describes a certain Doretta being propositioned by a king but refusing his promise of wealth. Magda, challenged by Prunier to improvise a concluding verse, rises to the occasion with this aria. In Magda’s contribution, Doretta meets a poor student and the couple experiences mad, impulsive love. Riches don’t matter, the verse concludes, compared with the “golden dream” of spontaneous love. Therefore, in this story, Magda endorses the exact opposite of the course to which she has committed herself. The aria’s special pathos arises from the implied comparison between Magda’s pragmatism and Doretta’s idealism. The parable told in the aria in fact anticipates the plot of the entire opera — Magda will attempt to reverse the course of her life, with short-lived success.

With the initial page, the singer can establish the premise that her character is improvising. The repetition of the words in the phrase “come mai, come mai finì?” may be Magda’s way of buying herself a little time to think. In any case, the first “come mai” is a grammatical fragment, and the second finishes the thought. Making a little crescendo on the second “mai” will help to convey that this time, the word leads to a conclusion. Presumably, the fermata after “finì” indicates that Magda has not quite decided how the story of Doretta ends; the singer must not simply pause, but pause in order to think. The phrase “e fu quel bacio . . .” begins with the same music as that of “il suo mister. . .”, but where the first proceeds haltingly, “e fu quel bacio” sweeps upwards purposefully: Magda has found the story she is driven to tell. Thus it is important to sing this phrase with a continuous crescendo, so that “e fu quel bacio rivelazione . . .” will be heard as a complete sentence.

Some find the reverse dotted rhythm of “Folle amore!” confusing and are mislead into clipping the 16th and then bringing in the second syllable of “amore” an eighth note too soon—the syllable should come between the syncopated chords in the orchestra. This haunting passage is marked dolcissimo. Since the words describe “mad love . . . mad intoxication,” why is the setting tender rather than passionate? I believe that the music may reflect Magda’s feelings of solicitude for the young and vulnerable couple she is imagining.

The marking of dolcissimo for “Folle amore!” is not necessarily a demand for absolute softness, but for sweetness of tone. Puccini specifies pianissimo for (and only for) “Ah! mia vita!” The high C represents Magda’s enthusiasm for the idea of spontaneous, reckless love: Puccini prepares it with crescendo, and even marks the phrase “con crescente calore.” I can’t imagine why anyone would think that it “ought” to be soft. The C may be the vocal climax, but the crux of the aria’s text is the phrase “che importa la ricchezza . . .” (compared to the happiness of love, money is worthless). Puccini dictates an emphasis here both with a poco allargando and with dashes (here, probably implying stentando). Following this, I recommend not simply the restoration of tempo, but an eager pushing ahead: here, favoring words over vocal weight may facilitate the heavy climax that follows.

The sheet music edition gives as a prelude the florid piano introduction played by Prunier before his verse but omits the aria’s postlude. Those presenting the aria in concert should consider restoring the postlude, which aptly conveys the wistful longing this tale has aroused in the storyteller.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.