We may all contemplate mortality to various degrees, but only the condemned man knows the exact time he must die. (Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the idea of execution.) In “E lucevan le stelle,” the condemned Mario Cavaradossi, trying to write a farewell to his lover, Tosca, instead loses himself in reflection on his past happiness with her.
Throughout the entire first “verse” of the aria (through “mi cadea fra le braccia…”), it is the clarinet that “sings” the melody, while the voice is limited to repeated notes in the lower range. Furthermore, Puccini does not introduce the voice at a prominent moment, but sneaks its first entrance into the end of the clarinet’s first phrase. I believe that any attempt to extract a beautiful melodic line from these phrases is doomed–the beauty of the passage lies in the text, which is so evocative that Puccini evidently preferred not to obscure it with vocal melody. It seems to me that this entire section is most in keeping with the situation if dreamily and lovingly declaimed, rather than fully sung–it must, of course, be audible, but the effect should be consistent with Puccini’s marking “pensando” (“musing”). This verse is in the imperfect tense throughout (“…and the stars were shining…”), as though Cavaradossi were still experiencing his past in the present. These imperfect forms appear in three ways: complete (“olezzava”); with the last syllable dropped (“lucevan[o]”); and with the “v” omitted (“stride[v]a”). I make this observation because one often hears the title of the aria mispronounced as “luceVAN” rather than correctly as “luCEvan,” even by those who sing it correctly. The stress of the word “l’uscio” is off the beat–it should not sound like “l’uSCIO.” The text helpfully gives the singer images for all the senses: the sight of the stars shining; the smell of earth; the sound of the garden gate; and, finally, the feel of Tosca falling in Mario’s arms.
Some find the entrance of “Oh, dolci baci” difficult to locate. Knowing that there is an accented horn entrance (F sharp) with the last syncopated chord may help the singer feel the entrance without counting. Puccini has marked the orchestra “pp,” with the vocal entrance, but has given no dynamic to the voice specifically. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that Puccini demands that it be sung pianissimo. If sung softly, though, the phrase makes a transition from the murmured phrases that precede it to the passionate climax, and is in keeping with the tender eroticism of the text. (Here I enter a dangerous area by addressing the marking “vagamente”–the word has several possible meanings. My guess is that Puccini is alluding to the rhythm, asking that it not sound too clearly defined–it might even imply permission for more sliding between pitches than usual.) The “s” of “svani,” like any “sv” combination, is voiced–pronounced like the American “z,” not American “s.”
The concluding phrase places the climactic note on the unstressed final syllable of “amato.” Am I therefore going to urge moderation in holding the high A? Hardly! However, if the tenor can hold something in reserve for a little crescendo at the end of the note, it will help to suggest that the fermata is carrying us to the important word “mai.” Cavaradossi, only now that he knows the hour of his death, feels that he has “never loved life so much.”