Giuseppe Verdi was a dominant figure in Italian opera from his first great success in 1842 with Nabucco until his final opera Falstaff in 1893. At the height of his career he was closely associated with Italian nationalism, with even his name serving as a popular acronym for Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy, under whom national unity was secured.
La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) based by the librettist Cesare Piave on a Spanish original, was first staged in St. Petersburg in 1862. Don Alvaro has prepared to elope with his beloved Leonora, but is discovered by her father, whom he accidentally kills, leading her brother, Don Carlo, to seek revenge. Alvaro and Carlo later meet, without recognising each other, but when he realises Alvaro's identity, Carlo challenges him, but a duel is prevented. Alvaro later takes refuge in a monastery, but is subsequently provoked into killing his enemy, an event that brings about a final meeting with Leonora, who has lived as an hermit in a nearby cave. In her aria Pace, pace, mio Dio (Peace, grant me peace, O God) Leonora, before the final catastrophe, prays outside her cell for a peace that she has never known, complaining that the bread left for her, out of charity, only prolongs her misery.
The most popular opera of Alfredo Catalani is La Wally, a work that persuaded the great conductor Toscanini to choose the name Wally for his daughter. The opera was first mounted at La Scala, Milan, in 1892. The heroine, Wally, loves Hagenbach but is ordered by her father to marry Gellner, on whose account she leaves home. The opera culminates in the death of Hagenbach and Wally in an avalanche, their love for each other finally revealed, alter a series of misunderstandings. Wally's aria Ebben, ne andrà lontana, occurs in the first act, when she refuses Gellner and resolves to leave home rather than marry him, as her father wishes.
Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca in 1858, won his first considerable success in 1893 with his opera Manon Lescaut, based on the novel by the Abbé Prévost and first staged in Turin in that year. The Chevalier des Grieux falls in love with Manon, destined by her brother for a convent, to complete her education, but subject of a plotted abduction by the old Geronte, with the connivance of the girl's brother. Des Grieux and Manon elope, but by the second act love and poverty have proved less attractive, and Manon is found living comfortably with Geronte. Lescaut now brings des Grieux, who has won money at the gaming-table, to his sister, but Geronte surprises the couple and Manon is prosecuted and sentenced to transportation. Her lover follows her into exile and the American wilderness, where she dies. Manon's second act aria In quelle tri ne morbide (In these silken curtains) tells Lescaut of her present dissatisfaction at life with Geronte and her regret for the relative poverty in which she had earlier lived with des Grieux. Her final aria in Act IV, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, ruined, deserted) expresses her despair, as she lies dying, alone, lost and deserted, while des Grieux has gone in a vain search for help.
Tosca, staged first in Rome in 1900, is based on a French original by Sardou. The singer Tosca becomes involved, with her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, in the escape from prison of the political dissident Angelotti. Cavaradossi is imprisoned and sentenced to death through the machinations of the chief of police Baron Scarpia, who cynically and falsely offers to spare him, if Tosca will be his. Tosca murders Scarpia, and still believes his promise to spare her lover. When Cavaradossi is shot, she kills herself by leaping from the prison battlements. Tosca's aria Vissi d'arte, Vissi d'amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva (I have lived for art, I have lived for love, and have never done harm to any living thing) expresses her passionate grief at the dilemma with which Scarpia has seemingly presented her in order to save the life of her lover.
The three operas that form Il trittico, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, were first staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1918. In the best known aria of the second of these, Senza Mamma, from Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), the heroine, in a convent to expiate her sin as an unmarried mother, laments the reported death of her child, of whom she has sought news from her hard-hearted aunt. By way of contrast Gianni Schicchi deals with intrigue over the will of a man who has cut off his greedy relations in favour of a monastery. Gianni Schicchi is enrolled to impersonate the dead man and to make a new will, in which he leaves everything to himself. In O mio babbino caro (O my dear daddy), Lauretta, Schicchi's daughter, begs him to help her and her lover Rinuccio, a nephew of Zita, cousin of the dead man.
Puccini's last opera Turandot is set in China, based on a play by the eighteenth century Venetian writer Gozzi. The icy-hearted Princess Turandot poses unanswerable riddles to her suitors and when they fail to find a solution they are put to death. It is left to Calaf, son of the exiled King of Tartary, to find an answer and, in the end, alter considerable suspense, to find love with Turandot, although his loyal slave girl Liù dies to help him. In Tu che di gel sei cinta (You who are girdled with ice) Liù addresses the Princess, who vainly seeks to learn the name of Calaf, who has solved her riddles but posed her the riddle of his name. Rather than reveal this to Turandot even under torture, Liù kills herself. In her first act aria, Signore, ascolta (Sir, listen) Liù begs Calaf not to risk his life by attempting to become a suitor of Turandot.
The opera Le Villi, first staged in Milan in 1884, deals with a story familiar from Adam's ballet <