San Francisco Opera | Eleven Great Soprano / Mezzo-Soprano Duets

Eleven Great Soprano / Mezzo-Soprano Duets

Vincenzo Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues is best known for Giulietta’s aria, “O quante volte.” This vocal showpiece, gorgeous as it is, is not the beating heart that sustains this opera. That duty is reserved for the extraordinary duets Bellini wrote for Romeo, played by a mezzo-soprano, and Giulietta, a soprano.

Other composers have similarly found inspirations in writing duets for female voices. Whether the scene calls for ecstasy, sympathy, or open conflict, the combined forces of a soprano and mezzo singing together have given wing to many great operatic moments. Here are eleven to listen for:

The Capulets and the Montagues (2012) with Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell.
1. The Capulets and the Montagues (2012) with Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell (Photo: Cory Weaver)

Each duet for Romeo and Giulietta in The Capulets and the Montagues reveals an aspect of the lovers’ deep connection and doomed fate. Their first, “Si, fuggire,” predicts the trouble ahead as Romeo wants to flee with Giulietta, but she will not leave her family.

San Francisco Opera first presented the opera in 1991 with Delores Ziegler as Romeo and Cecilia Gasdia as Giulietta. The work returned in 2012 under the baton of Riccardo Frizza and in a new production starring Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato as the lovers.


Semiramide (1981) with Marilyn Horne and Montserrat Caballé.  (Photo: Ron Scherl)
2. Semiramide (1981) with Marilyn Horne and Montserrat Caballé.  (Photo: Ron Scherl)

Due to the extraordinary demands it makes on the soloists, Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide is, like Bellini’s Capulets, a rarity in today’s operatic repertory. San Francisco Opera presented Semiramide only once, in 1981. With a cast headed by two lyric legends—Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne—the thrilling vocalism on display in duets like “Giorno d’orrore” made Semiramide an artistic highpoint in the Company’s history.

Norma (1972) with Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau. (Photo: Carolyne Mason Jones)
3. Norma (1972) with Joan Sutherland and Huguette Tourangeau. 
(Photo: Carolyne Mason Jones)

After its 1937 Company premiere, Norma disappeared from San Francisco Opera’s repertory until 1972 when it reemerged as part of the Company’s 50th anniversary season. Joan Sutherland, one of the great Normas of the past century, starred alongside the Adalgisa of Huguette Tourangeau. Their performance of the showstopper duet, “Mira, o Norma,” was hailed by the Oakland Tribune as “truly moving” and “perfectly balanced.”

Anna Bolena (1995) with Susanne Mentzer and Carol Vaness. (Photo: Marty Sohl
4. Anna Bolena (1995) with Susanne Mentzer and Carol Vaness. 
(Photo: Marty Sohl)

The second act of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena features a duet that becomes a confrontation (“Ba, infelice, e teco reca”) as Anna learns her confidant Giovanna Seymour is also her rival. Joan Sutherland was San Francisco Opera’s first Anna Bolena in 1984. When the work was revived in 1995, Carol Vaness assumed the title role and Susanne Mentzer was Giovanna.

Cosi fan tutte (1956) with Nell Rankin and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.
5. Cosi fan tutte (1956) with Nell Rankin and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. 
(Photo: Robert Lackenbach)

When we meet Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, they are singing the duet “Ah Guarda, sorella,” where each adoringly describes her boyfriend to the musical support of the other. Things get more complicated for them and their boyfriends soon thereafter. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, a renowned interpreter of Mozart’s music, made her American opera debut with San Francisco Opera in 1955. The following year, she was Fiordiligi in the Company premiere of Così fan tutte opposite the Dorabella of American mezzo Nell Rankin.

The Marriage of Figaro (2019) with Nicole Heaston and Jeanine De Bique. (Photo: Cory Weaver)
6. The Marriage of Figaro (2019) with Nicole Heaston and Jeanine De Bique. 
(Photo: Cory Weaver)

The 1936 Company premiere of The Marriage of Figaro marked a late introduction of Mozart into San Francisco Opera’s repertory; the two have rarely been apart since. In 2019, Michael Cavanagh’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro was unveiled with an exquisite (and funny!) ensemble cast including Nicole Heaston and Jeanine De Bique—two sopranos—who performed the witty letter-writing duet, “Sull’aria,” with obvious delight.

Hansel and Gretel (1930) with Queena Mario and Elinor Marlo. (Photo: Lawrence B. Morton)
7. Hansel and Gretel (1930) with Queena Mario and Elinor Marlo. 
(Photo: Lawrence B. Morton)

Queena Mario, who opened San Francisco Opera’s inaugural 1923 season as Mimì in La Bohème, was also the Company’s first Gretel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Her Hansel in 1930 was Elinor Marlo, a local singer. The two were photographed in costume for the Evening Prayer, one of the opera’s highlights where the children, lost in a haunted forest, find comfort singing together.

Der Rosenkavalier (1993) with Frederica von Stade and Christine Schäfer. (Photo: Marty Sohl)
8. Der Rosenkavalier (1993) with Frederica von Stade and Christine Schäfer. 
(Photo: Marty Sohl)

San Francisco Opera’s 1993 cast for Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier featured Frederica von Stade as Octavian and Christine Schäfer in her American debut as Sophie. The “Presentation of the Rose” scene in Act II is one of the composer’s greatest achievements, an exhilarating musical depiction of love at first sight.

War and Peace (1991) with Catherine Keen and Ann Panagulias. (Photo: Marty Sohl)
9. War and Peace (1991) with Catherine Keen and Ann Panagulias. 
(Photo: Marty Sohl)

Like the Leo Tolstoy novel on which it is based, Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace is an all-encompassing narrative of humanity on a grand scale and up close. The opera opens with a stentorian chorus, which is immediately followed by scene of intimacy where the world-weary Prince Andrey overhears two young women singing with wonderment from their balcony. In the 1991 Company premiere, Catherine Keen was Sonya and Ann Panagulias portrayed Natasha.

10. Lakme (1937) with Helen Beatty and Lily Pons. (Photo: Lawrence B. Morton)
10. Lakme (1937) with Helen Beatty and Lily Pons. 
(Photo: Lawrence B. Morton)

French soprano Lily Pons made Delibes’ Lakme a San Francisco Opera box office smash between 1937 and 1946. Though the opera was dismissed by critics as “candy-coated,” San Franciscans could not get enough of Pons’ effortless coloratura or her performance of the famous “Flower Duet.” Pons is pictured above with the Mallika of Helen Beatty in 1937.

Madama Butterfly (2016) with Zanda Švēde and Lianna Haroutounian. (Photo: Cory Weaver)
11. Madama Butterfly (2016) with Zanda Švēde and Lianna Haroutounian. 
(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Twenty-one years after the world premiere of Lakme, Giacomo Puccini composed his own “Flower Duet” for the 1904 opera Madama Butterfly. The duet occurs in Act II when, after spotting Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki adorn the house with flowers in anticipation of his return. Zanda Švēde (Suzuki) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) performed this optimistic scene in 2016, performances which the Mercury News hailed as “A Butterfly for the Ages.”

Did we miss any? Let us know your favorite soprano/mezzo duets.

Director’s Note for The Capulets and the Montagues
From Page to Stage: An Interview with Moby-Dick Librettist Gene Scheer