February 11, 1840.
Donizetti was premiering his latest work, a French comedy known as “La Fille du Regiment.” Among his works, it was a true rarity in its approach to style. He had a lot banking on this work, looking to fully establish his reputation in the cultural capital of the world.
But it was a disaster.
One of the big reasons? The lead tenor, Mécène Marié de l’Isle, was frequently out of tune throughout the evening.
The opera itself eventually survived and remains a popular fixture in the modern-day repertoire. A showcase for both the lead soprano and tenor, the work is perhaps best-known for the challenging aria “Ah! Mes amis, quell jour de fête!” which features nine high C’s for the tenor.
Many tenors have dominated the role throughout the years. Here are the most famous Kings of Tonio’s high C’s.
The Spanish tenor was not famous for the role but he performed throughout his career. Unlike the other tenors on this list, Kraus’ high C’s have tremendous weight to them, his voice having a darker color. He left behind a recording of the opera with June Anderson.
The tenor came to ascendance singing this very role. He first sang in 1966 at the Royal Opera House, garnering the title of “King of the High Cs.” He would strike gold at the Met in 1972, singing this very role and driving people crazy after his nine high C’s. The tenor received 17 curtain calls after that run.
He left a famed recording with Joan Sutherland under Richard Bonynge from 1967.
Juan Diego Flórez
In the modern era, Flórez is undeniably the most famous exponent of the role, singing it around the world and even leaving two recordings. The former is a DVD alongside Natalie Dessay from the Royal Opera House in 2007. There is also a CD recording from Vienna from the same year. The duo also performed the opera at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 where Flórez would encore the aria, breaking a decades-long tradition of not doing encores at the house. He would also sing another run with Diana Damrau at the Met.
The tenor stepped in for Flórez during one run at the Met and immediately became a hit in the role, getting a run at the Met and then becoming the go-to Tonio around the world in recent years. He has a recording of the aria in his new album, “Allegro io son.”
Here the four tenors here: