Anyone considering their first listen of modern opera (or popera, as it’s officially known) would do well to start with Italian singer and European soundtrack queen Romina Arena, who was invited to sing lyrics over Ennio Morricone’s theme for Once Upon a Time in America when she was just 12. The famous film composer must’ve liked her interpretation because he became her personal mentor, and has helped her arrange, produce, and add vocals to Morricone Uncovered, a collection of 15 of the composer’s biggest scores.
The songs on Morricone Uncovered are really a vehicle for Arena’s five-octave vocal range, caused by a knife attack to her throat and strong enough to catapult her to the finals of America’s Got Talent. On “Il Cuore Mio – Mi Corazon,” which last appeared as the tear-jerking theme to Italian miniseries La Piovra, her voice climbs higher than the strings, while “Ritorneral Dolce Amore” finds Arena warbling quietly along to the intimate horns of Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War.
Curiously, the songs that feel overly melodramatic are those she sings in English. “The Woman in Me,” from 1997’s Lolita, pastes bunny-boiler lyrics over Morricone’s twinkling orchestral score, and Arena’s groan of “They say I’m too young/To fall in love with you/I waited a long time/Before falling in love with you…” feels oddly staged. The cover of the theme music from The Legend of 1900 finds Arena sticking her heart right in your face, crying, “What can I do/If you go away/And leave me here/With all my fears,” over syrupy piano. It’s awkward, but taken in the context of a tale of a gifted but cripplingly agoraphobic pianist, it might have you reaching for a Kleenex.
No one could accuse Arena of holding back on emotion, and the amount of hurt she pours into Morricone Uncovered is almost visceral. When she howls, “I cried a million tears,” on “Requiem of Love,” a duet with Marcello Giordano, you can imagine her counting each one. On this and the majority of the rest of the songs, she holds the notes like she’s got a third lung, the power in her voice compensating for the overly saccharine moments. It also helps her overcome the language barrier just as gracefully as her mentor seduced audiences with his music.