|Top 50 Operas and their Recordings|
|Top 50 Operas and their Recordings Continued|
In appreciating opera, you have to forget the prejudices against the genre, borne by spoofs and ridicule by popular culture. When you have gone past this, you will discover a special kind of theater where emotions of the characters are expressed through music that is overwhelming, sublime, powerful and beautiful.
Julia Migenes singing the "Habanera" from Bizet's opera "Carmen"
Opera is also for those who are thrilled by the power of the human voice, the most expressive of all musical instruments. The best way to start appreciating opera is to know the plot of the story, and what the characters are singing about.
Opera plots are oftentimes ridiculous, but you should not listen to opera for the story but for how the music glorifies the story.
Here then are the top 50 operas, also listing their best recordings. The year the opera was first performed is also indicated to make you appreciate the context of its artistic milieu.
Beethoven: Fidelio (1805)
Fidelio is that classical music titan, Ludwig Van Beethoven’s only opera. Having chosen the only subject that interests him, Beethoven molded the work into one of the greatest of all German operas. With its theme of unselfish love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and heroic endurance, Fidelio is the nearest thing Beethoven ever produced to deliver an explicit political-philosophical message. The leading parts of Leonore and Florestan require great vocal intensity to perform. Highlights include the “Prisoners’Chorus”, which is an ode to prison sung by a chorus of political prisoners and Florestan’s intense aria “Gott! Welch’ ein Dunkel hier!”
Fidelio: Klemperer - Ludwig, Vickers, Berry
Fidelio: Fricsay - Rysanek, Häfliger, Fischer-Dieskau
Bellini: Norma (1831)
Norma is Bellini’s greatest opera, and therefore one of the greatest Bel Canto (literally, “beautiful singing”) masterpiece. It contains arias with long and deeply expressive melodies, and is at its most sublime in Casta Diva, the ultimate bel canto soprano aria, and in the moving duets In mia man and Qual cor tradisti. The final act is the greatest example of dramatic bel canto ever written.
Norma: Serafin - Callas, Filipeschi, Stignani
Norma: Serafin - Callas, Corelli, Ludwig
Norma: Bonynge - Sutherland, Alexander, Horne
Monserrat Caballe sings "Casta Diva" from NormaBerg: Wozzeck (1925)
Written in an atonal style (music that avoids establishing a key) , this work is challenging to listen to. Its jagged music and its libretto give a shocking visceral experience, yet rewards repeated hearing. The theme is about a poor man who could not afford morality.
Wozzeck: Böhm - Fischer-Dieskau, Lear, Kohn
Wozzeck: Boulez - Berry, Strauss, Dönch
Bizet: Carmen (1875)
Carmen is a French opera, and yet it successfully evokes Spanish locales, where the story is set. Tuneful and magnificent arias and masterfully crafted orchestral interludes abound. The story is a tragic drama about a hot-blooded gypsy, Carmen, and her rival lovers, Don Jose, a soldier, and Escamillo, a bull fighter. Among the memorable arias are the “Habanera”, the “Flower Song” and the “Toreador Song”
Carmen: Beecham - De Los Angeles, Gedda, Blanc
Carmen: Prêtre - Callas, Gedda, Massard
Carmen: Solti - Troyanos, Domingo, van Dam, Te Kanawa
Carmen: Abbado - Berganza, Domingo, Milnes
Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande (1902)
Debussy’s only completed opera is a misty tale of doomed love. Lacking in movement, with no dramatic incident or big tunes, some find it boring, while others think it is the greatest French opera. It is certainly a landmark in 20th century music. The opera’s strength is in Debussy’s exquisitely delicate music, with the vocal parts corresponding to the pattern of French speech.
Pelleas et Melisande: Karajan - von Stade, Stilwell, van Dam
Donizetti: Don Pasquale (1843)
Donizetti’s late comic masterpiece is remarkable for its free-flowing conversational recitative and the lightness of its orchestration and vocal writing. It is about an old man’s attempt to find himself a young wife.
Don Pasquale: Sabajno - Saraceni, Schipa, Badini
Don Pasquale: Muti - Freni, Winbergh, Nucci
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)
The story is about the feuding families of Lammermoor and Ravenswood and the love between Lucia and Edgardo, members of the opposing family. The opera’s superb characterizations, intensely emotional music, and the string of glorious melodies make this one of the glories of Bel Canto opera. It is also known for the extraordinary soprano pyrotechnics of the “Mad Scene”, as well as some magnificent tenor passages.
Lucia di Lammermoor: Serafin - Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi
Lucia di Lammermoor: Karajan - Callas, Di Stefano, Panerai
Lucia di Lammermoor: Bonynge - Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes
Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore (1832)
Donizetti’s first great comic opera is a tongue-in-cheek reinterpretation of the Tristan and Isolde myth. It a great sentimental-pastoral comedy, and features some of the composer’s finest music including the tenor Nemorino’s “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, the most affecting bel canto tenor arias ever written. There is also a lot of beautiful writing for the soprano lead Adina, including a duet with Nemorino, and the solo “Prendi, prendi per me sei libero”.
L'Elisir d'Amore: Molinari Pradelli - Güden, di Stefano, Capecchi
L'Elisir d'Amore: Bonynge - Sutherland, Pavarotti
Donizetti: La Fille du Regiment (1840)
This highly enjoyable opera is a tale of love that triumphs against all odds. You can expect the usual tunefulness from Donizetti, the highlight of which includes the soprano Marie’s “Song of the Regiment” and the tenor Tonio’s “Ah mes amis” with its show-stopping sequence of nine consecutive high Cs, which few tenors are able to manage.
La Fille du Regiment: Bonynge - Sutherland, Pavarotti, Malas
Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)
This early opera is based on the myth of Orpheus who tries to save his love Euridice from the underworld. It is music with “noble simplicity”, yet erupts with strong emotions that make it more powerful because it is written with classical poise. This can be heard, for example, in Orfeo’s outpouring of grief, “Che favo sense Euridice”. It is also known for the ballet movement “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”
Orfeo ed Euridice: de Froment - Gedda, Berton, Micheau
Orfeo ed Euridice: Rosbaud - Simoneau, Alarie, Danco
Gounod: Faust (1859)
The score of this opera is so rich with memorable tunes that it has served as basis for many instrumental variations and transcriptions. Among the endless stream of hummable memories include the tenor’s cavatina, “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”, the “Soldier’s chorus”, the “Act 2Waltz”, the “Jewel Song”, the “Spinning Song”, and a lot more! It is one of the most enjoyable operas ever written.
Faust: Cluytens - de los Angeles, Gedda, Christoff
Faust: Prêtre - Freni, Domingo, Ghiaurov
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (1892)
This verismo (realistic) opera is one of the finest ever written, about a travelling actor who discovers that his younger wife has been having an affair with a colleague, and then exacts his revenge. The role of the cheated husband, Canio, is one of the greatest dramatic tenor roles ever written, and his aria “"Recitar! ... Vesti la giubba"” is one of the most well-known. The last scene, a play within a play, is musically as well as dramatically riveting.
Pagliacci: Cellini - Björling, de los Angeles, Warren
Pagliacci: Serafin - di Stefano, Callas, Gobbi
Pagliacci: Karajan - Bergonzi, Carlyle, Taddei
Placido Domingo singing "Vesti la guibba" from PagliacciMascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)
Set in Sicily, this verismo opera often played in tandem with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (its inferior), is about hot blooded love and betrayal (no wonder it is often used as a background of movies such as The Godfather III). It can compare to the best of Puccini’s operas. Cavalleria is famous for its Intermezzo, and the final fifteen minutes where Turridu, the lead tenor, sings marvelous testament to the wonders of wine “Viva il vino” and his concluding lament “Mama, quell vino e generoso”, a highly moving piece of music.
Cavalleria Rusticana: Serafin - Callas, di Stefano, Panerai
Cavalleria Rusticana: Karajan - Cossotto, Bergonzi, Guelfi
Cavalleria Rusticana: Levine - Scotto, Domingo, Elvira
Massenet: Manon (1884)
This is a beautifully written opera, written by a composer obsessed with melody. It is full of lavish emotionalism, and is “the quintessential example of the charm and vitality of the music and culture of the Parisian Belle Époque.”
Manon: Monteux - De los Angeles, Legay, Dens
Manon: Rudel - Sills, Gedda, Souzay
Massenet: Werther (1892)
Massenet likes his melodies tender, sensuous, never violent or uncomfortably dramatic. It tells of the tragedy of the poet Werther who is obsessed with Charlotte, a young woman engaged to marry another man. The opera is remarkable for the pathos-filled music, as well as moments of thrilling atmosphere.
Werther: Prêtre - Gedda, de los Angeles, Mesplé
Werther: Davis - Carreras, Von Stade, Buchanan
Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)
Mozart’s cynical opera about women’s infidelity has long been neglected because of the subject matter’s “immorality”. But Mozart fills it with his trademark melodious high-quality music whose cheerfulness is mixed with suggestions of melancholy and disillusionment. It is an ensemble opera – with six lead roles that are equally important. More than any other opera, this is carried by its ensembles.
Cosi Fan Tutte: Karajan - Schwarzkopf, Merriman, Otto
Cosi Fan Tutte: Böhm - Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Steffek
Mozart: Don Giovanni (1787)
The plot of Don Giovanni is the familiar morality play about the philandering Don Juan and his eventual damnation, mixing comedy, tragedy and supernatural elements. Don Giovanni is widely considered as opera’s supreme achievement. It suffers from an excess of wonderful musical numbers which includes the Don’s aria “La ci Darem la Mano” and the “Champagne Aria”, Leporello’s comical “Madamina, il catalogo e questo”, the tenor aria “Dalla sua pace”, and much more.
Don Giovanni : Giulini - Wächter, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf
Don Giovanni : Krips - Siepi, Della Casa, Danco
Brynn Terfel singing "La ci darem la Mano" from Mozart's Don GiovanniMozart: La Nozze di Figaro (1786)
The opera is bursting with intrigue and misunderstanding between servants and their aristocratic masters, and Mozart imbued it with extraordinary witty piece of music. The opera is remarkable for its profundity of emotions, moving arias and perhaps the greatest ensembles ever written. Highlight of this opera includes Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai”, the Countess’ “Dove Sono” and two arias by Cherubino “Voi che sapete” and “Non So Piu Cosa Son Cosa Faccio”
La Nozze di Figaro: Kleiber - Siepi, Della Casa, Danco
La Nozze di Figaro: Karajan - van Dam, Tomowa-Sintow, Cotrubas
La Nozze di Figaro: Solti - Ramey, Te Kanawa, Popp
Mozart: Die Zauberflote (1791)
Mozart’s final opera is a return to fantasy and magic. It is a love story against all odds, and contains music that ranges from buffoonery to solemnity, and features some of the most unusual and vivid characters in all opera. The two arias by the Queen of the Night that require vocal pyrotechniques are showstoppers.
Die Zauberflote: Klemperer - Gedda, Popp, Janowitz
Die Zauberflote: Böhm - Wunderlich, Peters, Lear
Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (1873)
This Russian opera is roughly based on the life of the man who became tsar in 1598 after murdering his rival. It is remarkable for Mussorgsky’s naturalistic word setting and its musical characterization, where the words, thoughts and moods of the characters are expressed by the orchestral accompaniment.
Boris Godunov: Cluytens - Christoff, Lear, Usunov
Boris Godunov: Karajan - Ghiaurov, Wischnewskaja, Spiess
Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1881)
The opera is a highly accomplished and melodic fantasy, which takes its text from three tales by the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It features many wonderful ensemble pieces, arias of the multi-faceted female lead, and the fabulous duet, the barcarole “Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour”.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann: Bonynge – Sutherland, Domingo
Ponchielli: La Gioconda (1876)
This verismo opera cannot compare with the creations of the two Italian musical giants, Verdi and Puccini, who were born before and after the composer, yet with the right singers, this opera is as thrilling as it comes. It is set in Venice, and tells the intriguing story of the banished Enzo Grimaldi who reclaims the wife of another nobleman. Highlights include the very popular orchestral piece “Dance of the Hours”, the tenor aria “Cielo e mar” and the soprano’s dramatic “Suicidio!”
La Gioconda: Votto - Callas, Cossotto, Ferraro
La Gioconda: Bartoletti - Caballé, Baltsa, Pavarotti
Puccini: La Boheme (1896)
La Boheme is the finest lyric opera ever written, and one of the most frequently performed opera internationally. It is a tragic love story of impoverished students in Paris. The opera is superbly constructed and contains a number of beautiful, showstopping arias including the tenor aria “Che Gelida Manina” and “Musetta’s Waltz”
La Boheme: Beecham - De Los Angeles, Björling, Merrill
La Boheme: Votto - Callas, di Stefano, Moffo, Panerai
La Boheme: Karajan - Freni, Pavarotti, Panerai
Pavarotti singing "Che gelida Manina" from La BohemePuccini: Madama Butterfly (1904)
The story is set in Nagasaki, Japan where the American Pinkerton marries a geisha called Cio-Cio-San and promptly abandons her. This cruel drama contains some of the most seductive music Puccini ever composed, where rich Italian swelling, songful melodies are blended with some exotic Japanese harmonies.
Madama Butterfly: Karajan - Callas, Gedda, Boriello
Madama Butterfly: Santini - de los Angeles, Björling, Sereni
Madama Butterfly: Leindorf - Price, Tucker, Maero
Madama Butterfly: Barbirolli - Scotto, Bergonzi, Panerai
Madama Butterfly: Karajan - Freni, Pavarotti, Kerns
Puccini: Tosca (1900)
Tosca is called a “prolonged orgy of lust and crime” and tells the story of an actress, Tosca, who is pursued lecherously by the chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, who tortures her lover, Cavaradossi. Tosca has the richest harmonies among Puccini’s opera, and contains many classic moments, including the tenor arias “Recondita Armonia” and “E lucevan le stella”, and most famous of all, Tosca’s showstopper “Visi d’arte” in which she laments her fate.
Tosca: De Sabata - Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi
Tosca: Mehta - Price, Domingo, Milnes
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi (1918)
Gianni Schicchi is the third and final part of Puccini’s three one-act operas late in his career. It is a comedy, which combines elements of Puccini’s modern style of harmonic dissonance with lyrical passages.
Gianni Schicchi: Santini - Gobbi, de los Angeles, del Monte
Puccini: Manon Lescaut (1893)
In Manon Lescaut, Puccini wrote music of unremitting intensity. It is an opera carried entirely by melodic high points, and has a glut of good arias and duets.
Manon Lescaut: Perlea - Albanese, Björling, Merrill
Manon Lescaut: Serafin - Callas, di Stefano, Fioravanti
Manon Lescaut: Bartoletti - Caballé, Domingo, Sardinero