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Classical Music

Top 50 Operas and their Recordings

Top Opera Recordings
Posted: May 10, 2014 at 3:01 am   /   by   /   comments (1)

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.

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.

(See also Top 100 Classical Music & Recordings List)

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!”
Recommended recordings:
Fidelio: Klemperer – Ludwig, Vickers
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.
Recommended recordings:
Norma: Serafin – Callas, Filipeschi, Stignani
Norma: Serafin – Callas, Corelli, Ludwig
Norma: Bonynge – Sutherland, Alexander, Horne
Norma: Patane – Caballe, Veasey, Vickers

Monserrat Caballe sings “Casta Diva” from Norma

Berg: 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.
Recommended recordings:
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”
Recommended Recordings:
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

(Julia Migenes singing the “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera “Carmen”)

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.
Recommended Recording:
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.
Recommended Recordings:
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.
Recommended Recordings:
Lucia di Lammermoor: Serafin – Callas, Tagliavini, Cappuccili
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”.
Recommended recordings:
L’Elisir d’Amore: Molinari Pradelli – Güden, di Stefano, Capecchi
L’Elisir d’Amore: Bonynge – Sutherland, Pavarotti
L’Elisir d’Amore: Pritchard – Cotrubas, Domingo

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.
Recommended recording:
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”
Recommended recording:
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.
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recording:
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 Pagliacci

Mascagni: 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.
Recommended recordings:
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.”
Recommended recordings:
Manon: Rudel – Sills, Gedda, Souzay
Manon / Beverly Sills, Gedda, Souzay, Bacquier; Rudel

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.
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recordings
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.
Recommended recordings:
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 Giovanni

Mozart: 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”
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recordings:
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”.
Recommended recording:
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!”
Recommended recordings:
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”
Recommended recordings:
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 Boheme

Puccini: 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.
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recordings:
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.
Recommended recording:
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.
Recommended recordings:
Manon Lescaut: Perlea – Albanese, Björling, Merrill
Manon Lescaut: Serafin – Callas, di Stefano, Fioravanti
Manon Lescaut: Bartoletti – Caballé, Domingo, Sardinero

Puccini: Turandot (1926)
Puccini’s final opera is a grand work set in Peking during “legendary” times. The opera contains the usual Puccini committed romanticism, and have even more subtle exotic harmonies and melodies than Butterfly. It contains some marvelous vocal writing which includes the very popular tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” and Turandot’s “In questa reggia”, one of the most powerful and thrilling arias ever composed for a dramatic soprano.
Recommended recordings:
Turandot: Leinsdorf – Nilsson, Tebaldi, Björling
Turandot: Mehta – Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballé

Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Rossini’s comic masterpiece is a bel canto gem, and one of the most popular Italian opera for good reasons. Each of the aria is a highlight, and some of them are truly amazing. The very popular “Largo al Factotum” is one of opera’s greatest set pieces, while “Ecco Ridente” is one of the most beautiful music Rossini ever wrote.
Recommended recordings:
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Galliera – Callas, Gobbi, Alva
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Abbado – Berganza, Prey, Alva

Hermann Prey singing “Largo al factotum” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Strauss, R.: Elektra (1909)
This astonishing one act opera based on the Greek Tragedy is sumptuously Romantic yet dissonant. The melodies are not immediately apparent, but blossoms to the surface with repeated hearings. The opera features orchestrations that are virtuosic, complicated and with heavy counterpoint, polytonality, and superb vocal writing.
Recommended recordings:
Elektra: Böhm – Borkh, Schech, Madeira
Elektra: Solti – Nilsson, Resnik, Krause

Strauss, R.: Der Rosenkavalier (1911)
This is the most popular opera by Richard Strauss. It is a perfect combination of good humor, high farce, deep sentiment and pleasant sentimentality. The music has a profusion of melody. One unique feature of this opera is the graceful waltzes that exudes 18th century atmosphere interspersed with discordant music. Highlights include the tenor’s “Italian aria”, the presentation of the Rose, and the famous final soprano Trio of Act 3.
Recommended recordings:
Der Rosenkavalier: Karajan – Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Stich-Randall
Der Rosenkavalier : Solti – Crespin, Minton, Donath

Strauss, R. : Salome (1905)
This is the opera that made Richard Strauss famous. It is the story of a biblical femme fatale who dances the famous Dance of the Seven Veil to possess John the Baptist’s severed head. The music’s orchestral color conveys the decadence of the narrative. Salome is also one of the most demanding soprano role. It requires volume, stamina and power of a true dramatic soprano.
Recommended recording:
Salome: Solti – Nilsson, Stolze, Wächter

Verdi: Aida (1872)
This opera in the grand tradition is known for the Triumphal March, extended dance sequences and mass scenes. But this spectacle is no more than a backdrop to an intense emotional drama about love and conflicting loyalties, and contains some of Verdi’s most passionate music.
Recommended recordings:
Aida: Perlea – Milanov, Bjoerling, Barbieri
Aida: Karajan – Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato
Aida: Solti – Price, Vickers, Gorr
Aida: Muti – Caballe, Cossotto, Domingo

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (1859)
Much of the music emphasizes the dark inevitability of the king’s fate, but the grimness is leavened by the mischievous character of Oscar (a soprano role), and by some wonderful ensembles and love duets.
Recommended recordings:
Un Ballo in Maschera Votto Callas di Stefano
Un Ballo in Maschera: Leinsdorf – Price, Bergonzi, Merrill

Verdi: Falstaff (1893)
Verdi’s final opera written when he was 80 displays the wit and exuberance created by a man half his age. It combines the plot of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Falstaff-related scenes of Henry IV. The score is a miracle of subtle instrumental effects. It needs repeated listening to appreciate the rich Verdian melodies that just keep flowing and end as fast as they appear.
Recommended recording:
Falstaff: Karajan – Gobbi, Schwarzkopf, Moffo

Verdi: La Forza del Destino (1862)
This opera is an expansive work that marks Verdi’s artistic maturity. It is a sprawling story of passion, politics and revenge that features some of Verdi’s most dramatic music.
Recommended recordings:
La Forza del Destino : Schippers – Price, Tucker, Merrill
La Forza del Destino : Gardelli – Arroyo, Bergonzi, Cappuccilli

Verdi: Otello (1887)
This opera, composed 16 years after Aida, shows Verdi achieving an extraordinary level of dramatic sophistication. In this stage of Verdi’s artistry, each act is a continual dramatic sweep where the set pieces are an integral part of the whole, intensifying the action rather than stopping it. Verdi and his librettist Boito adapted the Shakespeare work perfectly for opera.
Recommended recordings:
Otello: Levine – Domingo, Scotto, Milnes
Otello: Serafin – Rysanek, Vickers, Gobbi

Verdi: Rigoletto (1851)
This tragic tale of the cursed hunchback is one of the most popular Verdi opera. It is easily appreciated because of its accessible melodies. It moves swiftly through a series of memorable arias, choruses and confrontations. The most famous is the tenor aria “La Donna e Mobile”
Recommended recordings:
Rigoletto: Serafin – Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi
Rigoletto: Kubelik – Scotto, Bergonzi, Fischer-Dieskau
Rigoletto: Solti – Merrill, Moffo, Kraus

Placido Domingo singing “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto

Verdi: La Traviata (1853)
This opera is intimate Verdi, and perhaps the most popular of his works today. It is the story of a consumptive “society hostess” whose love for the upper-class Alfredo provokes the disapproval of his class-conscious father. The opera is known for its poignant arias and tragic, romantic story.
Recommended recordings:
La Traviata: Giulini – Callas, di Stefano, Bastianini
La Traviata Pritchard Sutherland Bergonzi Merrill
La Traviata: C. Kleiber – Cotrubas, Domingo, Milnes

Verdi: Il Trovatore (1853)
Another tuneful Verdi opera, known for its supposedly incomprehensible plot of revenge and parent-child relationship. It has one of Verdi’s big tunes, the “Anvil Chorus”
Recommended recordings:
Il Trovatore: Karajan – Price, Corelli, Bastianini, Simionato (lv 1962)
Il Trovatore: Mehta – Price, Domingo, Milnes, Cossotto (RCA 1969)
Il Trovatore: Guilini – Plowright, Domingo, Fassbender

Verdi: Don Carlo (1871)
This large scale Verdi opera has a glorious score. It is the story of the 16th century Spanish king Philip II and his son Don Carlo, whose fateful love for his young stepmother, Elizabeth, leads to his downfall. The opera is rife with emotional drama and political intrigue.
Recommended recordings:
Don Carlo: Solti – Tebaldi, Bumbry, Bergonzi
Don Carlo: Giulini – Caballe, Verrett, Domingo
Don Carlos: Abbado – Ricciarelli, Domingo

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (1857)
This opera is more admired than loved, with no show stopping arias or choruses, but has some of Verdi’s most beautiful dramatic music and some of his most glorious duets. It is the story of political intrigue in 14th century Genoa.
Recommended recording:
Simon Boccanegra: Abbado – Cappuccilli, Freni, Carreras

Wagner: Lohengrin (1850)
It is a romantic tale of Christian savior overcoming the powers of darkness. Although its pacing is slow, it contains music of great range and lyricism, featuring some marvelously powerful choral work and expanses of orchestral splendor. It contains the famous “Bridal March”.
Recommended recordings:
Lohengrin: Kempe – Grümmer, Ludwig, Thomas
Lohengrin: Sawallisch – Silja, Varnay, Thomas

Wagner Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg (1868)
Der Meistersinger’s story is about the competition among Mastersingers, and a hymn to German art and a celebration of progressiveness in its culture. Although a comedy, it is a sublime work, with several magnificent set pieces. The final song contest is genuinely funny. The overture is very popular.
Recommended recordings:
Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Kempe – Frantz, Grümmer, Schock
Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Karajan – Edelmann, Schwarzkopf, Hopf
Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Karajan – Adam, Donath, Kollo
Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Kubelik – Stewart, Janowitz
Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Solti – van Dam, Mattila, Heppner, Lippert

Wagner : Das Rheingold (1869)
The first and the shortest part of the monumental, musically and thematically complex Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold is the prelude to the story of the main drama. The story starts with the blissful state of the Rhine maidens, an atmosphere reflected in the music, before the peace is destroyed through greed, and will culminate in the final scenes of Gotterdamerung. Highlights include the entry of the gods into Valhalla.
Recommended recording:
Das Rheingold: Karajan – Fischer-Dieskau, Veasey, Stolze

Wagner : Die Walkure (1870)
The second of the four operas of the massive Ring cycle. Highlights include “Ride of the Valkyries” and the “Magic Fire Music”.
Recommended recordings:
Die Walkure: Knappertsbusch – Rysanek, Varnay, Vinay
Die Walkure: Leinsdorf – Nilsson, Brouwenstijn, Vickers

Wagner : Siegfried (1876)
The third of the four operas of the epic Ring cycle, inspired by the story of the legendary hero Sigurd in Norse mythology. Highlights include the Preludes, “Forest Murmurs” and “Brunnhilde’s Awakening”.
Recommended recordings:
Siegfried Knappertsbusch Windgassen Varnay Kuen Hotter (lv 1956)
Siegfried: Böhm – Windgassen, Nilsson, Wohlfahrt, Adam (Philips 1966)

Wagner : Gotterdamerung (1876)
The last of the four Ring cycle operas contains some of the most powerful music of Wagner, and indeed all of opera. Highlights include “Dawn and Sigfried’s Rhine Journey”, “Siegfried’s March”, and the “Immolation Scene”.
Recommended recordings:
Gotterdamerung: Knappertsbusch – Aldenhoff, Uhde, Weber, Varnay, Mödl
Gotterdamerung: Bohm – Windgassen, Nilsson, Neidlinger

Wagner: Tannhauser (1875)
This opera centers on the conflict between the sacred and the profane, the erotic and the spiritual. It is the most lush and easily accessible Wagnerian opera, and a great introduction to the composer’s works. The overture, “Venusberg Music”, the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” and “O Du, Mein Holder Abendstern” are just some of the highlights of this rich opera.
Recommended recordings:
Tannhauser: Solti – Kollo, Dernesch, Ludwig
Tannhauser: Sinopoli – Domingo, Studer, Baltsa

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Some people claim that this is Wagner’s greatest opera, which is essentially a five-hour love song. From the prelude onwards, the opera exudes a sense of sensuality and physical longing with its sinuous melodic lines and suspended harmonies. This yearning is only satisfied in the closing bars of the whole opera, Isolde’s famous “Liebestod” in which she sings herself to ecstatic oblivion, and finally achieves harmonic fulfillment.
Recommended recordings:
Tristan und Isolde: Furtwängler – Flagstad, Suthaus, Thebom
Tristan und Isolde: Solti – Nilsson, Uhl, Resnik
Tristan und Isolde: Böhm – Nilsson, Windgassen, Meyer
Tristan und Isolde: Böhm – Nilsson, Windgassen, Ludwig
Tristan und Isolde: Bychkov – Eaglen, Heppner, DeYoung

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  • August 10, 2014 at 5:45 pm Per Ola Arvidsson

    Thanks for an interesting list of your favorite operas and recordings.
    I agree with lots of your opinions but have some other favorites that do not appear in your list.
    You have mainly studio recordings but not all of them. I would in my opinion had added some great live performances too.
    / Per Ola