FAVORITE OPERAS


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  1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio For all his many gifts, Beethoven was emphatically not a man of the theater. He had a hard time getting his only opera in performable shape, and his writing for the voice is often infelicitous. Nevertheless, "Fidelio" has many noble aspects, and its story -- of the triumph of love and liberty over hatred and oppression -- is one that speaks to every age.

  2. Vincenzo Bellini: Norma Bellini's operas epitomize the bel canto (or "beautiful singing," sometimes turned into "can belto" by less gifted singers) style so popular in the early 19th century. "Norma," a highly imaginative treatment of ancient Roman-Druid relations, is one of his most characteristic works. (For drama, get the Maria Callas recording on EMI -- CMS5 56271-2 -- for beautiful singing, try Joan Sutherland, Decca 414 476-2.) Some of his other notable operas are the exquisite "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" (Vesselina Kasarova and Eva Mei are stunning on RCA 09026 68899-2), "I Puritani" and "La Sonnambula."

  3. Alban Berg: Wozzeck Serialism doesn't particularly lend itself to lyrical singing, but it is the perfect accompaniment for a descent into madness. Neither "Wozzeck" nor Berg's other opera, "Lulu," counts as wholesome family entertainment, but they can be powerful drama.

  4. Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens Berlioz's grandiose operas are difficult to stage, calling as they do for large casts and expensive stagecraft, but they're worth the effort musically and dramatically. The conductor Sir Colin Davis owns this repertoire in our time, and his "Troyens" (Philips 416 432-2) is a wonderful achievement. His "Beatrice and Benedict" is a more manageable work.

  5. Georges Bizet: Carmen "Carmen" tops more lists of favorite operas than any other. The story of the Gypsy who'd rather die than act against her will has sex, violence and great tunes, always a winning combination. For a recording without the vulgarity, consider Tatiana Troyanos' reading, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca 414 489-2).

  6. Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele Boito was a far better librettist than composer, and since he talked Verdi into writing "Falstaff" and "Otello," we owe him our gratitude. "Mefistofele," another take on the Faust legend, is a tough sing with some spectacular moments -- and a wonderful part for the bass in the title role. The latter is what keeps it in the core repertoire; Samuel Ramey is the opera's biggest promoter at present.

  7. Alexander Borodin: Prince Igor Borodin's day job -- he was a chemistry professor -- kept him from being a full-time composer. His friends helped him to tidy up the score for "Prince Igor," but it's still a mish-mash, and revisers can pick and choose the scenes they want to use. I like conductor Valery Gergiev's version on Philips (442 537-2).

  8. Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle This one-act opera has interesting psychological aspects and some wonderful musical moments. Several good versions are available; try EMI's with the extraordinary Anne Sophie von Otter as Judith (CDC5 65162-2).

  9. Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes By any standard, Benjamin Britten was one of the most important postwar composers, with one masterpiece -- "Peter Grimes" -- and a number of solid, worthwhile operas ("Albert Herring," "Billy Budd," "The Turn of the Screw," among others) to his credit. He usually wrote his lead roles for his longtime lover, tenor Peter Pears, but other singers have since put their own distinctive marks on them. Jon Vickers made this role his own (Philips 462 847-2).

  10. Claude Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande It's musical impressionism, it's symbolic, it's Franco-Wagnerian, and it's not to everyone's taste. "Pelleas" is full of ravishing melodies, but not much action, and it wants careful staging. It gets careful musical attention in the recently remastered EMI recording with von Karajan conducting Frederica von Stade and (St. Louis native) Richard Stillwell in the title roles (CMS5 67057-2).

  11. Leo Delibes: Lakme Delibes is known mostly for his ballet scores ("Coppelia") but here produces an exotic vehicle for coloratura soprano. Its main reason for being is the "Bell Song." Check out Natalie Dessay in the EMI recording (CDC5 56569-2).

  12. Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor It's hard to choose just one opera from this prolific composer of bel canto (and I'd personally rather listen to "La Fille du Regiment" or "L'Elisir d'Amore"), but the tale of crazy Lucy is beloved of divas and audiences alike. Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas are both winners in this role.

  13. Antonin Dvorak: Rusalka This opera, in Dvorak's customary nationalistic vein, offers its soprano one of the world's most seductive arias, the "Song to the Moon." The show is problematic, since the heroine is silent for much of it, but she does get to kill the tenor at the end. One of the best recordings of any kind in recent years is the Decca set (460 568-2) with the sumptuous-voiced Renee Fleming in the title role, the outstanding tenor Ben Heppner as the Prince and Dolora Zajick as a deliciously wicked Jezibaba.

  14. Carlisle Floyd: Susannah Floyd's 1955 opera, which moves the Biblical story of Susannah and the elders to the Tennessee hill country, is finally getting first-class professional attention after years of being unheard outside college workshops. Its tonal, folk-hued score, studded with lovely arias, makes it a winner for both performers and audiences.

  15. John Gay: The Beggar's Opera This smash hit from 1728, a satirical "ballad opera" that recycled folk and fashionable tunes of the day, has darkness just below its humorous surface. It's the basis for Brecht and Weill's "Dreigroschenoper" ("Threepenny Opera"), but it holds up better.

  16. Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice "Orfeo" (also available in French as "Orfee") is a beautiful, direct treatment of the Greek legend of Orpheus, with wonderful music and a story that appeals to contemporary listeners. If you can find it, the Solti version on Decca with Marilyn Horne is a winner; the EMI recording with Anne Sophie von Otter (CDS7 49834-2) is also a fine choice. Avoid countertenor Derek Lee Ragin's protracted whine on Philips.

  17. Charles Gounod: Faust Gounod's treatment of "Faust" (or parts of it; Goethe's poem is far too huge to be encompassed in a single evening) is a Big Sing with lots of Big Tunes for all concerned. Basses love Mephistofeles, a particularly dashing devil.

  18. Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel & Gretel Humperdinck is the missing link between Wagner and Strauss, and this charming work is far more than a children's opera. (Compare and contrast the Witch's theme with the leitmotif of the Giants in "Das Rheingold.") For a delightful reading, pick up the Anna Moffo/Helen Donath/Christa Ludwig (a Witch for the ages!) recording (RCA 74321 25281-2).

  19. Leos Janacek: Jenufa Janacek's operas have finally come into their own in recent years, and we are the richer for it. "Jenufa" is his tragic masterpiece (also worthwhile: "Katya Kabanova" and "The Cunning Little Vixen"); there is a fine recording on Decca (414 483-2) with a wonderful performance by Elisabeth Soderstrom in the title role.

  20. Ruggero Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci

  21. Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana Known as "the twins," these two one-acters define verismo opera, aka bloody melodrama. Of the two, "Pagliacci" is the stronger work. (Italian note: It's pronounced "pal-yachi," it means "clowns" in the plural, and if you want to talk about the title character -- who is un pagliacco -- his name is Canio.)

  22. Jules Massenet: Werther Massenet's 1887 opera garbs its story (boy meets girl, girl marries another, boy shoots self) in lovely music. Frederica von Stade is a luminous Charlotte and Jose Carreras a sympathetic Werther in the Philips recording (416 654-2). Other notable operas by Massenet include "Don Quichotte," "Cendrillon" and "Manon."

  23. Gian Carlo Menotti: The Consul Menotti had several lasting successes -- "The Medium," "Amahl and the Night Visitors" -- but this 1950 Cold War tale is his most powerful work.

  24. Claudio Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea Monteverdi (1567-1643) is the first real opera composer, one with a sure sense of pacing and dramatic purpose, as well as a gift for melody. "Poppea," based on the unpleasant history of the Emperor Nero, is one of his strongest works.

  25. Douglas Moore: The Ballad of Baby Doe Also based on a true story -- but a far more touching one -- is "Baby Doe." Set in Central City, Colo., where it premiered in 1956, this piece of richly populated Americana has two lovely arias for the soprano and some nice set pieces.

  26. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Cosi fan tutte

  27. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

  28. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)

  29. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberfloete (The Magic Flute) Mozart did everything musical well, and it's no surprise that four of his operas are on this list, three with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte. "Figaro" is (with Wagner's "Meistersinger") among the crowning achievements of Western civilization; in the show's final moments, the Countess' exquisite forgiveness of the Count seems divinely inspired. "Cosi" has an awful plot but wonderful music; "Don Giovanni" is splendid in every way. "Flute" has its problematic elements, but it's tremendous fun and a musical joy. (Check out the Ingmar Bergman film.) There are too many fine recordings of these operas to name them all, but if the conductor's name is Bohm, Davis, Giulini, Karajan or Solti, you should be safe.

  30. Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov Mussorgsky was a sodden reprobate with a gift for composition and no self-discipline at all. In recent years it's been fashionable to trash his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for cleaning up and completing Mussorgsky's scores, but we owe their survival to Rimsky-Korsakov, and there are attractive elements to his innovations. There are recordings available of multiple versions (including two for the price of one by Gergiev and the Kirov, Phillips 462 230-2).

  31. Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann Offenbach made his name writing fun, frothy operettas, and his lone grand opera shows elements of that. Based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, it shows the poet foiled in love at every turn. The most coherent edition is not available on disc; go for the Joan Sutherland/Placido Domingo set on Decca (417 363-2).

  32. Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmelites This is a talky opera -- well, look at the title -- but the ending takes the breath away. No big tunes, but it's quietly effective.

  33. Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme

  34. Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

  35. Giacomo Puccini: Tosca Puccini specialized in appealing music and romantically dead sopranos: All three of these heroines bite the dust, via TB (Mimi), suppuku (Cio-Cio San) and leaping from a parapet (Floria Tosca). Puccini's operas are often recommended as "starters" for their emotionally grabbing music and stories, not to mention their relative brevity. His "Turandot" is more interesting musically (and still has a dead soprano, although not the title character), with its big chorus scenes and the famous tenor aria "Nessun dorma." No one has ever topped the Freni/Pavarotti/Karajan "Boheme" (Decca 421 049-2). The same team scores in "Butterfly" (Decca 417 577-2), but Maria Callas remains the definitive Tosca (EMI CDM5 66444-2).

  36. Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas The finest opera written in English until "Grimes," Purcell's 1689 setting of the story of the Queen of Carthage and her Trojan lover has held up wonderfully.

  37. Giacchino Rossini: The Barber of Seville Rossini's sparkling setting of Beaumarchais' brilliant play is one of the few operas that's been in constant play over the years. For a while, sopranos hijacked the role of Rosina, which disrupted not only the score (some of which had to be rewritten to accommodate them) but the whole sound of the piece. Demand a mezzo heroine; accept no substitutions. Agnes Baltsa is an excellent choice (Philips 446 448-2). If this list were longer, "La Cenerentola" (Cinderella) and "L'Italiana in Algeri" would be on it.

  38. Camille Saint-Saens: Samson et Dalila There's no more glorious piece of balletic kitsch than the Bacchanale from "Samson," a big, fun, sexily vulgar opera on Biblical themes. Placido Domingo is the blinded hero of choice.

  39. Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride The "Czech national opera" has lots of irresistible tunes; many of them will be familiar from the oft-played overture. It's lighthearted fun with a Slavonic slant.

  40. Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

  41. Richard Strauss: Elektra

  42. Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos Strauss and his preferred librettist, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, produced remarkable music dramas that take Wagner's ideas and carry them into the 20th century. If this list were longer, it would add "Salome." For "Elektra," the Birgit Nilsson/Georg Solti recording has yet to be topped. For the sublime and comic "Rosenkavalier," get the classic 1956 Elisabeth Schwarzkopf reading.

  43. Igor Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress Musicians tend to love the satirical "Rake"; non-musicians are frequently cold to this subversive tale of vice and virtue. For a satisfyingly intelligent recording, consider John Eliot Gardiner's take (Deutsche Grammophon 459 648-2).

  44. Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin Onegin -- who breaks a young girl's heart and kills his best friend in a duel -- is a cad, but Tchaikovsky surrounded him with wonderful music. Tatiana's letter scene is one of the most powerful solo scenes ever written.

  45. Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos

  46. Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff

  47. Giuseppe Verdi: Otello Keeping Verdi down to just three operas is a struggle; by rights, "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" and "Aida" should be here, too. His early works tend to be melodramatic and overly reliant on oom-pah-pah, but "Falstaff" and "Otello," the operas of his old age, are works of mature genius and belong in every operatic collection.

  48. Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg

  49. Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold, Die Walkuere, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung)

  50. Richard Wagner: Parsifal Wagner had a singularly unpleasant personality tied to incredible genius. In "Meistersinger" he produced a work that is at once profoundly touching and profoundly humorous, musically inventive and exhilarating. The "Ring" is the greatest single operatic achievement of all time, four scores tied together musically and dramatically by characters and leitmotifs (or, if you prefer, themes). At times, "Parsifal" really does transcend time and space. For the "Ring," get the Solti version on Decca. There are several fine "Meistersinger" sets, but the Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra reading on Decca is the best all-around.

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