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.
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."
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
Ruggero Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Cosi fan tutte
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (The
Marriage of Figaro)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberfloete (The Magic
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.
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).
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
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.
Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Richard Strauss: Elektra
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
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).
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.
Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlos
Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
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
Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold,
Die Walkuere, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung)
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.