The human voice is God’s most beautiful instrument, and the blending of voices and musical instruments within the context of a dramatic visual presentation is the zenith of human artistic achievement. This is the glory of opera. Below is a list of the ten greatest operas ever composed, in order of greatness, from ten down to number one, in the estimation of the present author. Spirited disagreement is expected and welcomed.
10. Antonio Vivaldi: L’Olimpiade
Vivaldi is well-known today because of The Four Seasons and a handful of other concertos. But the composer considered himself primarily a writer of opera. Indeed, Vivaldi spent much of his career as a traveling impresario, staging often-hastily-assembled operas across Europe (and traveling with two young sister-singers who starred in his productions and who became the subject of lascivious rumors about the middle-aged priest/composer). Liberally indulging in the common practice of self-borrowing, Vivaldi sometimes cobbled together “new” works, taking arias and tunes from previous operas and instrumental works. The libretti of Vivaldi’s operas are complex and usually ridiculous—though this can be said of most opera libretti—but it is the brilliance of the music that carries the day. Though it has dramatic lapses, a case can be made that L’Olimpiade, a love story that takes place during the ancient Olympic games, is the Red Priest’s greatest composition in this genre.
Here is the brilliant aria, “Siam navi all’onde algenti”:
9. P.I. Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Few composers rival Tchaikvosky when it comes to plumbing the depths of the human heart. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s play, Eugene Onegin tells the tragic tale of the beautiful young woman, Tatiana, who falls in love with the eponymous friend of her sister’s fiancé. Onegin is a cautious man, however, and is unable to return Tatiana’s love. In the course of his interaction with Tatiana and her sister, Onegin ends up in a dispute with his friend Lensky, eventually killing him in a duel. After many years away from Tatiana, Onegin realizes that he indeed loves her. But it is too late: Tatiana has married a prince to whom she is determined to remain faithful, despite her still-active feelings for Onegin. The opera ends with Onegin in despair over this rejection.
Here is the scene in which Tatiana pours out her love for Onegin in a letter.
8. W.A. Mozart: Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)
Often overshadowed by its sister singspiel, The Magic Flute, “this rescue opera” is just as delightful and as profound, full of high spirits and deep feeling. Indeed, it has the advantage of avoiding the longeurs of that better-known work. A predecessor of the other great Mozart operas included here, The Abduction already shows the composer’s mastery of operatic writing and his ability to depict the comedic and tragic elements of life in a seamless musical mosaic. The story is simple: Two Spaniards set out to rescue their lovers from the clutches of Turkish Muslims. The happy ending is typical of Mozart and packs a surprise, as the seemingly villainous Turkish Pasha grants his captives their freedom.
Here is the delightful duet, “Vivat Bacchus,” during which Pedrillo talks a Moorish guard into getting drunk, so that the Europeans can escape his clutches.
7. Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata (The Fallen Woman)
Perhaps the most performed opera today, this tragic and sexually-charged tale of the young courtesan Violetta’s love for the nobleman Alfredo scandalized mid-nineteenth Victorian audiences in Europe and America, even more so than had Mozart’s Don Giovanni the previous century. The opera makes use of the typical operatic plot conventions of misunderstandings between lovers and a foreshortened end to romantic happiness, in this case because of the fatal tuberculosis contracted by Violetta.
Here is the famous “Brindisi,” a drinking song in which Alfredo sings of the glories of love, only to be rebuffed by the initially cynical Violetta:
6. Gioacchino Rossini: The Barber of Seville
If there was a “successor” to Mozart, it was probably Rossini, though his high-spirited operas do not plumb Mozart’s sublime depths. Barber is a sort of prequel to Mozart’s Figaro, detailing the adventures of the same wily servant whose wedding is at the heart of the earlier opera. The characters and their hijinks will be familiar to those who love Figaro.
The opera’s most famous aria is “Largo al factotum,” in which the hero Figaro sings of his skills as a barber, matchmaker, and counselor to the people of Seville:
5. Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
The son of an atheistic father and a Roman Catholic mother, Berlioz’ oeuvre often reflects this dual religious heritage. In Cellini, however, the humanistic side of the composer rules. This is the tale of the eponymous Renaissance artist who fashioned the great statue of Perseus cutting off the head of Medusa. Cellini is clearly a guise for Berlioz himself: an artist who overcomes all obstacles, including those posed by the Church, to find his true love, prove his superiority to his peers, and demonstrate that man is indeed the measure of all things. Premiered in 1838, the opera was a failure, and for more than 100 years after the composer’s death it lay unperformed, until revived and recorded by the British conductor, Sir Colin Davis in 1972. Berlioz, however, considered the piece one of his supreme achievements: “I swear I shall never again achieve this verve and Cellinian impetuosity nor such variety of ideas.”
Here is the beautiful trio, “O mon bonheur, vous que j’aime” in which the lovers Cellini and Teresa express their mutual love and plan their escape together, with interruptions from the conniving Fieramosca, a rival for Teresa’s hand.
4. Georges Bizet: Carmen
It is amazing that musical snobs still turn up their noses at this great opera. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, the plot centers on the eponymous character’s seduction and corruption of Don Jose, a Spanish officer who abandons his family, his duty, his virtue, his reason, and at last his soul in favor of his all-consuming desire to possess the beautiful gypsy. The music for Carmen is the most seductive in the repertoire; we cannot blame Don Jose for being seduced by her, and we watch and listen in anguish as he hurtles inevitably towards his doom.
Watch Carmen seduce Don Jose:
3. Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens
Based on Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, Hector Berlioz composed his four-hour Les Troyens in the style of French Grand Opera. Written between 1856 and 1858, the opera was not staged in its entirety during Berlioz’s lifetime, partly due to the expense of staging a work with so many leading roles and with a libretto that called for spectacular sets and special effects. Too, Berlioz—always a controversial figure in the musical world—was not known as an opera composer (indeed, his name was left off some advertisements for his previous effort in the genre, Benvenuto Cellini). In 1863, the second half of the opera, with some parts cut, was premiered until the title Les Troyens à Carthage and met with some success. But it was not until 1890, twenty-one years after the composer’s death, that the full opera was produced on stage, and it was not until 1969 that a recording of the complete piece was made (under the direction of Sir Colin Davis). And it was not until the twenty-first century, when a DVD production conducted by John Eliot Gardiner was released that critics and opera houses began to recognize Les Troyens as one of the greatest operas of them all. “One wonders why this work is so underrated,” one critic writes. “When the opera reaches its last half an hour, starting with Aeneas’s departure for Rome, Dido’s rage, curses, misery, sudden accesses of calm, fresh outbursts, calm acceptance of utter loss and, the final doomed realization of Rome’s triumph—one finds oneself on a level that shuns most other opera’s attempts at classical transcendence.”
Here is the Dido’s lament for the downfall of Carthage, “Farewell, proud city”:
2. W.A. Mozart: Don Giovanni
At a time when opera was either buffa or seria, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte created what they called a dramma giocoso (“jocular drama”), and Mozart’s masterpiece wonderfully blends the serious, even the frightening, with the humorous. The story centers on the eponymous aristocrat whose obsession in life is bedding as many women as possible by whatever means necessary, whether persuasion or force. As always, Mozart is fascinated by human relationships, and though much has been made of the tension between the Don and his servant Leporello, Mozart sees class not as determinative of human interaction but as a lens through which the nature of man can be better understood. The opera has sparked debate since its premier. The Romantics, who did not like old-fashioned moralizing, often cut the opera’s final sextet, in which the surviving characters make sense of the Don’s downfall: “Thus it is to evildoers.” And though Mozart was surely committed to having the lascivious Don get his comeuppance at the end of the opera, there is little doubt that the composer could not help but admire the prowess of Giovanni, who runs circles around the opera’s other characters and who is only defeated by an act of supernatural revenge.
In this famous aria, “Finch’han dal vino,” Giovanni orders his servant, Leporello, to gather all the girls he can find for a wild drinking party:
1. W.A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (Figaro’s Wedding)
Perhaps Mozart’s most beloved opera, the story—by Da Ponte after Beaumarchais’ play—centers on Count Almaviva’s attempt to sleep with his servant Figaro’s betrothed, Susanna. Though the aristocratic Droit du seigneur and the Count himself are mocked, as in Don Giovanni, Mozart is concerned less with class and more with the battle of the sexes, which he clearly sees as more revealing of the human soul and more important in the forging of human alliances. Susanna and the neglected Countess, for example, team up to play a prank on the Count, foiling his attempt to have a clandestine rendezvous with his wife’s maidservant. The “Aria of the Wind” sung by the two women as they conspire is one of the most enchanting creations ever penned by a composer (and was memorably used to illustrate the power of beautiful music in the film, The Shawshank Redemption.) Though clearly in the buffa genre, the story’s resolution brings one of Mozart’s most sublime moments, as the repentant Count begs forgiveness of the Countess, and order is restored.
Here Figaro taunts the young, sex-starved page Cherubino and pretends to send him on his way to the army:
Editor’s Note: Please note that this list has been revised since this essay was originally published.
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