The Greatest Operas, Part I
Posted by therebelprince on January 8, 2015
This post is simulcast from my blog “The Annals of Opera”.
I realise this is a TV blog, but 2014 has been a year often devoted to one of my other great passions.
Okay, here we are. Week 1 of 10. Over the next 10 weeks, I’m gonna have a go at listing out all of my favourite opera composers from the 1640s to the 2010s and the works of theirs I hold in high regard (with clips to illustrate!). Sometimes, they aren’t necessarily works of genius, but works that I like (yes, that is possible). And, occasionally, I can’t articulate my feelings, but I’ll try to focus my interest as much as possible. So… let’s have some fun, shall we?
Despite its reputation as an elitist artform, opera is really – or should be – the climax of all the arts: music, song, theatre, design, dance. Great opera can touch us, can be hilariously funny, or can challenge, just like great theatre. From everything I’ve seen over the last few years, the opera world is thriving in all its sparkling variety. At the same time, it is an acquired taste, and – since it is one of my great passions in life – I would like to do my utmost to help others acquire it.
So, first, a few housekeeping notes:
1st, I’ve called this the “greatest operas” just because that sounds less fourth-grade than “my favourite operas”. However, it should be noted that this is an extremely subjective list. I am omitting some of the “masterpieces” of the canon, while other works included here would be seen by the establishment as cheesy or outdated, and by the avant-garde as conformist or of negligible value. While I find 17th and 18th century operas formally interesting, and they feature much heavenly music, there are very few on this list. On the other hand, there are more 20th and 21st century works than your average opera subscriber would likely choose but – at the same time – my geographical separation from centres of new music limits my knowledge quite a bit. At the end of the day, I’m a writer, a theatre-maker, an idealist, and a member of Gen Y. All of these elements of me inform my taste.
2nd, I’m not the kind of critic who believes there is a way things “should” be done. For this reason alone, I will never be admitted entry into any kind of Wagner Society. I believe that any work of theatre can have a varied afterlife, from classical “historical performance” to an abridged, futuristic production featuring multimedia e and audience interaction. I say this because, if you disagree with my favourite composers, performers, or productions, I’d love to hear from you. But I’m interested in opinions, not arguments or debate.
And 3rd, opera is an artform with a complex history, now entering its fifth century. For this reason, I have listed the operas by composer, in rough chronological order, to examine – however briefly – the connections between styles and eras. If you went to your first opera (let’s say, Carmen) and didn’t like it, perhaps you don’t like opera. True. But perhaps you just didn’t like French opera. Or perhaps you didn’t like French opera of that era. Or perhaps you just don’t like Bizet. Or – perhaps – you just don’t like Carmen. Or, even possibly, you just didn’t like that production. Like deciding you don’t like movies because you didn’t enjoy 12 Years a Slave… it just doesn’t make much logical sense. What I enjoy most about my nerdiest passions is rediscovering them, over time, and – as a result – learning more about myself and the medium as I go.
Anyhow, on with the show.
01. Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643, Italian)
First on the list, Monteverdi was – both literally and figuratively – a Renaissance man (he was a Roman Catholic priest in his spare time!) who essentially forced the art of music out of the Renaissance era and into the Baroque. His masterpiece is a work that historians increasingly believe he only contributed to, L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), the story of an ambitious but noble young woman who is mistress of the Emperor Nero, and determines to become his Empress. Like many of the operas of the era, it’s incredibly long and langorous, like seeing Shakespeare uncut, but it features divine music. What’s magical about Monteverdi’s work is that it’s the work of a composer who – like his era – was literally discovering new things you could do with music every day.
There are endless recordings, headlined by great artists, but I’d be remiss to not mention the recent, somewhat musically subversive, recording by Claudio Cavina. It’s a whole lot of fun with the score, and the enthusiasm from the singers comes across very well.
other Monteverdi works to check out, if you become a fan: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’Orfeo, the first opera of any kind to survive.
02. Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695, English)
The greatest English composer of his age (although I will forever wish that Thomas Tallis had tried his hand at opera), Purcell worked in an age before opera had a truly recognisable form. His works combine elements of theatre, masque, and concert performance.
A work of Baroque genius, Dido and Aeneas (c.1688) clocks in at just one hour, succinctly telling the tale of its title characters’ doomed love affair (like so many of the works of this era, classical mythology plays a big part in early opera). Purcell’s inventive score gives us three cackling witches, marvellous dances, and stunning soprano songs. While poor Aeneas is fairly shortchanged, the role of Dido with her final aria – When I am laid in earth – has been performed by innumerable greats. The short, repetitive libretto – common to the era – may cause annoyance in newcomers, but the style of the era required elaborate workings on the same theme (including words of the text) rather than fastpaced narrative movement. Every number is a little musical jewel, from Belinda’s Thanks to these lonesome vales to the witches’ final delight over Dido’s imminent death.
My favourite recording is somewhat unconventional -Emmanuelle Haïm conducts Le Concert d’Astrée, and a stellar cast including Ian Bostridge, David Daniels, and an exquisite Susan Graham. It’s a taut reading of this opera that milks the drama of the moments, but never lets things lag.
see also: the more masque-like King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, and The Indian Queen.
03. George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759, German-English)
Undoubtedly the most famous Baroque composer (and not just of operas), Handel was an astounding man in many ways. His work remains sublimely beautiful to this day, although its flowing, ornamental, languid style is at odds with current trends. The early 18th century is not an area of opera I’m particularly interested in, but Handel nevertheless is an undeniable master of the form. Among more than 40 operas, there are undoubtedly many treasures waiting to be revived (the recent Partenope co-produced by Opera Australia and the English National Opera was smashing) but his two greatest hits are undoubtedly the cloak-and-dagger romance Rodelinda (1725) and the profound historical drama Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724). Critics seem to support the Karl Bohm recording with Fischer-Dieskau with great reverence, however the last few decades have given Handel a new life on disc. For many years, these early operas lay dormant. Truthfully, I doubt that the general public are ever going to be swept up in baroque mania again. What was “reflective” in the 1720s is now “indulgent”; what was “languid” is often, simply, dull. There are social, psychological, philosophical, and artistic reasons for the popular types of art in any era and, sometimes, like the early ’90s interest in the sweet family sitcom, you can’t go home again. But in the last half-century, as we’ve uncovered more information about historical performance methods, they’ve swept back into fashion amongst the opera-going classes. Listening to the much-lauded countertenor Andreas Scholl, in the video below, should give you some explanation as to why.
Let’s just skip the 18th century, shall we? Well, not entirely. But I’ll be honest and say that much of the music from 1700 to 1760 or thereabouts just doesn’t thrill me. Much like 18th century theatre (which is never staged, even though 16th and 17th century repertoire remains highly-praised), there’s just something formalised – almost ritualised – that has never appealed to me. That is, until we reach the genius of the age.
04. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791, Austrian – or whatever, I don’t care)
It’s one of the great tragedies of Western civilisation that Mozart died at just 35. What direction might our culture taken if he had lived to compose for another 35 years? Regardless, there’s an argument that all classical music is written in his shadow. The young man wrote operas that still remain vastly enjoyable today, and feature some of the most thrilling vocal music ever crafted. When his characters sing, it’s as if every instrument in the orchestra is revealing their psychological depths. Like the great majority of Mozart’s works, there is a constant conversation happening between the instruments (including voices), between the audience, and between the composer, and the conversation continues to this day. His three masterpieces must surely be:
- Cosi fan tutte (Women are like that, 1789), an epic battle of the sexes which seems poised between the earthy and the celestial. Seriously, on stage it’s full of disguises, gender stereotyping, subversion of gender stereotyping, and general silliness. Yet musically, it’s the softest, most gentle experience, that seems handpainted like the Sistine Chapel. The opera was memorably recorded by Karl Bohm with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Alfredo Kraus;
- Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791), a mythical and ambiguous fairytale which still invites imaginative stagings to this day, The Magic Flute somewhat defies plot logic – and is responsible for about 50% of all the pretentious academic writings on opera to date (the other 50 being given over to Wagner) – so I’d just say: listen. It’s worth it. There are many delicious recordings including that by Otto Klemperer;
- Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), perhaps the most supremely plotted comedy in the opera canon, as infidelity and disguise cross paths with bluster and ingenuity. Unlike later operatic comedies, this is a long’un, but once you’re in the thrall of Mozart’s music, it just doesn’t matter. Well-represented on disc by both Kleiber and Giulini.
Singers liken Mozart to being a kind of exercise in keeping one’s form. Even after singing the most challenging roles, returning to his deceptively simple melodies requires all the purity of voice that a singer can muster. Listening to the great recordings (and even the iconoclastic recordings, like the current series being conducted by Siberian wunderkind Teodor Currentzis) is the closest thing to a religious experience for an filthy atheist like myself.
See also: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Don Giovanni, and Mozart’s final work, the rigid but beguiling La clemenza di Tito (The clemency of Titus)
05. Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809, Austrian)
A contemporary of Mozart, Haydn is remembered for his symphonies and chamber music, not his operas. Indeed, I only stumbled across one by chance, but jeepers it’s a good one. Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon, 1777) comes with the length, gender stereotypes, and caveats of any opera of the era, but that’s just being churlish. It’s a delightful comedy full of soaring, character-based music, in which young lovers attempt to convince an old man that he has awoken on the moon. Wikipedia amusingly calls it – in one of the most bizarre and original sentences ever written – “perhaps one of the earliest examples of science fiction in 18th century opera”. For a recording, I’d champion the Dorati disc.
Mozart and Haydn paved the way for the era of Great Opera, which the Romantics would take up at the start of the 19th century.
06. Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826, German)
Next on our list is a young German musician and critic who exemplified Romanticism. He was fascinated by world music (arguably the first Western composer to use a genuine Asian melody in his work), by folksong, and by the depth of the orchestra’s possibilities. Most of Weber’s music is instrumental in nature, and I’m only just beginning to plumb the depths. But his emotional, supernatural opera Der Freischütz (The Marksman, 1821) remains a feat, for those willing to play along. A young man enters a shooting contest to win his lady love, accepts the offer of a set of magic bullets, unaware that he is entering into a pact with minions of the Devil. The folk elements are – certainly – from a very different era, but this is the beginning of a German tradition that would lead to some of the greatest operas ever staged. Listening to the fascinating ways in which harmonies arrive and resolve themselves, the music transports you to another world in a way that 18th century opera had not been able to do with its rigid structures. The 19th century was a very exciting place to be for writers and poets, artists and musicians, and this is exactly why. Like the speedy evolution of television today, styles could evolve artistically in full view of popular audiences, who were sharp-tuned enough to respond to many of the innovations with unrestrained glee. (TV critics discovering the first season of The Wire or Community will appreciate the exuberance of these year-on-year forward strides.) The clip below is from an awesome, deconstructivist* production, and is the famous “Wolf’s Glen” sequence. (Oh, and for the record, the Kubelik recording of this opera is pretty damn neat.)
*I feel that I should be asking why WordPress doesn’t know how to spell either deconstructivist or heteronormativity but perhaps I should let those questions lie.
07. Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791 – 1864, German)
One of the most interesting things about artforms is how tastes change, change again, and then change back. Any Shakespeare lover or Doctor Who fan can assert that plays or episodes popular amongst fandom thirty years ago often fall into disrepute, to be replaced by previously “ridiculous” works. Opera is no different, and Meyerbeer is the textbook example. Meyerbeer was the leading proponent of “Grand Opera”, a style in which melodramatic, historical, disastrous events were played out by an absurdly large chorus and orchestra, using new technologies. These five-act operas tended to incorporate an act of ballet, lunatic climaxes (“oh, hey, Mt. Vesuvius is erupting even though that wasn’t in the rest of the opera – let’s jump in it to our doom!”) and the counterpoint of the individual against the grandiose plans of history. Meyerbeer was an inventive orchestrator, using instruments in many unexpected ways (including the saxophone in 1849), and he was essentially a celebrity. Working in Paris, Meyerbeer attempted to unite the German and Italian opera conventions, to great effect.
At the same time, Meyerbeer was – shortly after his death – seen as shallow and narrative-based. Once the psychological operas of Wagner, and the earthy “verismo” tales of Puccini took hold, audiences were turning away. Perhaps more importantly, many musicians – as the taste for the avant-garde and densely “constructed” music took hold in the 20th century – found Meyerbeer to be far from their tastes. It didn’t help that the guy was Jewish, and thus in the bad books of Wagner, whose influence was hardly minimal. After WWII, Meyerbeer received a bit of a critical re-evaluation, and his works are now performed and recorded again. However, the sheer scale of his operas is undeniably over-the-top. On top of this, singers learn a very different vocal technique these days, and the operas of Meyerbeer, Berlioz, et al can be challenging to cast well. Which is why, after the retirement of Joan Sutherland and select other Meyerbeer enthusiasts, the works have once again become a cause for sniggering among some of the opera elite. Done well, you can joke about how it was “a fairly speedy five hours”, and “the performances were good”, but that’s about all you’re willing to give.
True, they seem a waste of money (whether paid for by patrons or government funding) and even – like the Emperor’s early thoughts on Mozart’s music in Amadeus – a waste of music. Still, if you’re feeling decadent, Meyerbeer’s operas are staggering. The only ones I know and enjoy are Les Huguenots (1836), a love affair set amongst the political turmoil that culminated in the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – which can be heard to great effect on a recording by husband-and-wife miracle workers Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland – and Le prophète (The Prophet, 1849) in which the aforementioned saxophone appears, and which was recorded fairly well with Renata Scotto and Marilyn Horne. Le prophète also centres on grand historical events, but lacks some of the character-based strengths of Les Huguenots, as coronations, angry religious zealots, and assassination attempts are the main order of the day.
Meyerbeer fans also recommend the cheeky and elaborate Robert le diable (Robert the Devil, 1831) and the composer’s final work, staged posthumously in 1865, L’Africaine (The African Woman)
08. Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868, Italian)
So, as you may have guessed from the previous two composers, the first half of the nineteen century love love loved grandeur. But while Germany and France took that to scenic extremes, some over in Italy instead found the extravagance in the musical writing, particularly the voice. Bel canto music – “beautiful singing” – can be tragic, epic, or light and comedic, but it’s always… um, beautiful. Rossini was undoubtedly the greatest writer of comic bel canto operas who ever lived, retiring before his 40th birthday to live a life of eating and cooking. Yep, this guy lived the dream. Rossini’s works have never gone out of favour – although few of his 39 operas are performed on a regular basis. The highlight is undoubtedly Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816), a frantic farce featuring young love, disguises, cranky servants, and – of course – Figaro. On stage, with their large-yet-human characters and constant twists, the works are guaranteed for a laugh. On disc, the constant flashiness can be a little bit tiring, particularly if you don’t know what’s going on, but unlike Meyerbeer or Monteverdi, it’s never hard to tell why these works flourished. The Barber is an ideal entry point to comic opera, and I very much enjoy the Galliera recording starring Tito Gobbi and Maria Callas.
Other entry points into Rossini: his Shakespearean Otello (1816) and the thoroughly sweet La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817), which features an effortless array of pretty tunes.
09. Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835, Italian)
If Rossini was the great comic star of bel canto, Vincenzo Bellini was the era’s soul. Working triumphantly in tragedy, Bellini’s greatest works came out within the space of five years, and were capped by his death at 33, like so many of the superstars of the Romantic era. Truth be told, I’ve always felt a tad removed from Bellini’s greatness on disc. Like his contemporaries in the literary world (Byron, Tennyson), he always seems so self-serious, so assured of his talent and the urgency of his mission, even if his mission is just writing melodramatic opera. I prefer the lightness (in tone, if not in subject) of Donizetti and Rossini. However, on stage, it’s clear who was the true talent. Bellini’s later operas merge character analysis with astounding melody, an echo of the side of bel canto that planted the seeds for the great Italian operas of the nineteenth century.
All five of Bellini’s late operas are worthy of mention here. I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues, 1830) – which retells the Romeo & Juliet myth in a different guise – has flourished in recent years, being well recorded by Fabio Luisi with Elina Garanča and Anna Netrebko as the lovers; Beatrice di Tenda (1833) is – admittedly – the least of the five; and I puritani (The Puritans, 1835) is alternately pompous and ethereal, beautifully recorded by Sutherland and Pavarotti, although I’ve never warmed to the opera, with its grandness. Faring far better are Bellini’s two masterpieces: Norma (1831), the first in a long line of operas to centre around tragic heroines, still unmatched on record by Maria Callas, tells of a Druidic priestess who has a secret relationship (complete with children) with a Roman officer. As their secret unravels, a web of fear and religious guilt tightens around Norma that recalls – in a more melodramatic way – the works of Ibsen. It’s the kind of work that is usually staged large, but could in fact do very well in a smaller venue, with consciously smaller direction. Then there is La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker, 1831), the lightest of Bellini’s works, in which a young woman’s unfortunate habit for sleepwalking at just the wrong moments is somehow strung out into two hours of music. This charming if silly village romance features extravagant vocal writing, recorded in fine voice by Sutherland in not one but two recordings over the years. The recent Metropolitan Opera production – set in an operatic rehearsal room, where the cast are putting on a production of the work itself – was cleverer in theory than in execution, but still a reminder that great opera can still speak to us through the ages, bonkers plots be damned.
On the next installment of “The Greatest Operas”, we’ll take a look at the grand masters of 19th century opera, as the artform moves toward its most popular era.