20) Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870)
The second instalment of the colossal Ring tetralogy is packed full of musical wonders
With the Ring, Wagner redefined the scope and scale of music drama. Composed over 26 years, the cycle embodies his ideal of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total art work) in which poetry, drama, music and staging unite with a common purpose. Wagner’s achievement is overwhelming, his ambition unsurpassed.
Yet only one of the four Ring operas has made it into our top 20. So, why Die Walküre? For a start, it contains perhaps Wagner’s best-known music: the exhilarating ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, which opens Act III. And there are many other highlights – the visceral opening storm; Siegmund’s hymn to the spring; Wotan’s Farewell; the Magic Fire Music. Die Walküre also stands alone as a coherent, compelling opera, an emotional rollercoaster of love, incest, grief, sacrifice and betrayal.
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19) Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724)
A vast, rich score that displays the composer’s sharply honed instinct for dramatic pace
At almost three-and-a-half hours, Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of Handel’s longest and most elaborate creations (longer than Wagner’s Parsifal), and yet this seemingly unwieldy opera is actually delicately balanced, beautifully proportioned and always engaging. Da capo arias are exquisitely paced, with Handel’s understanding of the expressive power of the human voice unrivalled in Baroque music.
The intricate plot, placing the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra at its centre, never loses its focus, thanks partly to Nicola Francesco Haym’s brilliant libretto, but also to Handel’s dazzlingly original recitative work whose striking modulations constantly surprise and delight. In terms of orchestration, Handel is at the very height of his considerable powers.
18) Verdi’s Falstaff (1893)
Verdi at his most inventive, proving himself a genius of comedic characterisation
Everything about Verdi’s late comic opera about a plump, arrogant, cowardly knight leaps from the stage: its ingenious libretto by the composer’s long-term collaborator, Arrigo Boito, combining elements of three Shakespeare plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and both parts of Henry IV; the detail of the orchestrations over which Verdi laboured, changing and revising right up to the day of the premiere; and its sheer wit, often displayed through Verdi’s sudden and rapid changes of musical pace and direction.
But it’s the craftsmanship of the music that most impresses – Verdi rarely uses instruments simply to double his singers, instead employing them for an extraordinarily wide colour palette. The demands on singers and players are considerable, but the result is a glorious work of unbridled joy.
17) Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)
An extraordinary creation that sets its glittering music at the service of the text
Orfeo was not the first opera to have been written, but it was the first great opera. Here, in this vivid retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus, is the first example of a drama throughout which music consistently heightens the text and fully expresses its emotions.
Monteverdi draws on his rich compositional palette to superb effect: instruments group around bright strings to depict pastoral Thrace, while sombre brass, particularly trombones, colour the Underworld. In his vocal writing, Monteverdi gave his singers a new freedom. And if music is the servant of the text, it’s also its subject. For at its heart, this is an opera about music’s power to uplift our souls and heal our sorrows.
16) Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
Wagner’s consummately beautiful comic opera explores the heart of the human soul
Wagner’s description of his only comic opera as ‘something lighter’ belies the brilliance of the composer’s insights into the complications of life, love and tradition within the context of a singing competition in a medieval German town.
At just over four hours, Wagner’s score was his longest yet, but unlike Tristan und Isolde’s musical and dramatic stases (see No. 10), the dynamic Meistersinger score constantly shifts with melodies in plentiful supply, the charming plot at once comic, romantic and philosophical.
The glorious music, arresting from the start, mirrors the opera’s conceit of tradition’s renewal through innovation and acceptance of outside influence – Wagner’s use of Baroque counterpoint and Lutheran chorales are perfumed by judicious use of daring chromatic harmony.
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15) Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867)
Verdi’s grandest opera combines spectacle with moments of exquisite intimacy
Never let the facts get in the way of a good opera. In Verdi’s Don Carlos, based on a Schiller poem, the eponymous hero is an admirable, steadfast prince who champions the oppressed people of Flanders; in reality, the son of Philip II of Spain was an odious, unbalanced character with infamously sadistic tendencies.
Nonetheless, this is Verdi’s grand opera par excellence, whether enjoyed in its original five-act French version or as Don Carlo, the later four-act Italian incarnation. Set against the sinister backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, it is unmatched for spectacle and drama – not least in the auto da fe of Act III – while Verdi lets his musical imagination run riot with moments such as the monks’ haunting prayer early in Act II.
14) Janáček’s Jenůfa (1904)
A harrowing slice of realism told with impressive musical and dramatic imagination
A rapidly repeated rhythm on the xylophone, representing a water wheel, sets Janáček’s masterpiece into motion, and so begins a devastatingly poignant tale of love, jealousy and misguided morality in rural Moravia. The stream that feeds the mill can be felt throughout a fast-flowing, chromatic score that sweeps the action along at pace – at just two hours, Jenůfa is a masterpiece of concision.
And then there is the brilliantly drawn cast of complex characters. The stoic, self-effacing Jenůfa is as easy to admire as her dissolute lover, Steva, is to revile. But how do we judge her desperate would-be partner Laca and, above all, Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka? Both carry out appalling acts, but out of loyalty and love…
13) Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879)
A Russian masterpiece that probes its tale’s characters with musical insight and nuance
Eschewing a conventional through-narrative, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a series of ‘lyrical scenes’ from Pushkin’s iconic novel. At the heart of the story is the definitive arrogant aristocrat, Onegin, who rejects the un-bound adoration of country-girl Tatanya. His thoughtless behaviour leads to the death of Lensky, his greatest friend, though not before Lensky delivers the dark and despondent ‘Faint echo of my heart’.
An opera of opposites, Tchaikovsky pits Tatyana’s rustic and open-hearted musical language against Onegin’s starkly cynical one. Later, when the tables are turned, Onegin’s change of heart is made plain in his sudden harmonic shift to the romantic figure he should always have been, while Tatyana is now stuck in a removed minor key. His realisation has come too late, and the damage he caused cannot be undone.
12) Verdi’s La traviata (1853)
Verdi reserves his greatest melodies and richest harmonies for this tale of love and duty
Now the most-performed opera in the world, it’s hard to believe that during Verdi’s lifetime La traviata was seen as a bit of a disappointment after the epic historic operas of Il trovatore and Rigoletto. The secret of its longevity popularity is surely Verdi’s intricate, three-dimensional characters, whom he brings to life with soaring melodies and heart-rending swells of harmony.
Most compelling of all is the ‘fallen woman’ of the title, Violetta, who is forced to choose between love and honour. Ultimately, she proves her goodness by sacrificing her own happiness for that of a woman she does not know. Succumbing to consumption, she bids life, her lover Alfredo and a usually weepy audience farewell with the achingly beautiful aria ‘Addio del passato’, ‘Farewell past happy dreams’.
11) Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
Like many fin de siècle French composers, Debussy was at one point a fervent Wagnerian. But in his only complete opera he sought to realise his own rather different ideal of opera. Here, as in Monteverdi’s operas of 300 years before, music would serve the text. Pelléas et Melisande was the remarkable result: a subdued, mysterious exploration of a fated love triangle, the antithesis of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Debussy conjures a half-lit, atmospheric dream-world, in which the dynamics rarely go above mezzo-forte and silence is as powerful as music. Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous symbolist play of 1892 is set almost verbatim; and, like Musorgsky in his own opera Boris Godunov, Debussy eschews melody and mimics speech patterns in the vocal lines. It’s one of the opera world’s strangest, most spellbinding and profound achievements.
10) Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865)
A revolutionary chord heralds the start of modern opera and a new way of thinking
Around 1857 Wagner, reaching a creative block with the Ring, decided meanwhile to compose a popular, easily performable opera on the Tristan legend. Being Wagner, what he came up with was a vastly profound psychodrama whose very opening chord challenged traditional harmony, inspiring and liberating a subsequent generation of composers. So much so, that Tristan has been called ‘the first modern opera’, a unique watershed beyond which music changed for good.
Very little actually happens onstage, in the manner of Wagner’s beloved Greek tragedies. But the score is vibrantly alive both with the lovers’ passion and a more transcendent yearning, for surcease, rest, escape from a cruel existence. Its score intertwines motives in darkly sensuous chromatic harmonies which find resolution only in death.
It undoubtedly reflects Wagner’s personal unhappiness, and his affair (probably more idealised than real) with Mathilde Wesendonck, but also his interests in Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It’s never been his most popular work, but its power is enormous, even overwhelming – which for some devotees is the point – and its greatness undeniable.
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9) Verdi’s Otello (1887)
The Italian composer as you’ve never heard him teams up with one of the opera world’s sharpest librettists
There are storms in opera and there are storms. But there is no musical storm quite so shattering as the tidal wave of sound that Verdi unleashes at the start of Otello. Is this the end of the world, with those trumpets summoning the dead from their graves?
Otello was written by a composer who was already into his seventies and who thought that he had retired. But, given the opportunity, he was also a composer who embraced the idea of renewing his musical style as confidently as a man half his age. And nowhere more so than in the Act I love duet for Otello and Desdemona.
Verdi had a master librettist working with him who was also more than half in love with William Shakespeare. Arrigo Boito shaves off Act I of Shakespeare’s tragedy and concentrates the action in Cyprus, so that in a good production of Otello you never look at your watch. You’re on the edge of your seat as evil, in the shape of Iago, confronts flawed goodness, the Moor of Venice, and innocence is murdered. The death of Desdemona would make stones – and us – weep.
8) Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787)
An opera of perfect proportions, both thematically and musically balanced
It was ETA Hoffmann, whose own stories were to inspire many great musical masterworks, who called Don Giovanni ‘the opera of all operas’. Mozart’s art has often been compared with Shakespeare’s, above all perhaps for the composer’s complete and lifelike blend of the comic and tragic: their co-existence is actually the essence of all Mozart’s operatic masterpieces, and Don Giovanni – aptly labelled a dramma giocosa – is the work in which they are most intimately woven together.
People’s long fascination with the Don Juan legend, first made into a play by a Spanish poet-monk in the early 17th century, meant that by Mozart’s time there were countless Don Juan shows around. But Mozart – whose music would have been impossible without alchemy of Da Ponte’s words – gave life, as it were, to the supernatural, in the form of the Commendatore’s statue.
In Leporello’s Catalogue Aria he created a piece unlike anything else in all opera. The work that Rossini claimed he would most liked to have composed himself is driven from start to finish with timeless power and brilliance.
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7) Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643)
Monteverdi gets to the hearts of his characters with music of spellbinding beauty and verve
Much as Verdi’s Falstaff is a compendium of a lifetime’s musical interests, L’incoronazione di Poppea is a work in which a lifetime’s soundworlds contrast and collide. Musicologists have debated its authenticity: the overture has been attributed to Francesco Cavalli, and the final duet, ‘Pur ti miro’, has been claimed as the work of Benedetto Ferrari or Francesco Sacrati before being returned, as it were, to Claudio Monteverdi.
Premiered in 1643, Monteverdi’s last opera is Venetian to the core: a morally ambiguous, multi-layered drama of court intrigues, contract killings and broken promises among the high- and low-born subjects of a psychotic emperor. When modern listeners shudder at the triumph of Cupid as Poppea is crowned, they should remember that in the wake of this apparent happy ending comes yet more violence.
From Poppea and Nero’s first smouldering, post-coital duet, ‘Signor, deh non partire’, to the astringent chromatics of ‘Non morir Seneca’, the hypnotic beauty of Arnalta’s ground bass lullaby, ‘Oblivion soave’, and the shattered desolation of Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma’, the writing is unfailingly psychologically acute.
6) Puccini’s Tosca (1900)
A rollercoaster opera of high emotions that features some of Puccini’s finest orchestrations
First performed in Rome in 1900, Tosca was Giacomo Puccini’s fifth opera, composed at the beginning of his forties. He drew the subject from the play La Tosca by the admired French dramatist Victorien Sardou, who had written it as a vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt that quickly turned into a major theatrical success; the copious detail of the libretto’s real historical setting, meanwhile, pushed it in the direction of the prevailing verismo aesthetic.
Musically, in Tosca Puccini broke new ground in representing the violent actions – torture, attempted rape, murder and execution – that pervade the drama, as well as in the darker emotions that these acts both engender and feed on. In portraying these dark situations and characters – notably the unforgettable evil police chief Scarpia – in his score, Puccini opened up novel areas of harmonic and orchestral expression.
To its first audiences Tosca represented a new kind of opera – one that was fast moving, realistic and violent, as well as deliberately shocking. Long before the term was coined, Puccini here created an operatic genre: the political thriller.
ritten’s Peter Grimes (1945)
In this evocative, bleak work, Britten ratchets up the tension within a small coastal village
Britten’s first full-scale opera premiered less than a month after Nazi Germany’s defeat. By the decade’s end it was a worldwide hit, and today remains one of the few English operas in the international repertory. Peter Grimes himself – an impractical dreamer with anger issues, whose bruised young apprentices have the unfortunate tendency of dying – is hardly the most sympathetic role.
Yet Britten’s sympathetic skill in writing for voices, honed over 15 years of songwriting, brings a gallery of very English characters vividly to life. What haunts the listener above all, though, is his evocation of the ever-present sea, evident from the very opening inquest: staccato woodwind, brisk and business-like, dominate the scene at first; yet when Grimes steps into the dock, soft, long-breathed string cadences suggest not only his introspective nature but also the rise and fall of waves on the beach outside.
Then, with the first Sea Interlude, we are outdoors and we hear the bright, keening sound of high strings, with the swell of low brass suggesting the power of the sea itself. This, and the chorus, forged from individuals at the village dance into an alarming, blood-lusting beast, are the ever-present ‘elemental forces’ which seal Grimes’s fate.
4) Berg’s Wozzeck (1925)
Serialism at its most expressive – a brutal tale told with mocking wit and extreme tenderness
Alban Berg’s expressionist first opera is as viscerally wrenching today as the audience found the premiere in Berlin in 1925 – and it remains as socio-politically radical; one of most powerfully incisive, influential works in the entire repertoire, relating the tragedy of an ordinary soldier who is driven to madness and brutal murder by the grotesque cruelty of his supposed superiors.
It was the erosion of humanity that Berg witnessed during and after World War I that drove him to adapt Georg Büchner’s seminal, unfinished 1837 play, Woyzeck, first staged in 1913. The resulting Wozzeck would prove to be one of the most searing portraits anywhere of a mind, a relationship and a society in harrowing collapse.
Wozzeck’s hallucinations of apocalypse become more than just metaphors, propelled by a lush, atonal score that is at once exquisitely orchestrated and rigorously structured in a kind of homage to classical forms; all the better to give heartrending voice, through Wozzeck and his equally doomed Marie, to a nightmare reality in which the poor and vulnerable are tormented and abandoned.
3) Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911)
Strauss’s opera may be stylistically old-school, but its music and vocal scoring are sublime
Why do so many people regard Der Rosenkavalier as a guilty pleasure? Is it because the highlights, like the title character Octavian’s Presentation of the Rose to young Sophie and the famous Trio, are too beautiful to be true? Strauss intended them that way, with the characters stepping out of time, but his first wholly original collaboration with the Viennese poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal is also shrewd and pointed.
Its often acidic wit contrasts with meditations on transience using as mouthpiece the central character of the Marschallin, the 32-year-old woman with whom the public identifies, and lending this ‘comedy for music’ a depth to match its most obvious model, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The plot, featuring a ridiculous older suitor and the teenage girl to be married off to him, a stylish young buck with an older woman as lover who comes along to save the girl, is drawn from Molière and other French sources. But Hofmannsthal in 1911 was creating a mythical Vienna that stretched from the nominal setting of the opera, the 1740s, up to the brink of the First World War; and Strauss, incorporating waltzes as well as some of the dissonances familiar from the opera’s contrasting predecessor, Elektra, composed his most encyclopedic masterpiece of a score.
2) Puccini’s La bohème (1896)
Close, but no cigar, though Puccini’s romantic opera is still a masterclass in story-telling
La bohème is about as perfect as an opera can be. It’s concise, it’s packed with delicious melody and it’s about being young and in love. And even better, young love undone by death. Like Romeo and Juliet, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the best die young, thus robbing age of its wrinkled victory. We weep for ourselves in the closing bars of the opera when Rodolfo suddenly realises that Mimì has gone. And woe betide the theatre that brings up the houselights too soon.
If the drama is taut then the score is as expansive as anything Puccini composed. The duet for the young lovers that closes Act I is a masterclass in creating character through music and in manipulating an audience’s feelings. Musetta’s waltz at the Café Momus is as teasing as the woman herself. But almost better is the sequence of numbers in Act III at the Barrière d’Enfer, the farewell duet for Mimì and Rodolfo, then Musetta and Marcello quarrelling that effortlessly slips into the quartet, ‘Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina’.
How does Puccini do it? With short musical themes that define each of his characters and their worlds and which – master orchestrator that he was – are conjured back into the score in a way that makes them sound the same but always different.
1) Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786)
Brilliantly conceived characters and ensemble writing grab Mozart’s comedy the top slot
Coming in at No. 1 is one of the supreme masterpieces of operatic comedy, whose rich sense of humanity shines out of Mozart’s miraculous score.
The Marriage of Figaro’s intricate plot follows four of the principal characters from The Barber of Seville a few years down the line. Both operas are based on plays by the French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais which quickly became classics despite their incendiary political content: these problems were particularly acute in Le Mariage de Figaro, which was widely banned due to its criticism of the nobility.
Having relocated to Vienna from his native Salzburg in 1782 to further his career, Mozart was determined to show the Emperor Joseph II, his court and the entire Imperial capital what he could do with a comic Italian libretto, teaming up with the poet attached to the city’s opera house, Lorenzo da Ponte.
According to Da Ponte, it was the composer’s idea to make an opera of Figaro, the most controversial play of its time. After the Emperor had given it the go-ahead, the work was premiered in Vienna on 1 May 1786 and has been entertaining audiences since.
As usual, Mozart introduces his opera with an overture, and while it uses none of the opera’s subsequent material, it perfectly defines the general mood of the piece with its Presto tempo marking and busy, bustling orchestral writing suggesting the constant whispering and intrigue during the course of what Beaumarchais’s full title – La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro – calls a
All of the main characters are given memorable arias, including Bartolo’s furious ‘La vendetta’, in which he swears vengeance on Figaro in Gilbert & Sullivan-like comic patter; Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’, in which the rapid fluttering of his vocal line indicates his constant emotional and sexual excitement; the Countess’s sorrow-laden ‘Porgi amor’, whose shapely melodic line traces the depths of her feeling of abandonment; and the Count’s ‘Vedrò mentre io sospiro’, in which his aristocratic fury at Figaro’s challenge to his entitlement is banged out in firm rhythms and grand triplet roulades.
Figaro is unusually rich in ensembles, where the test for the composer is to maintain individual vocal character and specific individual emotions while the other characters are singing something entirely different – a trick Mozart pulls off with flying colours, notably in the sextet in the trial scene in Act III that was Mozart’s own favourite piece in his score.
But it is in the two big finales that end the second and fourth acts that Mozart brings his skills in ensemble writing to an apogee rarely equalled – even by him. Here his music reflects each tiny twist and turn of the plot, reaching extraordinary heights of complexity as the audience experiences every fleeting emotion that the individual characters are feeling; few operatic comedies can match Figaro’s combination of wit with emotional truth.
Words by: John Allison, Oliver Condy, Christopher Cook, Elinor Cooper, Rebecca Franks, George Hall, Daniel Jaffé, David Nice, Anna Picard, Jeremy Pound and Steph Power.