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The Top Ten Greatest Operas by Stephen M. Klugewicz

The Top Ten Greatest Operas

by Stephen M. Klugewicz

greatest operas

Don Giovanni

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, in the estimation of the present author. Spirited disagreement is expected and welcomed.

1. W.A. Mozart: Don Giovanni

Kierkegaard called it the greatest work of art ever created by man.  At a time when opera was eitherbuffa 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.

Watch the legendary Cecilia Bartoli play Donna Elvira, one in a long line of women wronged by the merciless Giovanni, as she sings about cutting out the heart of the reprobate:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV8xs0_F3W

2. 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 is the “Aria of the Wind” in a dream performance, sung by Renee Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLtqZewjwgA

3. W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)

Sometimes known as his “Masonic opera,” Mozart’s German singspiel (“sung play”) surely draws on Masonic rites and imagery. Whether the Catholic Mozart meant to convey a Masonic message is debatable, however.  Condemned by the Pope, the Order seemed to appeal to  Mozart more for its social networking opportunities than for its esoteric philosophy. Concocted with the singer/actor/impresario of the Theater an der Wien, Emmanuel Shikaneder, it was meant to appeal to the common people of Vienna, and thus it is doubtful that Mozart and his collaborator would have subordinated box office success to didactic moralizing. The opera masterfully juxtaposes the bucolic, jaunty tunes of the bird-catcher Papageno with the more noble music of Prince Tamino and the leader of a mysterious order, Sarastro. The opera champions human love, the virtues of obedience and patience and celebrates the triumph of truth and light over darkness and falsehood. These ideas are every bit as Christian/Catholic as they are Masonic.

This is the one opera I can stomach in translation and with some modern staging; after all, Mozart wrote it in the vernacular for his Viennese audience, and its fantastical elements allow for more leeway in terms of visuals. Here is Nathan Gunn singing the role of the simple-minded, lovesick bird-catcher, Papageno: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2NxvM-rIkQ

4.  W.A. Mozart: Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)

Often overshadowed by its sister singspielThe Magic Flute, “this rescue opera” is equally delightful and just as profound, full of high spirits and deep feeling. The predecessor of the other three great Mozart operas included here, it 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 Englishmen 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, one of the Englishman, talks a Moorish guard into getting drunk. “Don’t worry, Mohammed isn’t looking!”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLfU4vE9Dxw

5.  Georges Bizet: Carmen

It is amazing that musical snobs still turn up their noses at this great opera.  Based on ProsperMérimée’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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdBppuDRncE

6.  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.

Even the post-modern, Euro-trash staging of this production cannot diminish the glorious music of Berlioz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3lpxazJw0c

7. Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

greatest operas


Though eros can reflect God’s love, it can also destroy when pursued to the exclusion of all else. This is the theme of Berlioz’s Faust, based on Goethe’s famous story. Though not technically an opera, it can and has been staged as one, most memorably in a recent production by the Metropolitan Opera. Faust, bored with the limits of his humanistic philosophical pursuits, is tempted by Mephistopheles to pour all his desires into the possession of the fetching Marguerite. Faust becomes consumed by erotic desire and finally sells his soul to the Devil to save Marguerite from death. In the climactic “Ride to the Abyss,” Mephistopheles leads Faust to his doom in the depths of Hell. The gloom of the denouement is relieved only by Berlioz’s altering of Goethe by having the murdered Marguerite’s soul ascend to Heaven.

As of this writing, the Met performance—otherwise unavailable—has been posted on YouTube in totohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0uXoFJ691M. Go to 2 hours and 2 minutes in to watch the climactic scene in which Faust consigns his soul to Mephistopheles, and the two ride together on horseback to Faust’s final damnation.

8.  Antonio Vivaldi: Juditha Triumphans

One of the greatest tragedies of musical history is that three of Vivaldi’s four oratorios have never been found. Only when one hears this setting of the Book of Judith can the magnitude of this loss be appreciated. Vivaldi wrote the oratorio, which describes Israel’s resistance to Assyrian invasion, to celebrate Venice’s contemporary victory over Turkish aggression; the victorious Venetian commander was in the audience at the work’s premier.  Though the story is one of good versus evil, it achieves greatness due to Vivaldi’s humanizing of the barbarian leader Holofernes, whose head is ultimately cut off by the cunning and brave Judith. Like Berlioz’ FaustJuditha is not technically an opera, but its dramatic force has allowed for it to be staged as one.

Sample the opening chorus of the barbarian invaders from a performance that accurately employs exclusively female vocalists. (Vivaldi wrote the piece for the girls of his orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, where he worked as musical director): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0quC0pLai8

greatest operas


9. Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

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 (go to 8:20 in this clip):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofr9QFEUkv4

10. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V07hMpnebs0

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Klugewicz may be found here.

Dr. Stephen Klugewicz is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and president of Franklin’s Opus, which educates teachers across the country about history and the principles of the American republic.  He is also the co-editor of History, on Proper Principles: Essays in Honor of Forrest McDonald, and a frequent contributor to various online journals.

2 Responses

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