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Carmen

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 places 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. Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust

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.

Here are highlights from the superb staging by the Met:

 

8. 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 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. “Don’t worry, Mohammed isn’t looking!”

 

7. 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.

 

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:

 

5. 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:

 

4. 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:

 

3. 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 gypsyThe 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:

 

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 at 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:

 

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstorePlease note that the author has revised this list since this essay was originally published.

 

 

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45 replies to this post
  1. Any thoughts from Dr Klugewicz are cause for joy. But he proves that personal tastes in opera are, well, personal. Four Mozarts before anything else? No Wagner whatsoever? And were it not for No. 9, as the old joke goes, it would be enough to turn Verdi green! Yet grateful we remain for a tasteful selection, insightful criticism and his dependably choice links. I’m listening; but I’m the grumpy guy in the corner wearing the horned helmet and clutching Shirley the Valkyrie in her tin brassiere!

    • I’d be sitting next to you, not because I like Wagner but just because you sound like a fun guy.

      My problem with the list is that my favorite opera isn’t on it: Madame Butterfly.

      But I’m not an opera buff (yet) and will check our library’s catalog for the ones that are.

      (I watched Barber of Seville last night, with Maria Ewing as Rosina. Delightful!)

  2. Steve Masty has fired the first shot! I stand by my choices, sir, including that of placing four operas by Mozart first on the list. Considered by many to be the greatest composer who ever lived, his operas are also often held to be his supreme achievement. Keep in mind that this is not a list of the most popular operas of all time. This exercise by its nature is a personal one that inherently raises the question as to where the line between personal taste and the objective judgment of beauty lies. In regard to Wagner, I am no Wagner-hater and indeed admire some of his orchestral music. However, I cannot place any of his operas on a par with the ten I have chosen, despite their popularity and influence. I am glad that you found something to enjoy here nonetheless. Perhaps a listen to the rollicking “Abduction” will serve as a balm for your grumpiness?

  3. I approve of giving the top four to Mozart. But I object to leaving out Così fan tutte. Così is certainly greater than Entführung, and arguably greater than Figaro. Così fan tutte is the most subtle of Mozart’s operas; a musician’s opera.

    This would be my top ten:

    1. Don Giovanni

    2. Così fan tutte

    3. Die Zauberflöte

    4. Le Nozze di Figaro

    5. Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (actually four operas, but it is so united musically that I shall count it as one)

    6. Wagner, Parsifal

    7. Beethoven, Fidelio (the world’s most underrated opera)

    8. Richard Strauss, Rosenkavelier (the ultimate Viennese opera)

    9 Richard Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten

    10. Vivaldi, Farnace

    Alas there was no room for Monteverdi, or for the inexplicably underrated operas of Hayden…

    • We’re one of a kind, and no one would ever dare say that Don Giovanni is not the greatest opera ever. Kierkegaard was a fan, or was it just his character in Either/Or? Anyway, he does a terrific analysis of it in that book; the section called The Immediate Stages of the Erotic I believe.

      • I don’t think Don Giovanni is superior to some Wagner operas such as Tannhäuser or Götterdämmerung. I don’t think Mozart was better than Wagner, although Wagner was not greater than Mozart either. Their greatnesses, each in his own way, were essentially equal, or at least incommensurate. There’s no question that Don Giovanni is one of the greatest operas ever. There may be none greater. But it is not unequalled. St. Matthew’s Passion, an oratorio, is equally great in my opinion. Such rankings are extremely difficult. Was Bach better than Monteverdi? Monteverdi better than Purcell? Not in my mind. I am /not/ saying that there can be no rankings. Monteverdi was, imo, better and more innovative than lesser composers such as Halévy. Gluck was great, but surpassed by Wagner in terms of innovation. Verdi was better than Offenbach. I consider Tchaikovsky to have been better than Dvořák, although I am only familiar with Rusalka. But Can Verdi be considered greater than Tchaikovsky? Eugene Onegin and Pique Dame are both sublime. I love them! But Verdi’s Don Carlos, Rigoletto, and Aida are wonderful too. Based on what I’ve heard of these composers, I think Tchaikovsky comes close to Verdi.

  4. That is one sizzling Carmen performance! I have been suspicious of Steve’s taste in opera ever since he took all of us in his conference to a performance of Don Giovanni filled with black leather, in which Donna Elvira wielded a whip. Be that as it may, I would suggest that Puccini’s “La Boheme” certainly deserves a mention in the top ten as one of the best loved operas of all time.

  5. Fidelio really really has to be in the top 5, if the criteria for selection are anything to do with how these works portray the human condition, and engage the human spirit. The chorus when the prisoners come out of their cells is sublime.

  6. Nice list. I won’t complain about Mozart getting the top four, but I’d join sancrucensis and substitute Cosi for Entführung. I’ll avoid the issue of Wagner on the grounds that he wrote ‘music dramas’ and not operas, so he’s really a genre to himself. I do like grand Verdi and would have Aida and Don Carlo on my list, in place of your two by Berlioz (which I admit I don’t really know).

  7. Having developed an appreciation for opera while living in Vienna I was pleased to find a posting on this topic. I heartily agree with the top listing for many reasons, one relating to the full title (“The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni”). Relativism and secularism have taken their toll on the arts: a recent Swedish staging of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” recast the story as a whodunnit, wholly devoid of religious tones, and a Viennese production of “Rusalka” (an underrated opera in my view, worthy of top-10 consideration) rendered sin as . . . the failure to recycle. “Don Giovanni” ends with eternal damnation and the sense that justice was served. There is no moral ambiguity in either the libretto or the sublime music that Mozart composed for it, and for that reason the genius of this opera may well outlast political correctness.

  8. One point about Kierkegaard and Don Giovanni: I believe that Kierkegaard’s endorsement of Don Giovanni was a part of his book Either/Or. In particular it was part of the “Either” (first half) of the book, written in the voice of “The Seducer,” the person who lived the purely aesthetic life. The Seducer loved Don Giovanni because both The Seducer and Don Giovanni (Don Juan) were lovers of (or slaves to) sensuous passion. Kierkegaard did not believe everything he made The Seducer say, and portrayed him in a negative light at many times. So I would not say that Kierkegaard thought that Don Giovanni was the best ever, but rather that The Seducer did, as a practitioner of the purely aesthetic (as opposed to ethical or religious) life. Kierkegaard valued not only the aesthetic, but also (and arguably more) the ethical.

  9. Is there any difference here between “greatest” and “which I like the most”?

    La Boheme belongs on a list of top ten greats, beyond question. In its economy, dramatic power and ravishing melodies, it is close to perfect. I have pretty much the same feeling for Butterfly. The Abduction, though I love it, does not make it. It’s not even as good as Cosi Fan Tutte. (By the way, Belmonte and Pedrillo in the Abduction are Spanish, not English. The only Brit in the work is Blonde.) Thanks for the recommendation of the Vivaldi rarity.

  10. Re Brian Gill’s comments about Don Giovanni, am I the only person who thinks that Mozart is ambiguous about his hero? He’s the one with verve, sex appeal, and courage, and he has the great music. All the good guys and gals are wash-outs by comparison.

  11. To Mr. Grimm: Yes, you are of course correct re the nationalities of the main characters. My piece should read: “Two Spaniards set out to rescue . . . .” I addressed the question of personal taste in determining what is greatest/truest/most beautiful above in my reply to Mr. Masty above. To Mr. Tuckfield: Thank you for your illuminating comments re Kierkegaard.

  12. No Puccini on the list? Very sad indeed! I agree with another poster that La Boheme and Madame Butterfly are magnificent and would be on my list. However, I’m excited to see so much Mozart on the list! Thanks for the recommendations— I’ll have to acquaint myself with these Berlioz operas!

  13. No Wagner, no Monteverdi? I am surprised. L’Orfeo ranks in the top five, indeed the top three imo. And surely *some* Wagner opera ranks in the top ten. I also agree with the commenter who says that Verdi’s Don Carlo may be better than Traviata. I haven’t heard the Vivaldi listed, or the first Berlioz. But I think Wagner and Monteverdi were better composers than Vivaldi and Berlioz. My top ten:
    1. Gotterdamerung (Wagner)
    2. L’Orfeo (Monteverdi)
    3. Don Giovanni
    4. Tannhauser (Wagner)
    5. Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
    6. The Fairy Queen (Purcell)
    7. Die Meistersingers von Nurberg (Wagner)
    8. Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck)
    9. Figaro
    10. King Arthur (Purcell)

    It is painful to make such a list. So, so many operas are great. And my tastes change over time and as I listen to different operas. I am ranking these based on good performances of them. An excellent performance of Iphigenie may be better than a poor performance of Don Giovanni. When comparing composers as such, and not particular operas, I think some opera composers were equally great. I would include in these Wagner and Mozart, and possibly Monteverdi and Purcell. As you can see, I am a fan of the Baroque (Monteverdi, Purcell). If oratorios were included there would, with certainty, be some Bach in the list. Technically the Purcells listed are semi-operas. And as such they are even greater. But they’re usually performed or at least recorded just in the musical portions.

    • So you are a big fan of baroque operas AND orations, yet leave Handel’s masterworks completely. I think this is outrageous! Handel went a step further than Purcell in English Choral Music and he was the undeniably supreme genius of the oratorio genre. Technically, Bach’s passions are not oratorios per se, and they are however much more inaccessible to the public, more introspective and heavy, than Handel’s ones.

  14. When I think of opera it is “grand opera” on my mind, and among the grandest of the grand I would have to name Don Giovanni, Aida, Carmen, Boris Godunov, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde as the most outstanding for me. But lists are subjective, are they not?

  15. Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal & Goetterdammerung should be in the list. Even though considered a different type of opera for Wagner himself, they are essentially operas, and represent the perfection of the genre. About Fidelio is such a beautifull music piece, but a shame over the plot and libretto so it is not worthy of a top ten.

  16. Thanks for this. Glad to have found this site. I might have added a bit more Verdi & Puccini, though. Cheers!

  17. My favourite opera is La Traviata. Therefore I was surprised to find it absent from any of the Top 10 lists featured above or even any of the educated comments. This suggests that I know nothing about opera at all.

  18. All lists of this nature are interesting. This one including 2 operas composed by Berlioz is the most unique I’ve ever seen. I can’t personally imagine a list without Eugene Onegin, Lucia, or Norma. But taste is taste and if I’m honest I Puritani is as high on my list as anything. Traviata is as good as it gets although I prefer Rigoletto and even Trovatore from that period of Verdi’s. I’m not sure how to include Entfuehrung but leave out Walkuere?

  19. Well, somebody likes Mozart! Thank you for compiling this – I really enjoyed your video clips – but a top ten list cannot be without Boito’s Mephistopheles (WAY superior to Berlioz’s Faust), Cavalleria Rusticana, and Eugene Onegin. And there is a sad lack of Puccini and bel canto in your list! Plus Traviata is so overdone – albeit beautiful – that I’m personally sick of it…

  20. Mozart, only four out of ten you say?
    I’m being a smart-arse. But me thinks you err 6 & 1; flip them and you’ve got it about perfect.
    Sincerely, what would our wonderful world of music be had the fellow lived another five years? He was venturing into the Romantic style in his last symphonies.
    And the same for Bizet. What exuberance set free!

    I have a question that I cannot find the answer to:
    There was another composer, slightly younger? than Mozart, who’s music was claimed, I read, to be very good and often his performances were advertised as being Mozart’s music. Mozart seemed not to mind. I believe they were acquainted. However, we do not hear much of this composer. Does this ring a bell with anyone? One of his names began with a ‘C’, I think.
    Namaste and care,
    mhikl

  21. Choosing only 10 doesn’t leave you a lot of options. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Rigoletto. I grew up thinking that was considered one of the greatest operas ever.

    • Rigoletto is a great opera. It’s the opera I cut my teeth on when I first started listening to opera in the early ’90s. But I “overlistened” to it and now have a hard time listening to it, except in performance.

  22. Gotterdemmerung, Boris, Moses und Aron and La Boheme would be on my list.

    Then also possibly a Janacek opera. Along with a Mozart or two, Verdi, Carmen, possibly a Handel or Dido and Aeneas.

  23. I agree about Purcell. Dido & Aeneas is excellent. But for a top ten list I would use one of Purcell’s semi-operas, either King Arthur (the British Worthy), or the Fairy Queen (a blend of opera, dance, and drama). Both are excellent. They are longer and, imo, better, at least in some respects, than Dido & Aeneas. Hændel’s operas are, imo, also excellent, although they are SO numerous (he wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios) that I think he must have recycled music in some parts of them. Almost all of his English-language works are oratorios, not operas, although some have become part of the opera repertoire. Of his operas, I have listened to Aggripina, Giulio Cesare, Alessandro Severo, Siroe Re di Persia, Alcina, and Rinaldo. Of Händel’s oratorios I have listened to Hercules, Saul, Messiah, Israel in Egypt, and The Triumph of Time & Truth. I have also listened to his masque Acis & Galatea, and Parnasso in Festa, a festa teatrale, a form also called a “serenata”, a type of Italian opera intended as entertainment to celebrate a festive royal or state occasion. I think Giulio Cesare would most belong on the top-ten list. (If one were to include an oratorio, the overpowering figure of Bach comes into play and demands a place on any informed listener’s top ten list.) So, I think Baroque opera deserves a place. But I’m not sure Vivaldi cuts it against the likes of Monteverdi, Händel, and Purcell. And let’s not forget the French Baroque (Rameau, Lully). This list is heavily weighted to the Romantic period, with six of ten operas being from that period, if you include The Barber of Seville in the Romantic period.

    • On a related but slightly different theme, what are your favourite BAROQUE operas or oratorios? Interestingly, some of the best Baroque works are based on the story of Orpheus and Euridice, a story little known today. In my favourites I would include Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo; Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo; Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (often said to be the first Baroque opera or even the first opera); Giulio Caccini’s L’Euridice; and Jean-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers. On other themes, I would include Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; Purcell’s King Arthur; Händel’s Alcina; Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (after the comédie by Molière); Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater; and Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie.

  24. Verdi and Wagner should be up there. I went to see Don Carlos just last night at the Vienna Opera house. Stunning.

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