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Top 10 Operas to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

An opera is a dramatic stage composition for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, usually in two or more acts. Opera differs from other forms of classical music in that it merges theatrical performance with musical prowess. In a successful opera production, acting, directing, singing, conducting, and orchestal playing to create a dramatic spectacle that can move audiences to laughter or to tears -- sometimes all within the same production.

A typical opera begins with an orchestral prelude or overture, in which we hear previews of the music to come. The story is then presented in a series of recitatives, arias, and choruses. Recitative is a style of singing that is meant to reflect the accents and inflections of ordinary speech. It is usually sung by one person or as a dialogue, and the orchestral accompinament is sparse. The text of a recitative usually contributes to the action of the drama. The text of an aria, on the other hand, usually consists of one character examining at length his or her feelings about a particular character or subject; many of the greatest arias are about love. The aria shows off the singer's skill and is usually lushly orchestrated. Duets, trios, and other small ensemble numbers are similar to arias musically, and their text may be either dramatic or reflective. Finally, choruses feature a large group of singers, often representing a crowd, that enters at particularly dramatic moments. Most opera acts have large choral finales.

Opera was invented around 1600 by a group of Italian intellectuals who believed that the most effective way to present dramatic poetry was to sing it. Within a few decades opera had become phenomenally popular in Italy, and by 1700 it had spread to all corners of Europe. In this period the primary function of opera was to provide a venue for singers to showcase their virtuosity, so operas were filled with long, repetetive arias and dramatic plots were nearly nonexistent. Around 1750 some composers decided that operatic music's real purpose was to serve the poetry and advance the plot; this "opera reform" movement paved the way for the great operas of Mozart, which combine complex dramatic poetry with the composer's genius for drawing musical pictures.

During the nineteenth century operas tended to be either spectacular historical dramas featuring battles and crowd scenes, or tender romantic stories, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. The two giants of nineteenth-century opera were Giuseppe Verdi in Italy and Richard Wagner in Germany. Verdi's twenty-six operas perfected Italy's long operatic tradition while introducing some nationalist elements, whereas Wagner's revolutionary "music dramas" combined legendary characters and continuous action with experimental harmonies that foreshadowed twentieth-century music. In the twentieth century opera, like all other forms of music, became a medium for new harmonies and styles. Great modern opera composers include Leos Janácek, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, and John Adams.

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1 Bizet: Carmen -- Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo, Claudio Abbado
The world's most popular opera. Review...

2 Mozart: Don Giovanni -- Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Carlo Maria Giulini
Mozart casting himself as a Don Juan? Review...

3 Verdi: La Traviata -- Angela Gheorghiu, Sir Georg Solti
The most heart-wrenching tragic ending in opera history. Review...

4 Wagner: Tristan and Isolde -- Kirsten Flagstad, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Legendary music drama. Review...

5 Puccini: La Bohème -- Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert von Karajan
The timeless classic of true love that inspired a Broadway sensation. Review...

6 Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk -- Galina Vishnevskaya, Mstislav Rostropovich
A dark psychological portrait of a tortured woman. Review...

7 Purcell: Dido and Aeneas -- Dame Janet Baker, Anthony Lewis
The undisputed masterpiece of Baroque opera. Review...

8 Mozart: The Magic Flute -- Fritz Wunderlich, Karl Böhm
Fantasy and fairytale in ancient Egypt. Review...

9 Bellini: Norma -- Maria Callas, Tullio Serafin
The opera that made Maria Callas. Review...

10 Rossini: The Barber of Seville -- Hermann Prey, Claudio Abbado
Figaro Figaro Figaro Fiiiiiiiiiiiigaro! Review...

11 Verdi: Aida -- Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, Erich Leinsdorf
An Egyptian princess has to make the ultimate choice. Review...

12 Gounod: Faust -- Dame Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge
Making a pact with the Devil is always bad news. Review...

 

Georges Bizet: Carmen
Teresa Berganza, soprano (Carmen); Plácido Domingo, tenor (Don José); Ileana Cotrubas, soprano (Mecaëla); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Escamillo); Claudio Abbado, London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers

Carmen has everything one could possibly want in an opera -- catchy tunes, lush orchestration, and a tragic love triangle -- so it is no wonder that it is the world's most popular opera. The opera’s soap opera plot confronts the three great topics of scandalous drama: passionate love, unforgivable betrayal, and violent revenge. At the center of the story is Carmen, a gorgeous but manipulative gypsy girl whose strong will and passion lead her to trouble and scandal.  This title role is the most coveted of mezzo-sopranos worldwide and demands intense strength and skill to perform.  With famous arias like the Toreador song “Votre toast” and Carmen’s “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” Carmen is the perfect introduction to opera, for even a novice will recognize many of the melodies. Until Sir Thomas Beecham's classic recording is rereleased, our top recommendation is Claudio Abbado's 1977 version, featuring Teresa Berganza as an attractive and haunting Carmen and Plácido Domingo in his prime as Don José.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni, K. 527
Eberhard Wächter, baritone (Don Giovanni); Giuseppe Taddei, baritone (Leporello); Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano (Elvira); Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano (Anna); Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

Few operas are as closely tied with the life of the composer as Mozart's Don Giovanni.  Written in the year of Mozart's father's death, Don Giovanni tells the story of a playboy hero-villain who must come to terms with himself and the ghost of a father figure, the Commendatore.  Many scholars have speculated that Mozart represented his relationship with his father through Don Giovanni and the Commendatore.  In the opera, Don Giovanni is a likable villain who woos innocent women only to break their hearts.  His lowly servant Leporello is the unrewarded accomplice on all his conquests.  The three main women, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina, represent honor and goodness, and in the end they urge Don Giovanni to repent his sins.  While the Commendatore's ghost is a threat to Don Giovanni, we soon discover that the biggest threat to the title character is himself.  The opera's highlights include the duet "La ci darem la mano," and Leporello's aria cataloguing Don Giovanni's conquests. Carlo Maria Giulini's classic performance featuring superstars Elisabeth Schwartzkopf and Dame Joan Sutherland is the standard by which all subsequent recordings have been judged.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
 
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Violetta); Frank Lopardo, tenor (Alfredo); Leo Nucci, baritone (Germont); Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Featuring the most heart-wrenching tragic ending in operatic history, La Traviata is a love story between the courtesan Violetta Valery and her young admirer Alfredo Germont.  Following the script of many age-old tales of true love, Violetta and Alfredo try desperately to protect their love in the face of circumstances that threaten to tear them apart. Full of misunderstandings, emotional turmoil, and outlandish drama, Verdi's masterpiece has been performed thousands of times by the best artists of each era, including Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, and Maria Callas.  As one of the most famous operas in the world, La Traviata is sure to give many newcomers to opera a shock: many musical motifs popularized in modern-day entertainment originated in this opera. Angela Gheorghiu has made the part of Violetta entirely her own, and Sir Georg Solti never lets the intensity falter. This performance is also available on DVD.

Similar works: Top 10 Verdi, Top 10 Romantic
 
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Isolde); Ludwig Sathaus, tenor (Tristan); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Kurwenal); Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor

Richard Wagner's "music dramas" combine poetry, scenic design, action, and music to form what Wagner called a "total artwork."  To enchance the dramatic effect, Wagner wrote his own stories and took his characters from Germanic mythology. Tristan, Wagner's greatest opera, is set in medieval Britain. The knight Tristan has been sent to fetch the Irish princess Isolde, who will marry Tristan's uncle, the King of Cornwall.  Tristan had killed Isolde's lover, and when they meet again Isolde attempts to kill both Tristan and herself.  However, her servant Brangäne has replaced the death potion with a love potion, and the two fall helplessly in love.  As the drama develops, Tristan and Isolde come to realize the futility of their love, leading to the opera's tragic ending.  Though filled with memorable singing, the opera is most famous for its orchestration. T he orchestral Prelude and Isolde's Liebestod (Death Song) are routinely played in concert halls, and Wagner's innovative scoring throughout the work foreshadows musical developments fifty years before they became widespread. Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 performance featuring the commanding Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde is the most electrifying four hours of opera ever committed to record. If you want to see the action as well as hear it, Karl Böhm's historic 1973 performance with Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson in the title roles has now been released on DVD.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
 
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Mirella Freni, soprano (Mimi); Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Rodolfo); Elisabeth Harwood, (Musetta); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Marcello); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Colline); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Schöneberg Boys Choir, Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

The music, plot, characters, and environment of La Bohème represent the Romantic Era in complete and full flavor. As starving artists in Paris around 1830, the roommates Rodolfo and Marcello and their friends Colline and Schaunard yearn to find love in their art and lives while trying to survive under impoverished circumstances. Daunted by their lovers, the endearing Mimi and fickle Musetta, Rodolfo and Marcello undergo a series of woes in their romantic affairs. The story follows the group of friends through several months, as they band together to fight the enemies of loneliness and depression.  However, they soon discover the real enemy is something they cannot overcome even with love, which leads to one of the most tragic endings of all time. In recent years, La Bohème has enjoyed a surge of revivals: in 1996, Rent, a Broadway musical adaptation of La Bohème, emerged as a phenomenon, and in 2001, Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge, revived La Bohème as a "pop opera" on Broadway. Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti give a passonate performance as Mimi and Rodolfo, and Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic wonderfully.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
 
Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Op. 29
Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano (Katarina); Nikolai Gedda, tenor (Sergei), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Many operas focus on a central female character, her choices, and the undeniable consequences of those choices, but Lady Macbeth does all this but to an unsettling degree. Following in the steps of remarkably few operas, Shostakovich's most famous opera is a dark psychological thriller that reaches deep into the mind of one woman and her quest for acceptance and love.  The opera is so powerful that when Josef Stalin saw it for the first time in 1936, he declared it dangerous and banned it from the Soviet stage.  At the center of the story is Katerina Ismailova, an unsatisfied, abused wife of the impotent businessman Zinovy.  When her father-in-law Boris discovers her affair with the hired hand Sergei, Katerina is driven to kill both Boris and Zinovy.   At the end of the opera, Katerina is sent to Siberia, only to find that Sergei's love was a façade.  Shostakovich's music is spectacular, exposing raw emotions of passion, pain, frustration and regret.  A unique addition to the world of opera in Lady Macbeth is an in-your-face brass ensemble that takes the stage at key moments of unbridled, vivid passion. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya -- probably the greatest Katarina ever -- sings her heart out in this legendary recording led by her husband Mstislav Rostropovich.

Similar works: Top 10 Twentieth Century
 
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Janet Baker, alto (Dido); Raymond Herincx, bass (Aeneas); St. Anthony Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Anthony Lewis, conductor

The first great opera written in English, Dido and Aeneas is also one of the shortest full operas ever written, running less than an hour.  A period piece of Greek mythology composed in the Baroque age, Purcell's minimal libretto leaves much interpretation to each specific production, and performances can range from simple to grand. Adapted from part of Vergil's story Aeneid, the opera follows the main character, Dido, the sullen queen of Carthage, through her love affair with Aeneas, a Trojan prince.  Witches and spirits present complications for the lovers, and the antagonists ultimately lead Dido and Aeneas to destruction and despair, a tragic ending unusual for seventeenth-century opera. Particularly notable is Dido's moving lament, "When I am laid in earth." Under the direction of Anthony Lewis, Dame Janet Baker sings the most beautiful Dido on record and Raymond Herincx brings the thinly drawn Aeneas to life. For a more authentic Baroque recording, it's hard to go wrong with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque
 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K. 620
Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Tamino); Evelyn Lear, soprano (Pamina); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Papageno); Roberta Peters, soprano (Queen of the Night); Franz Crass, bass (Sarasto); RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm, conductor

The last opera Mozart completed before his death, The Magic Flute is a comical ensemble piece that presents allegory and irony beyond its fairytale plot.  Enjoyable on both a level of entertainment and a level of social commentary, the opera explores timeless topics of religion, love, racism, revenge, and good versus evil.  The Egyptian prince Tamino, and his half-bird, half-man friend Papageno are sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue the princess Pamina from the seemingly evil ruler Sarastro.  However, things are not always what they seem, and the plot twists as the protagonists face challenge after challenge.  Mozart's wit and humor shine throughout the story line, as musical instruments become tools of magic, wooing foes to sleep and taming wild animals. Highlights of the opera include the Queen's two stunning arias, Pamina's famous tragic aria, "Ach, ich fuhl's," and gorgeous duet interplay between the lovers. One could not ask for a better Tamino-Papageno pair than Fritz Wunderlich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Karl Böhm's recording. For a cast in which the women outshine the men, Otto Klemperer's version is the first choice: Gandula Janowitz is a radiant Pamina, and Lucia Popp effortlessly reaches the stratospheric heights of the Queen of the Night's arias.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
 
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Maria Callas, soprano (Norma); Franco Corelli, tenor (Sever); Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano (Adalgisa); La Scala Chorus and Orchestra, Tullio Serafin, conductor

The opera and role that made a legend out of Maria Callas, Norma was also the masterpiece of Vincenzo Bellini's career.  The title role is considered the most difficult role in the soprano repertoire, and very few singers have risen to the challenge with success.  Set in the mystical age of Druid magic, before the rule of the Romans, Norma tells a tale of forbidden love between the astrologer Norma and the Roman proconsul Sever.  When Adalgisa, a priestess, turns their affair into a dangerous love triangle, all reason runs awry.   The opera is the foremost example of Bellini's bel canto style that so enchanted Liszt and Chopin that they based their piano style on Bellini's long melodic lines. Highlights include Norma's aria "Casta diva" and the gorgeous lyrical duets between Norma and Adalgisa. While Maria Callas's 1954 mono recording features the star's voice at its best, we recommend the 1960 stereo version for its better sound, superior acting, and stellar supporting cast.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
 
Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
Teresa Berganza, mezzo soprano (Rosina); Luigi Alva, tenor (Almaviva); Hermann Prey, bass (Figaro); London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, conductor

This innocent, playful, and charming opera is based on the first part of Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy.  Newcomers will delight in the fact that the common childhood chant "Figaro Figaro Figaro" is in fact referring to this Figaro, the self-absorbed barber and servant to Count Almaviva.  The opera tells the story of the wealthy Count, who has fallen in love with a commoner, Rosina, and chased her from Madrid to Seville.  Disguised as the poor student Lindoro, the Count woos Rosina away from her ridiculously dim-witted guardian Doctor Bartolo and his accomplice Don Basilio.  Through schemes and escapades of the Count proving his love for Rosina, the characters get in a mess of disguises, mistaken identities, and emotional entanglements.  The lighthearted and youthful nature of the characters shines through the music, especially in Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" and Figaro's "Largo al factotum." Teresa Berganza gives a good portrayal of Rosina's part as Rossini wrote it, and the others in the cast sing well under Abbado's attentive direction.  For many years Rosina was sung by a soprano who could ornament the written part with higher notes, and Roberta Peters in this role brings a fine sparkle to Erich Leinsdorf's recording.

Similar works: Top 10 Classical
 
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Leontyne Price, soprano (Aida); Plácido Domingo, tenor (Radamès); Grace Bumbry, mezzo soprano (Amneris); London Symphony Orchestra, John Alldis Choir, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

Verdi's Aida is at once opera at both its most grand and its most personal. The opera tells the story of an Ethiopian princess caught between the two men in her life: her lover Radamès, prince of Egypt, and her father Amonasro, king of Ethiopia. Amonasro commands the Ethiopian armies in their battle against Radamès and the Egyptians, and Aida and Radamès must both make the ultimate choice of whether to betray their love for their respective countries. The lovers' decision -- and the tragedy that ensues -- makes for a supremely gripping story. Verdi's music ranges from the delicate (Radamès's aria "Celeste Aida") to the bombastic (the Grand March, which accompanies the entrance of the Egyptian army and, in some productions, their elephants). Leontyne Price and Plácido Domingo are two of the greatest Verdi interpreters on record, and they come together in this stellar recording led by Erich Leinsdorf.

Similar works: Top 10 Verdi, Top 10 Romantic
 
Charles Gounod: Faust
Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano (Marguerite); Franco Corelli, tenor (Faust); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Mephistophélès); Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Bonynge, conductor

Many operas have been composed to the legendary story of Goethe's Faust, but none has enjoyed the success of Charles Gounod's adaptation. Written in 1859, Faust roused Parisian audiences from opening night and had been performed more than one thousand times by the time of the composer's death in 1893. Incorporating scenes from both parts of Goethe's story, the opera tells the tale of Dr. Faustus, who makes a pact with the Devil (Mephistopheles) in exchange for youth and power.  The innocent maiden Marguerite plays the Devil's bait, and Faust falls deeply in love with her at first sight.   Against the backdrop of a war in France, Mephistopheles wreaks havoc on the lovers and ensures Faust's demise. The luscious music of the Romantic age is exemplified by the famous arias "Le veau d'or," Marguerite's "Ah! Je ris," and Faust's "Salut! demeure." Richard Bonynge is skilled at making grand opera in the traditional French style, and this recording's stellar cast throw themselves into the performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic