Top 50 operas
These operas span four centuries and give a flavour of repertoire’s huge range and variety
Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian
Claudio Monteverdi Mantua, Italy, c1607
With a mythological musician as hero, L’Orfeo ranks as the first great opera. Monteverdi was the “founding father” of operatic form. Euridice dies from a snake bite. The sorrowful Orpheus, through his music, tries to save her from the Underworld. A popular operatic subject (Gluck, Jaques Offenbach, Philip Glass), L’Orfeo is emotional, melancholy and transcendent.
2 Dido and Aeneas
Henry Purcell London, UK, 1689
A lone English operatic success until the 20th century, Dido recounts the tale of the tragic Queen of Carthage and her love for Aeneas, inconveniently en route to found a new Troy. In addition to sailors and witches, Purcell gave us one of the most sublime laments in opera: Dido’s When I Am Laid in Earth.
3 Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar)
George Frideric Handel London, UK, 1724
An epic of love and war often considered Handel’s finest work, Giulio Cesare has a richly intricate plot and the bonus of a brilliantly characterised and outrageously seductive Cleopatra (see Glyndebourne’s Opus Arte DVD with the dancing Danielle de Niese as Cleo). Caesar, written for castrato, is often sung by a countertenor. Other good Handel: Rinaldo, Radamisto, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alcina.
4 Serse (Xerxes)
Handel London, UK, 1738
Opens with one of Handel’s best known arias, Ombra Mai Fu, sung by Serse, King of Persia, in honour of a plane tree and its shade. A plot of jealousy, infidelity and treachery results in a cocktail of bravura music. ENO’s 1992 production by Nicholas Hytner helped put Handel’s operas back on the map.
5 Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice)
Christoph Willibald Gluck Vienna, Austria, 1762
Written in Italian, this intense drama was later revised as the French Orphée. A mix of old and new styles, poised at the birth of Romanticism, this is regarded as one of the key operas of the 18th century. Maria Callas made J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice a stand-alone hit.
6 I domeneo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Munich, Germany, 1781
Not one of the composer’s best known, this opera seria is treasured by Mozartians as containing some of his greatest operatic music, hinting at glories yet to come. Despite its imperfections as drama and a too neat happy ending, Mozart’s retelling of the story of the King of Crete forced to sacrifice his son has slowly earned its status as a masterpiece.
7 Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1786
Together with Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte, which make up Mozart’s trio of masterpieces with libretti by Da Ponte, Figaro is for many the perfect opera: a balance of wit, humanity and astounding, glorious music. Others find it too long, and the garden scene dreary. The Queen called it “the one about the [lost] pin”.
8 Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
Mozart Vienna, Austria, 1791
The monstrous Queen of the Night, the birdcatcher Papageno, lovers, philosophy, Freemasonry – The Magic Flute has it all. The music is ravishing, some of it probably familiar. Its prominent use of dialogue makes it a challenge to stage. Despite appearances, it’s not as easy for children as it may look; wait a while. Mozart died only weeks after completing it.
9 Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
Gioachino Rossini Rome, Italy, 1816
Pure, inane, fizzing delight, ferociously difficult to sing: The Barber of Seville, written in a fortnight by a composer who had penned 35 operas by the age of 37 then abruptly retired, tops the list of all operatic comedies. It includes the famous Figaro-here, Figaro-there Largo Al Factotum. Check out the Royal Opera House DVD with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.
10 Guillaume Tell (William Tell)
Gioachino Rossini Paris, France, 1829
The William Tell overture is one of the most famous pieces of classical music. Yet Rossini’s enormous, final opera, involving the fight for Swiss freedom, remains a rarity – despite thrilling arias and exciting choruses. A BBC Proms performance and a new EMI CD conducted by Antonio Pappano may restore interest.
Vincenzo Bellini Milan, Italy, 1831
Boasting the famous Casta Diva aria, Norma is the ultimate bel canto tragedy about a druid priestess who, secretly, has two children and an erring lover, with catastrophic results. Bellini’s extravagant, melodic operas – Il Pirata, La Sonnambula – provide a musical stepping stone from Rossini to Verdi.
12 L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love)
Gaetano Donizetti Milan, Italy, 1832
Frequently performed and a cheerfully reassuring first step into opera, this is the comic tale of the fraudulent quack Dulcamara who dupes the poor, lovesick Nemorino with his “elixir”; melodic, witty, heart-warming and touchingly silly. The exuberant and prolific Donizetti’s sharp humour is at play in the shrewish character of the love object, Adina.
13 Lucia di Lammermoor
Gaetano Donizetti Naples, Italy, 1835
No one provides a better coloratura “mad scene” – a 19th-century Romantic opera habit – than Donizetti in Lucia, based on Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Scott’s novels were all the rage in Europe, with 16 turned into operas by, among others, Bellini, Rossini and Bizet.
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1851
Verdi, one of opera’s greats, had a long career. For many his Egyptian Aida is an ideal first opera. For dramatic intensity, Rigoletto – compact, tuneful, melodramatic – is even better. The hunchback prompts pity when he tries to protect his daughter. It’s never been the same since ENO’s 1982 “Mafioso” staging had the Duke singing La Donna e Mobile at a jukebox in a diner.
15 La Traviata
Giuseppe Verdi Venice, Italy, 1853
Perhaps Verdi’s most performed work, La Traviata contains all the elements of operatic addiction: a beautiful, consumptive, fallen-woman heroine, grand Parisian party scenes, the travails of love, a troubled father and a deathbed scene, all set to Verdi’s faultless score. Hard to beat.
16 Don Carlos/ Don Carlo
Giuseppe Verdi Paris, France, 1867
Known in both its French and Italian versions, this enormous five-act work based on Schiller shows Verdi at the height of his powers. Politics, kingship, heresy, adultery and love combine with incomparable pomp and solemnity, with a score to match. The bass role of King Philip II of Spain is one of opera’s loneliest.
Giuseppe Verdi Milan, Italy, 1893
Like Otello (written in a final, brilliant outpouring in 1887), Falstaff – after Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – is a Verdian favourite among buffs, though some find its quixotic, quick-fire charms less beguiling. Knowledge of the final fugue, celebrating the folly of the human condition (Tutto nel Mondo) is essential to any opera lover’s armament.
Ruggero Leoncavallo Milan, Italy, 1892
Considered the stronger half of the popular “Cav and Pag” double bill, Pagliacci (the clowns) is Leoncavallo’s one surviving hit, usually paired with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Pag cleverly uses a commedia dell’arte troupe to enact a verismo tragedy. Top tenors love to sing the broken-hearted clown’s Vesti la Giubba (Put On the Motley).
19 La Bohème
Giacomo Puccini Turin, Italy, 1896
If Puccini himself cried after composing the final scene of Bohème, one of the most adored of all operas, how can the rest of us resist? Mimi, the Bohemian seamstress of the title, her poet lover Rodolfo and their destitute Parisian friends capture the pains and pleasures of young love in an attic.
Giacomo Puccini Rome, Italy, 1900
Dubbed a “shabby little shocker”, Tosca opens with three crashing orchestral chords and never lets up until the opera-singer heroine, having stabbed the villain Scarpia and watched her artist-lover Cavaradossi die, leaps to her own death. Her Vissi d’arte and Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan le Stelle epitomise opera’s power to stir passion. Famous Toscas: Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Angela Gheorgiu.
21 Madama Butterfly
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Italy, 1904
Puccini first saw David Belasco’s hit play Madame Butterfly in London in 1900. The teenage Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) falls in love with an American naval lieutenant in Nagasaki. He abandons her, then returns with a wife. Catastrophe ensues. After a first-night disaster, it became one of the best-loved operas. One Fine Day, the Stars and Stripes music and the Humming Chorus are highlights.
Giacomo Puccini Milan, Rome, 1926
Football fans know Nessun Dorma thanks to Pavarotti and the 1990 World Cup. Puccini’s final opera is about the man-hating Chinese queen Turandot, and Calaf, the man who finally melts her icy heart. When Puccini died leaving the opera incomplete, it was finished by a composer friend, Alfano. Others have also tried, but Alfano’s is the version commonly used.
Ludwig van Beethoven Vienna, Austria, 1805
Written to a backdrop of revolution, Beethoven’s only opera is a hymn to freedom and marital love. Leonora dresses as a man, Fidelio, to rescue her husband Florestan from imprisonment. The spoken dialogue and huge orchestra present performance challenges but the rewards – the Mir ist So Wunderbar ensemble, the Prisoners’ choruses, Florestan’s cry of “Gott!” – are unrivalled.
24 Der Freischütz
Carl Maria von Weber Berlin, Germany, 1821
The title of this opera translates as The Marksman and it is set in a Bohemian forest during the 30 years war. It concerns the shooting trials of young hunters to win their lovers. The hero Max transgresses by using “free” magic bullets. Good and evil struggle in a vivid, tuneful display of high German Romanticism. Not often staged. Catch it when it is.
Richard Wagner Weimar, Germany, 1850
Wagner’s last “early” work (after Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser) before his mature masterpieces. This is perhaps the last great Romantic opera, rich with symbolism, myth, taboo: the innocent Elsa of Brabant is accused of murdering her brother. A knight in shining armour arrives in a swan-drawn boat. He will help her so long as she doesn’t ask his name. She does. You can guess what it is.
26 Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1865
The ultimate, transcendent, no-holds-barred “love in death” experience, ending with Isolde’s Liebestod. As usual, Wagner wrote his own libretto. Isolde is betrothed to King Mark. After a mix-up, she and Tristan drink a love potion and fall cataclysmically in love. This is “extreme opera”, full of ecstatic thrills in very slow motion, but worth every note. Be prepared.
27 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Richard Wagner Munich, Germany, 1868
Written over two decades, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is Wagner’s only “comic” opera, full of generous humanity, especially in the great figure of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs. The plot revolves around a song contest, and celebrates all art, especially German. Meistersinger may have been Hitler’s favourite but don’t be deterred. The music is uplifting, the choruses magnificent.
28 Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner Bayreuth, Germany, 1876
The Ring Cycle, a pinnacle of the genre, consists of four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung – which last about 15 hours in total and took Wagner 28 years to write. The story of gold, gods, giants, dragons, once you sort it all out, is really an epic exploration of man’s desire, greed and folly. By any reckoning The Ring is among the mightiest single monuments of art created by one person.
29 Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow)
Franz Lehár Vienna, Austria, 1905
Together with Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe sums up the joys of Viennese operetta: infectiously, waltzingly melodic, with dinners chez Maxim, dancing girls and a glimpse of Balkan Europe in the last days of old aristocracy. The eponymous widow, Hanna Glawari, is not only merry but fabulously rich. Too much fun for some tastes.
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1905
Still considered shocking by some, and certainly startling, Salome, after Wilde’s play, leads the way to modern opera: its radical harmonies, its vocal challenges and its violent biblical story revisited in the age of Freud. Salome desires John the Baptist. After dancing naked for Herod, she only gets his head but that’s enough.
31 Der Rosenkavalier
Richard Strauss Dresden, Germany, 1911
The title – The Knight of the Rose – gives no hint as to why this enormous, voluptuous, waltz-laden operatic concoction has become a favourite of connoisseurs. In this bitter-sweet comedy an older woman (the Marschallin) sees she must send her young lover into the arms of another. The final trio sends opera-buffs into an ultimate swoon.
32 Les Troyens
Hector Berlioz Paris, France 1863 & 1890
Opera hardly comes more grand than Berlioz’s five-act retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid: 22 roles, a huge orchestra, large chorus, ballet, battles, bloodshed and high emotion. Immensely expensive to stage, The Trojans is sometimes split across two evenings. Witness the fall of Troy and the tragic love of Didon and Enée in full operatic Technicolor. Never pass up a chance to see it.
Georges Bizet Paris, France, 1875
Is there an opera more popular, sexy, scandalous or with better tunes? The Gypsy dancer at the cigarette factory who breaks hearts and meets her doom outside the bullring offers an ideal start to opera. It’s long, but the action is thrilling, the music infectious. Don José’s Flower Song, the Toreador Song and Carmen’s Habanera are the best known of the many spectacular set pieces.
Jules Massenet Paris, France, 1884
The prolific and melodic Massenet is best known today for Manon, a linchpin of French 19th-century opera (from Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, also set by Puccini). The heroine can’t choose between love and money, until too late. Confusingly called an opéra comique because it has spoken dialogue, its subject is tragic.
35 Pelléas et Mélisande
Claude Debussy Paris, France, 1902
This sensuous, Symbolist tragedy in 12 tableaux marks a radical departure: instead of arias and set pieces, the text is declaimed, inspired by Wagner, over an ever-moving orchestration. The story of the frail Mélisande and her adulterous love for her brother-in-law is a mix of reality and interior mystery. An acquired taste – but well worth acquiring.
36 The Bartered Bride
Bedrich Smetana Prague, Czech Repulbic, 1866
Smetana took several attempts to get his gentle, catchily tuneful comedy right. Folk-inspired dances, a drinking song and a story of young lovers thwarted by an official betrothal make this an engaging Czech tale of village life. That said, for today’s tastes the stammering simpleton Vasek, butt of village humour, may be seen as too mean a characterisation for comfort.
37 Boris Godunov
Modest Mussorgsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1874
Experts still argue over which version of Mussorgsky’s historical epic is definitive. The reluctant Boris, filled with foreboding and guilt for a murder, is appointed tsar. The people grow hungry and rebellious. Pretenders vie for the throne. Boris becomes deranged, the soul of Russia – expressed through anguished choruses – troubled. This is one of the Russian operatic greats.
38 Eugene Onegin
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Moscow, Russia, 1879
Among the most intimate and heart-rending of operas, this setting of Pushkin’s verse tale has a spectacular birthday ball, a duel and, early on, the Letter Scene, in which the impetuous young Tatyana pours out her heart to the cold Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s understanding of the human heart is all-encompassing, his music full of warmth and pathos.
39 The Queen of Spades
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky St Petersburg, Russia, 1890
After Pushkin’s story, complete with two suicides and a ghost, the former gambler of the title, an old woman now close to death, holds the secret of winning at cards. Her granddaughter Lisa falls in love with a young officer, Hermann, who is desperate to learn that secret. A hot-blooded thriller set to impassioned music.
40 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Dmitri Shostakovich Moscow, Russia, 1934
Attacked in a Pravda article as being “chaos instead of music”, Lady Macbeth was forgotten until the 1960s, but its vital importance to modern opera is now recognised. While her husband is away, the bored, frustrated Katerina Izmailova murders her father-in-law and takes a lover. A tragic soap opera unfolds. Only a remote connection with Shakespeare.
41 War and Peace
Sergei Prokofiev Moscow, Russia, 1944
Oppressed by the Soviet authorities as so often in his career, Prokofiev had to add heroic choruses and marches to satisfy his political overlords, and never lived to hear a complete performance of his opera in five acts, based on Tolstoy’s epic novel. Despite the attractions of The Fiery Angel, and the comic Love for Three Oranges, this is his most successful opera.
42 The Rake’s Progress
Igor Stravinsky Venice, Italy, 1951
To a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s opera is inspired by William Hogarth’s engravings. Tom Rakewell falls under the spell of Nick Shadow, and opts for a sybaritic life of easy riches. But Nick is the devil. Tom ends up penniless and mad in Bedlam. Watch the DVD of Glyndebourne’s 1975 staging with sets by David Hockney.
Leoš Janáček Brno, Czech Republic, 1904
Together with Katja Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case, Jenůfa has been restored to the mainstream repertoire. Janáček’s singular musical style and piercing understanding of his female heroines, who face shocking dilemmas, has struck a chord today. In Jenůfa, a child is born in secret; a stepmother (Kostelnička) fearing scandal, drowns the baby. Guilt rips through a Czech village community.
44 Bluebeard’s Castle
Béla Bartók Budapest, Hungary, 1918
Chilling and enigmatic, Bluebeard is a psycho-drama for two voices about a lonely man who brings home his new bride, Judith, but will not reveal his past. She demands that he unlock the doors of his castle. Blood, money, a lake of tears and other wives lurk behind them. The score is ravishing, the impact disturbing.
Alban Berg Berlin, Germany, 1925
The subject matter – based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck about a victimised soldier – is brutal, dark and modernist in mood. Yet Berg’s score glitters with a warmth and lyricism, which has established it as a masterpiece of the early avant garde. In 2001, Birmingham Opera Company mounted a community version in a warehouse, renaming it Votzek; it was a sellout, its story instantly comprehensible.
46 Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin New York, US, 1935
Hailed as a true American opera, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, the plot is about the crippled Porgy and his Bess in the poor American deep south. Every folk-jazz inspired number is a hit: A Woman is a Sometime Thing, Leavin’ for the Promised Land, Bess, You is My Woman Now and, best known of all, Summertime. Confused issues of racism linger.
47 Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten London, UK, 1945
Ranked by many as one of the best operas of the 20th century, Britten’s tale of the violent social-outcast fisherman, taken from George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, is heart-rending and majestic. The orchestral Sea Interludes are frequently heard separately as concert pieces. The title role was created for Britten’s partner, tenor Peter Pears.
48 The Turn of the Screw
Benjamin Britten Venice, Italy, 1954
It’s hard to choose a second representative Britten opera, from the equally enjoyable Billy Budd, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring or Death in Venice. But his setting of Henry James’s ghost tale, The Turn of the Screw, about a governess, the two children in her care and two dead servants, makes this chamber opera one of the most dramatically appealing. It also makes you think twice about seeing and believing.
49 King Priam
Michael Tippett Coventry, UK 1962
Tippett’s operas to his own libretti – including Midsummer Marriage and The Knot Garden – haven’t yet found their way back into fashion but there’s some exquisite music; their time will come. His retelling of the tragedy of Priam, King of Troy, is intense, violent, poignant and highly original.
50 Le Grand Macabre
György Ligeti Stockholm, Sweden, 1978
Opening with a blast of four car horns, Ligeti’s farce is mercurial, fast moving and eclectic. The Grand Macabre announces that at midnight the world will end. When the time arrives, no one is quite sure whether Armageddon has occurred or not so they party on, accepting there’s no escape from death.