Among the many opera pieces in the world, these five stand out as some of the finest ever created, making them must-sees for discerning theatergoers.
Society’s wealthy have enjoyed going to operas for decades. It was the rich, after all, who started commissioning and funding the creation of these theatrical productions. In its earlier days, opera was a form of watch party for the elite to gather, mingle, and enjoy the arts in an exclusive space.
That said, opera’s target demographic has evolved considerably over the years. The art has become a lot more accessible today, as the industry strives to attract a wider audience and revamp its reputation of only catering to high society.
Nevertheless, the art form remains a cherished one among theater enthusiasts for its elaborate costumes, compelling plots, complex characters, and lavish props. Of course, one cannot forget the beating heart of the art: skilled performers who sing foreign music with such powerful emotion that it transcends language barriers.
There are dozens of amazing operatic works to see, so it may be tricky to know where to start. That’s why we’ve compiled a list showcasing five of the best works that the genre has to offer:
The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze Di Figaro)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was voted the best opera of all time in a BBC Music Magazine poll taken by 172 of the world’s greatest opera singers, including Plácido Domingo. The piece features a comedic plotline with fully-fleshed out, complex characters.
“The Marriage of Figaro is such a human portrait,” shared opera singer Renée Fleming to BBC Music. “No matter how many times I sing this opera I am always completely stunned how little people have changed since Mozart’s time, in terms of relationships and the maneuvering they do.”
Mozart wrote Figaro in just six weeks back in 1786. It received five encores during its premiere and is the most performed opera of all time. The story centers around Count Almaviva, who wishes to seduce Sussana—the fiancée of his manservant Figaro and the maid of his wife, Countess Rosina. However, Figaro manages to outsmart the scheming aristocrat at every turn, leading to an amusing series of events that give the play its charm. With the help of the Countess, Figaro and Sussana scheme against the Count and manage to finally wed.
Theater enthusiasts are likely to have heard of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at least once. Interestingly enough, it not only stands as one of the most beloved operatic pieces in the world, but also happens to be the inspiration behind Jonathan Larson’s famous musical, Rent.
Much like Figaro, opera houses continue to stage La bohème, which has gone through countless iterations throughout the years. Puccini’s work is the paragon of romantic storytelling in the operatic world, with its focus on young love that ends tragically.
BBC Music described the piece as having “short musical themes that define each of his [Puccini’s] 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.”
The narrative at the center of the opera is simple yet touching. Rodolfo, a French poet, falls for the soft-spoken seamstress Mimì; unfortunately, tragedy strikes as the lady falls ill and eventually passes on.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is a defining piece of operatic work with exploration of jealousy, vengeance, and of course, death. Save for some glimmers of humor, the performance is a tragedy through and through. It’s also based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 play, Le roi s’amuse [The King Amuses Himself].
The opera tells the story of the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto, who appeases the playboy Duke of Mantua by delivering verbal jabs at his enemies. It’s all fun and games until the Duke abducts Rigoletto’s own daughter, Gilda, and attempts to woo her. Rigoletto vows revenge and sends an assassin to kill the Duke. However, in a tragic twist, the assassin kills Gilda instead as she sacrifices herself to save the playboy.
“Verdi moves away from the traditional stop-start structure of Italian opera into more free-flowing, continuous drama,” wrote Opera North on the piece. “The melody is not always in the vocal line, but in the orchestra, and he uses certain instruments and musical figures for different characters and ideas.”
La Traviata is another great piece from Verdi, which he created in 1853. Despite its fame throughout the decades, audiences initially found it lackluster compared to Verdi’s other historical epic Rigoletto. Still, it remains a widely-loved operatic work due to its three-dimensional characters, who Verdi brought to life with “soaring melodies and heart-rending swells of harmony,” as per BBC Music.
At the time of its release, La Traviata was a trailblazer due to its unique set up. While many operas of the time were often heroic or noble, this particular piece surprised audiences with its more intimate, bourgeois setting.
The opera is based on a 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas fils, and centers around Violetta: a charismatic Parisian courtesan who gives up everything to be with Alfredo, a young and wealthy man. Sadly, his family disapproves of the relationship, going as far as to blackmail the woman to leave their son. Tragedy unfolds as Violetta falls ill from the heartbreak of it all; though Alfredo comes to save her, he’s too late, and the melancholic leading lady dies in the performance’s soul-crushing finale.
Last yet certainly not least in this list of great operas is French composer Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella of the same title, the four-act piece cemented its place in the hall of fame with its realism.
That said, critics initially disliked the innovative performance as it centered around the lives of common folk—more specifically “smugglers, deserters, factory workers, and various ne’er-do-wells,” as per Encyclopedia Britannica.
Bizet was saddened by reviews that called the work “immoral and vulgar.” Still, Carmen persists today, showing that audiences of the period were simply unprepared for the piece’s groundbreaking concepts. Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky foreshadowed this with the following declaration: “10 years hence Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world.” True enough, that’s exactly what happened.
The opera takes place in Spain and centers on its titular character, a Roma woman (whom Bizet referred to as a “gypsy” due to customs of the time). The sexually liberated and free-spirited Carmen believes she can love and be with multiple men. Yet, the soldier Don José, longs for her to settle down with him permanently. So begins a game of chase between José and Carmen—who likes the soldier but is also in love with the bullfighter Escamillo. The story ends, like many operas, in tragedy as José stabs Carmen to death when she rebuffs his request to settle down.
“Thanks to its depiction of love, obsession and jealousy, Carmen has become a fixture in opera houses’ repertoire worldwide,” wrote the English National Opera.
Banner photo by Mary Cassatt from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston website.