My parents dragged me to operas from the time I was about 10, but it never took. The crazy plots, the wild costumes, the interminable performances, the soprano sounding like she got her big toe caught in a mousetrap … it all seemed like a circus gone mad. Most of these operas were composed by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and other renowned composers from the late 1800s and early 1900s, a time when oozing emotion and soaring solos were quite the norm. Lately, though, I’ve found operas from earlier years that seem to me more structured, more restrained, and musically far more accessible and enjoyable. Here are a few of them. If you hate opera, you might like them!
L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi
Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo in the early 1600s. It is one of the first operas ever written, the oldest opera still performed regularly, and is considered by experts one of the best. Here is a brief excerpt:
Much more chorus, more instrumental passages and lighter orchestration than what you would hear in more modern operas. In short: Easy listening!
Armide, by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Moving from Italian to French opera, Armide, by Jean-Baptiste Lully, was first performed in the late 1600s. It is elegantly and thoroughly Baroque, is considered a masterpiece of French opera from its premiere in 1686, and is beautiful from start to finish:
Amazing that such beautiful music came from Lully, who seems to have been a rather despicable person, an observation which leads me to digress for a moment. From the Romantic era forward, the composer became the focus of the composition. Rather than writing music for the glory of God, or even to satisfy an audience, the composer was mainly concerned with expressing his/her emotions, his/her ideas, and/or his/her spiritual struggles. But listening to music that gets me into the head of Lully (or Berlioz, or Liszt, or many others) is not something I’d stand in line for. Less Lully and more building on operatic musical ideas makes Armide such a classic — so enjoyable and accessible to the audience.
Armide, by Cristoph Willibald Gluck
Gluck’s version of Armide premiered in 1777, and uses the same libretto as Lully’s. It was a bold move to take on such an established icon of French opera, but Gluck was definitely bold, a real reformer who was highly instrumental (pun intended) in making opera popular with contemporary audiences. Though much different musically from Lully’s, Gluck’s Armide is excellent as well:
Gluck was a prolific composer of opera, and several are still performed regularly. Paride sd Elena, Iphigenie en Tauride and Orfeo Ed Euridice are also great. His work is always engaging, peppy, melodious, and dramatic without going over the top, As I always say, “If you’re out of Gluck, you’re out of luck.”
The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Mozart
Premiering in 1791, The Magic Flute was Mozart’s last opera, and wow, did he go out with a bang. The opera is full of wonderfully playful and yet dramatic elements, a joy from start to finish. It was customary back in the day for composers to write to match the talents of the singers, and since the singers slated for The Magic Flute premiere were the best, Amade pulled out all the stops. Listen to this:
Wow. I heard this on a TV ad for insurance or cars or something … still fresh. You’ve got to wonder what glorious operas Mozart would have written had he lived a longer life. We are lucky to have had him as long as we did.
Over to You
- What’s your favorite opera?
- Who is your favorite composer of opera?
(Image credit – Wikimedia Commons)