The Magic Flute almost defines a masterpiece, because it can be enjoyed on every level. It is a superb fairy story, complete with dragons, demons, a handsome prince, and a lovely maiden seriously in need of rescue; it is a political satire, social commentary, and psychological drama; it is full of tunes from the playful to the heart-stopping, jolly songs, and deeply spiritual outpourings. It is, in short, "Mozart" - and there is no greater compliment than that.
"The sublime and the ridiculous"
Così Fan Tutte contains some of Mozart’s most sublime music. On one level, the opera is purely a social anecdote about young people falling in and out of love; but Mozart was a supreme sensualist and a great humanist, and invested the tale with all his understanding of humanity and young love. In this title, David Timson refutes the charge that Mozart squandered his genius on a work full of trivial nonsense and proves this "miraculous yet problematic" opera to be a great work of theatre. To listen to this thought-provoking examination of the characters and the music is both thoroughly enriching and great fun.
Dating from the last decade of the 19th century, Pelléas et Mélisande points the way into the 20th century. The score is hauntingly beautiful, but there is more to the work than shifting panels of elusive, impressionistic sound. Debussy retains the text of Maeterlinck’s play, and the linguistic subtleties of the French text are matched perfectly by the musical detail. Taking a little time to explore the romantic, elusive world of this opera is particularly rewarding.
La Traviata owes its enduring popularity to a superb story of young love and fatal sacrifice, set to music by Italy’s master melodist at the peak of his powers. Interest and poignancy are added by the fact that this is a true story - the baritone ‘heavy’ is Alexander Dumas who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo. But it is the central figure, the heroine Violetta, the archetypal ‘whore with the heart of gold’ who dominates the piece. It is her opera and we love her for it.
Rigoletto is simply wonderful entertainment with superb music. It is also much more - a daring (for its time) attack on aristocratic privilege, a tender love story, and an impassioned appeal on behalf of the disadvantaged, all set to music of such wealth and beauty that, with its sister operas La traviata and Il trovatore, it has defined Italian opera for 150 years. Overcoming initial trouble with the censors, Verdi's Rigoletto was a smash hit at its premiere and has not been out of the repertoire since. It’s not hard to see why.
The Barber of Seville is Rossini’s most popular opera. Its effervescent overture (written originally for another work!) presents a perfect platform for the amusing plot in which the barber, Figaro, stage-manages a romance between Count Almaviva and Rosina, and puts to flight the old suitor, Dr Bartolo. "Largo al Factotum" is one of the most popular arias in opera - nearly 200 years after its first performance it is still one of the great show-stoppers.
La Bohème is one of the three operas - the others are Carmen and Aida - believed to be the most popular ever written. In the case of La Bohème the reason is that it virtually defines the term "romantic". The poignant story of Mimì and Rodolfo is told in music of such tender beauty, allied, as always, to Puccini’s intuition of what works in the theatre. The result is an opera that readily appeals to our emotions and senses.
Puccini’s swansong has a claim to being the last great popular opera. Its melodies have enchanted audiences since its posthumous premiere in 1926, two years after Puccini’s death. It involves a chilling story of love and cruelty, an intriguing cast of characters against the exotic backdrop of Imperial China, magnificent choruses and ensembles, and dazzling orchestration in an exotic score that comprises a string of remarkable arias - among which the great tenor aria "Nessun dorma" is the jewel. It is more than Puccini’s last opera: It is the last word, in every sense, on Italian opera.
"Fire and ice, hope and blood"
Il Trovatore has been ruthlessly parodied. It is a tale of murder and mayhem, burned babies, roasted hags, would-be nuns, strolling minstrels, and bad baritones. And indeed the libretto does call for a willing suspension of disbelief. The reward is in the music, a score as prodigally melodic as only the mature Verdi could write: the "Anvil" chorus, the "Miserere" scene, two great tenor arias, a beautiful baritone aria - a richness without embarrassment.
Ancient Egypt and the war with Ethiopia is the setting for Verdi’s grandest opera. It is the story of the love between Rhadames, the Egyptian general, and Aida, an Ethiopian slave, and the jealousy of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. It was written in 1871 to a commission from the Khedive of Egypt to inaugurate the new opera house in Cairo. Aida generally is considered one of the most spectacular of Verdi’s operas.
Many opera-lovers would name The Marriage of Figaro as their favorite opera. It appeals to the most intellectual listener, but also to music-lovers seeking great melodies and ensembles (while it remains accessible through its fascinating plot and memorable characters) and to those seeking only entertainment. One of three operas by Mozart to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, it represents one of the pinnacles not just of operatic but of human achievement.
"Not the audio that it promised."
Tosca is Puccini at the peak of his theatrical power. The story of the jealous, impassioned opera singer Floria Tosca and her doomed love for the painter Mario Cavaradossi is played out against backgrounds both historically and geographically overwhelming. It is set in three great and historical locations of Rome during the Napoleonic era. Spectacle, sensuality, and cruelty battle for our attention in one of the most truly "action-packed" works of theatre. Enticing us with just a couple of the "great tunes" from this deeply affecting opera, David Timson then begins setting the biographical and operatic scene.
"Excellent introduction to Tosca"
Madama Butterfly runs the gamut of operatic emotions. The title heroine has a fragility wonderfully expressed in her entry music, deep sexual instincts as shown in the love duet, and immense tragic stature in her last hours. The fate of Madama Butterfly - married to an American sailor and then abandoned - engages our emotions to a degree equaled by few other opera heroines. The oriental setting and the exquisite orchestral and choral writings are treasured bonuses.
Verdi’s Falstaff repays careful study with real pleasure. It is opera’s happiest irony that the great Italian master should cap a career - distinguished for its blood-and-thunder tragic masterpieces - with the greatest comic opera in the Italian repertory. The genius of Shakespeare is harnessed (in a miracle of compression) by master-librettist Boito to give the 80-year-old Verdi a superb libretto, on which he lavished more wonderful tunes than most composers manage in a lifetime.
Don Giovanni has long been regarded as Mozart’s supreme theatrical achievement. The subject seems unpromising - the last day in the life of the notorious womanizer Don Juan - but the skill of the librettist allied to the genius of Mozart at the very peak of his powers has created a work which is not only highly entertaining but reflects an incredible understanding of the human condition.
"Very short introductions to specific operas!"
The Flying Dutchman is the perfect opera with which to approach the operatic mountain that is Richard Wagner. It is short, has a great story (the legend of the Dutch captain doomed to sail forever unless redeemed through love), and the striking score has many pre-echoes of Wagner's later great music dramas. It contains wonderful tunes in its arias, ensembles, and big choruses, and the orchestral writing - from the gale that blows out of the Overture to the final theme of "Redemption through Love" - will "blow you away".
"An introduction to Wagner"
Carmen is among the most popular operas for all the obvious reasons: great characters, a gripping story, and fabulous music. But what sets it on a pinnacle is an amazing combination of three factors: a sizzling Gipsy heroine (one of the most psychologically complex and compelling characters in all theatre), great atmosphere (Spain, hot sun, the bull-ring), and the prodigality of melodic invention - one great tune after another, at least a dozen of which are the staples of Madison Avenue and the animated cartoon.
"Passion, power, and truth"
La sonnambula was written by Bellini as a vehicle for two of the supreme singers of his age and accordingly is a fine example of the school we call bel canto, where beauty of voice and the virtuosity of the singers is integral to conveying the emotions in the soul of the composer. The fact that Bellini was one of the great melodists, writing long, beautiful vocal lines, that he was a master orchestrator and that he could write stirringly for the chorus all conspire to make La sonnambula extremely enjoyable.
Cavalleria rusticana is the short opera that has all the elements of a grand opera compressed into a single highly dramatic time span. The story of love, lust, blood-feud, and betrayal played out against the pageantry of the Easter celebrations in a Sicilian village delivers an emotional wallop because of the youthful vigor and musical wealth of its great score which includes the glorious "Easter Hymn" and the deeply moving "Intermezzo". Mascagni was never to repeat his youthful success but this brief work is enough to ensure his immortality.
"Enjoy the opera as it was meant to be"
Fidelio is a work like no other. Beethoven’s only opera is about the joy of married love - by a man who never knew that pleasure. It is about heroism by a man who was often mean and petty in his human relations; it is about freedom by a man who was a prisoner of his own deafness; and ultimately it is about joy by a man who experienced precious little of it.
"Beethoven's only opera in all its glory"