Since the first performance of an opera in Florence in 1597 it’s gone on to become a major part of Italian cultural life. Jacopo Peri’s opera, Dafne, was performed at the Royal Courts in Florence and following its success Jacopo Peri put on Euridice at a major Medici wedding; which firmly placed the new artform of opera as the fashionable new entertainment for the Royal courts of Italy and beyond.
Over the last 400 years opera has spread across Europe and has massively grown in popularity, evolving from exclusive performances in the Royal courts to large events in arenas and stadiums, where anyone can attend. The democratization of opera has been good for the artform and for its audiences; and consequently, it’s one of Italy’s most famous exports to the world.
During the long history of opera, many masterpieces were written, primarily by European, and particularly Italian, composers; however, some operas still stand out from the rest. These operas have become cultural icons of the post Renaissance era and so while you are in Italy, either living there or visiting, you simply must see them to experience the magic for yourself.
Sometimes expat life in Italy can become very much like the life back home in the United States. Full of routines and chores. Watching the opera or other traditional shows are a way to break out of the routines. Opera is not my thing before I came to Italy. But in the past few years, I have grown to like it. I now in fact have a great appreciation of the traditional arts.
The following are some of my favorite operas:
L’Orfeo (La favola d’Orfeo).
Composed in 1607 by Claudio Monteverdi, who is often referred to as the ‘father’ of opera, this melancholic classic tells the mythological story of how Euridice is killed by a snake bite. Monteverdi was a choirmaster, violinist and priest from Cremona, in Northern Italy, who wrote many operas that were both religious and secular in subject matter. Of course, technically, a Greek myth is not religious in the Christian sense but the concept of a snake causing death is also deeply rooted in the Biblical story and so the opera immediately resonated with his audiences.
This opera is frequently described as the first of the Baroque style operas and was a huge success in his lifetime. Telling the story of the broken hearted Orpheus who tries, unsuccessfully, to save Euridice from the underworld using his musical charms, this type of opera was known as a ‘dramma per musica’, or a ‘musical tragedy’.
The first performance of L’Orfeo was at the Duke of Mantua’s court and marked the beginning of a fantastic period in operatic history. Certainly a must see for both aficionadas as well as anyone who is interested in experiencing the essence of the operatic tradition.
Composed by Giacomo Puccini in 1896, La Boheme is one of the world’s most famous and well loved operas of all time. Puccini’s classic opera tells the story of a troupe of penniless artists living in Paris during the 1830s who struggle to pay their rent and bills; the plot of which is based on the novel by Henry Murger.
Mimi, a local seamstress, offers a poet, Rodolfo, shelter during the freezing weather of the Parisian winter. In the tradition of a good opera they fall in love instantly but Mimi has a tragic secret; Mimi is suffering from Tuberculosis and will soon die. Eventually, the couple go their separate ways however in the end Mimi returns to the arms of her beloved to die.
Mimi’s role is played by a soprano and is a highly sought after role by upcoming singers. One of the greatest performances of Mimi was played by the legendary Maria Callas.
La Boheme is a heart wrenching romance which is as current today as it was in the late 17th Century; and so if you get the chance you should certainly book yourself some tickets to delve into the tragic world of Mimi and Rodolfo.
Written by Giacomo Puccini in 1904 while staying in Milan, it’s based on a famous play that was being performed in Europe at the time. The story revolves around a young, 15 year old, Geisha that falls in love with an American in Japan. The American, Benjamin Pinkerton, is a handsome young lieutenant in the Navy who eventually marries the Geisha.
Her name as a Geisha is ‘Cio-Cio’, which means ‘butterfly’, and so Pinkerton gives her the nickname of ‘Madame Butterfly’. Following their wedding night, against the wishes of her parents, Cio-Cio becomes pregnant and has a son. In the meantime, Pinkerton is posted back to America and so his loyal wife, Cio-Cio, waits for his return.
After 3 years, Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki, Japan, where his wife is still waiting for him with their young son. Unfortunately, Pinkerton has remarried while in America and has returned to Japan with his new wife! This breaks Cio-Cio’s heart and she ends up taking her own life after one of the most dramatic final scenes in all of opera. Some of the best loved pieces in this opera include the famous ‘Humming Chorus’ and ‘One Fine Day’.
Composed in Rome in 1900, Tosca is another one of Puccini’s great operas. It’s storyline is quite unusual, focusing around cloak and dagger political intrigue and unrest in Rome. The opera is set in 1800 during the turbulent Napoleonic wars in which the heroine, Floria Tosca, falls in love with a painter named Mario Cavaradossi.
The painter, Mario, is also a passionate republican and so he helps a man called Angelotti escape from prison. As the story continues to unfold, Tosca is forced to stab Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police in Rome, in self defense. As a result of this her lover, Mario, is sentenced to death and after watching him die she loses all hope, while still being on the run from the police, and in the end, takes her own life.
Written in 1921, and set in China, this was Puccini’s last opera and tells the tale of a Chinese princess named Turandot. The princess has always disliked men until she meets Calaf, who she falls in love with. However, she has also said that any potential suitor must be able to solve 3 riddles before she will allow them to marry her; and worse, if they fail to get the riddles correct they will be executed! After getting the riddles correct the princess still refuses to marry Calaf, so he makes an her an offer of his own: if she can guess his name by dawn he will accept the death penalty.
Unfortunately, Puccini never finished this opera by the time he died in 1924 but it was finished by Franco Alfano. Puccini tried to incorporate oriental music in this opera which makes it an extremely interesting composition.
Written by Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata is a magnificent opera that has gone on to be the most frequently performed opera of all time! The music in the opera is extremely memorable and has become hugely popular with opera fans all over the world.
The story of La Traviata revolves around the concerns, incidents and love rivalries in the lively party scene of Paris. The opera includes some of opera’s best known arias including ‘Sempre Libera’ and ‘Libiamo’ as well as ‘Amami Alfredo’ which is the undoubted high point of the performance. Many of the songs, especially ‘Libiamo’, are traditionally performed by a choir and a soloist as part of the encore at the end of the opera!
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, Aida was originally commissioned by Khedive Isma’il to commemorate the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869. The first performance was held at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871 and was a huge success. It tells the story of an Ethiopian princess named Aida and Radames, her Egyptian captor and hostage taker. Radames is in love with Aida, the princess, and she with him; however he is chosen to lead a war against Ethiopia. The audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride as Aida battles with her love for the Egyptian general and her loyalty to her own country.
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi in Venice in 1851, Rigoletto is a melodramatic opera in three parts which is based on the play, Le Roi S’Amuse by French the novelist Victor Hugo. The opera was initially titled ‘La Maladizione’, literally meaning ‘The Curse’, but it was later renamed.
The opera is about a Duke of Mantua who was known for his womanizing ways, as well as his hunchbacked jester, Rigoletto. The Duke of Mantua has a curse placed on him by a courtier as revenge for his womanizing after which he lures the daughter of Rigoletto to take advantage of her.
Rigoletto later finds out what the Duke has been doing but does not know that his daughter is also in love with the Duke! Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the Duke but at the last moment his daughter, Gilda, sacrifices herself to save the Duke, her love.
The Barber Of Seville.
Composed by Gioachino Rossini, the Barber of Seville is a tragi-comic opera that tells the story of Figaro, a barber in Seville. Figaro has a larger than life personality and sets out to help the Count Almaviva, his friend, to win the love of Rosina.
Amazingly, the opera only took a mere two weeks for Rossini to write although he was famous for his incredible output, writing 35 operas by the age of just 37! Nonetheless, the opera is extremely technically accomplished and is often considered one of the hardest of all operas to perform, making it an incredible experience for the audience.
Considered one of the best operas of all time, Don Giovanni, by Mozart, tells the story of a young playboy who is famous for his womanizing. The story is partly comedic, partly melodramatic and contains interesting supernatural concepts and elements. The story of Don Giovanni, written in 1787, is based on the exploits of Don Juan, one of the most famous fictional characters in Spanish literature who was originally created by Tirso de Molina in the 17th Century.
Unfortunately, for Don Giovanna, his own irresponsible exploits rapidly lead to his demise in an opera that hints at a moral undertone without becoming preachy and remaining positively funny at times.
Mozart was not Italian but the libretto was one of 28 that Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote during his life. Da Ponte was also a renowned Italian poet and Catholic priest who eventually settled in America.
Cosi fan Tutte.
This classic opera by Mozart was written in 1790, the title of which literally translates as ‘All Women Do It’. It was first performed in Vienna, at the Burgtheater and was a huge success. The legend goes that the opera was written on the request of Emperor Joseph II although there is debate about this fact; either way, it’s a masterpiece of opera and one of Mozart’s finest works. Although Mozart was not Italian himself, the famous libretto for this opera was also written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, which, at least in part, is what this opera is most remembered for.
The plot of the opera focuses around the fidelity of both men and women. It begins in a coffee house in Vienna, where a philosopher named Don Alfonso is talking about love with Guglielmo and Ferrando, two of his friends. The philosopher warns the younger men that all women are unfaithful, which leads to a debate and eventually a bet that the two men’s fiancées are unfaithful! This leads to a twisting labyrinth of Shakespearean intrigue which ends in the young men’s discovery that their fiancées were in fact, faithful to them!
The Best Italian Operas Need To Be Experienced To Be Believed!
There are few types of artform which pack more drama, lyrical beauty and powerful musical scores into a single performance; and with opera’s baroque roots the sets, make up and costumes are simply superb.
Ever since opera burst onto the scene in Florence around 400 years it has been transfixing audiences as its popularity spread, first through Europe and then the world at large.
Attending an opera will open your eyes to the masterful work that goes into its creation in a way that listening to a recording cannot. Not only will you be able to experience the power of the stunning vocalists but you’ll also be soaking up the electric atmosphere that brings the opera to life in all its visceral vitality.