All art worlds have standards and rare gems. The genre of opera is no different. Rock and roll has the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, while film has great actors like Clark Gable and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Every art form that exists has classics that are shown repeatedly, be in on your television, your computer, or out in the real world somewhere.
We are dedicating this blog post to four famous operas we feel are essential in any company’s repertoire.
1. Don Giovanni
This two-act opera composed by Mozart was premiered on October 29, 1787, and it is now one of the top ten most-performed operas around the world. This story has also inspired many other works by other artists.
Don Giovanni centers around the title character who is a womanizer. Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, is watching for passersby while Don Giovanni pushes his unwanted advances against the Commendatore’s daughter Donna Anna.
In the Commendatore’s garden, we see Donna Anna following Don Giovanni, who is in disguise. She demands to know who the masked man is. Once Donna Anna is in Don Giovanni’s clutches she calls out for help. Her father comes to her aid and pulls out his sword.
While his daughter runs for help, Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore and escapes with Leporello. Donna Anna returns with her fiancé Don Ottavio and cries out when seeing her dead father. The heartbroken girl demands her love, Ottavio, to find and kill the person that murdered her father.
The next scene opens with Giovanni and Leporello coming upon Donna Elvira, a woman who is sad because her lover has deserted her. When Don Giovanni attempts to seduce her, they realize that he is the very lover she is pining for. The womanizer leaves his servant, Leporello, to clean up his mess.
Watch the highlights from Don Giovanni at the 16th Verbier Festival here.
2. Il fortunato inganno
The second in our list of most famous operas is the comedic work composed by Donizetti, performed in two acts. Set in the early nineteenth century Italy, this opera buffo’s title translates to The Happy Deception. We are introduced to an opera company directed by Lattanzio Lattrughelli. He is in the process of staging a new production, yet calamities occur frequently.
Eugenia is Lattanzio’s wife’s niece who is in love with Edoardo, a cavalry lieutenant. He loves her in return. However, Edoardo’s uncle Colonel Franceschetti will not allow his nephew to marry Eugenia because she is an actress.
Enter Aurelia, Eugenia’s aunt who is married to Lattanzio. She lets the Colonel believe she is a countess and that she is in love with him. When he falls for her deception, he gives the young couple his blessings.
Of course, the truth comes out but in the grand scheme of happy endings, the Colonel still agrees to let the two marry, and everyone is pleased.
Only one recording of this opera buffa exists, released in 1999. It was recorded during the performances we mentioned earlier at Festival della Valle d’Itria.
Arguably Leoncavallo’s most famous work (here’s a list with some of Leoncavallo’s most known operas), the story starts when Tonio, an actor, informs the audience that while this is a stage performance it is important to remember that actors are people too. From there we move into the first act and meet a troupe of vaudevillians. They arrive at a new village and begin to prepare for their next performance. The leader Canio and Pagliacco help Nedda, the leader’s girlfriend, down from the cart they are traveling on.
The rest of the crew teases Canio that Tonio loves Nedda and was planning on stealing her away from Canio. Canio insists that any man that would try to make a move on Nedda would pay the price. He also adds that he trusts her. Nedda is a bit shaken and scared by Tonio’s intensity.
Tonio does, in fact, try to woo Nedda but she rejects him, and we are led to believe that Nedda is the trustworthy woman Canio believes her to be. Little do we know that indeed Nedda does have a lover, but it isn’t Tonio. The lover is Silvio, and he begs Nedda to marry him and, even though she is frightened, she agrees. Tonio overhears the entire conversation and resigns to tell Canio of the lover’s plan. He runs off to find the troupe’s leader.
4. La bohéme
This opera has two versions written by two composers of famous operas. Once by Leoncavallo, which premiered in Venice at the Teatro la Fenice in May of 1897, and another version written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in February of 1896 – more than one year before Leoncavallo’s La bohéme. Both are still reproduced to this day, and there is drama surrounding this dual composition.
It was over this story that Leoncavallo and Puccini started their feud. It is said that Leoncavallo presented Puccini with a full libretto but upon rejection, Leoncavallo felt Puccini should step away from the project. Puccini continued with the project, and they both premiered an opera by the same name.
La bohéme is considered one of the most performed operas internationally, and it surrounds a group of youthful bohemians in Paris during the 1840s. Contrary to the novel, this adaptation of the story focuses mainly on two specific characters named Rodolfo and Mimi.
The stage opens to Marcello painting while his roommate Rodolfo daydreams. Trying to stay warm on a cold day, they use Rodolfo’s script to start a fire in the stove. Another roommate named Colline enters after a failed attempt to sell books and the fourth roommate, Schaunard, brings them food. The latter is a musician, and Colline is a philosopher.
At the end of the evening, all the bohemians except Rodolfo go out for the night. The writer stays behind to finish up a piece he has been working on. When he is alone, there is a rap at the door and he finds a young woman who also lives in the building. She asks Rodolfo to light her candle because she is out of matches and the wind had blown out the flame.
Suddenly the girl faints, and Rodolfo helps her. She tells him her name is Mimi and Rodolfo finds himself entranced by her. Rodolfo hears his friends calling him, and he looks to Mimi who is covered in the moonlight. Just like that, they fall in love.
Next, we find the bohemians on a street market, purchasing things and making their way to Café Momus. The group eats while they are approached by a woman who was once Marcello’s lover. Her name is Musetta; she taunts her new amore Alcindoro, a government minister.
As time goes on, we learn that Mimi is ill and Rodolfo has abandoned her. She carries a torch for him even though Mimi found another beau who was wealthy. The group is devastated when Mimi dies from her illness and Rodolfo realizes he loved her all along.