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We all have our favourite operas (if you are into opera, of course). And frequently an intense debate among opera fanatics can arise over who is the best composer. After two hundred years we still debate about Wagner and Verdi, two amazing composers that changed opera forever. With this in mind, I have recently been asked the following: “Daniel, if you had to nominate five (and only five) operas that everyone must see before they die, what would they be?”
Seemed a pretty legitimate question to which I thought I would have a prompt reply. However it turned to become an excruciating puzzle. Of course there are operas that I love and that I would love to impress upon the world, but some of them are only known by a minority, and even those that know them could easily argue they’re not that good. For whatever reason they fell into oblivion, right?
Therefore I made up my mind and decided to put all my prejudices aside. (Ok, most of them. I can’t stand another performance of Carmen). And my top 5 is as follows – what is yours?
Puccini’s La Boheme
Those who love opera as much or more than me, probably wouldn’t expect I would say something so obvious, but let’s face it: La Boheme has it all. It still captivates us with its alluring score. Its libretto still touches people. Its music is ravishing and intense. If you frown upon reading this, remember that amazing third act! And the fourth act that can break even a rocky heart. No one can come away from this opera feeling indifferent!
I think that Verdi is the opera world’s incarnation of Shakespeare. His adaptations of this English theatre writer are the best ever made. (And I really like Thomas’ Hamlet). Among his adaptations, my personal favourite is Macbeth but I have to admit: Otello is far more impressive. When the curtain raises we are immediately banged with an overwhelming beginning. I still remember the first time I heard it. I couldn’t stop trembling and saying: “Oh my god!”. The scene in the tavern is very well-built and the love duet in the end of the first act is – in my opinion – the most romantic Verdi ever wrote. And what about Iago? Sublime! Verdi captures the devilry of this character with perfection. His aria in the second act gives me chills and his plots all across the second and third act are just perfect. And what about the sweet and innocent Desdemona? One can’t help feeling sorry for her suffering. Her Ave Maria anticipating her death is of a purity and candidness that one can’t hope crying for justice! Absolutely sublime. A masterpiece.
(Because mentioning the Ring Cycle would not be fair): Wagner is one of those composers that grows on you with time. I have a friend who is a big opera lover and after many years she keeps telling me “I think that I am not ready for Wagner yet. He is just too much”. Yes, indeed Wagner can be too much, but in a good way. He demands a lot of concentration and it may take a while for you to become completely immersed, but when it touches you – Aw! If Verdi or Puccini make your blood boil, Wagner messes with your mind. No surprise that during the 19th century some doctors diagnosed their patients with Wagnerite, a state of apathy caused by his music. Lohengrin or The Flying Dutchman might be easier to begin with but Tanhauser was the one that caught me. It starts with a striking overture and keeps growing, reaching its climax in the very ending when Tanhauser finds redemption and the choir of pilgrims sing together. Your heart beats faster, your mind blows. By the end of it you are rendered completely and absolutely useless.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Though not one of my favourites, I have to admit that this is an amazing opera. Considered by many as the Opera of Operas, this opera almost reaches perfection. It’s funny, witty and has a surprising finale. Musically it is delightful. It’s Mozart at full speed. You must wonder: If it’s that good, why don’t you like it? Simply because I find it too long. For me the second act could be cut in half and nothing would be lost. But when it was written times were different and people were looking for entertainment.
My last entry is Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites
Premiered in 1957 with a superb cast including Leyla Gencer, Fiorenza Cossotto and Virginia Zeani, this is an opera that is being gradually rediscovered. It has recently been staged by a number of major opera houses; last year in New York and Paris, this year in London at the Royal Opera. Ask anyone who has attended or listened to this opera and their reply is unanimous: Good Lord! What an opera!
Based in a convent during the time of the French revolution. With the institution of the republic, the convent together with many other religious institutions was nationalized and had to be closed. However these nuns fearless refuse to do so. For that reason they are arrested and condemned to death. Death by guillotine.
From the first prelude Poulenc very clearly shows us that this is going to be a grim and desperate opera. Its entire music encompasses a feeling of exasperation and anxiety towards the future and of a placid acceptance of what may come. It grows, and when on their way to their execution, the nuns start to sing a powerful Salve Regina, the sound of the guillotine echoes and a chill invades our bodies. One by one they are decapitated and the choir dwindles until all of them are gone but one, who is left singing alone. One more time the guillotine sounds and the opera comes to its bloody end. And the audience is left speechless, cold to death.
Daniel C. Antao da Silva