You Gotta Know These Operas
Each operatic title is followed by the name of its composer, its librettist, and the year of its first performance.
- Aida (Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Ghislanzoni, 1871): Aida is an Ethiopian princess who is held captive in Egypt. She falls in love with the Egyptian general Radamès and convinces him to run away with her; unfortunately, he is caught by the high priest Ramphis and a jealous Egyptian princess, Amneris. Radamès is buried alive, but finds that Aida has snuck into the tomb to join him. The opera was commissioned by the khedive of Egypt and intended to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal, but it was finished late and instead premiered at the opening of the Cairo Opera House.
- Carmen (Georges Bizet, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, 1875): Carmen is a young gypsy who works in a cigarette factory in Seville. She is arrested by the corporal Don José for fighting, but cajoles him into letting her escape. They meet again at an inn where she tempts him into challenging his captain; that treason forces him to join a group of smugglers. In the final act, the ragtag former soldier encounters Carmen at a bullfight where her lover Escamillo is competing (the source of the “Toreador Song”) and stabs her. The libretto was based on a novel by Prosper Merimée.
- The Marriage of Figaro (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lorenzo Da Ponte, 1786): Figaro and Susanna are servants of Count Almaviva who plan to marry, but this plan is complicated by the older Marcellina who wants to wed Figaro, the Count — who has made unwanted advances to Susanna —, and Don Bartolo, who has a loan that Figaro has sworn he will repay before he marries. The issues are resolved with a series of complicated schemes that involve impersonating other characters, including the page Cherubino. The opera is based on a comedy by Pierre de Beaumarchais. Be careful: Many of the same characters also appear in The Barber of Seville!
- The Barber of Seville (Gioacchino Rossini, Cesare Sterbini, 1816): Count Almaviva loves Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo. Figaro (who brags about his wit in “Largo al factotum”) promises to help him win the girl. He tries the guise of the poor student Lindoro, a drunken soldier, and then a replacement music teacher, all of which are penetrated by Dr. Bartolo. Eventually they succeed by climbing in with a ladder and bribing the notary who was to marry Rosina to Dr. Bartolo himself. This opera is also based on a work of Pierre de Beaumarchais and is a prequel to The Marriage of Figaro.
- William Tell (Gioacchino Rossini, Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, 1829): William Tell is a 14th-century Swiss patriot who wishes to end Austria’s domination of his country. In the first act he helps Leuthold, a fugitive, escape the Austrian governor, Gessler. In the third act, Gessler has placed his hat on a pole and ordered the men to bow to it. When Tell refuses, Gessler takes his son, Jemmy, and forces Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell succeeds, but is arrested anyway. In the fourth act, he escapes from the Austrians and his son sets their house on fire as a signal for the Swiss to rise in revolt. The opera was based on a play by Friedrich von Schiller.
- Don Giovanni (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lorenzo Da Ponte, 1787): Don Giovanni (the Italian form of “Don Juan”) attempts to seduce Donna Anna, but is discovered by her father, the Commendatore, whom he kills in a swordfight. Later in the act, his servant Leporello recounts his master’s 2,000-odd conquests in the “Catalogue Aria.” Further swordfights and assignations occur prior to the final scene, in which a statue of the Commendatore comes to life, knocks on the door to the room in which Don Giovanni is feasting, and then opens a chasm that takes him down to hell.
- Salome (Richard Strauss based on the play by Oscar Wilde, 1905): Jokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned in the dungeons of King Herod. Herod’s 15-year-old step-daughter Salome becomes obsessed with the prisoner’s religious passion and is incensed when he ignores her advances. Later in the evening Herod orders Salome to dance for him (the “Dance of the Seven Veils”), but she refuses until he promises her “anything she wants.” She asks for the head of Jokanaan and eventually receives it, after which a horrified Herod orders her to be killed; his soldiers crush her with their shields.
- Boris Godunov (Modest Mussorgsky, 1874): The opera’s prologue shows Boris Godunov, the chief adviser of Ivan the Terrible, being pressured to assume the throne after Ivan’s two children die. In the first act the religious novice Grigori decides that he will impersonate that younger son, Dmitri (the [first] “false Dmitri”), whom, it turns out, Boris had killed. Grigori raises a general revolt and Boris’ health falls apart as he is taunted by military defeats and dreams of the murdered tsarevich. The opera ends with Boris dying in front of the assembled boyars (noblemen).
- La bohème (Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, 1896): This opera tells the story of four extremely poor friends who live in the French (i.e., Students’) Quarter of Paris: Marcello the artist, Rodolfo the poet, Colline the philosopher, and Schaunard the musician. Rodolfo meets the seamstress Mimì who lives next door when her single candle is blown out and needs to be relit. Marcello is still attached to Musetta, who had left him for the rich man Alcindoro. In the final act, Marcello and Rodolfo have separated from their lovers, but cannot stop thinking about them. Musetta bursts into their garret apartment and tells them that Mimi is dying of consumption (tuberculosis); when they reach her, she is already dead. La Bohème was based on a novel by Henry Murger and, in turn, formed the basis of the hit 1996 musical Rent by Jonathan Larson.
- Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, 1904): The American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is stationed in Nagasaki where, with the help of the broker Goro, he weds the young girl Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) with a marriage contract with a cancellation clause. He later returns to America, leaving Cio-Cio-San to raise their son “Trouble” (whom she will rename “Joy” upon his return). When Pinkerton and his new American wife Kate do return, Cio-Cio-San gives them her son and stabs herself with her father’s dagger. The opera is based on a play by David Belasco.