Top 10 Moments in Opera

Having a passion for a topic – any topic – is a wonderful thing. Indulging in the pleasures of your field gives you the opportunity to get lost in the excessive emotion you might feel, whether it be scenic, sonic, verbal, or in a combination of various perceptive elements.

People with a passion for dancing can spend hours watching ballet or dancing themselves; people who love reading can read for hours on end and completely forget about the time. For such people, making a top 10 list might very well feel like a sin.

To be honest, I feel a bit like that myself right now. And yet they are a wonderful way to share something you love; something which moves you, touches you, something you wish the world would enjoy to the same extent.

For that reason, I here present to you my 10 best moments from opera. Why moments, rather than arias? Well… because they’re not all arias! And how did I go about selecting them? On a purely subjective basis. I’m making no claim that these are ‘the best moments in the history of opera’; merely that they are my current favourites which I can indulge in time and again. They might very well change according to my daily mood, depending on what bloody earworm I have. They probably do. Nevertheless, without further ado, here it goes:

Final Scene from Salomé

Salomé is a strange opera. Composed by Richard Strauss, based on a German translation of the French play written by the Irish Oscar Wilde who usually wrote comedies in English, it’s not obvious that it would have succeeded. But succeed it did. In the final scene Salomé, driven mad by the voice of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and the absence of peace she thought having him executed would bring her, kisses the lips of the decapitated head and declares her love for him (obviously something we all experience every day). A strangely beautiful and eerie scene, it leaves the audience confused and whirled in a tangle after a whole range of haunting compositions throughout the opera, bringing it to a perfect ending through Strauss’s equally strange and lovely music, with the tensions notably rising as Salomé moves through the aria and Herod finally gives the order to have her executed.

‘Flower Duet’ from Lakmé

Probably a bit of a lazy choice due to its undeniable popularity, the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé is nevertheless one of my favourites. Composed during the High Romanticism of 1883, this piece is used frequently in both films and advertisements, making it probably one of the most recognisable pieces of music of all time. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s absolutely gorgeous, heart-warming, moving, full of beautiful harmonies and a calm, serene rhythm. Within the opera’s plot, we are given a calm moment: Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest and her servant, are gathering some flowers by a river. Of course, it’s basically escapism performed by the characters who wish to drift along with the times, so not all is as idyllic as it seems. But here, they provide us with a moment of paradise.

‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot

Another obvious and popular choice, ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot brings a moment of peace and beauty to the dreadful sense of tension occurring in the opera. Calaf wishes to marry the deadly and beautiful Princess Turandot, who forces each potential suitor to answer three riddles: if he fails, he is executed; if he succeeds, she is forced to wed him. Calaf successfully solves them, but rather than forcing her to marry someone whom she hates, he gives her a way out: if she can find out his name by dawn, he will die. Calaf anticipates his victory, singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ – ‘Nobody shall sleep’, while the entire population of Peking is seeking to solve his riddle. Oh, and Pavarotti’s singing in this recording is perfect:

‘Possente Amor’ from Rigoletto

Probably a more unusual choice from a generally popular opera, ‘Possente Amor’ (Mighty Love) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is fascinating for its break from an otherwise particularly dark and brooding tragedy. The disgustingly dashing Duke of Mantua, famed for abducting and having his way with as many girls as he sees fit, never seems to realise the fatality his actions might have on his victims, and in this aria it is no different: laden with major cords and an up-beat rhythm, one would hardly think that anything bad is going on at all… but considering Rigoletto’s laments and curses throughout the rest of the opera, we know exactly what is going on. Here another recording with Pavarotti (yes, again), finishing the aria off with a high D for six seconds!

‘Isolde’s Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde

Ahh. Tristan und Isolde, one of my favourite operas by Richard Wagner. Does it feel too long at times, as though it’s dragging on? Quite possibly (four hours!). Is it quite humorous how gigantic the opera is, as though everything has to be as large as possible? Certainly. Is it frustrating how the bloody thing starts with a dissonant chord which is never resolved until this aria? Without a doubt. But it’s entirely worth it. This aria, in which Isolde has realised the death of her beloved Tristan, is so heart-wrenchingly depressing that it leaves me with tears in my eyes. Isolde is in a state of denial, swearing that she can still see Tristan smiling and breathing, while she claims to feel herself in a moment of ‘highest bliss’ – while everyone (including Isolde, her friends, the audience) knows that he is, in reality, as dead as a doornail. And yes, that bloody chord from the start is finally brought to a harmonic conclusion.

‘Der Höllen Rache’ from Die Zauberflöte

I must admit to my shame that I am not the biggest fan of Mozart’s operas. Yes, of course they’re beautiful with the gorgeous music you’d expect from a composer of his calibre, and I’d readily listen to any given number of his arias on any day of the week. But they’re often very long, lack a particular dramatic element, and just seem to be reeking of a world which is too good to be true. That’s probably the reason why I particularly value two arias from his operas – one of them being ‘Der Höllen Rache’ from Die Zauberflöte. The Queen of the Night swears to the gods that she will bring the ultimate form of vengeance down on her own daughter if she doesn’t work against Sarastro. The aria is perfect with several changes in mood and a brilliant range for interpretation (provided the singer is skilled enough to interpret this monstrously difficult piece). It is perfect musical drama, through and through. This recording with Diana Damrau is probably the best thing that ever happened since the invention of wine. Ten points for the reader who can point out in the comments the other aria I adore most from Mozart’s operas.

‘Che Gelida Manina’ from La Bohème

Okay, last Puccini and last Pavarotti, I promise. On the surface it looks like dreadful kitsch: Rodolfo, a poverty-ridden poet, falls in love with the young and beautiful Mimi, who is equally smitten. They struggle through life; Mimi has ‘consumption’ (tuberculosis) and dies in a scene which tears at the heartstrings of any listener. But kitsch aside, the music is so beautiful it makes me jealous. Perhaps it’s just precisely because the story is a simple love-at-first-sight plotline that it touches and moves most people… in this particular aria, Rodolfo has just met Mimi and immediately falls in love with her (of course!), so he sings of his longing in four and a half minutes of musical (and lyrical!) heaven.

‘Grand Inquisitor’ from Don Carlo

To bring the drama back here’s another gorgeous duet. Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo is full of tragic and dramatic moments of tension, hardly ever leaving the audience with a moment’s rest. In this particularly dark moment, the Grand Inquisitor visits King Philippe II of Spain, who asks whether the church finds it acceptable for him to put his own son to death. The Inquisitor, ninety years old and as blind as a bat, sees no problem with it and demands, additionally, that the King has Posa killed – the only friend the king still has (or so he believes). The duet portrays perfectly the large tension in power between the church and the state, and is, accordingly, sung by two imposing sounding basses. A very memorable moment in the history of opera.

The piano bit in Turn of the Screw

Okay, calling this scene ‘the piano bit’ might seem less than professional, but since the opera isn’t as clearly divided into individual sections as older ones are, I’m not sure what else to call it. I believe it’s officially called ‘Variation XIII’ – but ‘piano bit’ is probably more memorable. Whatever, just go with it! Benjamin Britten’s haunting opera Turn of the Screw is absolutely brilliant. Based on Henry James’s ghost-ridden novella of the same name, the composer manages to bring out the uncanny and eerie tone of the source material so perfectly that it gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. And this particular scene, when Miles (the creepy kid) plays dissonant and uncomfortable scales on the piano while Flora (his sister) makes Mrs. Grose (the housekeeper) fall asleep so that she can leave the house, perfectly captures the mood of the entire opera… incredible music from an incredible opera. But you probably already knew I liked the opera from my review.

Ending of Götterdämmerung

Yes, I’m finishing with another Wagner. And one which is equally guilty of the sins I mentioned above regarding Tristan und Isolde. But I just can’t leave it out. The Ring-Cycle is an incredible colossus of four operas, altogether lasting roughly 16 hours if you listen to the thing in its entirety. Some sections feel rather slow (esp. in Rheingold and Siegfried), but you should never skip it because there are hidden gems spread throughout all four operas. And, when you’ve finally managed to survive this 16-hour madness of opera, you are rewarded with this finale. The end of the gods has come, Brunhilde, after having lamented the death of the last great hero Siegfried, embraces death herself, and the common people finally acknowledge and await a world without divine intervention. It’s magnificent with lovely harmonies, echoes of some of the opera’s most memorable tunes and rhythms, and represents the perfect finale to one of the greatest accomplishments in opera composition of all time. The moment I’m referring to in this link begins at 13:49, but you might as well listen to the thing in its entirety. It’s probably one of Gwyneth Jones’ most memorable roles as Brunhilde in the grand (and controversial through its communist undertones) production by Pierre Boulez.

Would you recommend other operatic moments which I didn’t mention? Do you think I should reconsider entirely? Then feel free to leave a comment below. If you enjoyed reading the list, please do share it on social media by clicking on one of the tender buttons below.