You can enjoy some of the best operas ever composed for free, online, or for the price of a DVD. Here are ten of the best operas made into excellent films to help you get started.
1) Verdi’s Rigoletto, 1982. Directed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle
The Duke of Mantua’s court is an opulent and resplendent moral cesspool. At the top of the hierarchy of dissoluteness is the Duke and at the bottom is Rigoletto, the hunch-backed court jester. Having nothing meaningful to do, the courtiers of the Duke while away their time in pettiness, the exploitation and corruption of innocent young women being high on their to-do list. Rigoletto, in the opera, blames the courtiers and Duke for his evil nature, as he has to go along to get along.
When Rigoletto mocks a father whose daughter has been sexually abused by the courtiers, the father puts a curse on Rigoletto. Indeed, we soon find that Rigoletto has a daughter, whom he has hidden away, but, the Duke discovers her existence. To find out the ending watch this rollicking, dynamically edited and colorful film starring Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke. This opera contains the famous aria “La Donna È Mobile” – women are fickle and can’t be trusted. This is sung by the Duke as a justification for the exploitation of women. Such a charming tune with such repugnant lyrics – an example of Verdi’s genius as one of the themes of the opera is that the most nauseating corruption often appears delightful.
2) Puccini’s La Bohème, 2008. Directed by Robert Dornhelm
Many folks consider this film version of Puccini’s classic to be the best film adaptation of an opera ever. It stars Anna Netrebko as Mimi and Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo. Rodolfo lives in abject poverty in Paris with his three male ‘bohemian’ friends. Mimi and Rodolfo meet in their building and fall deeply in love. Mimi, however, suffers from a horrible cough and Rodolfo is never able to attain the financial means to be of real assistance to her. She loves him in large measure due to his integrity and commitment to his art and bohemian lifestyle, but this commitment leaves him helpless in regard to her worsening situation.
3) Verdi’s La Traviata, 1968. Directed by Mario Lanfranchi
Be careful if you watch this film – you will probably fall in love with Anna Moffo who plays ‘La Traviata’ – the wayward girl. Anna is cool, glamorous, stylish, dazzling and very smart. In this opera the sincere love of Alfredo changes Violetta’s life, and she abandons the frivolous and self-absorbed world of Parisian nightlife for a life with Alfredo. Yet, Violetta’s reputation is not so easily abandoned. As she puts it, God can forgive and forget but people rarely want to do this. Although she is completely changed, Alfredo’s father does not want his son to be with this woman as it will harm the chances of Alfredo’s younger sister from marrying a ‘decent’ man. Indeed, it is implied that Alfredo’s relationship to Violetta will disgrace his whole family. This is another Verdi opera so expect amazing music and a strong story that moves along nicely.
4) Wagner’s Parsifal, 1982. Directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg became world famous through his 7-hour film of 1977 about Hitler. He was one of a number of post-war artists, journalists and scholars in Germany who examined Germany’s history and culture to see whether the Hitler phenomenon was inevitable or predictable. Of course, Hitler was a big Wagner buff and although Wagner has been almost completely exonerated by the music community, it is easy to point out problematic aspects of Wagner’s work that appealed to Hitler and, certainly, without Wagner a big chunk of ideology would have been missing from the future dictator’s life. Hitler, in fact, said that his ideological formation began when he first saw Wagner’s Rienzi.
Some might argue that we really cannot view a Wagnerian opera as just a Wagnerian opera any more but must view it through the filter of the horrific effects of World War II. These folks would say that the problematic aspects of Wagner had undeniable consequences. Syberberg seems to want to try to save Wagner as a meaningful and untainted part of German culture by making this film and by making it after his Hitler film, which was, in part, a defense of German culture. As Jonathan Bowden, however, pointed out, this is a Holy Grail search in a “Germanicized” and “dejudaized” Christianity – Wagner being a documented anti-Semite.
5) Mozart’s The Magic Flute, 1975, directed by Ingmar Bergman
Yep, this may be the only film he did where the characters are not wallowing in self-pity or rolling around in physical and emotional pain or playing board games with guys who tote around huge sickles. The only thing I do not like about this film version is that it is sung in Swedish instead of German. Otherwise, you have a very sincere Josef Köstlinger playing Price Tamino in his quest to free Princess Pamina. This is Mozart’s allegorical masterpiece and if you are only going to ever see one opera, make it this one which is filled with goodwill, humor and humanity. Tamino = spiritual desire, Pamina = the fulfilment of spiritual desire, Monostatos = those factors that keep true desire and fulfilment from uniting.
6) Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 1982. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Canio is a very popular clown in a traveling troupe and his most popular comic piece involves a clown whose wife is seduced and spirited away by another man. In the comedy the clown played by Canio laughs the situation off when he loses his wife and merely starts his life anew. Yet, when the same situation occurs in real life as Canio’s wife Nedda (also in the troupe) is seduced by another man, tragedy ensues. When Canio sings the famous aria, ‘Vesti La Giubba’ - “Laugh clown, at your shattered love…” - he not only reveals his anguish of being betrayed but also of not being able to live up to the standard he has been acting throughout his career. This is probably the most famous aria in opera and Caruso had a million seller with it when he released it on 78 rpm in 1907 (the first million selling record). A very nice performance by Teresa Stratas who was not your stereotypical opera diva – she was about 5 feet tall and 90 lbs. during her prime.
7) Richard Strauss’ Salome, 1974. Directed by Götz Friedrich
Oscar Wilde wrote the play on which this libretto was based and he wrote it to be a shocker. Salome, as the daughter of Herod, has never been taught to say ‘no’ to anything. This is a young woman with zero self-restraint and no discernible moral code. She learns of a very important prisoner and the more she learns about him the more fascinated she becomes. John the Baptist is, after all, a guy who has been saying ‘no’ to things his whole life. She becomes fascinated with him, wonders how he became the way he did, and, most importantly, she wants to have sex with him. She wants to just start with a kiss, which, as you might expect, John refuses to give her. Well, pretty soon he is without his head, but she is now able to get that kiss she always wanted. Yes, a shocker! Teresa Stratas is amazing as Salome in this production.
8) Mozart’s Don Giovanni, 1979. Directed by Joseph Losey
Losey did some excellent work in the 1950s in Hollywood until he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his leftist views. He moved to Europe and was, thankfully, able to continue working there. So when a leftist decides to pick an opera to film, he picks that opera for a reason, right? Losey, furthermore, begins the opera with a quote from Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” So Losey is overtly inviting us to examine the sociological and class aspects of this opera. Don Giovanni, indeed, embodies everything that will turn into the industrial bourgeoisie class – he is completely self-absorbed, oblivious to the suffering of others, super aggressive and incapable of restraining his actions or temper. Leporello is his proletarian accomplice, sometimes dreading and sometimes wallowing in Don Giovanni’s corruption.
9) Berg’s Wozzeck, 1970. Directed by Joachim Hess
Toni Blankenheim plays the unconsciously incompetent soldier who does not resist his baser passions and kills his wife for her infidelity before dying, himself, in his attempt to cover the crime up. The opera was composed shortly after World War I and, to a great extent, Wozzek can represent a misguided and morally crippled European leadership before, during and after the war, leading to the carnage of WWII. This is actually a TV film, but it is so good I included it in the list.
10) Bizet’s Carmen, 1984. Directed by Francesco Rosi
Maybe the most popular opera ever – and for good reason: amazing tunes and a provocative plot. In this film version Placido Domingo plays Don Jose, an army corporal lured away from the established and respected life he had been sinking deeper into and lured into the lawless freedom of Carmen’s gypsy band. Unfortunately, once her conquest is over, it is Carmen’s nature to look for the next one and this proves too much for Don Jose.