The Top 10 Operas Set in Rome

Email a Friend

Next week, Woody Allen takes us on a tour of Italy’s capital with his newest film, "To Rome, With Love," featuring among its cast the voice of the New York Philharmonic, Alec Baldwin.

And while opera has no shortage of works set in Venice, Florence, Verona, Sicily and Naples, at first glance it doesn’t boast as many works set in Rome. Of course, there is the one glaring exception to that rule (and perhaps that gives away our top choice right off the bat). But looking beyond that and into the nitty-gritty of Italy-set works, Rome has nestled its way into the scores and settings of quite a few composers from around the globe.

In compiling this list, there are a few works that were discounted on technicalities—technically, Verdi’s Attila takes place outside of Rome—but there are still plenty of ways to operatically experience the Eternal City. Read on for our ranked list and tell us: What Italian cities provide the setting for some of your favorite operas? Leave your picks in the comments below.

10. Pfitzner: Palestrina
Hans Pfitzner’s 1917 opera depicting the life of composer Palestrina, his musical innovations surrounding polyphony and how that played into the greater reformation of the Church is a spellbinding meditation on art and faith that tempers modern composition with the sixteenth-century idioms perfected by the title composer. Rome may seem a bit perfunctory to the setting in this intensely Germanic work, serving as a historical fact rather than a defining characteristic, but the religious and political zeitgeist of Palestrina’s time still resonates in many ways today.

9. Massenet: Roma and Spontini: La Vestale
I realize grouping two works together is a bit of a cheat, but these are so similar in scope that it warrants discussing them together. Both operas center on dying women, both of whom failed in their duties as Vestal Virgins. Both of them avoid the traditional fate of being buried alive in a black veil, however to different ends.

Fausta, the Vestal of Massenet’s Roma, is stabbed by her blind grandmother, while Julia, the heroine of La Vestale, is pardoned when a thunderstorm reignites the flame and everyone takes it as a sign from the gods. Premiered about 100 years apart (in fact, Roma is celebrating its centenary this year), the musical styles these operas bookend are vast, but they show a definite progression from the French classical tradition into grander constructs and finally into even lusher, Romantic trends. 

8. Boito: Nerone
A work that haunted its composer for nearly six decades, Boito’s 1924 opera (completed by the triumvirate of Arturo Toscanini, Vincenzo Tommasini and Antonio Smareglia following Boito’s death in 1918) was a work as ambitious as Rome itself. You wonder how it would have sounded had its creator been able to see it through to completion personally, but as it stands it’s a piece that depicts the fall of Rome with unsettling harmonies that foreshadowed film noir and Italian neorealist film scores. Fiddle-dee-dee.

7. Wagner: Rienzi
Before Wagner turned to medieval Germanic and Eddic myths, one of his early works depicted the life of medieval Roman tribune Cola di Rienzi. It’s decidedly un-Wagnerian in style—the most famous joke against it was Hans von Bülow’s wisecrack that “Rienzi is Meyerbeer’s best opera”—and it has yet to be performed at Bayreuth. But there is still a lot to love about the glittering, multifaceted score, even if the story about Rienzi’s political excommunication and fiery death rings a little overblown. (Not that Wagner ever wrote another overblown libretto again…)

6. Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
Despite being a Florentine artist, Benvenuto Cellini’s time in Rome is the focus of Berlioz’s wildly grand and demanding bio-opera that tempers the sculptor’s love for an otherwise-betrothed woman with an artistic commission by the Pope and a pending murder charge. Musically, it captures the unwieldy cacophony of artistic influences contained in a city that is comprised of layer-upon-layer of history, and while it is rarely performed today, Berlioz’s Le carnival romain was birthed from this work.

5. Britten: The Rape of Lucretia
Britten’s first so-called “chamber opera” is also one of his finest, funneling an epic story of Rome’s foreign rule by Tarquinius Superbus and its subsequent civic nadir into an intensely personal story about one woman’s chastity and fidelity. When that itself is conquered, her subsequent suicide leads to another political upheaval. Britten tempers this historical episode with meditations on faith and religion, the divide between paganism and Christianity, and worlds old and new.

4. Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea
For all of the operas about Roman politicians, very few take place in the capital city—take, for example, Handel’s Giulio Cesare, whose longform title is Giulio Cesare in Egitto. One that bucks this trend is Monteverdi’s posthumously-completed operas, set primarily in the Imperial Palace and detailing the rise of its titular femme fatale from mistress of Nero to Roman empress. It’s also one of the first operas to not rely on mythology and instead focus on historical events, though the mythical nature of these figures still shines through like a high noon sun in Trastevere.

3. Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Yes, Rome is a city in which a lot of serious history took place. But it also has no shortage of sunbaked charm, the likes of which you encounter in Donizetti’s pert buffo cautionary tale about trophy wives and the old codgers who love them. It’s as intoxicatingly giddy as a booze-fuelled Campo dei Fiori at night and as charming as a gelato-fuelled stroll through the Villa Borghese during the day. And I dare you to not smile during the Pasquale and Malatesta duet, so aptly summed up in animated GIF form at this equally entertaining new Tumblr.

2. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Should you ever find yourself in Rome, hop on a bus line headed towards the Circus Maximus (the 628 or 81 should do the trick), and listen to the overture for this late Mozart gem as the city scrolls by. You’ll end up by Titus’s Triumphal Arch, which leaves you in the perfect visual mindset to enjoy this work, based on the life of the Roman emperor and a failed assassination plot that results in his eponymous clemency. The classical score gives you a taste for Roman antiquity, and Pietro Metastasio’s libretto is full of empirical grandeur and emotional spitfire.

1. Puccini: Tosca
Yeah, yeah, yeah, none of you are really surprised by this. But there’s a reason that Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” is the best opera set in Rome: The eternal city becomes an eternal character, complementing the triangle established between Scarpia, Cavaradossi and Tosca herself. There’s a sense of place embedded into the score that doesn’t leave no matter how you represent the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle or Palazzo Farnese. (Though, as Alex Ross pointed out last year, the jump from Castel Sant’Angelo doesn’t necessarily provide a clear plummet towards certain death, which means that Tosca could have survived… leaving room for a sequel.)