With the Olympics coming to a close on Sunday, all eyes will soon be off London, allowing the city to recover from the world-class event.
But for those still jonesing for some Anglophilia, there is plenty of British culture to soak up—even beyond the multitude of cultural icons that put in guest appearances during the opening ceremony.
So with that in mind, we offer our roundup of the top ten operas set in the country of James Bond, Harry Potter and Mary Poppins. And, with the spirit of the Olympics in mind, we’re looking beyond British composers to a multinational pool of creators. Read on for more from Germany, the United States, Italy, Russia and—of course—the United Kingdom.
10. Martha (Flotow)
There’s an element of foppish Restoration comedy in Friedrich von Flotow’s opera about a maid-of-honor to Queen Anne and her friend who masquerade as servants on a lark and end up falling in love with the two humble farmers who hire them out for a year. Countering the farcical plot, however, is a lush Germanic score in the vein of Weber or Schubert. Flotow works in a traditional Irish tune, “The Last Rose of Summer” as an aria for his heroine, but it’s the song her besotted farmer sings after he loses her (“Ach so fromm”) that has survived as a staple of the tenor rep.
9. Sweeney Todd (Sondheim)
Is it opera? Is it a musical? Who cares when you have a full orchestra and full-throated singers pulling out all the stops in this story of love, loss and revenge manifesting themselves in shaving and meat pies. There’s a grittiness and griminess that comes through in the beginning when the title character sings of a “hole in the world like a great black pit,” but also a genteel air—both genuine and affected—in other characters like Johanna and Judge Turpin. All in all, it’s a well-balanced portrait of a city on fire.
8. The Mines of Sulphur (Bennett)
Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only opera to be set in an old country estate (hey, it’s built-in drama), but the decaying West County manor house in Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1963 work provides a singular story of a maidservant conspiring with two accomplices to kill her master and steal his riches. An ensuing play-within-a-play lends a Hamlet-esque touch that is brought to a close by no less than the plague, but the star of the work is Bennett’s voluptuous 12-tone score that provides a kinky, unsettling atmosphere.
7. The Tudor Queens Trilogy (Donizetti)
Nearly impossible to consider one without the other two works, Donizetti’s triptych of Tudor monarchs casts a wide net, covering the history of Henry VIII. It starts with his ill-fated second wife, Anne Boleyn, carries through to the rivalry of his daughter, Elizabeth I with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, and culminates in Elizabeth’s torrid affair with Robert Devereux. History plays the handmaiden to drama in these three works. However, the trilogy lends additional support to the theory that Donizetti’s music can do no wrong.
6. The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky)
Stravinsky’s English-language opera, with a libretto co-written by no less than W.H. Auden, casts the Faust myth in London, inspired by eight paintings from the 1700s courtesy of William Hogarth. Captivating from the get-go, the opera provides some takeaway hits like the spurned Anne Truelove’s coloratura showpiece “No word from Tom,” Nick Shadow’s devilish “I burn! I freeze!” and Tom Rakewell’s declamatory “Here I stand.” And Stravinsky’s manic score is the perfect current to Tom’s inevitable landing in the infamous Bedlam mental hospital. Here's an excerpt from Scene Two in a production by the Glyndebourne Festival in 2010:
5. I Puritani (Bellini)
This may be the operatic equivalent of the London Olympics: an Italian opera, set in Plymouth, based on a source text by two French playwrights (which was in turn based on a work by a Scottish author) with music that foreshadowed German Romanticism. The context of the English Civil War provides the dramatic crucible in which the Puritan Elvira’s marriage to Royalist Arturo is threatened by Arturo aiding the widow of Charles I and becoming a fugitive. Elvira’s ensuing madness is alleviated a little too neatly, but her music, along with everyone else’s, is nevertheless beautiful. They don’t call it “bel canto” for nothing.
4. Wuthering Heights (Herrmann)
In 1943, American composer Bernard Herrmann, best known for his Alfred Hitchcock scores, was working on the music for Robert Stevenson’s cinematic adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which starred Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester) when his eye was caught by another Brontë sister: Emily. Tailoring her best-known novel to the operatic form—focusing on the first half of the novel and incorporating some of Emily’s poetry into the libretto—Herrmann sonically captures the Romanticism of the source material and captures the gloominess of the Yorkshire moors. It provides a compelling backdrop for a young, brooding man destroyed by love, as this excerpt from the Minnesota Opera and featuring soprano Sara Jakubiak reveals.
3. H.M.S. Pinafore (Sullivan)
It’s hard to pick a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan work (and I have to give a shout out to my personal favorite, The Mikado). But there’s something about this story of a lass loving a sailor presumably below her station that leaves it a winner among the duo’s canon. Moreover, the music is some of their most infectious, from the jaunty trio “Never mind the why and wherefore,” the popular patter “When I was a lad,” and the rousing “He is an Englishman.”
2. Falstaff (Verdi)
While some composers slow down towards the end of their careers, Verdi’s final opera, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, is one of his finest. The rapid-fire shifts in the score and libretto almost echo the later madcap pace of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, continuing seamlessly through to the fugal finale. Collaborating with Arrigo Boito on the libretto, Verdi also does the Bard’s cunning wordplay proud, and the happy ending (culminating in a sparkling fugal finale) goes to show that an effective British opera needn’t end in bloodshed and tears.
1. The Turn of the Screw (Britten)
With its manifold moorlands and extensive estates, rural England is rightfully recognized as a prime setting for Gothic ghost stories. And it doesn’t get much better than Britten’s chilling, creepy tale of a governess who travels to Essex to care for two children haunted by the past in a very overt way. Britten’s music captures a mistiness that complements the memories dominating the work, a mist that clears into some starkly ambiguous revelations. Hard to find a work that better exemplifies British opera in every sense of the term.