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10 Great Opera Performances

by Jamie Frater
fact checked by Alex Hanton

Just moments ago, Luciano Pavarotti died in Italy. It seemed fitting, therefore, that I should write a top ten list of the greatest opera performances. It has been almost impossible for me to filter this down to only ten items and I have had to leave so many wonderful singers off. Please add any you feel are missing to the comments and hopefully there will be a second list before too long.

10. Kirsten Flagstad, Ho jo To ho, from Wagner’s, Walkure

Kirsten Flagstad – Brünnhilde’s battle cry “Ho jo to ho !” (Die Walküre, Wagner)

Flagstad was undoubtedly the best Brunhilde. In this video you have to look past the slightly embarrassing staging and dramatics and focus on the brilliantly strong voice. It is amazing how effortless she makes it look.

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9. Rosa Ponselle, Habanera, from Bizet’s Carmen

Another great like Carusa, Ponselle has such a natural and free voice. It is perfectly suited to the Habanera from Carmen. She was 40 years old, at the height of her popularity, and apart from a receding upper register, still in magnificent voice.

8. Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill, The Pearl Fisher’s Duet, from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers

Jussi Björling & Robert Merrill / Pearl Fishers Duet

I am very pleased to be able to include this duet between two great singers – the Tenor Bjorling and the Baritone Robert Merrill. I love Merrill’s baritone voice and I would consider this recording to be one of the greatest ever made of this duet.

7. Enrico Caruso, La Donna e Mobile, from Verdi’s Rigoletto

Alas there is no video footage to be found on youtube of Caruso so we will have to put up with this recording of his voice played over various pictures. Caruso is probably the most famous name in opera the world over. He is still considered by many people to be the greatest tenor to have lived.

6. Leontyne Price, O Patria Mia, from Verdi’s Aida

Price is famous for owning this role, and in this performance you can see why. A truly oustanding singer, Price, was an African American born in the segregated South, whose rise to international fame in the 1950s and 60s was widely noted as a triumph over institutional prejudice.

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5. Luciano Pavarotti, Una Furtiva, from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love

Luciano Pavarotti sings “Nessun dorma” from Turandot (The Three Tenors in Concert 1994)

Rather than the very well known Nessun Dorma, I have chosen this song because it is not heard as often as it should be – and Pavarotti handles it with great skill. It is also nice to see him perform in an operatic setting, rather than a concert. This aria really makes the opera.

4. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Porgi Amor, from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

I have selected this performance because Dame Kiri is one of the greatest Mozartian sopranos around and this particular performance really highlights her convincing acting. In every way, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a lady. If you get a chance, find her recording of Schubert’s Nacht und Traume – it is perfect.

3. Maria Callas, Vissi d’Arte, from Puccini’s Tosca

Maria Callas sings “Casta Diva” (Bellini: Norma, Act 1)

I have chosen this particular performance over others as it gives a very good impression of how brilliant Callas was, not just vocally, but in acting. Whilst never letting go of her technique, Callas was known to allow the acting take the front stage in her performances and she was occasionally criticized for letting the quality of her vocal lines drop in favor of the emotion of the song. This recording is from Covent Garden in 1964. I believe the gentleman on stage with her is Tito Gobbi.

2. Kathleen Battle, Elisabeth Söderström, and Frederica von Stade, The Final Trio, from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

1983 MET100 GALA:Der Rosenkavalier. Final trio / R. Strauss

I am including this because of the supreme beauty of the trio and the fact that three of our greatest opera singers are together for the performance: Kathleen Battle, Elisabeth Söderström, and Frederica von Stade. Kathleen Battle’s voice just floats. If you have a fear of clowns, you may want to close your eyes when you see Frederica von Stade’s dress. The conductor is, of course, the amazing James Levine.

1. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, The Death of Rodrigo, from Verdi’s Don Carlo

There may be some surprise over this selection – particularly as Russian singer Hvorostovsky’s abilities have caused some controversy, but this particular performance (from the Cardiff Singer of the World competition that he won in 1989) is perfect. Once the aria begins, the long lines without taking a breath are phenomenal. Hvorostovsky is an actor of great talent on stage, and that really shows through particularly at the end of this aria. I would say it is the best performance of an operatic male death scene around. Hvorostovsky is definitely one of the greatest living opera singers. After this performance He received one of the biggest standing ovations in the history of the competition. Incidentally, this was the performance that beat Welsh Bryn Terfel that year.

Notable omissions: Sutherland, De Luca, Scotti, Ruffo, Norman, and so many many more.

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fact checked by Alex Hanton
Jamie Frater

Jamie is the founder of Listverse. When he’s not doing research for new lists or collecting historical oddities, he can be found in the comments or on Facebook where he approves all friends requests!

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