Easy listening opera!
February 22, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy listening to classical music while I work on creative pursuits and lately I've been hankering for more opera. I really enjoy Handel's Messiah (the whole thing, not just the chorus). I know the Messiah isn't technically an opera but wanted to give you a sense of the musical and vocal styles I'm enjoying right now. I also like Wagner's Ring cycle though that's not quite as "listenable" to me. Given this, what operas would you recommend? I'm really looking for specific opera titles, not just composers I might like.
posted by purple_bird to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately this is not an exact title, but I think it is the best place to start: The operas of Handel.

I like Tannhauser by Wagner, though to be honest I mostly like the Pilgrim's Chorus.

I wouldn't call Mozart "easy listening" ... but he's easy to listen to. Marriage of Figaro is a lot of fun.

What do you most like about Messiah? Can you point to some of your favorite parts and what it is about them that appeals to you?
posted by bunderful at 11:42 AM on February 22, 2014

Okay it's so far from Messiah that it is a little laughable but Golijov's "Ainadamar" is fantastic and very listenable. It's a flamenco opera about Federico Garcia Lorca, told from the perspective of Margarita Xirgu.

Also, you might consider making a playlist of opera overtures. Those are considerably more "listenable" than plot-driven recitative, arias and ensembles.

If you're liking Messiah, check out Israel in Egypt.

And of course other oratorios would fall into that category. Jephte by Carissimi. Orff's Carmina Burana. Perhaps Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. Vaughan-Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem.
posted by jph at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2014

If you're already used to stomach Wagner, Mozart can be pretty easy listening, actually. Apart from Figaro, try Die Entführung aus dem Serail (K. 384; The Abduction from the Seraglio).
If it's not only fun you're after but really truly Great Music, seek out his Don Giovanni
(apart from, in fact, trying to listen to everything by Mozart).

If Handel means, technically, "whatever long and vocal and joyful Handel" for you, listen to Alexander's Feast, it's just as much fun as Messiah.

I suppose easier than Wagner's Ring cycle is his Meistersinger.
posted by Namlit at 12:03 PM on February 22, 2014

Handel was one of the greats of the Classical period (roughly corresponding to the 18th century). Messiah's an oratorio rather than an opera, and he wrote a lot of them, so you'd probably enjoy some more of those if you like Messiah. Check out Elijah and see what you think.

Mozart's also usually placed in the Classical period, so it's probably worth checking out some of his less serious operas - I usually recommend The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) to first-time Mozart listeners. Wagner's a lot further on - he's late Romantic, whereas Handel was early Classical, so they're very different in style, which would explain why you had a hard time with the Ring cycle.

Other great operatic composers that you might enjoy - Purcell (a bit earlier but still lovely, check out Dido and Aeneas), Puccini (Madame Butterfly and Turandot). Enjoy!
posted by spielzebub at 12:07 PM on February 22, 2014

Seconding Carmina Burana.
posted by fuse theorem at 12:29 PM on February 22, 2014

Handel is from the Baroque period rather than the Classical.

Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), Rodelinde, Alcina, Serse (Xerxes), and Acis and Galatea are some of his most well-known operas.

Giulio Cesare and Acis and Galatea are both very accessible and good places to start. Cesare and some of the others are interesting in that the title role and other major male roles were written for castrati; depending on the production/recording you may hear them sung by a countertenor (a male tenor with a strong, highly-developed falsetto), a female singer playing a male character, or a tenor or baritone singing the part transposed down into his natural range. The modern trend is toward countertenors - the German Andreas Scholl and the American David Daniels have both famously interpreted the role.

Thay all have great melodies and driving rhythm, like the best of Baroque music.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:07 PM on February 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Rossini, Signor Crescendo, certainly has more than a few to choose from and should make for far easier listening than Wagner...
posted by jim in austin at 1:19 PM on February 22, 2014

If you like the Messiah, you might also consider other baroque oratorios. L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato is fabulous and is also by Handel. (link is to complete recording, starts with orchestra tuning so be aware) I'm currently performing J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which while quite long (and quite recitative heavy) has some stunningly beautiful music. You might also check out the Bach Christmas Oratorio or even, though it's neither an oratorio nor an opera, the B Minor Mass (also by J.S. Bach.)
posted by KathrynT at 1:44 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Metropolitan broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier just ended. This Strauss opera has achingly beautiful music, and even some bits of fun. Check your local PBS station to see if they carry the Met in your area.KQAC in Portland, Oregon does carry the 5 month Met season, and does stream 24/7 classical music. Listen and buy what you like. (Also send in a few dollars; the station is listener supported.) http://player.allclassical.org/
posted by Cranberry at 1:48 PM on February 22, 2014

Lately I've been drawn into the massive vortex of what seems like an infinite volume of swell Baroque music, especially operas, posted on You Tube...

Hippolyte et Aricie by Rameau
Cadmus et Hermione by Lully
L'Orfeo by Monteverdi
posted by ovvl at 3:17 PM on February 22, 2014

Twiddly Baroque and Classical bits:
Any of the Handel operas TUM suggested, plus Semele, which is in English and very lovely. Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L'Italiana in Algieri are also both very good medicine for this (I prefer Barbiere myself, but who am I to judge?)

Later Classical and Romantic loveliness:
Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto are both highly listenable for me-- tuneful, emotional, dramatic in a lyric way. There are a million good Traviata recordings; I love the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Milnes/Bonynge Rigoletto.

For lyric beauty:
If you like Wagner, you'll love Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (no relation).

Fidelio by Beethoven is also insanely beautiful throughout (find a recording that skips the dialogue).

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is also gloriously, amazingly beautiful.

Hope that's enough to go on? Because I COULD CONTINUE; I could mention fun things like Bellini's Norma (ideally the earlier of Callas's 2 recordings); Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann; and pick you out some fun, lyrical Donizetti like Linda di Chamonix… but I'll stop now. Happy opera-ing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:23 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding Carmina Burana.

(I understand that background soundtracks have been requested here, but if you have an hour to watch something "interesting", here is the trippy German Television production from the 1970's which really threw me for loop when I was young.)
posted by ovvl at 3:38 PM on February 22, 2014

Try Bellini for classic serene melodic bel canto opera. I like I Puritani: there's either the Sutherland or Callas recordings. (The Callas version was my driving music for many months.)

Some of Mozart's greatest works are acknowledged to be his operas. They are not quite as serene and imo sublime as Bellini's, but are full of melody and drama. And I'll 2nd spielzebub on The Magic Flute as a good place to start. (It's not technically an opera because between-aria dialog is spoken not sung.)

I'll 2nd, too, ovvl, on, especially, the French baroque. Rameau in particular wrote the most joyful music I've yet encountered. I just love Castor et Pollux.
posted by bertran at 10:00 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gluck might do it for you, too. Sort of post-baroque, pared-down and athletic opera. Wagner was a big fan. Iphigénie en Tauride is very invigorating.

(But if you are coming from Handel, you must really check out Rameau!)
posted by bertran at 10:09 PM on February 22, 2014

For Baroque opera, my favourites are John Blow's Venus and Adonis and Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (including the beautiful Dido's Lament). You must listen to these, they are amazing.

Purcell also wrote great non-operatic vocal works such as Ode to Saint Cecilia. You should also check out Vivaldi's operas including Orlando Furioso (example), Telemann's cantatas (example), JS Bach's cantatas (two great examples), Rameau's operas such as Castor et Pollux (example) or motets (example), and Lully's operas such as Isis (example).

I've posted links to specific works but most of these guys wrote heaps more so if you find someone you particularly like, I recommend checking out their other stuff, too. There's so much good music out there to choose from, I hope you find lots you like!
posted by mosessis at 3:54 AM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the amazing suggestions. I have a lot to listen through here. I've been pondering bunderful's excellent question "What do you most like about Messiah? Can you point to some of your favorite parts and what it is about them that appeals to you?" I like the choral aspects and that many of the solo seem to be dominated by baritones and tenors. I'm coming to realize that a lot of what I like about too is the comforting familiarity of a piece of music I know well.

I think my tastes actually skew less Baroque than my interest in Handel would indicate, and I wouldn't have known that without you lovely people! I'm enjoying Carmina Burana and Gluck the most so far but I've barely scratched the surface of all these suggestions.

Maybe I'll update with some of my favorites after I've had some time to listen.
posted by purple_bird at 11:18 AM on February 25, 2014

Hmmm. Maybe the Rachmaninoff Vespers?
posted by bunderful at 6:16 PM on April 17, 2014

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