Opera Essentials
(click on a composer to see the recommended titles)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is one of the giants of the classical genre. Already a child prodigy on the piano and violin, he began composing at an early age and is one of only a handful of composers to excel in every music style. Whether Symphonies, Concertos, Masses, or chamber works, Mozart ruled them all. However, it is perhaps as a composer of twenty-two Operas, that Mozart left his greatest legacy. His 'Big Five' (as they are often referred to) are standards of the operatic repertoire, and are firmly ensconced in the upper echelon of Opera's hierarchy. Mozart included scenes that span from hilarious mistaken identities, to heartbreaking moral decisions, all accompanied by the finest music written. Here are DVD selections of Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and Die Zauberflöte. L'Atelier Grigorian recommends these operatic masterpieces as 'required viewing' for all music lovers.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was one of the most important opera composers of the 19th century, if not of all time. His operas transcended the genre and have become part of Italian popular culture. Whether it is the aria 'La donna e mobile' or the rousing chorus 'Va pensiero', Verdi's tunes became so popular that people could recognize them after only a few notes. His popularity skyrocketed through his trio of hits; Rigoletto,
Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. These three have never left the repertoire, and are among the most frequently performed operas of all time. A love of Shakespeare brought operatic versions of such works as Otello and Falstaff. Aida, an Egyptian opera, and Nabucco, a Hebrew opera, showcased Verdi's ability to meld regional sounds and modes into grand opera. Join L'Atelier Grigorian in cheering 'Viva Verdi'.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1170-1827) is one of the most influential orchestra composers in history, as is evidenced in his famous Nine Symphonies, orchestral overtures, and concertos. In 1803, he signed a contract for an opera to be performed at the Theatre an Der Wien, and he began searching for appropriate texts. Leonore, by the French librettist J.N. Bouilly, was chosen by Beethoven due to the fact that it was based on an actual tale of heroic rescue. After writing multiple overtures (which are now know as the Leonore overtures) Beethoven composed a final overture, and renamed the opera Fidelio, which was to be his only completed opera. The opera stands a strong story ornamented by exquisite music, which proves the fact that ’Love conquers all’.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) stands with Johann Sebastien Bach and Antonio Vivaldi astride the zenith of Baroque composers, but as a composer of Baroque opera, Handel was unparalleled. Although his Water Music and Royal Fireworks suites are his most recognizable works, it was his forty-two operas and twenty-nine oratorios that made him famous. Handel began his career in Hanover, and soon abandoned his post to achieve operatic fame in England, where he has since become an adopted ‘English’ composer. Over the past twenty years, Handel operas have seen a great revival, and we are able to see what made him famous. Arias and recitatives (semi-spoken singing accompanied with harpsichord) as well as castrato singers, were the order of the day, and were Handel’s chosen form. Giulio Cesare, which tells the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, is his most celebrated work, followed by such operas as Aggripina, and Hercules. Experience Baroque opera at its best, through L’Atelier Grigorian’s DVD selection.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) composed operas as a labour of love, but his labours finally came to fruition through the success of Carmen. Sadly Bizet never even lived to see the lasting impact that his final composition would leave as he died only a few months after Carmen’s premiere. It has been called ‘the perfect opera’ on more than one occasion and sits within the top five most performed works in North America, if not the world. Filled with memorable musical numbers such as the Habanera, or the Toreador aria, Carmen captures the essence of Spanish flavour within the structure of French opera. L’Atelier Grigorian is proud to offer a wide selection the opera Carmen. Enjoy Bizet’s crowning achievement as you run the gamut of emotions, and experience one of the finest operas in the repertoire!  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is regarded as one of the main influences for bringing about the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque era. Famous in his time as a composer of madrigals, nine full books in all, Monteverdi also composed many sacred polyphonic works. He has gained fame in our time for different reasons, as Monteverdi is widely regarded at a father of the operatic genre. He composed over eighteen operas, three of which have survived to become part of the repertoire: L’Orfeo, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, and Il ritorno d'Ulisse. Witness the birth of opera through Monteverdi and L’Atelier Grigorian.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1946) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) together brought about the operatic movement called Verismo. Ushered in by Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Verismo opera brought real scenarios, and real feelings to the opera stage. Gone were the ideas of fairy-tale operas and happy endings. These were real people that emoted, and acted to the extreme. It is because of this verismo connection that these one act operas are often performed as a double bill, and the tradition has followed these works to DVD. Neither of the two composers ever achieved real success after these first operas, but ‘Cav and Pag’ have become gems of the repertoire and favourites for tenors with dramatic flair. L’Atelier Grigorian encourages you to experience this raw passion for yourself.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) represented one third of the triumvirate of composers that epitomized the movement know as ‘Bel Canto’ or literally ‘Good Singing’. Through this movement, composers wrote in such a way that was conducive to proper singing technique, and to display the voice as the chief of all musical instruments. Donizetti showcased the voice, and his talent as an opera composer, through a series of masterworks of the genre. Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, La Filled du Regiment, and L’elisir D’amore have become staples of the opera stage, and have solidified the careers of such singers as Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland. Whether the heart-wrenching aria ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ from L’elisir, or the lush ‘Sextet’ from Lucia, Donizetti with make you laugh and cry all the while surrounding you with beautiful music. 

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was a ‘Bel canto’ composer and is considered the king of the Italian ‘Opera Buffa’, or ‘Comic Opera’. His works dominated the repertoire through the early 1800’s. His comic hit, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, has become the signature work for the Buffo style, through its arias, duets, patter songs, and slapstick situations. The Figaro aria ‘Largo al factotum’ has become part of our popular culture, as has the opera’s overture (which has been parodied by Bugs Bunny in a famous cartoon). Another comic opera known for its vocal pyrotechnics, is La Cenerentola, which is based on the Cinderella story. Rossini also excelled as a composer of serious operas as is seen such operas as Semiramide and Giullaume Tell (whose overture is known in popular culture as the Lone Ranger theme). Rossini’s operas have stood the test of time, and L’Atelier Grigorian invites you to see why.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is widely regarded as the greatest Italian composer of the post-Verdi period. He expanded and molded the verismo style into something all his own, and of his over ten full operas, only two have not remained firm in the repertoire. Puccini’s operas take singers and audiences through the full cycle of emotion, as you can feel joy one moment, and heartbreak the next. Puccini’s music has become part of our everyday life, whether Madama Butterfly’s ‘Un bel di’, or Turandot’s ‘Nessun Dorma’.  As a musical innovator, Puccini used regional music styles, and even indigenous language, so that operas based in Japan, or the Old West, had a genuine feel to them. These operatic hits; La Boheme, La Fanciulla del West, Madama Butterfly,  Il Trittico, Tosca, and Turandot, showcase Puccini at it’s best, and L’Atelier Grigorian is pleased to offer a wide variety of these cornerstone works.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) has become the icon for German Nationalistic opera. Through his concept of ‘Gesamkunstwerk’, or ‘whole art form’, he gave himself  power to not only compose the music of the opera, but also write the libretto, conceive set pieces, block the staging, and in an extreme case, even design the opera house. He wanted his works to be single artistic concepts; a synthesis of all the art forms. Wagner was influenced the German texts and German operas like Der Freischüt,z and even Die Zauberflöte, to focus on Germanic themes for his own operas. The use of leitmotifs (musical motives which represented specific characters or ideas) became the hallmark of Wagner opera. His crowning work is Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four opera cycle that tells the story Norse Gods, Dwarves, Giants, and Men as they all vie for the all-powerful Ring. Set in the Rhineland, the Ring Cycle has become synonymous with the German musical identity. Some of the most glorious music of the Romantic era is contained within operas such as Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Wagner opera is a musical being that stands apart from all others. Experience these operas in the true ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ style on DVD.

When Wagner lay down the gauntlet of German opera, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) picked it up. Strauss, famous also an innovative orchestral composer through his Tone Poems, took German opera to another step. Seeing Wagner’s operas when he was a boy, Strauss was profoundly influenced by these works drew on their ideas when composing his fifteen operas. Gone were the individual leitmotifs; replaced by sweeping orchestral themes gestures that became indicative of his music. His first operatic hit was Salome, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, which he followed with the emotional rollercoaster Elektra. It is perhaps in Ariadne auf Naxos and Der Rosenkavalier that Strauss reaches his finest music. Ariadne is an opera within an opera and contains wonderful comic moments. The ‘Composer’s aria’ is a lush impassioned description of music’s power, and is only surpassed by Rosenkavalier’s trio ‘Hab mir’s gelobt’. These operas can be full orchestral seductions, or forceful orchestral statements, but to really understand Richard Strauss, it is best to sample them all on DVD.

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), known as the ‘Waltz King’, was born in Vienna to a musical family. So musical in fact that his father Johann Strauss I had been dubbed the ‘March King’ for his famous Radetzky march. Growing up in Vienna was perfect for an aspiring musician, as it was the center of the musical world. He excelled at composing in the Viennese waltz style but also in the style of German Operetta. Operetta finds its roots in the ‘German Singspiel’, of which Die Zauberflöte is a good example. Instead of dialogue being sung as recitatives, it is spoken, and without musical accompaniment. The Operetta style usually focused around light and whimsical comic plots and included grand Viennese waltzes. There are numerous Strauss Operettas, but the pinnacle of his compositions and indeed all of Operetta, is Die Fledermaus. This hilarious work takes place at a lavish party, where mistaken identity and champagne are the norm. The memorable overture, Adele’s ‘Laughing Song’, and Rosalinde’s ‘Czardas’ help make this one of the greatest musical comedies ever composed. Open a bottle of Champagne, and join L’Atelier Grigorian in toasting Die Fledermaus on DVD!

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a Russian composer of great influence. He composed in almost every genre of classical music and is known primarily for his symphonies, ballets, and the most famous of his operas, Eugene Onegin. Although Tchaikovsky occupied himself with composing opera more than any other genre, he only ever finished ten, and of those, only Onegin, and The Queen of Spades have remained in the repertoire outside Russia. Tchaikovsky used primarily Russian texts, such as those by Pushkin, for his operas subjects, thus fostering a true nationalistic opera style. Scenes such as the ‘Letter Scene’ from Eugene Onegin show how deeply Tachikovsky filled out his characters, and how well he was able to let the music portray a character’s emotions. Onegin is filled with dramatic arias, wonderful choruses, and elegant waltzes. On DVD, It is a true feast for the senses.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) would have been part of musical obscurity if it hadn’t been for one fantastic piece of operatic gold. Based on the Grimm story Hänsel und Gretel, Humperdinck composed an semi-opera of the same name to his sister’s libretto for her children to perform at Christmas. This experiment grew into a complete opera. The premiere performance was conducted by non other than Richard Strauss, and within a year, Hänsel und Gretel had been produced in over fifty theatres across Germany. Filled with dancing music, a witch, fairies, and a beautiful evening prayer, Hänsel und Gretel has become a staple of Christmas opera season. Many versions are available on DVD including this classic film performance that the whole family can enjoy.

Claude Debussy(1862-1918) epitomized French Impressionist music, and was among the central figures in European music at the turn of the twentieth century. Debussy grasped on to the literary idea of ‘Symbolism’ and adapted it to suite his musical style. Known more as a composer of orchestral and piano music, Debussy did write one opera, and it is a masterpiece. Based Maeterlinck’s play, the opera Pelleas et Melisande became the zenith of French modern opera. It was an immediate success and influenced many younger French composers such as Maurice Ravel. The uniqueness of Pelleas stems from way the text is presented. Far from the idea of ‘Bel Canto’ the words are delivered in continuous fluid lines that lie somewhere between chant and recitative. Gone are the concepts of arias and ensembles, replaced with groupings of scenes. Also gone are traditional harmonies, replaced with lush, sweeping orchestral accompaniment. As far from traditional opera as you can get, Pelleas et Melisande holds an important part in the operatic cycle. It is a DVD experience not to be missed.