From Mozart's Don Giovanni
A few weeks ago we did the best second-best symphonies. This week we’re going to do the best second-best operas. For the sake of argument, a composer’s second-best opera is any opera that isn’t his best opera. With certain composers, such as Verdi, determining his best opera is nigh unto impossible but we’ll do our best.
Here are the top five second-best operas ever written.
Rossini, William Tell (French)
Finale sung by Thomas Hampson - Marcello Giordani - Hasmik Papian - Gaele Le Roi
William Tell by Giacomo Rossini is the fifth greatest second-best opera. I think we can all agree that The Barber of Seville is the greatest Rossini opera if we combine artistic merit with popular appeal.
William Tell is a completely different animal. It was the last opera written by Rossini and is a serious opera as opposed to his comedic successes. The overture has enjoyed a life of its own in popular culture but the entire opera is a masterpiece.
Tosca - Te Deum
(Bryn Terfel, The Royal Opera)
Number four is Tosca by Giacommo Puccini. With Puccini, this is tricky because people tend to have a favorite Puccini opera as opposed to an opinion on which is the greatest Puccini opera. In my opinion, Madama Butterfly is his greatest opera and possibly the most beautiful three hours of music ever written.
Tosca is concise dramatically. It utilizes a love-triangle but it’s not your standard Rom-Com triangle of tepid individuals trying to find someone to grow old with. No, this is a triangle of the passions. Floria Tosca is a jealous scissor-wielding lover, Mario Caravadossi is a hot-headed, thinly veiled, depiction of Caravaggio – the dueling, murdering, Renaissance painter. Scarpia is a menacing sexual monster who enjoys rape and torture with his wine and cheese.
Puccini’s score is as dramatic as his characters. Everyone except the most culturally obtuse loves Tosca from the very first notes of the opera.
Giuseppe Verdi - La traviata - Card Scene
Tokyo Philarmonic Orchestra conducted by Daniele Belardinelli. Alfredo: Stefano Secco; Violetta: Elena Kelessidi
“La Traviata* is our third entry. I argue for Otello being Verdi’s greatest opera but it just might be La Traviata if we consider it a la Rossini’s Barber of Seville and combine both artistic and popularity in opera houses around the world.
As in Tosca, the story is shaped like a triangle with Violetta the aging “female escort,” Alfredo the ingenue, and Alfredo’s father Germont. The character of The Duke is a toothless rival of Alfredo. The true third angle of the triangle is Gerrmont as it is arguments for Alfredo’s future that leads Violetta to break with Alfredo.
Richard Wagner Parsifal finale (1981)
Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal, Bernd Weikl as Amfortas, Hans Sotin as Gurnemanz
I’m going to call Parsifal Richard Wagner’s second-best opera behind Tristan and Isolde. The Ring Cycle is in a category of its own. Parsifal is based on the duality of order and chaos, light and dark. This is a theme that runs throughout several Wagner operas such as Tristan and Tannhäuser.
In Parsifal, there is the realm of the Holy Grail and the realm of Klingsor, a dark sorcerer. The realm of The Grail has been infected by Klingsor’s realm and needs to be redeemed by an unwitting hero. Parsifal is a hero who doesn’t know that he is a hero. His naivete is his strength.
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus - Don Giovanni -"Commendatore"
S. Ramey u. K. Moll
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is clearly the greatest second-best opera. I prefer it to The Marriage of Figaro but there is something of a consensus around Figaro as the greatest opera of all time by any composer. Giovanni is about a womanizing chevalier on the surface but scratch that surface and you get a seething critique of the abuses of power in the European caste system.