Top Ten Shakespeare Operas

Michael Zwiebach on August 2, 2011

Shakespeare lovers don't necessarily love what musicians and librettists do to his plays, and composers struggle under the weight of a full pentameter line, heavy with imagery and some of the most world-famous sentences ever written. And yet, there are by now well over 200 operas based on the Bard of Avon because the rich characters and wild stories are too great a temptation to resist. Though some of the librettos on this list are distinguished more by what they remove than what they retain, all drew inspired music from their composers, testament enough to the enduring power of the originals.

1. Falstaff

Giuseppe Verdi: Verdi's version is proof that there is such a thing as a perfect opera.

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2. Otello

Giuseppe Verdi: The Verdi-Boito version this time, which manages the startling trick of being faithful to Shakespeare and many Italian opera conventions too. No one, including Shakespeare, ever caught Desdemona's anguish so perfectly.

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3. A Midsummer Night's Dream

Benjamin Britten: Even folks who don't like 20th-century opera can revel in this tuneful dream of an adaptation by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Uses original Shakespeare lines!

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4. The Tempest

Thomas Adès: Not yet a decade old, Thomas Adès opera takes on the play from a slightly novel angle and jettisons most of the original language. "Full of airy beauty and eerie power," in Alex Ross' apt phrase.

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5. Beatrice et Benedict

Hector Berlioz: Berlioz' delightful opera jettisons most of the plot of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, yet its score continues to win laurels and performances.

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6. Macbeth

Giuseppe Verdi: Verdi's first Shakespeare opera is usually performed in its 1865 revision. Which, on the whole, is a really good decision.

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7. The Fairy Queen

Henry Purcell: Henry Purcell's "demi-opera" is rarely heard in its adapted-from-Shakespeare context, but the score is brilliant and still performed.

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8. West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein: OK, it's not a proper opera, but it's clearly the most popular (and best) theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

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9. Otello

Gioachino Rossini: Rossini had this play first, in 1816, when Shakespeare was still largely unknown in Italy. The story is heavily adapted, but Rossini's passionate music is a milestone in Italian Romanticism.

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10. Falstaff, ossia le tre burle

Antonio Salieri: Antonio Salieri, Mozart's friend, made a sparkling comic opera out of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. With four recordings released, opera fans are beginning to notice.

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