Top 10 Italian operas

italian_operaOpera as a music genre was born in Italy in the 17th century. Italian composers dominated this art form for a long time and even after competing opera styles became popular due to the efforts of German, French and Russian geniuses much of the appeal of Italy’s most prominent contribution to classical music remains firmly in place. The grandeur of Italian opera houses created a culture of sophistication that is only understood and appreciated by some, but any modern opera company feels the pressure from connoisseurs to always have at least one Italian masterpiece. Here are the very best of Italian operas that have been running for many decades.

The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution
(Italian: Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione)

This opera buffo (a comedic opera) by Gioachino Rossini first premiered in 1816. It is arguably the most well known opera in the world. The main character, a barber, represents a popular comic archetype of a successful trickster, well established in folklore and ancient theatre.


Vincenzo Bellini, an Italian composer whose life was cut short when he was only 33 years old, produced this masterpiece for La Scala (Milan) in 1831. The conflict revolves around the love of Norma, a Druid princess, for a Roman officer in 50 BC. This opera has heroic overtones and perhaps for this reason Richard Wagner, usually not seen as an admirer of Italian opera, voiced his appreciation for this work.

Lucia di Lammermoor

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) based this story on Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor. The opera features an extended soprano part. Many companies fortunate enough to include a great coloratura soprano singer chose Lucia to show off their primas.


Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) based this opera on Victor Hugo’s play about amorous adventures of French king Francis I. The subject was too risquée atthe time of the first stage performance and the royal character’s identity had to be changed to that of a duke of Mantua.

La Traviata

Another famous opera by Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata, was based on Alexander Dumas’ play  La dame aux Camélias (1852). The plot features a love affair between a courtesan and a young nobleman. This opera was supposed to express contemporary culture, but due to censorship original sets had to be produced to resemble the 18th century.


Yet another opera by Verdi was commissioned by a prominent Turkish ruler of Egypt. The premiere actually took place in Cairo. The opera takes place in Ancient Egypt, although a particular time is not specified.


Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) brought some new influences into the art of Italian opera, in particular recognizing recent contributions of Richard Wagner. Tosca is based on events of Italian history during the French occupation in 1800.

Madame Butterfly

Another great opera by Puccini set in contemporary times. The plot centers around a relationship between a U.S. Navy officer and a Japanese girl.

Cavalleria Rusticana

A one-act opera by Pietro Mascagni (1863 – 1945), featuring Sicilian life and mores. This opera is well-known for its use in The Godfather Part III.

I Pagliacci

This two-act opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1856 – 1919) is very often performed together with the one-act Cavalleria Rusticana, making a complete night of opera. The main plot device in this work is the so-called “play within a play.” The role of Canio in I Pagliacci was one of Enrico Caruso’s signature roles.

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