Britten's Operas: Ranked!

I'm still kind of recovering from my jaunt out to the Eastern Seaboard, so today instead of a more contiguous stretch of prose, you get my personal ranking of Benjamin Britten's operas, from most favorite to least.

  1. A Midsummer Night's Dream. This might come as a surprise to those of you who've heard me talk about Turn of the Screw, but this is hands-down my favorite Britten opera, and possibly my favorite opera of all time. Acts I and II are already pretty solid in terms of writing, but Act III is where it becomes glorious. The opening awakening music is just heartrendingly gorgeous, and the opera-within-an-opera is a riot of parodies and exaggerated clichés. Also one of the leads is a countertenor. What is not to love?
  2. The Turn of the Screw. If Midsummer is the Britten opera I most enjoy watching, Screw is the one I get the most out of thinking about. I have literally written entire essays about this opera and the ways the plot and music work together to interact with themes of homosexuality, national identity and reconstruction, gender roles, and on and on. None of the music is as supremely enjoyable as Midsummer, but it's a compositional tour-de-force and a masterfully effective one at that. Basically, Midsummer is more fun, but Screw is more interesting.
  3. Death in Venice. There's no getting around the uncomfortable aspects of this work, both in terms of its relationship with pedophilia and it's exotcising and othering use of "gamelan" elements in the score. But if you can bracket those aspects (and there's no reason you have to or should), Death in Venice is an austere monument of late style. It's cryptic and severe, and sometimes just downright strange, but in a way that I find intriguing and compelling.
  4. Peter Grimes. This is unarguably Britten's most famous opera, and justifiably so, because it's very good. But it's less musically tight than many of his later works, and sometimes I feel like Britten wants us to have a bit more sympathy for Grimes than I'm really willing to give.
  5. The Prodigal Son. The church parables are . . . odd. It can be kind of hard to know what to make of their unusual melding of religious ritual/mystery play and contemporary chamber opera, but the music in them can be pretty great, and the performance of Curlew River that I saw a few years ago at Tanglewood was one of the most deeply transcendent musical experiences I've had in my life, so I have more time for them than you might expect. Prodigal Son is my favorite, both because I'm very attracted to the snappy trumpet motif associated with the Tempter and because of the Elder Son's role of basically turning up and going "I WAS ONLY GONE FOR A FEW HOURS HOW DID I MISS THIS MANY THINGS????".
  6. Curlew River. This one is more marred than the other by issues of representation (the "madwoman" stock character has enough baggage by itself and it's only made more dicey here with the madwoman being played by a man in keeping with the "re-imagining religious mystery play" thing) and appropriation (the plot is a Christianized version of a Japanese noh play, and the music draws from Japanese traditions in ways that are . . . questionable), but it does have the "Wild birds, I cannot understand your cry" sequence, which I find unspeakably moving, so I can't discount it entirely.
  7. Albert Herring. I wish Britten and Crozier had done a better job making Mrs Herring a character instead of a caricature, some of the ensemble writing is honestly pretty bland, and "In the midst of life is death" is just a disappointment next to other Britten passacaglias. But a lot of the music is genuinely fun, and I'm always here for a good skewering of stuffy prudery, so I'm still somewhat fond of it.
  8. Noye's Fludde. Yes, the recorders are kind of obnoxious. Yes, the youth choirs are often a gamble. But still, it's surprisingly good for all that. Like, compared to its potential to just be absolutely cringeworthy, it's a truly remarkable work.
  9. Gloriana. Even in the often embarrassing world of opera plots, Gloriana is a dud. Way too little happens to really fill the time, and the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I is just not good. Which is a pity, because so much of the music is actually great. Basically, this is a pretty mediocre opera that would make a fantastic brass suite.
  10. The Burning Fiery Furnace. Another church parable. It's kind of just less interesting on all fronts than the other two, altho the angel music is at least striking. Ultimately, I can't hear it without thinking of the other two, and it suffers badly from the comparison.
  11. Paul Bunyan. This is not a great opera. The plot is thin and nonsensical, the music is kind of a mess, and the takeaway message is questionable. But out of the muddle, there are some legitimately great moments, and a few passages even seem to anticipate Minimalism, tho I'm sure this is a coincidence. You can definitely tell that Britten is still getting his feet under him, but the earnestness is actually pretty endearing.
  12. The Little Sweep. This is the second half of Let's Make an Opera!, in which the opera is "written" on stage during the first half. This also includes teaching some of the songs to the audience, so there are actually sing-alongs in it, which is great. Everything about this opera is entirely ridiculous, and periodically I remember that it exists and just giggle to myself for a few minutes.
  13. Billy Budd. It's hard for me to dislike an opera that contains the line "Don't like the French, don't like their Frenchified ways", but I do. I don't find Claggart to be an interesting villain, nor is Billy really that exciting as a protagonist. I think the themes about corruption/destruction of innocence are handled better elsewhere in Britten's output, and with the exception of the "battle" sequence, I don't care about most of the music.
  14. The Rape of Lucretia. Most of my complaints with this one revolve around the libretto, but it's really, really bad. It's stilted and awkward, and it somehow manages to make an uncomfortable story even worse. The choruses are never really explained, and the Christianizing coda is unfortunate and unnecessary. All that said, the orchestration is quite brilliant thruout, to the point that I'm almost happy to sit thru it.
  15. Owen Wingrave. Everything about this opera is unpleasant. The characters are unpleasant, the plot is unpleasant, and the music is unpleasant. And the worst part is, I basically agree with the underlying message of pacifism! I'm grudgingly willing to tolerate its existence because I feel like he had to get it out of his system so he could write Death in Venice, but I'm quite happy to leave it at that and listen to/watch something I actually enjoy.