The best way to get to know opera is to watch operas, but that isn’t always easy, or even possible. Going to see live productions is time consuming and costly. But there are plenty of decent quality recordings of full operas online.
YouTube has many thousands of filmed productions to watch for free – from grand performances in the world’s greatest opera houses to youth choirs in churches. But where do you start? At the beginning!
The Baroque period lasted from around 1590 to 1750. It was a time of great musical innovation and marked the emergence of opera as a distinct artform.
Baroque operas were largely based on ancient history or Greek and Roman mythology. They contain some of our most beautiful music. Here, we identify 10 full-length operas you can watch for free.
L’Orfeo (1607) by Claudio Monteverdi
Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2002
Conducted by Jordi Savall
1 hour, 35 minutes
This Baroque work is considered one of the first surviving great operas. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, telling the story of his descent into the underworld to bring back his dead bride Euridice to the world of the living. This recording is wonderfully clear and features some beautiful singing. English subtitles are a useful addition – just remember to turn them on.
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina, 1625) by Francesca Caccini
Salle Pollack Hall, McGill University, 2019
Music director: Hank Knox
1 hour, 33 minutes
The first known opera written by a woman, it centres on a battle between two sorceresses, Alcina and Melissa, over the warrior Ruggiero. He is being held captive by the evil Alcina. She has bewitched him into believing he loves her, despite being betrothed to Bradamante, a Christian warrior maiden. Good sorceress Melissa, however, is determined to rescue him. This production is performed by students at McGill University; it includes subtitles in both English and French.
Venus and Adonis (1683) by John Blow
Marin Baroque, 2015
Conducted by Daniel Canosa
1 hour, 5 minutes
Considered to be the earliest surviving English-language opera, Blow’s work is based on the Classical legend of the goddess Venus and her mortal lover Adonis. The couple are flirting when a hunting horn is heard and Venus encourages Adonis to join the hunt. As she then instructs her son Cupid on how to strike love into human hearts, Adonis is fatally wounded on the hunt. He is carried to Venus to die in her arms. This version was performed at First Presbyterian Church San Anselmo in California.
The Fairy Queen (1692) by Henry Purcell
Styriarte Festival, 2009
Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
2 hours, 15 minutes
Using Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as its inspiration, this Baroque opera was composed to fit between acts of the play. It isn’t a direct adaptation, but rather develops the play’s themes of nature, transformation, love and magic. This recording of a classic production is rather dark, but the music and singing are excellent.
Médée (1693) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
The centre de musique baroque de Versailles, 2004
Conducted by Hervé Niquet
2 hours, 28 minutes
Charpentier’s only opera, Médée is rarely staged, so it’s something of a treat to find this concert performance. It is a tragédie mise en musique, a genre of French opera in which the works are usually based on Classical myths. This one is based on the story of Jason (of Argonauts fame) and Medea (the Médée of the title).
Atys (1675) by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Teatro Comunale di Firenze, 1987
Conducted by William Christie
3 hours, 5 minutes
This French-language opera wasn’t popular with Parisian audiences, but Louis XIV was fond enough of it that it came to be known as ‘the king’s opera’. It is based on the Greek myth of Attis, consort to earth goddess Cybele. In the opera, Cybele is in love with Atys, who is in love with the nymph Sangaride. As he finds out, it’s not a good idea to disappoint a goddess in love. This production dates from 1987 so the resolution isn’t great, but the music is excellent. It’s also credited with kickstarting the modern-day revival of Baroque opera.
Orlando furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando, 1727) by Antonio Vivaldi
Teatro La Fenice, 2017
Conducted by Diego Fasolis
2 hours, 35 minutes
Based on Ludovico Ariosto’s 1516 epic poem of the same name, the story combines several plot lines from the poem. It tells of the exploits of the hero Orlando, as well as the tale of the sorceress Alcina – whom we already met in Caccini’s opera above. It’s a rather complicated plot where Orlando is in love with Angelica, who’s in love with Medoro, while Alcina ensorcels Ruggerio who is really in love with Bradamante. This beautiful production was filmed and shared by the opera house; it has French subtitles.
Artaserse (1730) by Leonardo Vinci
Opera National de Lorraine, 2012
Conducted by Diego Fasolis
1 hour, 16 minutes
This Italian Baroque opera is based on the life of king Artaxerxes I of Persia. Artaserse, king of Persia, must bring his father’s murderer – in reality Artabano – to justice. But the main suspect is Arbace, Artaserse’s closest friend and lover of his sister, Mandane. Vinci’s opera was popular during his lifetime but fell out of favour after his death. This production, featuring French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in the title role, marks its first modern revival. Subtitles are in French.
Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Opera national de Paris, 2014
Conducted by Emmanuel Haïm
2 hours, 59 minutes
This was Rameau’s first opera, composed when he was 50. It tells the story of Greek hero Theseus, King of Athens (Thésée in the opera), his wife Phaedra (Phèdre) and Theseus’s son by another woman, Hippolytus. Theseus is in love with Aricia. However, she is the daughter of Theseus’s enemy, Pallas. She is Theseus’s prisoner and has been sentenced to take a vow of chastity to the goddess Diana. This is a spectacular production, but the film is rather dark. The music is stunning. Subtitles are in French.
Alcina (1735) by George Frideric Handel
Wiener Staatsoper, 2011
Conducted by Marc Minkowski
3 hours, 25 minutes (over two recordings)
This fairytale opera is our third that tells the tale of sorceress Alcina, who lures young men to her island to become her lovers. When she tires of them she transforms them into animals, plants or even rocks. She falls for the handsome knight Ruggerio and uses her magic to trap him on her island. However, the young knight is betrothed to the faithful Bradamante. This film fully captures the beauty of Handel’s music and it helpfully includes the names of songs.