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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Superconductor 2011 Gift Guide Part IV: Operas

Our guide to the best opera releases (and re-releases) of 2011.
A young hopeful auditions for the role of Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra.
Image framegrabbed from The Year Without a Santa Claus © 1974 Rankin-Bass CBS.
OK. This has been by and large a poor year for opera on CD. But there have been some interesting new reissues, and a few new recordings for your perusal. The Claudio Abbado Fidelio is  worthy of this list--a review can be found on the Beethoven page of the Gift Guide.

Metropolitan Opera Classic Broadcasts (Sony Classical, 2 or 3 CDs each.)
(Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Walküre, Tosca, La bohéme, Fidelio, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Don Carlo, Rigoletto, Carmen, Le Nozze di Figaro, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il trovatore, etc.)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, various conductors. 
This budget-priced series from Sony collects classic Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from the 20th century. It includes:
  • a 1952 Rise Stevens Carmen conducted by Fritz Reiner
  • a 1955 Tales of Hoffmann with Richard Tucker, 
  • a 1964 Don Carlo with Franco Corelli sounding like the world's most macho neurotic.
  • the 1968 Die Walküre: an unbeatable cast, with Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Leonie Rysanek, Jon Vickers, and Thomas Stewart.
There is stage noise and audience applause. But who cares? These are great performances if you want some alternate versions of classic operas. Also essential for  understanding why opera lovers get all misty-eyed when they reminisce about "what singing used to be."

William Tell (EMI Classics, 3 CDs)
Orchestra e coro dell'Accademia Santa Cecilia cond. Antonio Pappano (EMI Classics, 3 Cds)
Everyone knows the overture, but the remaining four hours or so that make up Rossini's last opera are mostly unknown to listeners.
This live set, made in Italy and sung in French makes a persuasive case for the opera itself, and for singing Tell in its original language. Since Tell is under-performed and under-served on record (this is just the fourth recording in a century) this set is a welcome addition.

Gerald Finley makes a compelling case for the title character. This is the dude who shot the apple from his son's head. Tell is a mythical Swiss revolutionary whose legendary battles against Austrian oppressors inspired the people of Switzerland to become independent and go into the banking business. Mr. Finley, the fine Canadian baritone, is an ideal choice with excellent good French.

Tenor John Osborn copes with Arnold's murderously high tessitura, hitting the difficult notes in the hero's Act IV aria. Soprano Malin Bÿstrom is an interesting choice for Mathilde--she has the high head voice and chest notes, but the voice seems to shrink in the passagio. 

Rimsky-Korsakov: 5 Operas (Decca, 11 CDs)
(The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronaya, Sadko, The Tsar's Bride, Kaschei the Immortal, The Maid of Pskov).
Kirov Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Valery Gergiev.
Valery Gergiev has done a lot for Russian music. The fiery Ossetian maestro made his name with the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Orchestra, exposing Western listeners to operas that, for a century, remained largely unknown outside Russia.

With the collapse of Philips Classics, and its folding into the Decca label, many of these recordings, released originally in the 1990s have been out of print. This utilitarian set exploring the major operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is the first major reissue. Although it's done on the cheap, the music inside is priceless.

Rimsky has a bad rep with Western listeners, because he was the most responsibe musician of the so-called "Mighty Handful" and the one with the longest career. He's also suffered because of well-meaning efforts to "clean up" the jagged music of his friend Mussorgsky and make Boris Godounov palatable to the un-trained ear. But his own operas have a swirl of orchestral color and a fairy-tale atmosphere. Best of all is Kitezh, the "Russian Parsifal" that Mr. Gergiev rescued from oblivion with this recording. Sadko, an aquatic fairytale, is also interesting.

If 11 discs is just too much Rimsky, the Invisible City of Kitezh is also coming out as an individual set. But at the low price for this ugly little box, you're better off with all 5 Operas.

Mozart Operas (DG Archiv, 18 Discs)
(Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutti, La Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte.)
English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner
Like Mr. Gergiev, Sir John Eliot Gardiner was another Universal Classics artist who lost his contract when DG, Decca and Philips purged their rosters. As a result, his brilliant cycle of Mozart operas, made for DG Archiv in the 1990s and considered at the time to be flagship recordings of these works, have fallen by the wayside. But they're back.

This massive box collects all of JEG's Mozart opera recordings. Actually, it's not that massive, as the first boxed set issued back then could have held three loaves of bread. These are mostly live, played on period instruments at very fast tempos, with fresh-faced young singers who went on to bigger things. Cast members here include Rodney Gilfrey, Alison Hagley, Gerald Finley and, in Figaro, a young hopeful named Bryn Terfel. The recordings are all note-complete, with alternate passages and deleted scenes included for the curious listener. Essential.

Complete Wagner Operas (Warner Brothers Classics, 34 Discs)
(Die fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal)
Staatskapelle Berlin, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim

Barenboim's Wagner cycle comes back on Warner Brothers Classics, formerly Teldec. This isnt so much a case of an artist losing his place at the table, but the label itself being partitioned off from Time Warner and sent over to the orphanage/clearing house Naxos. They're distributing the catalogue now.

This cycle splits pretty evenly between Berlin recordings and live sets made without an audience at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Throughout, Daniel Barenboim leads carefully considered performances with Wagnerian rubato--his style is that of a slightly more restrained Wilhelm Furtwängler. It includes one of my favorite recordings of the Ring, earthy, raw, and with the unconventional but interesting casting of John Tomlinson and Anne Evans as Wotan and Brunnhilde.

A lot of "regulars" appear across this set, most notably Falk Struckmann and Waltraud Meier. Included is Ms. Meier's second recorded Kundry and her first Isolde. Also featured: tenor Siegfried Jerusalem. The talented bassoon player turned heldentenor takes on the title part in the opera that bears his first name, reprises the role for Götterdämmerung, and also sings Tristan and Parsifal.


Check out the rest of the 2011 Gift Guide:
Part III: Beethoven for Christmas
Part V: Piano Mania


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.