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Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Superconductor Holiday Gift Guide II: Complete Operas

I didn't know Santa played the piano? 
Oh wait, that's Brahms again.
This has been a pretty good year for opera reissues. Two series of note are the Glyndebourne reissues (presenting classic live recordings from the British summer opera festival) and the Sony Opera House series, which are mostly classic studio sets from Sony and EMI put out with minimal packaging at a bargain-basement price.

Here's five picks for the opera lover on your list. And just for fun, they're all live recordings.

Bellini: I Puritani: Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra cond. Vittorio Gui
The loss of Joan Sutherland earlier this year is tempered by the latest historic release from the Glyndebourne Festival. This high-quality performance of Puritani preserves the Australian soprano's 1960 debut in the role of Elvira, a part which became a cornerstone of her long career.

It also gives the listener a chance to hear Sutherland without her usual recording partner: conductor (and husband) Richard Bonynge. The performance is conducted by festival director Vittorio Gui, who lends rhythmic snap to the big moments in the score but allows the singers plenty of room to float sweet legato lines above the stave. The cast is filled out by unknown singers, but Sutherland's presence and incandescent performance makes this set a must-own for fans of bel canto.

Beethoven: Fidelio
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
Recorded in 1962 from an Austrian Radio broadcast from the Vienna State Opera, this performance stayed in the vault until 2008. Herbert von Karajan was a perfectioninst who preferred his studio readings of operas to the excitement of a live recording. The Austrian maestro was picky about what recordings he allowed to be released, but the high quality of this performance belies his judgment.

This is Christa Ludwig's debut in the title role. She is surrounded by a dream cast including John Vickers (whom she recorded the opera with for Otto Klemperer), Walter Berry, Gundula Janowitz and Waldemar Kmennt. Also, this recording follows the old-fashioned practice of inserting the Leonore No. 3 overture in between the scenes of Act II. Under Karajan's direction, what was often a crummy theatrical trick becomes a highlight of the performance. This is the Vienna State Opera at its best, and the whole set sounds terrific--even the applause at the end of each act.

Rigoletto and La Traviata
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti
These live recordings from La Scala were released at the end of the "complete opera" boom in the ear;y '90s. Here, they're back as super-budget sets, reissued as part of the Sony Opera House series. Rigoletto features Renato Bruson as the title character--his second recording of the title role. He is supported by Andrea Rost as Gilda and Roberto Alagna in good, early form as the philandering Duke.

Alagna is at center stage in this excellent Traviata, recorded in '92 at the big house in Milan. This is Alagna as the young, budding artist, before he married Angela Gheorgiu and started getting marketed as a successor to Luciano Pavarotti. In other words, he's in his prime. He has good chemistry with Tiziana Fabbricini in the title role. Riccardo Muti's no-nonsense approach to the score and the live setting lend wings to the whole recording. Not a first choice, but a very fine one.

Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea
Sadler Wells Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Raymond Leppard
This is another radio broadcast, this one from the BBC in 1971. Monteverdi's final opera dates from the 17th century, but its music sounds fresh, especially when conducted by Raymond Leppard, an expert in works from the Renaissance and baroque eras. Poppea is set amidst the decadence of the Roman Empire.

Poppea is a demanding opera. It has a complicated plot, a huge cast, and tremendous opportunities for gifted singers. Mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker is incandescent in the title role.  She is surrounded by a fine cast of Sadler's Wells singers, some of whom may be familiar to opera lovers who have checked out that opera company's superb English-language recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle.

This set is an ideal introduction to Monteverdi for the novice listener or the lover of baroque music looking to explore the very roots of opera. For the aficionado, it is the chance to hear Dame Janet in another fine period role, bringing out the depth in a complex work that is almost 500 years old.

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Karl Böhm
If you don't have a Ring or if you have a budding Wagner nut in your immediate circles, snap up this recording made at Bayreuth in 1967. Böhm was a very experienced conductor who was an expert Wagnerian. He recorded this Ring (originally for the Philips label) using quick tempos and a light touch with the orchestra to bring out the excitement and drama built into the pages of the Ring. The Bayreuth orchestra and chorus is in top form. As it's a production by Wieland Wagner, there's a minimum of movement by the actors, and less stage noise than your average live set.

It helps that this cycle has the best reading of Die Walküre in the entire catalogue. Birgit Nilsson shines throughout as an indomitable Brunnhilde.James King and Leonie Rysanek are a superb pair of Walsung twins. (This is the set that includes Rysanek's orgasmic scream when King pulls out the sword--a must-hear moment.) The last two operas are dominated by Wolfgang Windgassen's Siegfried, a brilliantly sung, cogent performance that is even more exciting than his studio reading for Georg Solti. And at $55, this set costs half as much as the legendary Solti Ring.

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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.