A Passion for Opera!
The classical music recording industry is undergoing a major evolution or devolution today, depending on one’s viewpoint. When I started my opera collection, major record labels specialized in capturing, in the studio, the voices and conducting of major operatic talents. Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti were singers of monumental importance to opera, and recording these great voices at various stages of their development was once of utmost historical importance for companies whose mission was classical music. In some instances, these recordings proved to be lucrative for the companies, but that was clearly of lesser importance at that time.
Today, the bottom liners rule! Opera has never had a large enough audience to be highly profitable. With soaring production costs, it is almost headline news when a commercial studio recording of a complete opera is made today.
Thus we have two studio recordings of Tosca with Callas and two of Lucia di Lammermoor with Sutherland. It is, however, unlikely that we will ever have a studio recording of today’s great voices such as Renee Fleming in her signature role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier or Ben Heppner as Otello or Juan Diego Florez as Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore.
However, there is some good news on the horizon. Live performance recordings, which are much less expensive to produce, are being released with today’s great stars. Some are of the highest quality while others are simply audible. Furthermore, smaller labels are releasing in droves, pirated and radio recordings of live opera performances and recitals by opera stars of the present and past. Many of these are incredibly exciting, since a live performance recording captures the energy of the performance and reveals a singer’s ability to inhabit the character being portrayed.
When I recommend opera recordings, I realize that some may be out of stock and difficult to find. When I recommend a recital recording, be aware that the title I give may have morphed into a different title with a different compilation of arias/songs. Callas is being reinvented and reissued to such a degree that the uniformed perusing the opera bins would imagine that she is still alive. My selections on this list have been chosen with my students in mind. These are basic recordings for any opera lover’s library and reflect of course my own personal preferences. I hope you enjoy listening and telling me about your own favorites.
10 Complete Classic Opera Recordings Never to Be Without!
- DON CARLOS. Verdi. with Domingo, Caballe, Raimondi, Verett, Milnes, in Italian. EMI Classics, 1971
- LA BOHEME. Puccini. with Freni, Pavarotti, von Karajan, in Italian. London, 1972
- SEMELE. Handel. with Battle, Horne, Ramey, in Italian. Deutsche Grammophon. 1993
- NORMA. Bellini.with Callas, Corelli, Ludwig, Serafin, in Italian. EMI. (Angel), 1960
- DER ROSENKAVALIER. Strauss. with Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Stich-Randall, In German. EMI, 1957
- TOSCA. Puccini. with Price, Di Stefano, von Karajan, in Italian. London, 1963
- LA CLEMENZA DI TITO. Mozart. with Berganza, Krenn, Popp, in Italian. London 1967
- L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI. Rossini. with Baltsa, Raimondi, Lopardo, in Italian. Deutsche Grammophon, 1989
- LA TRAVIATA. Verdi. with Moffo, Tucker, Merrill, in Italian. RCA Victor, 1968
- IL VIAGGIO A REIMS. Rossini with Ricciarelli, Valentini-Terrani and an all star Rossini cast in this work, long lost, but recently recovered and discovered to be Rossini at his greatest. Deutsche Grammophon. 1985.
10 Great Opera Recital/Concert/Compilation Recordings: Voices of the Past
- MUZIO: PRIMA VOCE. The Divine Claudia Muzio in a selection of her greatest roles. (Soprano) 1936 with great sound. Nimbus Records # 882562905
- FRANCO CORELLI: HEROES. Corelli’s vocal magnetism captured on CD. (Tenor) EMI Classics. CDM724356653320
- MONTSERRAT CABALLE: PUCCINI ARIAS. The most beautiful voice ever in her best Puccini roles. This specific title may no longer be available but many Caballe recordings exist with these Puccini selections. (Soprano) EMI #20000815
- LEONTYNE PRICE. Simply titled and still simply the best. (Soprano) BMG Classics 09026688832
- LUCIANO PAVAROTTI: AIRAS. Pavarotti at his best (way before the 3 tenors) (Tenor) London 4000532
- THE ART OF PILAR LORENGAR. The great Spanish soprano who was a San Francisco favorite. Decca 4733172
- MARILYN HORNE: JUST FOR THE RECORD. Horne is best represented in her complete opera recordings. But her magic was varied and is nicely represented on this compilation. (Mezzo-soprano) Decca
- MAGDA OLIVERA: 50 ANS DE CARRIERE. Vol. 1. Olivero was a Verismo legend as you will understand if you can find this recording. (Soprano) Rodolphe productions RPC32656
- LA SCALA EDITION, VOLUME 2, 1915-1946. The great stars of La Scala. From another age. Sound is excellent. Listen to Margherita Carosio interpolate a high B-flat at the end of Qui la voce from I Puritani and Giacomo Lauri Volpi as a regal Otello. Many others who gave their all. EMI classics
- MARIA CALLA. Anything by the Greatest Recording Artist opera has ever known. Specific recommendation is ludicrous since her titles change by the hour.
Complete Opera and Vocal Recordings by Today’s Great Opera Stars
- ARMIDA. Rossini. Complete live recording of the opera showing soprano Renee Fleming to be a true bel canto artist. Rest of cast is also superb. 1993. Sony Classical. Fleming will sing Armida at the Met during the 2009-2010 Season.
- LUCIE DE LAMMERMOOR. Donizetti. French Version of Lucia with noted Superstar, Natalie Dessay as Lucie and Roberta Alagna as Edgardo. Virgin Classics 2002.
- LA RONDINE. Puccini. The love couple, Angela Gheorghiu (in glorious voice as Magda) and her husband, Roberta Alagna, make this Puccini work seem as though it ought to become a repertory staple. The Anna Moffo Version is still a favorite (out of print) but this is a very close 2nd. EMI Classics 1997. Gheorghiu will sing La Rondine at San Francisco Opera in 2007 .
- ORFEO ED EURIDICE. Haydn. Amazing mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli brings this forgotton work to life with other shining musical talents. L’Oiseau-Lyre 1998.
- BIANCA E FALLIERO. Rossini. Stunning recording that just goes to show what a genius Rossini was and how so many of his lesser known works deserve to be heard. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore shines. Opera rara ORC20, 2002.
- LA TRAVIATA, VERDI. Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon & Thomas Hampson. Already a classic recording, these singers define excellence today. The recording sheds new light on Verdi’s beloved classic. 2005 Deutsche Grammophon.
- TRAUSS HEROINES. Great vocal scenes from Richard Strauss with Renee Fleming / Barbara Bonney / Susan Graham. Simply Glorious. Decca, 2000.
- ROLANDO VILLAZON. Italian Opera Arias. The most exciting tenor on the horizon today. Virgin Classics, 2004.
- SEMPRE LIBERA, ANNA NETREBKO. Soprano Superstar status just around the corner. Deutsche Grammophon, 2004.
- EXCELLENCE: THE ARTISTRY OF KARITA MATTILA. A great compilation of songs and arias by this ravishing soprano. Ondine, 2004.
- LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON. BACH CANTATAS. Perhaps the best musician singing today. Mezzo-soprano. Nonesuch, 2003.
- DAVID DANIELS. HANDEL OPERATIC ARIAS. The counter tenors are coming, the counter-tenors are coming and Daniels has arrived. Beautifully sung. Virgin Veritas 1998.
- JUAN DIEGO FLORES. UNA FURTIVA LAGRIMA. Florez blew the socks off the audience at Zellerbach Hall in 2003 singing most of what is on this CD in one evening!!! Special Favorite #3 E serbato. Decca, 2003.
- MIRELLA FRENI: VERISMO ARIAS. Freni is a living legend and still singing. Hence her contemporary status. London, 1992.
- SALVATORE LICITRA: THE DEBUT. Licitra has been hailed as the fourth tenor. I think he’s close to #2 today. Well worth hearing. Sony Classics, 2002.
- DIMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY: TSCHAIKOWSKY & VERDI ARIAS. The great Russian Baritone in an early recording. Phillips. 1990.
- EWA PODLES: ROSSINI ARIAS FOR CONTRALTO. Podles is the most underrated, underexposed artist of the last 50 years. One listen and you’ll be enraged that she’s not engaged by San Francisco and other major houses! Naxos.
- ROLANDO VILLAZON: GOUNOD / MASSENET ARIAS. “Ah ! tout est bien fini… O souverain” from Massenet’s Le Cid alone is worth the price of the CD 2005 Virgin Classics.
- ROLANDO VILLAZON: OPERA RECITAL. A compilation of famous and not so famous tenor arias, all brought to life by THE Tenor Voice of the 21st century. 2005 Virgin Classics.
- HOMAGE. Renee Fleming’s sumptuous vocal salute to divas of yore. 2006, Decca.
Recommended Opera on Video/DVD
As with recordings, the video catalog of complete opera performances, recitals/concerts is changing rapidly. Many videos are being transferred to DVD. I have used excerpts from videos and DVDs in my classes for some years. Below is a basic opera library that I feel visually and vocally represents these operas in defining ways. In addition to these commercial releases, many “pirated” DVD’s are now available (from TV broadcasts, in house cameras etc.) and are visually and vocally splendid. I think the best place to order these is from the extensive catalog at Berkshire Records. They are reliable, and I have been pleased with their products. I will indicate when a DVD comes from that source. Berkshire Record Outlet: http://www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com
- TOSCA’S KISS ( Il bacio di Tosca). A film by Daniel Schmid. Not an opera but as touching as any you’ll ever see. The great Sara Scuderi tells us about dedication and giving one’s life to this grand art form. VAI 69022, 1985.
- LA BOHEME. Puccini. Baz Luhrmann and Australian Opera show us how “updating” can work wonders and still stay true to Puccini and his music. A visual feast! London, 1993.
- DON CARLOS. Verdi. Original French version with magnificent cast: Mattila, Alagna, Hampson, van Dam. Theatre du Chatelet, Paris. Kultur, 1996
- MANON LESCAUT. Puccini. From the Metropolitan Opera. Renata Scotto, in relative young voice, shines and brings this plum opera to life. Scotto/Domingo Elvira /Levine. Bel Canto, Paramount. 1980.
- ELEKTRA. Strauss. Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek with Mignon Dunn. Exciting Classic from the Met. Bel Canto, Paramount. 1980
- TURANDOT. Puccini. The astounding Turandot of our time, Eva Marton and the outstanding tenor of our time, Placido Domingo in this huge and glorious Zeffirrelli production from the Met. Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
- MADAMA BUTTERFLY. Puccini. The best Butterfly on Video/DVD is from Italian T.V. with a superb Anna Moffo as Cio Cio San. VAI, 1956.
- ANDREA CHENIER. Giordano. From Covent Garden. Well sung if not great but the best video account there is of this opera that should be produced a great deal more. Placido Domingo, Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Home Vision, 1985.
- IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA. Rossini. Cecilia Bartoli makes an early debut..all that is required. ART Haus. 1988.
- NORMA. Bellini. Jon Vickers and Montserrat Caballe brave the French mistral in this outdoor performance at Orange. Caballe’s performance is beyond words! Bel Canto Society, 1974.
- LA TRAVIATA. Verdi. In 1993, with this performance, Italian newspapers hailed Tiziana Fabbricini as the new Callas. She is hauntingly so in this video, not only looking like but sounding like the great soprano. Most disturbing, she crashed vocally shortly thereafter, cutting short a very promising career. Roberto Alagna also shines. Teatro alla Scala. 1993.
- OTELLO. Verdi. Definitive performances for Placido Domingo as Otello and Renee Fleming as Desdemona. A must have from the Met. Deutsche Grammophon. 1996.
- LA CENERENTOLA. Rossini. Great staging with Cecilia Bartoli as Angelina (Cenerentola), but the supporting cast more than shines and Enzo Dara as Don Magnifico steals the show. Decca 1996.
- LA BOHEME. Puccini. Rolando Villazon created a sensation when he appeared on T.V. in 1995 as Rodolfo from New York City Opera. This is a phenomenal video record of the beginning of an amazing career. Villazon has since become opera’s primo tenore. With Maria Kanyova as Mimi. From Berkshire Records.
- L’ELISIR D’AMORE. Donizetti. Anna Netrebko & Rolando Villazon prove why they are the most exciting pairing in opera in this performance from Berlin in 2005. With Leo Nucci & Idlebrando D’Arcangelo. From Berkshire Records.
- ANNA NETREBKO & ROLANDO VILLAZON IN CONCERT, MOSCOW, 2002. The chemistry and artistry of these two performers is amazing both separately and together. From Berkshire Records.