Posted in Opera

Opera Bound

My, Peter Gelb shot himself in the foot this week, didn’t he? First he leans on the editor of “Opera News” to declare that no further reviews of Met productions would appear on its pages. Not coincidentally, this immediately followed an issue of the magazine that featured both a critical write-up of the Met’s new “Götterdammerung” and an opinion piece by Brian Kellow panning the Met’s approach to the entire Ring cycle. Truth be told: (a) not that many people liked the Machine or Robert Lepage’s conception of the work, and (b) what appeared in “Opera News” barely holds a candle to Alex Ross’s review in “The New Yorker,” in which, among other things, he called the new “Götterdammerung”, “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”  Ouch. The Gelb Ban lasted a day, during which much blasting occurred on the ‘net, and the Great One was forced to reverse himself.

Questions of hissy fits and censorship aside, I saw “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdammerung” in the house, and I loved them. I’d never seen either opera live before, and “Götterdammerung” in particular blew my mental circuits. Wagner has grown on me over the years—prior to this season I’d seen “Die Meistersinger,” “Lohengrin” and “Die Fliegende Hollander” (loved the first, was amazed by the second, but had a tough time sitting through the intermission-less third). I’ve been an opera-goer since the age of 13, but my Wagner love didn’t really come to the fore until I saw “Tristan und Isolde” several seasons ago, with Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner. In a word, transcendent.

Despite recently joining the “I Heart Richard” Club, I can’t say that my Wagner collection, which alas is presently limited, contains my favorite opera recordings. For me there are two separate lists: “My Favorite Operas,” into which, for example, the Ring is clearly headed, and “My Favorite Opera Recordings” which are those I find myself listening to most frequently. The two lists can’t and don’t always intersect. “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Der Rosenkavalier” are among my favorite operas, but I’ve got all three presently in dry dock due to listening fatigue. “Lulu” and “Peter Grimes” are fabulous, but I need to see as well as hear these for the fullest enjoyment.

“The New Yorker” recently published Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s list of her favorite recordings, and there was some snarking along the lines of “How can she call herself an opera lover and not list any Wagner?” Evidently I’m pretty much on the same page as the good Justice, because my list, with the opera recordings I’m relaxing with most often these days, looks like this:

Handel: “Ariodante”; Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Sabina Puertolas, Topi Lehtipuu, Matthew Brook, Alan Curtis conducting Il Complesso Barocco (Virgin Classics). Simply superb musicianship.

Handel, “Julius Caesar”; Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra (RCA). Yeah, yeah, I hear the purists screaming over Julius Rudel’s hash-up of the score, but what Beverly Sills does as Cleopatra is super-human.

Barber, “Vanessa”; Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnik, Nicolai Gedda, Giorgio Tozzi, Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (RCA). I’m a diehard Samuel Barber fan and always will be. While the live Met broadcast recording of this opera from its premiere season is dramatically preferable, this studio version with the same cast is cleaner in execution.

Puccini, “Tosca”; Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala Orchestra (EMI), and/or Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Cornell MacNeill, Kurt Adler conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Sony). They’re both live and they’re both fabulous. On any given day I’ll flip a coin.

Verdi, “Il Trovatore”;  Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (DGG). The famed Salzburg recording, and even in mono it lives up to the hype.

Verdi, “La Traviata”; Maria Callas, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni, Franco Ghione conducting the Lisbon National Theatre Orchestra (EMI). Nobody ever broke my heart like Maria Callas singing “Addio del passato”.

Verdi, “Falstaff”; Giuseppe Valdengo, Herva Nelli, Teresa Stich-Randall, Cloe Elmo, Frank Guarrero, Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony (RCA). I love the von Karajan recording with Tito Gobbi, but nothing matches Toscanini’s take on “Tutto nel mondo.”

Strauss, “Ariadne auf Naxos”; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Rudolf Schock, Hermann Prey, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI). It’s tough to argue with perfection.

There are other opera recordings I’ve heard recently that intrigue me, especially Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” with Ian Bostridge, and various Ring CDs which may make the list. And I’m right in the middle of watching the new DVD of the Covent Garden production of Massenet’s “Cendrillon” with Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, that’s charming beyond belief.  Not to mention the fact that the list of my favorite non-opera recordings goes on forever. We’ll just save these for later.

3 thoughts on “Opera Bound

  1. Hey, Geoff, thanks for sharing.I really envy your attendance at the Komische Oper–obviously I’ve read about some of their productions, and it must be exciting to see these live.

    I really can’t put together a list of favorite operas because it would always be changing. Let’s just say I always enjoy Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Falstaff, Eugene Onegin,Les Contes d’Hoffman, Il Barbiere di Sevilia and Ariadne auf Naxos. Lulu, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gotterdammerung all floored me in recent years; After repeated performances I’ve grown to love Don Carlos, and I’ve yet to tire of Barber’s Vanessa. And I think Salome is a total hoot–love it!

    I still have Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutti and Der Rosenkavalier fatigue. Oddly enough, the only Mozart opera I seem to be able to listen to these days is Don Giovanni, which I could never seem to connect to. I used to enjoy Janacek years ago at the New York City Opera, but Katy’a Kabanova was the dreariest two hours I’ve ever spent, and The Makropoulos Affair, even with Karita Mattila, didn’t do much for me.

    I’ll second your choices among past singers, but I’d add Fritz Wunderlich and Leonard Warren to my list. And I’m becoming a Callas fan.

    As for today’s singers, definitely Joyce Di Donato (love that woman) and Jonas (sigh!). While I admire Juan Diego’s artistry, I’m not crazy about his sound–to my ear he can be a bit bleaty. I heard the new sensation, Javier Camarena, in Cenerentola this season, and he’s incredible. Anna Netrebko is definitely on my list, and Susan Graham still has the goods.

    1. Yes, of course, Wunderlich and Warren are great, not to mention Gobbi on my short baritone list. I was a late convert to Callas. When I use to listen to her, I could not stand that wobble in her voice (her earlier recordings, anything prior to late 1950s has less of the wobble), but with Callas it’s all about using the voice as an instrument of acting. She never produced a beautiful tone but neither did Tebaldi, but I love them both. I agree with you on Diego as far as his sound, but then again he is not a spinto or dramatic tenor, maybe not even a lyric tenor, but what he does he does so well, and I love his charm.
      Netrebko use to be at the top of my list, but she has disappointed in the last few years. However, casting her now in darker roles, i.e. Lady Macbeth should be interesting. Yes Susan Graham is wonderful (she was great in The Enchanted Island, which I saw this season).

      I saw the Gotterdaemerung (as well as Die Walkuere) two or three years ago and I cannot say I like the “machine” Ring, although the documentary of the making of this new Ring was very good.

      Of course I love many of the operas you have mentioned (how could I forget to include in my top list Peter Grimes; this season I saw a wonderful concert version with the St. Louis Symphony). And yes La Traviata, Falstaff and Don Carlos are among my favorites as well.
      And of yes, I forgot to mention Wozzeck (what a great performance I recently saw at the Met with Goerne subing on 24 hour notice…just thrilling).

      Try The Cunning Little Vixen for Janacek and Jenufa is great too.

      I like almost anything by Strauss, so of course Salome is included. I have tickets for Ariadne at Glimmerglass. Saw a magical production of that in Munich. Damrau’s rendition of Zerbinetta’s showpiece is about one of the best things I have ever heard, but then again, she does everything so well (the DVD of her Queen of the Night is magnificent).

      But you are right, once you think you have your list of top operas down, then you realize you can add more.

      Next Month onto Santa Fe…Fidelio and Carmen. I saw a very convincing modern staging of Fidelio at Komische Oper a few years ago…very politically charged (as are most things they do).

      The best thing I ever saw at Komische was Kiss Me Kate…WOW. Last year’s West Side Story failed the mark, though it is selling out like hot cakes for the upcoming season there…well at least I could still appreciate the glorious music of Lenny’s and gorgeous lyrics of the young Sondheim. (By the way, did you know Disney is coming out with a film of Into the Woods).

      And if you are listening to Callas more, stay tuned to Meryl Streep in “Master Class”…she should be fabulous. Saw the play twice.

  2. Who would have thought?….a kindred opera lover….
    So much to discuss. Just to set the record straight; I don’t want to give you the idea that my distaste for the Vegas Rigoletto casts me as an old fart. I am all for newer productions. God, the things I have seen in Berlin (especially at the Komische Oper) make the Met look very conservative (and actually, some wonderful daring productions).

    But just for starters looking at your favs (and this is not necessarily my fav recordings), but I have to say my top 5 operas are La Boheme, Otello, Der Rosenkavalier, Le Nozze di Figaro and Parsifal. And if I was to pick a desert island extract from opera it would have to be either the Presentation of the Rose scene in Rosenkavlier (trio in last act pretty great too), and the last 45 minutes of Siegfried.

    Blast from the past singers — Bjoerling, Bergonzi, Tebaldi, Price, Nilsson, Vickers.

    Today — Damrau, Di Donato, Kaufman, Florez.

    Greatest night at the opera — Die Frau Ohne Shatten with Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry OR Turandot with Nilsson and Corelli

    So that’s for openers.

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