Maybe you know a lot about opera, but are a bit lost about all the recorded offerings available. Or perhaps you don't know squat about it but someone you love or want to impress does -- and you want to give them a gift without looking like an idiot.
Art Attack is here to help. Well actually, we have to credit the Houston Grand Opera to whom we appealed for aid the other day. And they -- specifically Mena Mark Hanna, the HGO dramaturg -- came through big time. He concentrated on operas that are part of HGO's current repertoire.
Guaranteed: With this list, you'll look like you know what you're talking about:
Rape of Lucretia
Baker/Pears/Harper/Luxon/Shirley-Quirk/Drake, conductor Benjamin Britten English Chamber Orchestra, London/Decca The two disc recording on the London/Decca label is the go-to for Rape of Lucretia. Re-released in 2003, it's conducted by Benjamin Britten himself and features the indefatigable mezzo-soprano Janet Baker as the eponymous heroine and Britten's long-time partner and collaborator Peter Pears as the Male Chorus. The album also includes Britten's cantata Phaedra on the first disc as filler.
La Traviata Since there are so many Traviatas out there, I'm going to include two selections;
1) Callas/Valletti/Zanasi, conductor Nicola Rescigno The Covent Garden Opera Chorus & Orchestra; ICA Classics
The 1958 live recording from Covent Garden released on ICA Classics with Maria Callas as Violetta and Cesare Valletti as Alfredo is spectacular. Callas is enthralling and this recording is a one of the best opportunities to hear this most powerful of performers at her peak, matched by the nuanced and deft conducting of Maestro Rescigno, Callas' favorite conductor. However, it's live recording from 1958, and though the engineers at ICA have done a marvelous job remastering it for this 2011 rerelease, the hissing and ambient noise might be too much for some listeners.
2) Cotrubas/Domingo/Milnes/Foiani/Jungwirth, conductor Carlos Kleiber Bavarian State Chorus & Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon
For those seeking a more casual listening experience staying away from historical performances, such as the one above, may be advisable. Ileana Cotrubas is a powerful and vulnerable Violetta, partnered with Domingo who is fervent as Alfredo. Carlos Kleiber conducts magnificently and brings a burnished and energetic sound to the performance.
Domingo/Ricciarelli/Raimondi/Ghiaurov, conductor Claudio Abbado Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala; Deutsche Grammophon
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Don Carlos is daunting opera for even the most knowledgeable opera connoisseur, with it's multiple versions in French and Italian. This recording, however, presents Verdi's masterpiece in its five-act French form (which HGO will be putting on in the Spring), and is packed with talent, from Domingo's inspired singing as Don Carlos to Ghiaurov's ringing and awe-inspiring performance as the Grand Inquisitor. Abbado's masterly conducting make this the definitive recording of the French-language Don Carlos.
Remigio/Rizzone/Giossi/Calleja/Ganassi/Zanellato, conductor Fabrizio Maria Carminati Coro del Circuito Lirico Regionale Lombardo, Bergamo Teatro Donizetti Orchestra; Dynamic
This choice of Maria Stuarda shows a little personal bias on my part: this production makes use of a new critical edition by renown Swedish musicologist Anders Wiklund and is the same version HGO will be producing later this year. Moreover, the two queens of this opera. Carmela Remigio as Maria Stuarda and Sonia Ganassi as Elisabetta are simply electrifying; their combined virtuosity makes this recording a standout purchase.