The ship is sinking and all of your worldly possessions are going down with it. Ahead is a barren island which, with luck, the life boat may be able to reach. You can take only one suitcase and, after filling it with necessities, You discover room for ten compact disks (we’ll ignore for now the question of how you knew there would be electricity and a CD player on this deserted island.) Why ten? Why not. Surely six or sixteen is as logical a number, but “Top Ten” lists have an ingrained appeal and your suitcase does have a finite capacity. So which ten would you choose?
I could choose to take the ten best examples of the singer’s art or, instead, the ten operas I love most. But recognizing that I must listen to these CD’s over and over again for possibly many years to come, I must make my selections based on what I most enjoy listening to (as opposed to those best or rarest recordings in my collection that I keep to display to other collectors.) My musical tastes lean towards the romantic, beginning (with side trips outwards) at Mozart and tapering off after Dvorak. But a preference for Verdi and lack of interest in Wagner or Monteverdi, doesn’t keep me from admiring those composers. It just makes it unlikely that I would include their works on my list.
For example, I would reluctantly forsake the unequaled EMI recording of “Tosca” with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi because I simply do not care that much for the opera itself. And I would consider (but ultimately decide against) taking the 1935 recording of “La Traviata” with Rosa Ponselle, Frederick Jagel, and Lawrence Tibbett because, however much I adore it, the poor sound quality makes repeated listening arduous (NOTE: there is a new restoration on the NAXOS label which makes for a much more pleasant listening experience.)
So here’s the list in order of preference – with all selections available on compact disk because LP’s would be easily crushed or water-damaged in that tightly packed suitcase.
RIGOLETTO BLUEBELL CD 044 Prytz, Bjorling, Sundqvist, cond. Bendix
Live performance Stockholm 1-5-57
This Swedish performance has Jussi Bjorling at the absolute peak of his form and the Rigoletto of Eric Sundqvist is at least equal to Tito Gobbi at his best. In the quartet, Bjorling seems to simply revel in the beauty of his own sound, but so do we. Robert Merrill wrote that, during the recording of the RCA Rigoletto in Rome, the conductor felt that the balance of voices was wrong and asked Bjorling to sing less loudly. Bjorling agreed, but on the next take sang with the same volume. When Merrill asked him about this he replied, “But you don’t understand, Bud. The quartet, it is my solo.” The conducting is fast paced and the Gilda is adequate – but adequate in this kind of company is no mean feat. Especially fine is Bjorling’s “Parmi.” The RCA Sutherland/Pavarotti version is quite good, too. Great voices if not particularly stylish and there is a pirated Met performance with Bjorling, Leonard Warren and Bidu Sayao that is almost as good as the Swedish performance, but with poor sound quality.
LA TRAVIATA EMI CD 63628 Callas, Di Stefano, Bastianini, cond. Giulini Live performance 5-28-55
Arguably, Maria Callas’ most unforgettable roles were as Violetta, Norma, Lucia, and Medea. She once said that her best performance ever was as Lucia di Lammermoor in the 1955 Berlin production with Herbert von Karajan. That performance is available on an EMI recording and I wouldn’t disagree with the lady, but I prefer La Traviata as an opera. This live performance is superior in every way (except sound quality) to her studio version. And just listen to di Stefano in the second act party scene as Alfredo positively spits out his denunciation of Violetta. The only comparable Traviata is the live performance from 1935 with Rosa Ponselle and Lawrence Tibbett and really bad sound. There is no great studio recording of this opera – and very few even good ones. Sutherland’s early recording conducted by Pritchard is spectacular, but meaningless. The De Los Angeles version is a heartbreaker, but no one else in the cast is anywhere near her equal.
LA FORZA DEL DESTINO FOYER CD 2005 Tebaldi, Del Monaco, Siepi, cond. Mitropolous
Live performance Florence 6-14-53
I find myself returning to this performance more and more often. Mitropolous’ conducting is stirring, sensitive, and emotional. A very young Mario Del Monaco at least attempts a legato line, something he rarely did later, and his sound is quite good. Cesare Siepi shows why he was the only true successor to Ezio Pinza, and Renata Tebaldi passionately stakes a claim to Ponselle territory. I have never heard any modern soprano sing “La vergine degli angeli” with such purity and focus. Just a great recording. The two later RCA recordings with Leontyne Price come close, as does the Callas version. Close, but no cigar.
L’ELISIR D’AMOUR CBS CD 79210 Cortubas, Domingo, Evans, cond. Pritchard
I love the music. It’s not ground-breaking stuff like Verdi’s “Falstaff,” but done well (and it is here) it is irresistible. Ileana Cortubas sings like an impish angel. She is charming without being cute, and Placido Domingo is at his early, lyric, best as is Geraint Evans. James Levine’s later version with a coy but controlled Kathleen Battle and a surprisingly musical performance by Luciano Pavarotti, is an acceptable alternative.
FALSTAFF RCA CD 60251 Nelli, Valdengo, Merriman, cond. Toscanini
Radio broadcast 4-1-50/4-8-50
If you have ever listened to Toscanini conduct and wondered what all the fuss was about, listen to his Falstaff. If you have listened to (or seen) another version of Falstaff and found the opera lacking, listen to Toscanini. More than any other Verdi opera, this is a conductor’s opera, and Toscanini makes it soar and sing with energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. This is not to slight the performers, especially Nan Merriman, but a Toscanini opera was just that – a Toscanini opera. No other version (with the possible exception of Leonard Bernstein’s on CBS) comes within miles of this one.
LA BOHEME EMI CD 47235 De Los Angeles, Bjorling, Merrill,cond. Beecham
What’s to say about what has been described as a “perfect” opera recording. There may never be a better recording of this opera. Beecham’s tempi are a marvel, and probably couldn’t have been achieved with less gifted singers. Gifted? Jussi Bjoerling virtually held the patent on Rudolfo from 1937 to 1960 and he is still the standard for taste, beauty, passion, and vocal sweetness. Only Caruso was his equal in this role (with a slight nod to Beniamino Gigli.) Victoria De Los Angeles, sometimes problematic on her high notes in other roles, is at her best here, which means that she is near perfection. And the often underrated Robert Merrill (with a voice I describe as “warm, liquid, butterscotch”) shows why Toscanini preferred him to other baritones. Only Lucine Amara as Musetta is less than perfect.
MACBETH DGG CD 415-688 Verrett, Capucilli, Ghiarov cond. Abbado
Only the great Maria Callas in her 1952 La Scala performance surpasses Verrett. Macbeth is an imperfect opera on stage, but it approaches greatness and musically it is one of Verdi’s best. Callas’ la Scala performance is available on CD, but if you want decent sound, this is the only choice. As a bonus, Placido Domingo handles the thankless tenor duties.
NORMA Verona CD 27018/20 Callas, Picchi, Stagnant, cond. GUI
Live performance Covent Garden 11-8-52
Maria Callas and Rosa Ponselle are the two exemplars against whom all Normas must be compared. And only Callas made complete recordings of the opera. She made two studio versions, and numerous live performance tapes exist, most available on CD. All are exciting and all have flaws. For me, the Covent Garden performance finds Callas at her best vocally, with her interpretation almost fully developed. Exceptional conducting by Vittorio Gui with Ebe Stagnani in glorious voice as Adalgisa make this my favorite version. Mirto Picchi as Pollione may lack the vocal power of Mario Del Monaco’s (Callas’ more frequent partner,) but he also lacks his crudity. And there is a very young Joan Sutherland as Clothilde.
OTELLO RCA CD 2951 Scotto, Domingo. Milnes, cond. Levine
Okay, who is the greatest recorded Otello? Jon Vickers? Giovanni Martinelli? Mario Del Monaco? It’s largely a matter of which style you prefer; beauty of tone, depth of interpretation, or degree of passion. I find Del Monaco crude and I simply prefer Domingo’s voice to Vickers. Caruso and Bjoerling, judging by their recorded excerpts, might have been magnificent Otellos, but they never attempted the role. Neither Titta Ruffo nor Lawrence Tibbett, the two greatest Iagos of this century, made commercial recordings of the opera (although there are tapes of Tibbett and Martinelli in live Metropolitan Opera performances and commercial recordings of excerpts.) I am not fond of Renata Scotto, who can be squally, but she is very good here. Milnes is better, and Domingo is vocally superb and interpretively sound.
UN BALLO IN MASCHERA (Masked Ball) LONDON CD 410-210 Price, Pavarotti, Bruson, cond. Solti
There are no great commercial recordings of Un Ballo, either. There are merely some that are less clumsy than others. But I love the opera and Pavarotti here makes a genuine (and all too rare) effort to bring a sense of style and lyricism to Renato. Callas made a more tragic Amelia in her recording, which was otherwise rather dull except for the contributions of Tito Gobbi, but Margaret Price here is certainly up to the role and Solti conducts with energy and intelligence. The Callas version on EMI (or her 1957 La Scala performance) is a good alternative. Jussi Bjoerling’s famous Metropolitan performance with Zinka Milanov is available on CD, but his finest “Ballo” (with an electrifying Marko Rothmuller and an inadequate Suzie Morris) was in a 1950 New Orleans version, available in absolutely rotten sound on a Legato CD.
Clearly Verdi operas dominate my list. I have much Mozart and Puccini, Mascagni, Donizetti, Gounod (three versions of “Faust” and the Bjorling-Sayao “Romeo”), Bizet, Rossini, and no Wagner, but a Furtwangler “Fidelio” among others. My preferences are clear. What are yours?
With packing complete, an unexpected space has been found for ten additional CD’s. What do I choose here? I think I will pick that which I previously had decided against taking – the ten best examples of the singers art. again in order of preference
ROSA PONSELLE NIMBUS CD 7805
There are many Ponselle CD’s, all covering much of the same ground. I prefer the Nimbus sound, but others complain that it hasn’t the resonance of the RCA’s. Her recording career was surprisingly limited. She recorded commercially from 1918 (the year before her opera debut at the Met) to 1934, but most of her best work was done between 1925 and 1929. “La vergine degli angeli” from “La Forza Del Destino” and the “Casta Diva” from Norma with Marion Telva joining her in the finest “Mire O Norma” ever recorded are on this CD which also has Ponselle’s unequaled “Suicido” from “La Gioconda“ as well as a terrific “Ernani, Ernani, Involome.”
I would also be greatly temptede by the Naxos release of the 1935 “La Traviata”, broadcast with Lawrence Tibbett as the elder Germont in restored sound. It’s Maria Callas with vocal security. Will Crutchfield writing in The New York Times, October 1985, reviewing this recording of La Traviata said: “And finally there is the big Traviata scene from 1935, with Rosa Ponselle and Lawrence Tibbett. Words fail this one, simply because if the right words were reserved only for such peformances, then daily criticism would be a drab thing while waiting for them . Let me put it in this unpoetic way: If all the recordings of the scene were ranked from 1 to 10, with this one as 10, the very best of the others could be clustered somewhere between 4 and 7.”
MARIA CALLAS EMI CD 47730
“Nel di della vittoria” and “La luce langue.” These recordings of excerpts from Verdi’s Macbeth were made in 1959, nearing the period of collapse of Callas’ voice. You’d never know it. As a rule, Callas sang better, with more intensity and involvement, on stage than she did in a recording studio. Not so here. Her stage performance of Macbeth is available on an EMI CD and it is a masterpiece. This recording, made seven years later, is better. The other arias on this CD were recorded later and the deterioration in her voice does show.
JUSSI BJORLING BLUEBELL CD 006
Of all the Bjorling CD’s that I own – and I own a lot – this is the one I always choose to play for people who have never heard him sing. The silvery (why does everyone use that adjective to describe his voice?) tone simply gleams as the twenty eight year old tenor gives an outdoor concert in Holland. “O Paradiso” from L’Africain rings out with joy and “La fleur ” from Carmen is filled with Bjorling’s special blend of sadness and passion. And “Che Gelida Manina” from La Boheme will make your hair stand on end.
VICTORIA DE LOS ANGELES EMI 63495
De Los Angeles was an interpretive wonder. Her recording of “Songs of the Auvergne” is still in the catalogs after sixty years, and many opera lovers grew up on her Mimi in “La Boheme.” But she also recorded a superb “Carmen” and “Simon Boccanegra” among others. Her Madama Butterfly was full of innocence and tenderness, even if it tended to dry out at the top. Most of these are represented on this CD, but I especially like her Desdemona. The immediacy of her cry of fear in the “Ave Maria” from Otello still catches me by surprise, even after repeated hearings. And don’t overlook her “Ernani, Ernani, Involome” from Ernani.
LAWRENCE TIBBETT NIMBUS CD 7825
There are critics who say that Tibbett was never entirely at ease with Verdi baritone roles. Which is odd given that he first achieved stardom in Falstaff and his greatest fame was as Iago and Simon Boccanegra. Granted, his “Rigoletto” was occasionally uninvolved, but his elder Germont in “La Traviata” with Rosa Ponselle is possible the finest, most subtle, and vocally resplendent I have ever heard. Of the baritones on record, I can think of no one other than Titta Ruffo to equal him in the Brindisi and Credo from Verdi’s Otello. Listen and decide for yourself. And, lest we forget, it was Tibbett’s voice that George Gershwin wrote the part of Porgy for in “Porgy and Bess.” In fact, the first recording of “Porgy” excerpts – also available on Nimbus -was done with George Gershwin in the studio and Lawrence Tibbett singing all of the male roles.
EZIO PINZA PREISER CD 89050
Where do you start to sample the finest Verdi bass of the century? The voice itself is thrilling and, though unable to sight-read music, his singing is among the most musical and musicianly imaginable. His Verdi Requiem with Serafin conducting is unequaled after seventy years. He easily ventured into Baritone territory and his 1937 Don Giovanni is simply thrilling. His Boris Gudonov was acclaimed as the best since Chaliapin. Handsome and suave, he personified masculinity, both on and off the stage and his truly sensual rendition of the “Toreador Song” from a 1936 Met production of “Carmen” (featuring Rosa Ponselle’s embarrassing Carmen) is the only reason I keep the CD. Just look for a Pinza CD with music you like. My favorites on this disk are “O tu Palermo” from I Vespri Siciliani and “Si la regueur” from La Juive.
SHIRLEY VERRETT RCA CD 09026
Shirley Verrett has been featured on many complete opera recordings (including the title role in an exceptional “Macbeth”) but you’ll look long and hard to find her on a recital disk. This recording, made many years ago and recently re-released on CD, incorporates music from her other recordings, but the standout is “Mon couer s’ouvre a ta voix,” an aria from “Samson et Delilah”, long a Verrett specialty, which shows not only the beauty of her voice, but her control, her legato, and her ability to infuse an old warhorse with warmth and a sense of discovery.
RICHARD TAUBER EMI CD 764029
Tauber recorded so extensively that there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. He was probably most famous for his operetta roles, but he was a superb Mozart singer who also recorded “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot” duets with Elizabeth Rethberg. There is even a CD available featuring Tauber singing Franz Lehar songs (including those from roles that he created) with the orchestra conducted by Lehar himself. This CD concentrates on his operatic selections.
MADY MESPLE EMI CD 69545
This delightful French singer never sang “Aida.” She was a true coloratura, in the very best sense of the word, and intensely musical. Listening to her reminds me of Amelita Galli Curci at her best, except that Mady Mesple had a larger voice than Galli Curci. The “Ah, je veux vivre” from Romeo et Juliette, and “Chanson d’ Olympia” from Tales of Hoffman are truly special.
JOSEPH SCHMIDT EMI CD 69478
Okay, this is a matter of personal pleasure. I just like the sound of his voice. Schmidt was not a great opera singer. In fact, although he sang many operatic arias, he only once appeared on an opera stage, fearing that he would be laughed at because of his size ( barely five feet tall.) He was a concert and radio singer in Germany of the 1930’s. His voice was rich, but not powerful, and had overtones of Richard Tucker (or vice-versa since Tucker came later). There are many operatic selections on this disk, but my favorite is his version of “O sole mio,” sung with conviction and without schmaltz.
And just one more for the road ….
ELIZABETH RETHBERG & JUSSI BJORLING “Teco io sto” from Un Ballo In Maschera. One of several selections on the CD, this nine minute duet from a 1940 San Francisco Opera performance, with really rotten sound, and Elizabeth Rethberg near the end of her career, radiates intensity and passion, and is simply gorgeous.
WHY IS EVERYONE DEAD OR OVER FIFTY?
Good question. How does it happen that all of my selections involve artists of the past, or present day artists at or near the end of their careers. Ponselle made her Metropolitan debut before the age of twenty one and sang her first Norma at twenty eight. Caruso had sung in Brazil and Egypt by twenty five and was world-renowned at thirty. Bjorling at twenty eight. Domingo and Pavarotti before they were thirty. Surely there must be equivalent singers today.
That depends on what kind of singing we are talking about. There are a great many truly fine Mozart and Rossini singers today, but few Verdians. My list is (perhaps unfairly, but it’s my list) tilted towards Verdi voices, and they seem to be a vanishing breed. Training has something to do with it, and ambition. And money.
Leontyne Price is the only singer in the last fifty years who deserves comparison with Rosa Ponselle. She had a truly magnificent voice, superb musicality, and great stage presence. So why haven’t I included her in my list of favorites? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has something to do with her oft repeated comment about singing on the “interest”, not the “principle.” It is a policy that guarantees a longevity, but sometimes at the cost of exciting performance. I think there is something to be said, also, for occasionally just blowing the audience away with pure intensity and vocal splendor. She was certainly capable of electrifying an audience. Listen to the recording of “Il Trovatore” with Price conducted by Von Karajan. The lady really wails!
As of this writing three major, world class, talents have appeared in the last several years; Dmitri Horostovsky, Bryn Terfel, and Cecelia Bartoli. Each has a magnificent voice and technique and personality to burn. Cecilia Bartoli is a delight and obviously a major talent with great stage presence, but at this writing she has limited her repertoire to the music of Vivaldi, Rossini, Mozart and other early classical composers. She may yet move on to Carmen since, as Frederica von Stade discovered, there are only a few starring roles for light mezzos.
Bryn Terfel is a bass-baritone. Like Pinza, he has sung the baritone roles of Falstaff and Don Giovanni with great success but also ventures into basso territory. Dmitri Horostovsky has a marvelously deep baritone and has sung much of the Verdi repertoire. Both singers are in great demand and certainly have long careers before them. But the world of opera revolves around lyric and spinto tenors and dramatic sopranos. These are the performers who create excitement and for which, with a few major exceptions, most of the great music in opera has been written. The big money goes to the big roles. As has been said, no one comes to “Carmen” to see the Micaela.
Aprile Millo showed promise of inheriting Renata Tebaldi’s mantle until she decided to be an Aida (that role was the downfall of Renata Scotto, also.) Jane Eaglen looked to be the real thing, but she seems to prefer Turandot and Wagner to Verdi. She has the voice for it, but at what cost? Already, her top notes seem forced. Richard Leech had an unusually fine lyric tenor voice and sang with great style and musicality, but as he moved toward heavier roles his voice became more strident. Angelena Georgiu has an extremely expressive soprano voice and has become a major star. Her husband, Roberto Alagna, has a tenor voice reminiscent of Carreras and sings much like Corelli. Would that the reverse were true. In time, he may become a true spinto, but that time is not now. As of this writing, Anna Nebtrenko and Jonas Kaufman are both major contenders with electrifying stage personalities, and probably more important, musical intelligence combined with a willingness to grow into the great roles rather than attempt them before the voice is ready. And a new mezzo with an incredibly gorgeous voice, Jamie Barton, has arrived. I have great hopes for her.
Probably the dominant prima donna of the 21st Century is Renee Fleming. She has a wonderfully full, rich, and warm soprano voice and her musicianship is superb. Everything she does is carefully planned and executed. In her approach to music and opera she reminds me a great deal of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, which is a great compliment but also a problem. The problem is an almost total lack of spontenaity. You always know exactly what you will get with Fleming and she always delivers, but there are no surprises.
Is there a happy ending to all this? Sure. Somewhere, sometime, there will appear a shining talent so fine, so brilliant, so overwhelming, that he or she will revitalize the entire opera world and alter our perceptions of what a great singer should look, act, and sound like. Caruso did it. After Caruso the public perception of what an operatic tenor voice should sound like was never the same. The soft sound of a Tito Schipa was doomed and the gulps, roarings, and bleatings of hundreds of singers who could only imitate Caruso’s traits, not his genius, belched across the land. But in the process, there were Bjorlings and Giglis and Tuckers and Bergonzis and Domingos and Pavarottis, who might never have achieved success otherwise.
Callas did it. And for forty years sopranos have been ruining their voices by singing music their voices were not meant for because she sang everything. Extending their roles rather than their range, not realizing that Callas did what she did not because it was the right way but because she was Callas and, for her, it was the only way. And forgetting the cost. Forgetting that, once she ceased to dedicate her entire being to her art, her voice betrayed her. Callas had only eight years of really being Callas – from 1951 to 1959. Her successors frequently had less.
I’m waiting for the new guy on the block.