Friday, September 01, 2006

Essential Library of Opera

I bought a new book: The New York Times Essential Library, Opera by Anthony Tommasini, 2004. This book is an excellent introduction to opera, and consists of his own selection of 100 operas with recommendations for best recordings.

It is a personal selection that omits Gounod’s Faust, Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Massanet’s Manon, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and Wagner’s Lohengrin, all operas in my A list. He is trying for something broader, a more inclusive idea of what makes opera than a list based on popularity alone.

The oddest inclusion for me is Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust. I promise you, no list of mine will include this opera. He isn’t even particularly flattering about the work, calling it “jumbled” and says, “So freely did he borrow music from earlier compositions that you could say that the score to Doktor Faust was assembled as much as it was composed.” So why put it in a selection of 100 operas and leave out Barber’s Vanessa, for instance? He recommends Kent Nagano’s recording, the one I own. For me it was money wasted.

Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera is included, a charming work I saw in London. So is my beloved Messaien’s Saint Francis, also in a recommended recording by Kent Nagano. I've seen him conduct this with the Berkeley Symphony, and it was excellent.

A small number of singers come with photographs.

Placido Domingo is on the cover and with Andrea Chénier.

Marilyn Horne is in the front in her costume for Semiramide. He calls her "miraculous" in this opera, a view in which I heartily concur.

Joan Sutherland is costumed for I Puritani.

He shows Jon Vickers dressed for Les Troyens, a recording he recommends.

There is a beautiful picture of Peter Pears, recommended for everything by Benjamin Britten and especially for Death in Venice.

Luciano Pavarotti for his beloved L’elisir d’amore.

A young Mirella Freni is shown with Romeo and Juliet.

Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi are both pictured. These two recorded often together and are favorites of Tommasini, recommended for La Boheme and Madama Butterfly.

Callas is dressed for Tosca.

Leontyne Price is costumed for Aida, and there are wonderful anecdotes describing her relationship with the role.

There is a wonderful photo of Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde.
Kirsten Flagstad is not shown in a photograph, but her Isolde is remembered.

He likes Cecilia’s Cenerentola. So do I. I can’t think of an opera I have listened to more than this one. The operas from the Grammaphone 100 greatest recordings list are all here. He does not trash consensus, even going so far as to recommend all three of Maria Callas’ Norma recordings.

His ideas are closer to us than the traditional volumes of opera plots. I think it’s worth buying and reading. Compared to the Rough Guide to Opera it's pretty light weight, maybe even trivial.

P.S. I continue to prefer to view and recommend DVD’s of operas rather than recordings. Selections of great recordings of standard repertoire generally feature artists now dead, while the vast majority of opera DVD’s are still relatively recent and feature artists you might hope to actually see in performance. Opera is theater and should be experienced that way. That said, many of these recommended recordings are so beautiful, so beyond the ordinary range of contemporary performance that they really should not be missed.


Anonymous said...

Good for you on the DVD front.

In some places it seems such a hersy to even suggest a DVd, as if the provision of a spectacle somehow sullies the purity of sound.

So often when people ask for a DVD recommendation, so many other people jump in with "you ought to try the '53 blah-de-blah which is now out of print and was only available on reel-to-reel tapes from someone in the male bathroom at a venue 3000 miles from you, before you were born" when the poor sap just asked for a DVD in order to get to know the opera from scratch...

Paul said...

Echoing Gert's trenchant analysis, I agree that DVDs are becoming the proper way to learn about a particular opera. Early technology gave us crappy sound, but newer recording techniques eliminate the feeling that you're miles away from the action. I've always preferred live performances on CD to studio recordings anyway; hearing the audience get excited about a particular passage is part of the fun of listening to an opera, don't you think? I only wish it didn't take so bloody long for a particular opera performance to come out on DVD. For instance, the Met broadcasts distributed by DG sometimes don't hit the stores until nearly a decade has passed. That's not very timely!