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Embracing the Past: The Value of History’s Great Opera Recordings
José Rincón, Artistic Services Coordinator, OPERA America
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I can trace my love for great opera recordings to one recording of one aria: Joan Sutherland’s “In questa reggia” from the 1972 recording of Puccini’s Turandot with Zubin Mehta conducting. As a high school student just beginning to discover my own voice, the beauty and power of Sutherland’s performance was unlike anything I had ever experienced and it inspired me to search for other treasures in the vast canon of opera recordings. By the time I entered the Crane School of Music I had compiled a list of personal favorites: Pavarotti’s Duke of Mantua, Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin and Popp’s Susanna, to name a few. Listening to these recordings not only reminded me why I loved to sing but also gave me a sense of the illustrious lineage of opera singers whose talent and artistry are an integral part of the art form’s history.

Once in music school and constantly surrounded by other young singers, I was surprised to find that some of my colleagues were not familiar (or even cared to be familiar) with history’s great singers. It was hard for me to express to them why I thought it was so important to have at least some basic knowledge of these legendary voices, like trying to explain to my mother why it is important to check Facebook incessantly: it just is! I think Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera of Chicago, explained it beautifully when he said, “One listens to singers of the past not to copy, but for enjoyment, inspiration, and food for thought. Ignoring great recorded singing is like an actor ignoring now-legendary documented performances of Laurence Olivier or Katharine Hepburn. In other words, you miss out on your heritage.”

As a singer embarks on a professional career, the heritage that Pines so eloquently described can be intimidating because it may seem that there is no room for improvement. In the liner notes to Renée Fleming’s 2006 album Homage: The Age of the Diva, which is a collection of lesser-known arias from a time when singers such as Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza and Mary Garden were, in terms of star power, the Beyoncé, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera of their day, Fleming comments on the duplicitous nature of opera’s singer lineage: 

“I… have learned to live with both the comfort and burden of the history or singing. It is a comfort because we singers know we belong to a tradition of excellence that grounds us and shows us the way; and at the same time a burden in that we recognize that we have to live up to the standards it sets and are judged by all of the interpretations that have come before us, including the ones we’ve only read about.”

With over a century of opera recordings now available for exploration and discovery, learning about history’s great recordings can be an overwhelming endeavor. YouTube enables us to experience great singers of the past with unprecedented ease but, without a qualitative filter, it can be difficult to discern the bad from the good and the good from the great. In order to give opera-recording neophytes an idea of what is available and what to listen for, I asked Santa Fe Opera General Director Charles MacKay and composer Ricky Ian Gordon to list five recordings every singer should own and give a brief statement about why each recording is so important. Here are their responses — happy listening!

Charles MacKay recommends:
Il trovatore (Verdi)
RCA Victor Orchestra, Robert Shaw Chorale
Renato Cellini, conductor
Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren
RCA 6643
“It’s hard to imagine a better trio of Verdians than in this legendary lineup — this recording really turned me onto opera. Zinka Milanov’s singing of the great 4th act aria is simply unrivaled in terms of tonal beauty and floating pianissimi. Björling sings like a god and Warren shows us what a real Verdi baritone sounds like. Enrico Caruso once said that to perform Trovatore, you only need the three greatest singers in the world. From 1955, here they are!”

I Puritani (Bellini)
London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Bonynge, conductor
Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Piero Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov
Decca Import 00289 417 5882
“This recording is an extraordinary document of bel canto. It captures Pavarotti in his splendid vocal prime and Sutherland at her mature best. The tenor’s opening aria, “A te o Cara” is a death-defying showpiece for the tenor, who has to walk on stage and sing this treacherously high and sustained aria, ending with a high C# — and Pavarotti sets the gold standard here. Don’t miss the incredible F in altissimo sung by Pavarotti. Sutherland offers vocal fireworks aplenty and, while she might be a bit bland dramatically, this is a treasurable document of one of her signature roles. Cappuccilli and Ghiaurov raise the rafters in “Suoni la tromba.” It’s only available as an import, but it’s not to be missed.”

The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Igor Stravinsky, conductor
Judith Raskin, Alexander Young, Regina Sarfaty, John Reardon
Sony 710311
“There are other more recent recordings of Rake’s Progress but this one gives us Stravinsky’s own reading of his marvelous score and the singers, while not international stars, give us stellar interpretations of their roles. Judith Raskin’s Anne Truelove is especially heartfelt and beautifully sung. Raskin, Reardon and Sarfaty were very important American singers of the 1960s and 70s; they had sung the roles in Santa Fe early in their careers under the careful supervision of the composer. This recording brings the opera vividly to life and the sound is excellent.”

Die Zauberflöte (Mozart)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Otto Klemperer, conductor
Gundula Janowitz, Nicolai Gedda, Lucia Popp, Walter Berry, Gottlob Frick, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig
EMI Classics 0724356738522
“Again, there are more recent recordings of Zauberflöte with wonderful singers and conductors, but this is my first choice. Klemperer is perhaps a bit deliberate with tempi, but he brings wonderful musicianship and detail to his reading of the score. The recording boasts the incredibly deluxe casting of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig as the First and Second Ladies, along with a superb group of Mozarteans — Gundula Janowitz (a fulsome-voiced and exquisitely limpid Pamina) and Nicolai Gedda (one of the most versatile tenors of all time — equally at home in the music of Mozart or of Samuel Barber, for whom he created the role of Anatol in Vanessa) lead a first-rate cast. It is hard to imagine a better Queen of the Night than Lucia Popp and there have been few basses to surpass Gottlob Frick’s Sarastro. A recording which is a true touchstone in opera.”

Carmen (Bizet)
Orchestre de l

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