KlassikNet: 101 Best Classical CDs
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101 Best Classical Music CDs:
Italian Opera


(Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini)


ROSSINI (1792-1868): The Barber of Seville
Hermann Prey, Teresa Berganza, Luigi Alva
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon

Rossini confessed to have wept on only three occasions: when his first opera flopped, when he heard Niccolo Paganini play the violin, and the day his stuffed turkey with truffles fell overboard during a boat outing! As is generally the case with Rossini's music, The Barber of Seville is all good natured fun and farce. Given its premiere in Rome in 1816, the opera is about an old man who is engaged to marry a young girl - young enough to be his grand-daughter. After a thousand gags reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy skits, the astute barber, Figaro, will do just about anything to break up this match. Leading an irresistible team of actors and singers, Claudio Abbado has signed one of his greatest recordings. Warning! His recent remake of the Barber (in which Placido Domingo sounds utterly swamped) has little to commend it.


BELLINI (1801-1835): Norma
Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, Christa Ludwig
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Tullio Serafin, conductor
EMI

Given its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1831, Norma is the prototype of the Italian bel canto opera. With a simple but effective plot (a Gallic woman falls for a Roman) and its generous helpings of songfulness, this melodrama has long since established itself as one of the stable hits of the opera repertoire. Norma was one of Callas' three or four pet operas. Here she shares the stage with tenor Franco Corelli (b. 1923), the number one sex symbol of post World War II Italian opera.


VERDI (1813-1901): La Traviata
Maria Callas, Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni
Chorus & Orchestra of the San Carlos Theater, Lisbon
Franco Ghione, conductor
2 CDs EMI

Violetta was one of Maria Callas' greatest roles: that of a high priced courtesan (she calls you, you don't call her) who gives the best parties in Paris, falls in love too late with the son of a disapproving main-line family and takes forever to die of TB. Callas' devastating 1958 "live" performance in Lisbon is one of opera history's greatest moments and transforms Violetta into the equal of ancient Greek tragedy's most sublime heroines.


VERDI (1813-1901): Rigoletto
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ivo Vinco
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Rafael Kubelik, conductor
2 CDs Deutsche Grammophon

Based on Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, Rigoletto is about a hunchbacked widower who keeps his daughter under lock and key. So what happens? Somebody steals her, of course. Middle-period Verdi, Rigoletto is one of the most "italian" operas. A luxurious cast, an unrivalled chorus (la Scala!), this recording is an ideal choice for those just getting into opera.


VERDI (1813-1901): Otello
Carlo Cossutta, Margaret Price, Gabriel Bacquier
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
2 CDs Decca

In opera, sex and violence always make for a good story. Mozart's Don Giovanni, Puccini's Tosca, Wagner's The Valkyrie, Richard Strauss' Salomé, Berg's Lulu, and Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth, needn't envy A Clockwork Orange. Neither does Verdi's Otello. Adapted from Shakespeare's tragedy, this late Verdi opera keeps one breathless for nearly two hours. Compared to Toscanini's punchy version (RCA/BMG, mono) Solti's dazzling first recording (made in Vienna in 1977) is simply essential. Not to be confused with Solti's later and clearly less successful version with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role.


VERDI (1813-1901): Requiem - Te Deum
Herva Nelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe di Stefano, Cesare Siepi
Robert Shaw Chorale
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Arturo Toscanini, conductor
2 CDs RCA/BMG

Complete with ear-shattering fanfares announcing the Last Judgement, Verdi's Requiem can seem on first hearing like a liturgical monstrosity. Dedicated to the memory of the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni and given its premiere in Milan in 1874, this death opera rivals some of the most powerful albeit overblown pages of Victor Hugo's La Légende des Siècles. Still, the then 84-year-old Toscanini's furia will leave you flabbergasted.


PUCCINI (1858-1924): Tosca
Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Victor de Sabata, conductor
EMI

The action is set in Rome in June 1880 during the Battle of Marengo. Mario Cavaradossi, Bonaparte's favorite painter, is Tosca's lover. Scarpia, Naples' sinister police chief, has sworn Cavaradossi's ruin. With three roles minted in gold (Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi), its dramatic tension, voluptuous and impressionist music, Tosca is the proverbial must!


PUCCINI (1858-1924): La Bohème
Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Elizabeth Harwood, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Rolando Panerai
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Decca

Puccini's La Bohème is a work whose perfection defies analysis. Like Mozart's Don Giovanni, Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or Janacek's little known The Cunning Little Vixen, no matter how hard you look for a flaw, you can't find it. Very few operas can compete in terms of melodic and poetic grace. Herbert von Karajan's recording deserves the same remarks.



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