101 Best Classical Music CDs:
(Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini)
ROSSINI (1792-1868): The Barber of Seville
Prey, Teresa Berganza, Luigi Alva
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Claudio Abbado, conductor
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
Franco Corelli, Christa Ludwig
Chorus & Orchestra of La Scala,
Tullio Serafin, conductor
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
VERDI (1813-1901): La Traviata
Alfredo Kraus, Mario Sereni
Chorus & Orchestra of the San Carlos
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
VERDI (1813-1901): Rigoletto
Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ivo Vinco
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Rafael Kubelik, conductor
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
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
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
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Victor de Sabata, conductor
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
Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Elizabeth Harwood, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Rolando
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
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.