From my experience, the majority of true opera fans are going to care most (and probably only) about the quality of the singing. The quality of the recording will be secondary, and for some, not a consideration at all.
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I seem to appreciate more Italian and French Operas. Don't know why since I don't understand italian at all... They sound more smooth to my ears than German or English operas (which sound more brutal to me).
I totally agree that the singing is very important (that's the main point in Opera I guess) but I just have a hard time with opera which the orchestra sounds miles behind the singers (low dynamics for a lack of a better word)... I agree that the orchestra should be a little away from the singers but I would still like to have a 10th row experience (wide soundstage and very present orchestra without overwelming the singers).
Like I mentionned in my first post, since I'm new to Opera, it is very possible that I'm asking for something that's not possible or just doesn't exist, but it's worth asking...
Without commenting on the quality of the performances themselves, I would suggest that for your purposes Von Karajan might just fit. Many of his recordings were studio recordings and he had his singers standing in front of mic's so the orchestra/vocal blending can be very good. You won't hear footsteps on a creaky wood stage very often in his stuff. Some to consider - Turandot (DG), Aida (Decca), and LaBoheme (London).
A lot of the best opera recordings sound bad (historical, live, mono, etc).
Since you seem to like Puccini and Verdi:
Tosca -- you must hear Callas/diStefano/Gobbi, but it's in mono and sounds awful (by audiophile standards).
La Traviata -- The live Callas/Giulini La Scala is phenomenal, but again, it's in TERRIBLE sound.
For French, try Faust.
Wagner's Das Reingold (London, Sir George Solti) is an excellent recording that Stereophile recommended. The music and singing are beautiful:"...the full power and weight of a symphony orchestra are still delivered with tremendous impact." I feel the quality of the recording is very important in opera - you need to hear all the nuances. Nothing compares to a live performance. I saw Das Reingold at the Cincinatti Opera several years ago, the singing was nowhere near the quality of the Solti, but the sound and music were so gorgeous that I didn't care. On the other hand nothing stinks worse than a poorly performed opera.
While I am an avid classical music and Jazz afficionado, I have a love of opera but my knowledge is less than other classical forms. I am more knowledgeable about concertos and pieces relating to violin, cello, and piano. I do have a great admiration for some of the operas that I am familiar with, and that being said, my favorites do not seem to get the accolades of many others as what I look for in operas is musicality, melody, and performance skills based on my own judgement. In live opera, the extravagance of the sets and costumes as well as the opulence of the opera house itself is unforgetful and a joy in itself.
Most opera versions that are currently thought of as the 'best' are older versions dating to the LP era but are now sold in Cd format. Perhaps this is a tribute to the performers who have recently faded from the scene or are now at the end of their long careers. The recent crop of new stars have yet to earn their accolades and are seldom yet performers in full operas.
My favorite opera is Bellini's Norma. The musicality of the entire program is stunningly beautiful and the demands of the singing role of Norma are the utmost in the entire opera repertoire. I remember an article in either High Fidelity Magazine or Stereo Review which was in praise of Jesse Norman in a new recording of varid arias and the article mentioned that Ms. Norman was preparing herself for the singing of Norma. The article must be about twnety years old, and Jesse Norman has yet to have a recording of Norma. The role is so demanding that most singers do not wish to jeopordize their careers on just one role.
I have almost all the versions of this opera originally on LP and with CD versions, but there is a recent version originally on CD and it is on EMI Classics, 7243 5 55471 2 5, and featuring Jane Eaglen as Norma with Ricardo Muti as conductor, and recorded live in the 1994 Ravenna Festival. I never heard of Ms. Eaglen until this recording, and her performance is truly outstanding. In my opinion, she surpasses the earlier performances of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. In the later Callas versions, Ms. Callas has more fault than virtue in her voice, but her virtue can allow you to forget her faults, but the Eaglen version still is supreme to me.
My next beloved opera again for its melody, musicality and peformance is Verdi's La Traviata with Montserrat Caballe, Carlo Bergonzi, and Sherrill Milnes on RCA 6180-2-RCA. Ms. Caballe fulfills her role in this opera magnificently, but I do not accord her the same praise in her singing of Norma.
I truly recommend the above, and I would also like to hear from you as well as other Audiogoners on their report after listening to these versions of Norma and Traviata. As for me, all else in opera is a notch below those two operas with those sublime versions.
Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" was the opera that I enjoyed the most. Barber of Seville is a fun one too. I agree with rphscv about "The Ring"...as a newbie however, I found that seeing this opera live in it's entirety can be a bit overwhelming as it is actually presented in 4 seperate operas usually over a 5 day period with each segment being quite lengthy 3hrs+ from what I remember. Still, my parents who are quite the opera buffs (travel the world to see operas) saw the Ring Cycle countless times. If you ever get the opportunity, they told me that the best place was in Bayreuth sp? (sounds like buyroit) where the venue was originally built for Wagner.
Another good guide is the Metropolitan Opera's Guide to Recorded Opera. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but you may be able to pick up a copy on eBay or Half.com. The guide only covers operas recorded prior to the early 90s, but covers most of the classic recordings. While everyone one has there own personal taste, if you get one of operas the book recommends, I doubt you'll be disappointed.
As a final note, if you can't find a specific opera you're looking for, try Amazon UK or Tower UK. I have picked up some great recordings that are no longer available in the US.
I have about 1,000+ opera CD's ranging from popular fares to very obsure stuff; from Italian, French, German, Russian and the Vernacular.
I found that Decca generally offers sound that is more present (about 15th row) while Philips adds a warmer glow to their sound although slightly more distant. At the end what matters are the singers, their art and voices.
During seasons, I may attend 2 to 3 performances per week. I have been lucky enough to see some historical performances (Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Leontyne Price, Margaret Price, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballe, Magda Olivero etc. just to name a few) in SF, Chicago, LA, NY etc.
Here are some spine tingling suggestions:
- Puccini: Tosca: Decca Legends 1962 Remastered 24-bit 96KHz: Price, Di Stefano, Taddei cond. by Herbert Von Karajan. (Wow!)
- Puccini: Turandot: DECCA: Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballe cond. by Zubin Mehta. (Another Wow!)
- Bellini: Norma: EMI: Callas, Corelli, Ludwig cond. by Tullio Serafin (High drama!)
- Boito: Mefistofele: DECCA: Ghiaurov, Pavarotti, Freni, Caballe cond. De Fabritiis (Grand!)
- Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur: CBS SONY: Scotto, Domingo, Obraztsova, Miles cond. James Levine
- Donizetti: Lucia Di Lammermoor: DECCA: Sutherland, Pavarotti, Milnes cond. Richard Bonynge
- Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana & Leoncavallo: Pagliacci: DG: Cossotto, Bergonzi, Carlyle, Taddei cond. Herbert von Karajan
- Puccini: La Boheme: DECCA: Freni, Pavarotti, Harwood, Panerai cond. Herbert von Karajan (Melting, lovely performance from start to finish!)
- Offenbach: Contes d'Hoffman: DECCA: Sutherland, Domingo cond. Richard Bonynge
- Ponchielli: La Gioconda: DECCA: Cerquetti, Simionato, Del Monaco cond. Gianandrea Gavazzeni (Sizzles! rather hard to find)
- Bizet: Carmen: ERATO: Domingo, Migenes, Raimondi cond. Lorin Maazel (Well paced but not for pure Francophone!)
- Saint Saens: Samson et Dalila: EMI: Meier, Domingo cond. Myung Whun Chung
- Verdi: Aida: EMI: Freni, Carreras, Baltsa, Cappuccilli cond. Herbert von Karajan (Freni was stretched to the limits but Baltsa is unforgettable!)
- Verdi: Don Carlos: Domindo, Cabalee, Verrett, Raimondi, Milnes cond. Carlo maria Giulini (Heavenly!)
- Verdi: La Traviata: DG: Cotrubas, Domingo, Milnes cond. Carlos Kleiber (What can I say, Cotrubas was at the peak of her career!)
- Mozart: Nozze Di Figaro: DECCA: Te Kanawa, Popp, von Stade, Ramey, Allen cond. Georg Solti (Enchanting)
- Mozart: Die Zauberflote: ERATO: Mannon, Dessay, Blochwitz, scharinger, Hagen cond. William Christie (Limpid!)
- Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen: DECCA: Nilsson, King, Crespin, Hotter, Ludwig, cond. Georg Solti (A must for every opera lover. This is singing and engineering at its best ever. It's hard to imagine sound from the late 50s and early 60s this great. It will be the first to buy the SACD version if it ever gets produced!)
I own several versions of each opera. Sic. Some of my faves are mot listed here due to sound quality etc. What I'm suggesting have decent to great sound married with good to great performances; what would qualify as well rounded performances.
For a thorough review of all operas and classical works, one of the best references is Gramophone Magazine.