By Ralph P. Locke
Here’s my list of twenty superlative operatic offerings of different kinds.
The classical-music labels continued to bring out wonderful treasures this past year. Most were recorded before the pandemic began, Indeed, a few were items that had been sitting unreleased for years, often in the “vaults” of some European radio station.
Here’s my list of twenty superlative operatic offerings of different kinds. My list focuses mainly on lesser-known operas because that’s mostly what I tend to be sent for review. But the list also reflects my belief that the operatic tradition is wider and deeper than our “standard rep” of Tosca and so on leads us to think. Some of these operas are in languages that I don’t know; they proved well worth the effort of following the libretto and translation that (in nearly all cases) comes with the recording.
I should mention (since The Arts Fuse is based in the Boston area) that several of these recordings have a Boston connection. Scott Wheeler teaches song composition at Emerson College; and the Gounod recording (La Reine de Saba) comes from Odyssey Opera, under its founding music director Gil Rose. Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project won a Special Achievement Award from Gramophone magazine this year for their amazing series of nearly 100 recordings, made over the course of their first 25 years.
For a fuller report on my year of listening, including some CDs of instrumental music (e.g., Kenneth Hamilton and Chelsea Guo each playing beloved Romantic piano works, marvelously and very differently), see “Locke’s List for 2021: Notable Recent Opera and Other Vocal Recordings,” in The Boston Musical Intelligencer.
18th-19th centuries: Ferdinando Paër’s Leonora, Donizetti’s Il paria (The Pariah), a CD of two-tenor duets by high-flying Lawrence Brownlee (a regular at the Met) and amazing “baritenor” Michael Spyres, Moniuszko’s Halka (the best-known Polish opera), Gounod’s La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba), Peter Heise’s Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal, 1878), Saint-Saëns’s Le Timbre d’argent and La Princesse jaune, and two wildly different works by Reynaldo Hahn (L’Île du rêve and Ô mon bel inconnu).
20th-21st centuries: a superb German-language recording of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I quatro rusteghi, plus such diverse works as Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound), Egon Wellesz’s Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Prisoner, Sacrificed [to the Gods]), Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide (conducted by Marin Alsop), and Scott Wheeler’s mythology-drenched Naga.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).