SIGURD BJÖRLING
Arias from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger, Die Walküre and Siegfried
Sigurd Björling, baritone; orchestras cond. by Herbert Sandberg and Herbert von Karajan
PREISER 93437 (F) (mono) TT: 73:55
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LEA PILTTI
Arias from Il re pastore, Idomeneo, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, and Ariadne auf Naxos; music of Johann Strauss, Scarlatti, Schubert, Schumann, Merikanto and Melartin
Lea Piltti, soprano; various orchestras and conductors
PREISER 89603 (F) (mono) TT: 75:19
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RUDOLF LAUBENTHAL
Arias from Der Freischütz, Die Meistersinger, Siefried, Gotterdämmerung, The Huguenots, Il Trovatore, The Bartered Bride, L'Africaine, Eugen Onegin, I Pagliacci and Tosca
Rudolf Laubenthal, tenor; various orchestras and conductors
PREISER 89606 (F) (mono) TT: 71:31
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JANINE MICHEAU
Arias from The Barber of Seville, The Pearl Fishers, Mireille, Romeo and Juliet, The Tales of Hoffman, Mignon, Louise, Manon, Hamlet, and Ariadne auf Naxos
Janine Micheau, soprano; various orchestras and conductors
PREISER 89605 (F) (mono) TT: 74:57
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MADO ROBIN
Arias from The Magic Flute, Manon Lescaut (Auber), Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, Mireille, Hamlet, and Lakmé; music of Benedict and David
Mado Robin, soprano; various orchestras and conductors
PREISER 89614 (F) (mono) TT: 78:11
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JON VICKERS
Arias from Otello, Samson and Delilah, Tristan and Isolde, Carmen, and Fidelio; lieder of Schubert
Jon Vickers, tenor; various orchestras and conductors; Geoffrey Parsons, pianist
EMI CLASSICS 63382 (2 CDs) TT: 76:02 & 76:21
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BORIS CHRISTOFF
Arias from Boris Godunov, Prince Igor, Sadko, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Eugene Onegin, Faust, Iphigénie en Aulide, Attila, Don Carlo, and Mefistophele; music of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and traditional songs
Boris Christoff, bass; various orchestras and conductors; Alexander Labinsky, pianist
EMI CLASSICS 63352 (2 CDs) TT: 78:42 & 76:43
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HILDEGARD BEHRENS
Arias from Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Die Walküre, Götterdammerung and Salome; lieder of Schumann, Bach, Brahms, Magnard and Strauss
Hildegard Behrens, soprano; various orchestras and conductors; pianist David Syrus
EMI CLASSICS 63082 (2 CDs) TT: 78:02 & 75:30
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MIRELLA FRENI
Arias from La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Turandot, La Wally, Adriana Lecouvreur, William Tell, I Pagliacci, Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, Mefistofele and Eugene Onegin
Mirella Freni, soprano; various orchestras and conductors
DECCA B0004244-02 (2 CDs) TT: 79:38 & 78:02
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VERDI: La forza del destino
Mario Del Monaco (Don Alvaro); Zinka Milanov (Leonora); Leonard Warren (Don Carlo); Claramae Turner (Preziosilla); William Wilderman (Padre Guardiano); Gerhard Pechner (Fra Melitone); Norman Treigle (Marchese di Calatrava); New Orleans Symphony Chorus and Orch/Walter Herbert, cond.
GREAT OPERA PERFORMANCES 66.303 (2 CDs) TT: 75:43 & 71:27
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MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana
Mario del Monaco (Turiddu); Elena Nicolai (Santuzza); Aldo Protti (Alfio); Annamaria Anelli (Lucia); Laura Didier (Lola); Italian Radio Chorus and Orch/Franco Chione, cond.
GREAT OPERA PERFORMANCES 66.314 TT: 71:32
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STRAUSS: Salome
Montserrat Caballé (Salome); Horst Heistermann (Herod); Vera Baniewicz (Herodias); Bodo Brinkmann (Jokanaan); Hans Sojer (Narraboth); Liceu Grand Opera Orch/Uwe Mund, cond.
PREMIERE OPERA DVD 5365
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Preiser continues their valuable series of historic recordings by famous singers of the past. Of the five mentioned above, two are of minor interest. Finnish coloratura soprano Lea Piltti (1904-1982) made her first recording in 1938, Johann Strauss's Voices of Spring (included on this CD) and was well-known for radio broadcasts. She was a leading coloratura with the Wiemar Opera when Richard Strauss conducted a performance of Ariadne auf Naxos. After Piltti's performance of Zerbinetta's big aria the composer gave her a "Bravo!"—and you can hear her 1942 Electrola recording on this CD sung adequately but not exceptionally. Piltti also sang in Vienna, Berlin, Rome and at the Salzburg and other festivals, retiring in 1944 to become a teacher. Judging from what is heard on these recordings made from 1938-1943 it's difficult to understand her fame. Perhaps she did not record well, but her voice, aside from a firm trill, is unexceptional and sometimes a bit off pitch. The other CD of limited appeal, except as an oddity, is devoted to French coloratura soprano Mado Robin (1918-1960) who was famous for her stratospheric high notes. Her voice was thin and unsupported but she surely could emit sounds so high—and sometimes so unpleasant—only dogs could hear them (just joking!). Her interpolation of high notes into standard repertory was legendary and some conductors would not permit it. Some of these odd-sounding high notes can be heard on this CD, but you can hear Robin to better advantage in the recent Decca reissue of highlights from her 1952 recording of Lakmé (REVIEW).

The other three Preisers are major issues. Swedish baritone Sigurd Björling (1907-1983) (no relation to the famous tenor), made his operatic debut in 1934 in a minor role in Girl of the Golden West, and the following year attracted attention as Alfio in Pagliacci, later singing many major Italian roles including performances in Vienna and Berlin. However, Björling didn't enjoy traveling and focused his career on Sweden where he became the leading heldenbaritone at the Royal Opera. Although Knappertsbusch admired Björling's Wotan, the baritone could not deal with the political intrigue at Bayreuth, or with Wieland Wagner. Björling's stay at Bayreuth was brief, as was his stay at the Met where Rudolph Bing made limited use of him. The loss to operatic audiences is obvious from the remarkable performances of leading Wagnerian baritone roles, mostly made in 1953 in Hamburg. Rudolf Laubenthal (1886-1971) was born in Düsseldorf. After beginning is career in Berlin in lighter roles, he switched to Wagner and became renowned particularly for his Siegfried, rivaling Lauritz Melchior in the role. For a decade beginning in 1923 he sang at the Met including premiers of Jenufa, The Egyptian Helen and Schwanda the Bagpiper. The high quality of his heldentenor is evident from the excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Siegfried and Götterdammerung recorded in 1927-1930; we also have Verdi, Smetana, Weber, Meyerbeer, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Leoncavallo, all sung in German. A fascinating CD! Soprano Janine Micheau (1914-1976) is a class act. Born in Toulouse, she was a great favorite in Paris opera houses and sang many French premieres. She was committed to music of contemporary French composers including Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc with whom she performed often. There are two recordings available each of Carmen and The Pearl Fishers, Mireille and Le Rossignol. On Preiser's CD we have a wide selection of her artistry all sung in French including Zerbinetta's aria from Ariadne auf Naxos. There are no texts with any of the Preiser reissues, but there is a complete list of recording dates and original labels.

EMI Classics has a new series "The Very Best Of.....," two CD sets selling for the price of one, featuring generous compilations of recordings by many of the most important singers in their roster. Three of them are mentioned above, and should you not have recordings by these artists this is a relatively inexpensive way to acquire a representative sampling of their artistry. Jon Vickers is featured in one of his big roles, Otello; Boris Christoff in his primary role of Boris Godunov, and Hildegard Behrens in Wagner and the final scene from Salome in her famous 1977 recording. No texts are provided, just a rather brief feature in each artist.

Decca's Mirella Freni collection is appropriate to celebrate the extraordinary career of a soprano who is now in her seventh decade and still performing; recently she had a series of highly successful performances with the Washington Opera in Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orléans. Here we have the roles in which she specialized, particularly Mimì with an excerpt from her famous 1972 recording of La Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Italian label Great Opera Performances has two releases of major importance, the first from March 12, 1953, a New Orleans Opera production of Verdi's La forza del destino with a magnificent cast featuring Mario Del Monaco as Don Alvaro, Zinka Milanov as Leonora, and Leonard Warren as Don Carlo. They are at their best, particularly Milanov who, unfortunately, made few commercial recordings (a recent Preiser CD offers many of them—see REVIEW). The second is Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in what apparently is a radio performance from Milan, 1954; there are no audience sounds and no applause at the conclusion. Del Monaco and Nicolai provide singing of a quality rarely heard on today's opera stages. Sonic quality on both of these recordings is remarkably good. No texts or notes about the circumstances of either performance, but there are track listings.

The Salome DVD is a fascinating issue. The role was a favorite of Montserrat Caballé, but visually she hardly represents the image of an attractive teenager. In this 1988 production from Liceo the problem is solved by a double cast—one singing, the other acting and dancing. The conductor is Uwe Mund, who is adequate but little more. Aside from Caballé, the singing is pretty bad. Hiestermann, Baniewicz and Brinkmann have uneven vocal production and are unable to sustain notes. However, the dancers are superb, particularly Darie Cardyn as Salome, an exquisite young lady indeed who performs the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils with unmitigated passion (she uses no veils as she dances; a slave instead holds the veils one by one in front of Herod who rips each in half). For most of the opera, Caballé appears on top of what seems to be a pile of rocks with her flowing gown covering most of it. Only before the final scene does she dismount, so to speak, and at one point she loses her balance but manages to get up. In the final minutes, she pounds on the plate on which Jokanaan's head is placed, breaking the plate, which seems rather odd. And at the end she is not crushed to death, another oddity in the staging/production. This Spanish TV presentation has subtitles in that language—and they are not optional. Picture quality is hazy, but good enough to convey the performance. Sound is unexceptional but good enough to let us hear what's going on. I found this to be a remarkable concept for the opera; it's unfortunate the singing, aside from Caballé, isn't better, but those who like this opera surely must investigate this video issue. It is available only from http://www.premiereopera.com

R.E.B. (May 2005)