The last few weeks have brought a flood of new opera recordings. It's a galvanizing thought as those who remember Renée Fleming's memoir, The Inner Voice, will recall that her Rusalka album cost roughly $300,000 to make (75,000 units would need to be sold to recoup its cost).
And with so many of us getting in the last of our summer travel plans—Glimmerglass's seminar weekend is just a few days off and the Glyndebourne Festival carries on through the 28th—what better way to accompany the long hauls on the highway or across the ocean than with a full-length recording? Some of our top picks, from Handel to Sciarrino, for new releases are below. And tell us: What have you been listening to this summer? Leave your own CD picks in the comments below.
Gergiev, Dessay, Beczala: Lucia di Lammermoor (Mariinsky)
Last year, Valery Gergiev branched out his Russian repertoire. Mariinsky label's offerings to include a stunning account of Wagner's Parsifal, featuring a multinational cast that included René Pape, Gary Lehman, Violetta Urmana and Evgeny Nitkin. This year, Gergiev moves further west with Donizetti's classic bel canto tragedy, again featuring two non-Russians in the lead roles of Lucia and Edgardo.
Natalie Dessay's Lucia has garnered a considerable following thanks to both her recording of the French version for Virgin (opposite Roberto Alagna's Edgardo) and her continued performances of the role in Mary Zimmerman's new-ish staging for the Met. Her angular interpretation gives a Victorian, childlike effect to Donizetti's leading lady, belying her icy madness and hinting at the work's historic roots: Scott's character was based on the real-life Janet Dalrymple, who met a similar fate in 1669.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has also been seen in the role at the Met and gives a serviceable read of Edgardo, particularly in the rarely-included tower scene, opposite the glowering Vladislav Sulimsky's Enrico, and in the final aria, "Tu che a Dio." The real star of this show, however, is Gergiev for an incisive reading of Donizetti's voluptuous score, accentuating the sonic clash between the masculine and feminine and providing the greatest impact, encompassing each individual character's comparatively little tragedy.
Pappano, Finley, Bystrom, Osborn, Lemieux: William Tell (EMI)
Forget that you've ever heard the iconic overture to Rossini's otherwise neglected final opera (albeit one that received a stirring concert presentation just recently at Caramoor): In this live recording by the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, maestro Antonio Pappano sets the tone immediately with a stirring and fresh rendition of a work that could be easily milked and mundane. Some comparisons may only be natural between this recording and Will Crutchfield's run with Caramoor, however for those looking to preserve that bel canto buzz will find no disappointment in Malin Byström's rendition of the showstopping soprano number "Sombre forêt."
Equally formidable is mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the role of Hedwige, Tell's wife. The biggest laurels go to Finley, whose nail-biting "Sois immobile" is both authoritative and sensitive, a tribute to both the impact of the piece and Finley's commanding talents. Pappano coaxes out the work's full prism of colors, bringing it to a head in the stirring finale—a sublime presentiment of Wagner's ride to Valhalla—and the tireless chorus under Ciro Visco provide a necessary and rock-solid foundation to this epic.
Angius, Nina Tarandek, Miedl: Luci Mie Traditrici (Stradavarius)
Salvatore Sciarrino's taut, hour-long drama based loosely on Carlo Gesualdo's murder of his wife and her lover is the perfect accompaniment to a recent book whose praises I've sung on this blog before: Wesley Stace's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. Like Stace's novel, Sciarrino's opera is vivacious in its economy and restraint, conveyed through hushed and frenzied vocal lines contrasted against the chamber Ensemble Algoritmo.
There are hints at mannerism and late Renaissance musicality, adding to the synesthetic experiences that come part and parcel with the composer's works (one of which, La porta della legge, was seen as part of last summer's Lincoln Center Festival), yet the comfort of the antiquated is balanced with an unsettled schizophrenia—a series of intermezzi bubble and rumble like volcanoes about to erupt—that propels this otherwise quiet work into its inevitable, breathtaking conclusion. For the full effect, pair this with the recent Naxos release of Gesualdo's Madrigals, Book 3.
Janowski, Merbeth, Dohmen, Salminen: Der Fliegende Holländer (Pentatone)
Not available on CD until the end of the month but already available on iTunes, the first of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin's 10-opera Wagner cycle hits recording (future releases include Parsifal and Meistersinger) and makes a strong case for an addition to the already-crowded shelf of standards by Levine, Klemperer, Solti and Böhm. With very little grandstanding from any one lead, Matti Salminen is nevertheless a virile Daland, complemented by Albert Dohmen's afflicted Dutchman.
Ricarda Merbeth sings a deep and throaty Senta, bordering at times on matronly but spinning a splendid Act II aria detailing the trials and travails of the Dutchman. The male chorus is especially impeccable in the first act's "Hojohe! Hallojo! Hojoha! Ho!" and, at Janowski's hand, the orchestra gives a spirited and stormy performance that takes to Wagner's work like a fish—or loopy daughter—to water.
Curtis, DiDonato, Gauvin, Lemieux: Ariodante (Virgin)
Like Wagner's Dutchman, there's no shortage of splendid Ariodante recordings—most notably the Minkowski version with Anne Sofie von Otter for Arkiv, not to mention Harmonia Mundi's own disc with Lorraine Hunt (before the Lieberson). However, a new crop of Handelians make this an equally compelling recording, and particularly delicious to listen to in an Ariodante marathon with the previous two albums. Joyce DiDonato is no stranger to this repertoire and with each Handel recording she delves deeper into the idiom, emerging a richer and richer artist for it.
"Qui d'amour nel suo linguaggio" is a real treat and an aria that could lead to a serious Joycean substance problem. DiDonato is joined by Karina Gauvin, a Canadian voice that does not cross the border nearly enough but ought to for her equal parts comfort and virtuosity in the Baroque and early Classical rep and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (also heard earlier on this list in William Tell and a compatriot of Gauvin), whose rich and earthy tones complement DiDonato's own darker hues. Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu adds a nice balance of testosterone to the vocal assembly and Alan Curtis completes another judiciously lush Handel opera to add to his ever-expanding discography with Il Complesso Barocco for the Virgin label.