Which Operas Actually Need New Recordings?

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Credit where it’s due: The last few years of Grammy-nominated opera recordings have been pretty diverse and erring on the side of newness, particularly world premiere recordings (how thrilling it was to see the first non-DVD recording of Saariaho’s L’amour de loin take home the trophy last year).

But this year, while boasting two first listens in Rautavaara’s Kaivos and Vivaldi’s Ercole sul Termodonte, seems to have dropped that thread oh-so-slightly. Both Adams’s Doctor Atomic and Verdi’s La Traviata have been recently recorded by their respective eponymous characters (though in the Met’s favor, their DVD is frankly essential). And if the Glyndebourne DVD of Billy Budd wins, it will be the second time in three years that the same opera takes home Grammy gold.

Which begs the age-old question: How many recordings of one opera do we need? There’s a certain brand of fan, immortalized in Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata, who can pore over each separate recording made by a Callas or a Pavarotti and compare the minutest details between, say, 1955 and 1958. But while such listeners build their collections up, adding one more “Addio del passato” to the stack, there are just as many listeners looking to build their collections out, eagerly awaiting the next rare Rossini release from Naxos or the latest Vivaldi recording from Naïve.

It’s a delicate balance and you really need both in the recording game to make a happy musical marriage. But just as casting your fantasy opera production is a popular dinner party game among operavores, so is wish-listing new opera recordings. The Met recently released from its archives a charming Mignon starring Risë Stevens, and in 2009 the same label (Sony Masterworks) reissued its own recording with Marilyn Horne—two formidable mezzos that no one would want to go up against in a sing-off.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have a new cast take on this exquisite French grand opera, which hasn’t been heard on the Met stage since 1949, in its completion? It provides popular arias for soprano, tenor and mezzo, and all have been recorded frequently in recent years by the likes of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Magdalena Kozena, Natalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna (a tenor who has been devoting a significant amount of his recording studio time to rarities as of late, including Massenet’s Le jongleur de notre dame and Lalo’s Fiesque—would that those albums could cross the pond). Get three of those four singers in a recording studio, add in a Francophile conductor like Marc Minkowski, and have at it.

There is also the very valid argument that recording budgets should be focused on new works that are struggling to find wider audiences, which comes with its own wish list. I’ve already made explicit on this blog my yen to see Kevin Puts’s recent Silent Night immortalized on a commercial recording, but add to that catalogue a Ghosts of Versailles, Andriessen’s La Commedia, and a complete cycle of Stockhausen’s Licht.

And then some works sit in the middle. Czech composer and conductor Eduard Nápravník, who made a career for himself in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater long before Gergiev was a twinkle in his father’s eye, wrote a thrilling adaptation of Pushkin’s short story Dubrovsky, about an Imperial Russian Robin Hood tempered with a juicy revenge plot and an even juicier daughter-of-the-enemy love story. The librettist was no less than Modest Tchaikovsky.

Dubrovsky was an instant hit when it opened in 1895 and became a repertoire staple in Russia and abroad, but quickly fell out of favor in the 20th Century. A 1955 recording exists and it has much to recommend it, but how fitting it would be to get a new one issued on the Mariinsky label, conducted by Gergiev and featuring a cast along the lines of René Pape, Piotr Beczala, Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Make it happen.

Which operas do you want to see receive new recordings? Leave your picks in the comments below.