Opera Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Alban Berg

Hamburg State Philharmonic, Ingo Metzmacher, cond.

Soldier Wozzeck has it rough. He’s harassed by his military superior, poked and prodded in the name of medicine by a quack, and cuckolded by his common-law wife. None of these self-absorbed characters notices when he begins to slowly fall apart. For all the overt brutality he endures, it’s this blithe indifference that ultimately sends him into madness.

Or maybe it’s the music playing around him. A student of Arnold Schoenberg, whose dissonant twelve-tone approach to composition ignited firestorms of controversy in classical music, Alban Berg (1885–1935) packs this opera with every ear-stretching device at his disposal. His prickly porcupine score relies on the atonality’s jarring quality—its sudden changes of direction, its flashes of rage—to trace the progress of a fast-advancing inner delirium.

In adapting Georg Büchner’s unfinished play (and lifting its text directly in many cases), Berg doesn’t just do torment for torment’s sake. He conjures different colors for each character and plot twist, and his intricately shaded confrontations bring listeners close to an emotional rawness. The exchanges exhibit a humanity missing from his teacher’s compositions. Indeed, with this work and his similar orchestral efforts, Berg proved to the music world’s many skeptics that Schoenberg’s tactics can be more than number-crunching hoodoo.

Premiered in 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, Wozzeck instantly provoked outrage; only later was it embraced as one of the towering achievements of twentieth-century music. It is innovative not just for the drama embedded in its sounds, but also for its structure—a series of short, disconnected scenes that don’t always track in linear sequence. This 1999 live performance, guided by Ingo Metzmacher, catches all the harrowing turbulence of the score, without adding any extra angst. Wozzeck doesn’t need that.

GENRE: Opera.
KEY TRACKS: Act 1, Scene 4: “Doctor”; Act 3, Scene 3: “Wozzeck and Marie.”
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: New York Philharmonic (Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond.).


Georges Bizet

Victoria de los Angeles, Nicolai Gedda, French Radio Orchestra and Chorus (Sir Thomas Beecham, cond.)

Carmen opens in a Seville public square on a hot day. The local police sing an idle, workaday tune while keeping watch over the bustle; they’re really waiting to glimpse the women who work in the tobacco factory as they take lunch. The officials have a few favorites, among them the tempestuous heroine, who displays, from her very first entrance, a talent for drawing male attention Madonna might envy.

An exotic Gypsy beauty who tells fortunes and projects a regal air that’s above her station, Carmen turns out to be a magnet for love troubles: In the course of this colorful essay on free-spiritedness and jealousy, she snares a young corporal, Don José, then a dashing toreador, Escamillo; she disrupts work and gets into brawls with women, all the while smoking copiously. Georges Bizet establishes each character with distinct hues he returns to, fleetingly, as the tale unfolds. His bawdy large-ensemble moments are organized around hummable tunes—not least of them the magisterial “Toreador” march and the orphan girl’s lament “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante.”

Although Bizet plotted out other operas and comic operas late in his life, Carmen was his last multi-act work: He died at age thirty-six, just three months after its premiere, not knowing that the piece would become an operatic standard. He conceived Carmen using spoken dialog, but the presenting company requested that the narrative exposition be set to music, in traditional recitative style. That task was unfinished at his death, and was handled by the far less adventurous composer Ernest Guiraud, whose labored connective music moves the story along in fitful lurches.

Carmen is now often presented the way Bizet intended, but one of the most enduring recordings—this 1959 version, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and featuring Victoria de los Angeles as Carmen and a forceful Nicolai Gedda as Don José—utilizes Guiraud’s recitatives. That’s its only flaw: Beecham keeps the Castilian flourishes restrained and helps everyone involved seize, then celebrate, Bizet’s coy lyricism. Those seeking music bubbling with passion but containing little of the pomposity associated with opera will find this delightful.

GENRE: Opera.
RELEASED: 1960, EMI/Angel.
KEY TRACKS: Act 1: “L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle”; Act 3: “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante.


Giuseppe Verdi

Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers, Chorus and Orchestra of the Rome Opera (Sir Georg Solti, cond.)

Aida might be set in North Africa, but it’s grand Italian opera with all the trimmings. It’s got the languid, deliberating arias that are among Giuseppe Verdi’s signature contributions to the form. It’s got moments of big flag-waving pageantry that operagoers of his day expected. Naturally there’s a tangled love triangle, with subplots of jealousy and deception that unspool gradually.

And the melodies Verdi (1813–1901) gave his title character—sung here by Leontyne Price, in the recording that established her as the preeminent Aida of the twentieth century—are incredibly demanding. They require the soprano, playing a captured Ethiopian princess, to deliver outbursts of tremendous force. And then, seconds later, the score shifts, requiring the singer to produce quiet and deliciously tender high-register long tones, which are sustained almost beyond the limits of human breath. Price handles those challenges with unsurpassed poise, and astounding vocal warmth. (Listen to her third-act aria “Qui Radamas verra!,” which exists in a suspended state of floating, ethereal brilliance.)

Despite Verdi’s attempts to “regionalize” the music with snake-charmer curlicues and modes intended to reflect the exotic locale, the most striking musical themes of Aida are solidly European. There’s a healthy dose of block-chord heroism, most overtly in the famous “Triumphal March” scene that features the Egyptian army parading war treasures and Ethiopian prisoners (including Aida’s father) while chanting “Glory to Egypt!” Just as often, though, the deeply moving music occurs in more intimate moments, like the duet between the Egyptian princess Amneris (played by Rita Gorr) and the man she expects will become her husband, the military general Radames (sung with intense authority by Jon Vickers). And just about every time she sings, whether solo or with others, the African American Price brings her character’s deep conflicts to the fore. She obviously relates to the plight of an Ethiopian princess forced into servitude, but is equally compelling contemplating what it means to fall in love with a man who helped conquer her nation. The conflict informs her every phrase.

Price’s sense of purpose radiates throughout the production, and creates, with help from the measured tempi and conservative shadings of conductor Sir Georg Solti, an Aida for the ages. In some Aida readings, the showy over-the-top scenes trample the luminous quieter music. Not here. We get all the glory—and all the doubt—Verdi intended.

GENRE: Opera.
RELEASED: 1962, Decca.
KEY TRACKS: Act 1: “Celeste Aida,” “Gloria al Eggito”; Act 2: “Vieni, o guerriero vindice”; Act 3: “Qui Radamas verral,” “O terra, addio.”
ANOTHER INTERPRETATION: Price recorded Aida again in 1970, for RCA, and has identified that as her preferred version.