A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 19, 2013
06:43 PM
Classically Speaking

Viva Verdi! — Boxed sets of his operas come in all sizes this year


"Il Trovatore" performance from the boxed set with Domingo, Karajan, et al.

all last-minute shoppers who have opera/Verdi lovers on their gift list: in this bicentennial year of the most popular of all Italian opera composers, some fabulous boxed gift sets are available in every size imaginable.

The smallest under examination here is a three-opera set, and apparently the three selections have nothing in common—other than they consist of three of Verdi’s greatest operas in superb performances. From Arthaus Musik (and like all of the sets here, available from Naxos), is a group that includes Il Trovatore, Don Carlos and Rigoletto. The first of these is truly vintage: from 1978, with Placido Domingo in his youthful prime (and apparently stepping in on short notice) with Herbert von Karajan leading a performance so taut that you may forget Il Trovatore was once described as the greatest music set to the worst story. It was performed at the Vienna State Opera, as was the Don Carlos found here, but the latter dates from 2004. It’s strong, led by Ramon Vargas and Bo Skovhus, but the other real gem is the 2006 Rigoletto from Zurich. The venerable Leo Nucci, following the title character’s plea to the courtiers for the return of his daughter, receives such a prolonged and vociferous ovation, that he finally breaks character to acknowledge it at the urging of conductor Nello Santi.

From the Dynamic label comes the "Verdi Collection, Vol. 2," a box of six operas that share the distinction of having been staged in a wide variety of theaters. The early Attila actually took place outdoors in 2011 among the ruins of the fortress of Tsaverets, Bulgaria, and the company is the Sofia National Opera. Luisa Miller, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra were staged in Venice, Liege and Palermo, and generally feature strong casts in representative performances. By far the best performance is saved for the final disc, a Falstaff with Ruggero Raimondi in the title role in an Opera Royal de Wallonie (Liege) production that is as delightful for the eyes as it is effervescent to the ears.

Full disclosure: While I saw every minute of the sets reviewed above, I ran out of time to watch all of the 12-opera set (nearly half of all of Verdi’s operas!), from Opus Arte, simply called “The Verdi Collection.” What I did see--along with the overall quality of the release and the casts--compel me to include it here. Name all of the most famous Verdi operas and you’ll find them here, along with Les Vespres Siciliennes, and Un Ballo in Maschera. I am familiar with the earlier single release of the La Traviata, a drop-dead gorgeous and heartbreaking version headlined by Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson from 2009. I was also riveted by the Il Trovatore of this set, with Jose Cura and Veronica Villaroel sizzling at the Royal Opera House in 2002. The set includes a wonderfully detailed and illustrated 106-page booklet, and many of the other operas overflow with star power: Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, Daniela Dessi as Aida, and Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. It’s almost enough to make you wish that you’d get snowed in for a couple of days…

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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