Lovely Recordings Hosted by Stephen Dupont

I’ve been involved with music and hifi my whole life. I sang professionally for 10 years, and then transitioned to life in the real world, first selling audio at several high-end stores in DC and NYC, then at Andante.com, and early classical music subscription service, and for the past 12 years saving the world from bad metadata at Gracenote.

I listen to all kinds of music, and particularly love jazz, but other genres have been well covered by previously. Opera can be difficult for the uninitiated, so I thought this might be a good theme for my own Lovely Recordings installment.

Bellini: Norma (Warner Classics, 2014)
This is the second of the two commercial recordings of Norma Callas made for EMI. She may be in slightly better voice in the earlier, but the recorded sound is much improved here, and so is the tenor- Franco Corelli in exceptional voice. if you’re unfamiliar with the singers or the opera, the trio that closes the first act is a great place to start.

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Bellini: I Puritani (Deutsche Grammophon, 2001)
Beverly Sills made a series of bel canto recordings for ABC records in the late 60s and early 70s, including Norma, Anna Bolena, and this recording of I Puritani. It’s bounced around from ABC to MCA to Westminster, DG, and now Warner Classics. The tenor, Nicolai Gedda, sings his big aria, "A Te O Cara" beautifully, and elsewhere tosses in some astonishing high notes (including a high “F” above “high C”), but it’s the two lower voices that have made this recording a favorite. Neither Louis Quilico nor Paul Plishka recorded often enough, and they sing gloriously here, particularly in their big duet "Suoni la Tromba" at the end of Act 2.

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Dvorák: Rusalka (London/Decca, 1998)
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Rimsky: Tsar’s Bride (Decca, 1999)
Rusalka had its premiere in 1901, but the musical idiom is thoroughly 19th century romantic. There have only been a few commercial recordings. this one has an ideal cast, and the preeminent conductor of Czech opera in Charles Mackerras. If the unfamiliar language gives you pause, understand that this is gorgeously accessible music, and the recorded sound is first rate.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride premiered two years before Rusalka, and is rarely performed, which is a shame, since the opera has everything you could want: great roles for five leading singers, a mad scene for the soprano, an a cappella aria for mezzo, and some great choral writing as well. There was a recording from the Bolshoi from the mid-70s, but it was not complete, and the sound was dry and boxy. Gergiev and Phillips made a series of recordings of Russian opera in the late 90s, and this is the one two have. If you like Boris Gudonov, Eugene Onegin, or indeed Rusalka, you’ll love The Tsar’s Bride.

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Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro (London/Decca, 2001)
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Mozart: Don Giovanni (Decca, 2000)
Unlike Rusalka and Tsar’s Bride there are tens, maybe hundreds, of different versions of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. I prefer lower voices for both Figaro and the Don. Cesare Siepi recorded Don Giovanni for Decca in Vienna twice within 4 years, with some of the same singers. The later set includes both Leontyne Price and Brigit Nilsson, but overall I prefer the earlier of the two, from 1955. The early stereo sound holds up well, and the performance as a whole feels more cohesive.

Siepi recorded Figaro in Vienna the year after the first Don, and with a very similar cast and that version is rightly considered a classic. That said, my favorite is Solti’s from the late 80s, and includes perhaps the best all around cast, including Sam Ramey, Thomas Allen, Kiri Te Kanawa, Lucia Popp, and Frederica von Stade.

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Puccini: Tosca (Universal International Music, 1993)
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Puccini: Turandot (Decca, 2014)
Pentatone remastered Phillips’ 1977 recording of Tosca and released it as an SACD, but I have not seen it as a standalone DSD download. The PCM sound is very, very good however. José Carreras and Caballe are in exceptional voice; this is probably Carreras’ best recorded performance, impassioned and virile.

Puccini’s last opera was the first I ever performed, when my college chorale was drafted to be part of the chorus of Turandot. There are several good recordings, particularly Nilsson/Corelli on EMI, and Sutherland/Pavarotti on Decca. The latter is better recorded, and available in 24/96, though occasionally Pavarotti sounds like he’s singing in a different acoustic, something that wasn’t apparent on CD (or vinyl).

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Verdi: Aida (Warner Classics, 2006)
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Download from Presto Classical

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (Deutsche Grammophon, 1998)
Zubin Mehta conducts the Turandot with Pavarotti above, and this recording of Aida with Nilsson & Corelli. Like their Turandot, Aida was recorded in Rome, and also features Mario Sereni and the great bass Bonaldo Giaiotti in leading roles. Grace Bumbry is Amneris. Nilsson is not the most idiomatically Italian singer, but the vocalism itself is flawless, and Corelli is magnificent- the greatest Radames on record.

I’ve never performed Simon Boccanegra, nor seen it in the theater, but I’ve listened to this recording countless times, on vinyl, CD, and now via my networked system. It’s a true classic of the gramophone, it IMO, perhaps the greatest complete opera recording ever made. I can explain:

Boccanegra was extensively revised, with a completely new libretto by Boito, 23 years after its initial premier. Only Otello and Falstaff were written later, so this is truly mature Verdi. This recording was made concurrent with a famous production at La Scala, and features most of the same cast, each singer nearly perfect for their role, and the La Scala forces play beautifully for Claudio Abbado. The cast includes Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Jose Carerras (again in great form), Jose Van Dam, and towering over them all, Piero Cappuccilli in the title role.

So, a perfect cast, singing one of Verdi’s greatest operas, and performing at their very best. If pressed, I would probably take this to the proverbial desert island before any other recording, opera or not.

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My system has evolved a fair amount over the past few years, but I¹ve been using a Slim Devices Transporter as a primary digital source for several years, now often as a Roon endpoint. My amp is an Icon Audio Stereo 40 Mk. III with KT88s, and speakers are Focal Electra 1028 Be.

After 25 years, I¹m buying vinyl again, and often hear about a new recording on social media, then stream it from Tidal or Qobuz. If I like it, I¹ll purchase the LP. Appropriately, my turntable is an Avid Diva.


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COMMENTS
2_channel_ears's picture

Incantation To The Moon from Rusalka has to be one of the most lovely pieces in the repertoire. You bring up some interesting recordings to explore. Might I add Handel's Israel In Egypt? Download at ClassicsOnline:
http://shop.classicsonline.com/albums/54408da59d29c9631700002d?type=down...

Stephen Dupont's picture

not familiar with the opera; i'll give it a listen.

thequietman's picture

Is it possible to create public playlists of these Lovely Recordings and post on Tidal and Qobuz?

Stephen Dupont's picture

here's a playlist of "bleeding chunks" (highlights) from each of the ten recordings:

tidal.com/playlist/10a0991d-74e1-4356-9412-2196fcb614f6

i've heard many people complain about their classical selection, but i was able to find each of these on Tidal. Qobuz had most of them as well.

volvic's picture

Great selections, love the Tosca with Davis one of my faves, alongside the Karajan version with Leontyne Price. The Abbado Boccanegra is so very good too. Will have to re-listen to the Solti/Marriage of Figaro again, it was never my favourite, always thought the Bohm version was one of the better ones.

Stephen Dupont's picture

I like Böhm too, but the Italian from some of the german signers bothers me a bit Siepi and Kleiber the elder are very good as well.

stevo's picture

and nice to find you on here, old friend. To say that you are an audiophile from back in the day would be an understatement, and your words of wisdom are put to good use here. I look forward to more.
Steve

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