Ottone in Villa by Antonio Vivaldi (1713)
Vivaldi’s first opera occupies similar, though more light-hearted, territory to Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, with a tangled, gently farcical account of love, deception – and a dash of strategic cross-dressing – in Ancient Rome. An early work it may be, but the hallmarks of Vivaldi’s vocal writing are already apparent as he wraps Ottone’s conventional convolutions in music of virtuosity and effusive charm. Soprano fanatics in particular should find much to delight here: both the opera’s contrasting female leads (one flirtatious, one faithful) and its castrato hero have aria after irresistible aria lavished upon them almost to the point of excess.
The Essential Recording: Chandos 0614
The late Richard Hickox leads a luxurious cast of baroque specialists in this stylish, sprightly account, deftly capturing both the pathos and the fun of the piece.
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Imeneo by George Frideric Handel (1740)
Imeneo was among the last operas Handel wrote before Messiah started him properly down the path of English oratorio, and it is something of a curiosity among his stage works, hovering elusively between serious drama and domestic comedy. Unconventional elements abound: a titular baritone who gets the girl, a feigned mad scene which seems to anticipate Donizetti’s Lucia, and a supposedly happy ending in which true love is not celebrated, but thwarted. And if novelty is Imeneo’s first attraction, its score is a close second, with a wealth of seldom-heard but top-shelf Handel for those weary of hits like Ombra mai fu.
The Essential Recording: CPO 9999152
With little serious competition, this recording becomes an automatic first choice, but could just as easily top a more crowded field. Hallenberg is particularly fine as the ill-starred Tirinto.
La finta giardiniera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1775)
A peculiar premise – a lovers’ tiff which ended in presumed murder – sets the scene for an opera which, in true Mozartian style, finds the sublime within the absurd. The plot is rich with contrivances and implausibilities, the torture to which the supposed murder victim (the “false garden-girl” of the title) subjects her killer is rather disconcertingly callous, and the libretto blithely ignores several convenient stopping places before finally reaching resolution. In lesser hands it could easily fall apart – but Mozart’s genius makes a virtue of its daftness, and beauty of its chaos.
The Essential Recording: Warner Classics 2564686977
Recently reissued, Harnoncourt’s 1991 recording features a stellar set of experienced Mozartians, and remains the definitive La finta giardiniera available on CD.With little serious competition, this recording becomes an automatic first choice, but could just as easily top a more crowded field. Hallenberg is particularly fine as the ill-starred Tirinto.
Il crociato in Egitto by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1824)
Meyerbeer attained superstardom within his own time as a proponent of French grand opera, but it was in the Italian mode that he first gained renown. Il crociato in Egitto was the last opera of this earlier phase. On paper, it may seem a hard sell for all but the hardiest bel canto devotee: the opera’s depiction of personal and religious conflict in Egypt during the Sixth Crusade is long, unrelentingly serious, and verges on the impenetrable. Appearances, however, are deceptive. Il crociato overflows with infectious melody, thrilling ensembles and diva showpieces, and richly rewards listeners prepared to cope with the plot and take the plunge.
The Essential Recording: Opera Rara ORC10
A typically lavish release (with price to match) from Opera Rara, this recording brings out all the vitality and grandeur of this bel canto gem, and features a superlative central performance by Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny.
Djamileh by Georges Bizet (1872)
Slight of plot and only one act long, Djamileh is nevertheless a sliver of magic, and revelatory proof, if such is needed, that there is more to Bizet than the excerpts of Carmen and Pearlfishers with which he is so often synonymous. His music for this Arabian Nights-style vignette is astonishingly evocative, revelling, just as his more famous operas do, in the exotic possibilities of the setting: in this case, a harem in Cairo. The piece was performed only ten times, but Bizet wrote to a friend that, despite the lack of success of his new piece, he felt it had set him on the right path as a composer. Catchy choruses and ensembles punctuate an atmospheric, richly scored opera, whose lyrical climax comes with Nour-Eddin, roi de Lahore, a luscious aria for the heroine.
The Essential Recording: Orfeo C147881A
A thoroughly beautiful and hugely enjoyable reading from Gardelli and his three soloists, who trot out both their finest singing and their most outrageous French accents for the occasion.
Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai (1914)
Riccardo Zandonai was among a number of Italian opera composers to step out from the formidable shadow of Puccini, pursuing a modern idiom which mingled that master’s inevitable influence with others from further afield: strains of Debussy, Wagner, Strauss and others can be detected. Francesca, based on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio, was the first and most succesful of Zandonai’s three operas. It is a heady musical brew, alive with sinuous melody and the frisson of illicit love. Some of its staging instructions read as preposterous – Act II requires the lovers to declare their feelings amidst constant arrow fire – but the intensity of their final, fatal scene is captivating.
The Essential Recording: Myto MCD00240
The great Magda Olivero made the role of Francesca her own, but as she recorded only highlights, and in the absence of any other complete CD recording, Myto’s live recording must suffice as a first recommendation.
Die Gezeichneten by Franz Schreker (1918)
As one of many victims of the Nazi Party’s suppression of so-called “degenerate music”, Franz Schreker’s sensual and unsettling opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), which enjoyed widespread acclaim in the years after its premiere, risked slipping irretrievably into oblivion. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in this “Entartete Musik”, however, and Die Gezeichneten is a rediscovery to treasure. Its surreal, erotic libretto defies synopsis, but Schreker’s vast, shimmering orchestration and wildly inventive vocal writing, while not without their challenges, should be hungrily consumed by any ear already hooked on the rapturous late-Romantic fare of Richard Strauss or Korngold.
The Essential Recording: Decca 4444442
Though now out of print, this superb recording, released as part of Decca’s Entartete Musik series, remains obtainable online and ought therefore to stand as the first choice.
Intermezzo by Richard Strauss (1924)
It would be hard to find an opera more unabashedly – or more entertainingly – autobiographical than Intermezzo, Strauss’s witty, self-deprecating portrait of life with his famously high-maintenance wife, Pauline. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’s usual librettist, refused to collaborate with him on the piece, suggesting instead that he write his own libretto. Strauss eventually did so, devising a madcap marital comedy worthy of MGM. The chatty, fast-paced score seems a frillier forerunner to Arabella; it is not his most refined, but it fizzes with energy, and the composer’s affection for his maddening wife, despite her foibles, is palpable.
The Essential Recording: EMI 7493372
It may be hard to come by, but Sawallisch’s glorious account on EMI is worth every effort spent finding it. The forces assembled are a Straussian’s dream, and Lucia Popp in particular gives one of her finest performances on record.
From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého Domu) by Leoš Janácek (1930)
After a series of works inspired by Kamila Stösslová, the young woman he loved unrequitedly for much of his life, for his final opera Janácek found a different source of inspiration, in Dostoevsky’s novel The House of the Dead. Set in a Siberian prison camp, the opera has single protagonist and no overarching plot, consisting rather of a series of episodes narrated by members of the male ensemble. This is without doubt a gritty and confronting concept, but Janácek handles it with unerring sensitivity, and amidst the brutality there emerges a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Certainly not an easy opera to love, but a deeply moving and unexpectedly beautiful one.
The Essential Recording: Decca 4303752
Mackerras’s rapport with Janácek is legendary, and his account of the composer’s final work is no exception – a revelatory reading of this prickly score.
Owen Wingrave by Benjamin Britten (1970)
Britten’s penultimate opera was the result of a commission from the BBC for a work composed specifically for television; it also functions as a stage work, but remains a rarity in opera houses. Like Turn of the Screw, it takes its subject from Henry James, and uses the conventions of a “haunted house” story to interrogate the human psyche. The score, with its use of tuned percussion and hints of serialism, looks forward to Death in Venice, if without that opera’s hypnotic focus. Owen himself, a young man shunned for his opposition to war, follows in Britten’s long tradition of outsider heroes, his solemn determination set eerily, and in the end, tragically, against the trivialities of domestic life.
The Essential Recording: Decca 0743330
This opera in its original televised form, with Britten conducting, makes for fascinating viewing.