The 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth is being celebrated this month. Of the more than two dozen operas he composed, here are 10 The Associated Press recommends:
“Aida” — Riccardo Muti, conductor; New Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (recorded at Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London, 1974), EMI. Montserrat Caballe is a deeply affecting Aida, with Placido Domingo making up for a slight lack in power with vocal drama. Some may prefer Leontyne Price’s Aida, sung with Jon Vickers and Georg Solti conducting on a 1962 Decca recording, or with Price and Domingo with Erich Leinsdorf conducting on a 1970 RCA recording. And for lovers of the unusual, there is an EMI recording of a live performance from Mexico City in 1951 during which Maria Callas adds an unwritten E-flat to the end to the “Triumphal Scene,” stirring the audience into an uproar.
“Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)” — James Levine, conductor. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus (DVD of live performance, 1991); Deutsche Grammophon. Notable for the unforgettable Riccardo of Luciano Pavarotti, who effortlessly handles the role and mixes grandeur with humor. He’s joined here by Aprile Millo and Leo Nucci in a rather dull Piero Faggioni staging. For old-style vocalism, try the 1966 RCA set with Carlo Bergonzi, Price and Robert Merrill under Leinsdorf’s baton, or a 1943 EMI recording with Beniamino Gigli joined by Maria Caniglia.
“Don Carlos” — Antonio Pappano, conductor; Orchestra de Paris and Chorus of the Theatre du Chatelet (recorded live, 1996); EMI (audio) and Kultur Video (DVD). Composed as a French grand opera in a commission for the Paris Opera, this may be the Verdi opera with the most choices for conductors: French or Italian? Five-act or four? Pappano goes for the five-act French, and the uniformly strong cast includes Jose van Dam (Philippe II), Karita Mattila (Elisabeth), Roberto Alagna (Don Carlos), Thomas Hampson (Rodrigue) and Waltraud Meier (Eboli). A more classic version is the 1966 Decca release in Italian with Solti conducting and a cast highlighted by Nicolai Ghiaurov as Philip II and Martti Talvela as the Grand Inquisitor. For a contemporary take, Peter Konwitschny updates the action in a 2004 Vienna State Opera production of the French version on Arthaus Musik DVD. The auto-da-fe is staged as if modern TV news cameras were covering the action.
“Falstaff” — Claudio Abbado, conductor; Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor Berlin (recorded at Philharmonie, Berlin, 2001); Deutsche Grammophon. Bryn Terfel’s performance in the title role of Verdi’s final opera, filled with laughs and pathos is as good as any. Recorded here about two years after his role debut, he’s in his vocal prime, joined by Hampson’s Ford, Dorothea Roeschmann’s Nanetta, Adrianne Pieczonka’s Alice Ford and Larissa Diadkova’s Quickly. Solti’s 1963 Decca recording with Geraint Evans and Arturo Toscanini’s 1950 version with Giuseppe Valdengo also are classics — Toscanini was a cellist at La Scala for the opera’s premiere in 1887.
“Otello” — Herbert von Karajan, conductor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Chorus (recorded at the Sofiensaal, Vienna, 1960); Decca. More than a half-century later, this remains a first choice. Mario Del Monaco has a tenorial heft and sheen that’s unheard of in recent decades in the title role. Renata Tebaldi has vulnerability to go along with vocalism as Desdemona. For those not minding thinner sound, the 1947 performance of Toscanini leading Ramon Vinay’s Otello is filled with cracking energy. And on DVD, Riccardo Muti’s La Scala performance from 2001 with Domingo uses Verdi’s 1894 Paris revisions, inserting some surprises in the third act.
“Rigoletto” — Michele Mariotti, conductor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus (DVD of live performance, 2013); Deutsche Grammophon. Zeljko Lucic as the jester, Piotr Beczala as the Duke and Diana Damrau as Gilda certainly do a fine job, but what makes this performance memorable is Michael Mayer’s production and Christine Jones’ sets, which shift the action from 16th-century Mantua to a 1960 hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip. For those looking for vocal fireworks, there is a 1964 RCA recording with Solti conducting Merrill’s noble Rigoletto alongside Alfredo Kraus’ Duke and Anna Moffo’s Gilda.
“La Traviata” — Carlos Kleiber, conductor; Orchestra and Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (recorded at the Nationaltheater, Munich, 1976-77); Deutsche Grammophon. Kleiber’s conducting is impeccable, with nuances of color and light that aren’t heard in other versions. Domingo’s Alfredo, Ileana Contrubas’ Violetta and Sherill Milnes’ Germont are strong, if not outstanding. For an alternative with a more individual vocal style, there is Callas’ Violetta, paired with Kraus, in a live 1958 performance from Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de Sao Carlos on EMI. To hear the different-sounding first version before Verdi’s rewriting, try Loren Maazel conducting Patrizia Ciofi in the 2004 staging for the reopening of Venice’s La Fenice — where the opera premiered in 1853 — which is on a TDK DVD. And for minimalists, there is Anna Netrebko in Willy Decker’s production for the 2005 Salzburg Festival on a DG DVD/
“Il Trovatore” — Renato Cellini, conductor; RCA Victor Orchestra and Robert Shaw Chorale (recorded at Manhattan Center, New York, 1952); RCA. Despite dating from the mono era, remains a burning account highlighted by Jussi Bjoerling’s pulsating Manrico. He’s joined by a top-notch cast that includes Zinka Milanov as Leonara, Leonard Warren as the Count di Luna.
“Les Introuvables du chant Verdien” — An eight-CD set released by EMI for the 2001 centenary of the composer’s death, there are 136 rarities, enough to fill the time on a trans-Atlantic flight. Among them are Francesco Tamagno in a 1903 excerpt of “Otello,” a role he sang at the 1887 premiere; Helge Roswaenge’s “Celeste Aida” in German; Luisa Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba and Lilli Lehmann as Violetta; Enrico Caruso’s “La donna mobile” and Margarete Klose’s Azucena.
“Verdi at the Met: Legendary Performances From The Metropolitan Opera”; Sony — Contains nine complete operas from the Met’s Saturday live radio broadcasts, ranging from a 1935 “Traviata” with Rosa Ponselle, Frederick Jagel and Lawrence Tibbett to a 1967 “Aida” with the melting voice of Price paired with Bergonzi’s excitable, ringing Radames. From 1952’s “La Forza del Destino” there is a moving “Ivano Alvaro” duet with Richard Tucker and Warren; Giovanni Martinelli holds notes for extraordinarily long stretches in a 1940 “Otello” where he’s joined with Elisabeth Rethberg and Lawrence Tibbett; and Bidu Sayao, Jussi Bjorling and Warren sizzle in a 1945 “Rigoletto.”