Ne plus ultra

Gerry and Cookie Fleck with their Norwich Terrier WinkyWhen LaCieca asked me to choose my favorite live recording, I had to think… and think. After so many years of loving to listen to them, I found it nearly impossible to choose.

Since my “pirate years” my tastes have expanded and deepened so now I’d have to consider the many Kirsten FlagstadLauritz Melchior Met Wagner broadcasts or the 1944 Vienna Karl Böhm Ariadne auf Naxos or the 1949 Met Fritz Reiner Salome with an incandescent Ljuba Welitsch or even the 1956 Met Dmitri Mitropoulos Tosca (even though I can’t stand Richard Tucker)–performances I had not yet heard back then.

But of the things that I bought and listened to back in the day, the Janet Baker-Handel operas remain indelible, but happily most of them were issued (in very good sound) by the now-defunct CD label Ponto. Though out-of-print, some remain relatively easy to obtain and are highly recommended, although copies of the superb Tamerlano are mad expensive.

Coming to love the operas of Rameau was one of the great gifts of that period, and John Eliot Gardiner’s performances from the 70s and 80s remain exemplary. The world stage premiere of Rameau’s final opera Les Boréades at the 1982 Aix-en-Provence Festival was recorded by Erato but the Hippolyte et Aricie there the following year sadly was not. I played my tape of its broadcast many, many times and then copied it to cassette and then to CD and then to mp3s which I still play now.

Years later I found out that the Aix production had been televised and located a fuzzy copy, but recently a very clear version has been uploaded to YouTube. If Pier Luigi Pizzi’s pseudo-baroque production might not be to everyone’s taste, the music remains magnificent with Gardiner in sure command and Jessye Norman’s epic Phèdre and José van Dam’s tortured Thésée are unforgettable.

But if I had to choose just one of my old tapes to share, I would have to choose two!

I had a big “thing” for Gabriela Benacková so much so that in mid-1980s I flew to New York for three years running just to hear her sing Libuše, Rusalka and Jenufa with Queler and each was thrilling. Of my Benacková tapes I retain a deep fondness for Dvorák’s 90-minute dramatic cantata Svatební Kosile (The Spectre’s Bride)–the music is gorgeous (very redolent of Rusalka) and she and Peter Dvorsky are in splendid form, even if the bass sounds like he’s 100 years old.

Dvorák: Svatební Kosile
Munich Opera Festival
18 July 1977 Broadcast
Gabriela Benacková, Peter Dvorsky, Richard Novák
Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera
Czech Philharmonic Chorus
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor

My other essential would be the premiere of the famed Giorgio Strehler production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro which served as the opening of the Rolf Liebermann era at the Paris Opera. Some may be familiar with the video shot seven years later with almost the identical cast, but this performance was done at Versailles rather than at the Garnier and features Mirella Freni instead of Lucia Popp as a delightfully earthy Susanna. A bonus is that both Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias are included (they’re omitted from the 1980 video), and all in all everyone then is just about perfect in this (nearly) perfect performance of the perfect opera.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
Paris Opera at Versailles
Le Théâtre Louis XV
30 March 1973 Broadcast
Contessa Almaviva: Gundula Janowitz
Susanna: Mirella Freni
Cherubino: Frederica von Stade
Marcellina: Jane Berbié
Barbarina: Danièle Perriers
Figaro: Jose van Dam
Conte: Gabriel Bacquier
Don Bartolo: Kurt Moll
Don Basilio: Michel Sénéchal
Don Curzio: Jacques Loreau
Antonio: Carl Schultz
Conductor: Sir Georg Solti