It’s hard to imagine that back in the day opera was a fiercely nationalistic sport. Especially because it was most often performed in the vernacular of the audience. Imagine Covent Garden mounting the first full-length performances anywhere of Berlioz’ epic Les Troyens IN ENGLISH. It happened, I swear.

Wrap your head around the fact that the first performance of Bizet’s Carmen en français at the Vienna Staatsoper didn’t happen until 1954. Munich didn’t hear Verdi’s La Traviata in Italian until 1965 (and literally, since it had always been performed under the title Violetta before then). Then brace yourself for the revelation that the Viennese didn’t hear Evgeny Onegin in the mother-tongue until 1988 when Mirella Freni sang it there.

Deutsche Grammophon took it upon themselves in the 60’s to start immortalizing some of those great German language performances and utilized some pretty stunning talent. Even before this highlights discs had always been popular since the cost of recording full operas was generally prohibitive. Plus it was common until the late 1960’s for the municipal houses in Germany to mount all Italian and French works in German. So the audience for these recordings was there.

I remember coming across a vinyl copy of Die Macht des Schicksals (Forza) in the bins once when I was a young opera fan and noting that Grace Bumbry was the Leonora (Mama was Zwischen even back in 1967) and then trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Of course the presence of Nicolai Gedda as Alvaro was a sure sign that there was some foreign language sorcery involved.

Years later I fell in love with a highlights recording on EMI of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Pilar Lorengar, Fritz Wunderlich and Hermann Prey conducted by Berislav Klobucar. A few minutes of that and you couldn’t care less what language they’re singing in.

So I was intrigued and excited when our dear friends at DG announced a box set of 15 of these re-releases dusted off and labeled Oper auf Deutsch.

The included works are Carmen, Tiefland, Cavalleria Rusticana, Zar und Zimmermann, ·Die Hochzeit des Figaro, Hoffmanns Erzählungen, La Bohème, Der Barbier von Sevilla, Eugene Onegin, Mignon, Aida, Die Macht des Schicksals, La traviata, Nabucco, und Rigoletto.

They offer a window into an era of thriving German opera production that brought talent from all over Europe and the United States to find regular employment and their first steps to their own great artistry. Though many of the singers represented here are certainly well-known, even legendary, they all share a certain level of under-representation for one reason or another and that makes this collection doubly exciting to enjoy.

I won’t go through them all in detail and frankly even though I’ve had this since late February I haven’t listened to absolutely everything. But what I have listened to is “cherce” as they say.

First off if you’re a fan of Sandor Konya, Fritz Wunderlich, Thomas Stewart, Evelyn Lear, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Martti Talvela, or Gloria Davy just order this now and don’t look back. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Konya especially is represented here in Cav/Pag, Hoffman, Boheme, and Aida. So fans of his who are still clutching his sole commercial recordings of Lohengrin and Fledermaus now have a whole new reason to live.

First the La Bohème. On a set with more than a few German “house” conductors we have Alberto Erede, of all people, leading the Staatskapelle Berlin in a reading that tends to slow with a very mellow sound from the players. Konya is transformed. He sails through ‘Che gelida manina’ in a long breathed mezzo piano. Even if the C is spliced in from another take (I have bat-hearing) it’s still a gorgeous, buttery, performance.

Then Lorengar shows up and all hearts melt at once. She transcends the language and is so tender and gorgeous. Rita Streich’s Musetta is from what my dear voice coach would call the “fox-terrier soprano” tradition. Just enough vibrato to be lively, but a tad intrusive. Then Fischer-Dieskau’s line readings as Marcello during her Waltz are so funny I laughed out loud. You can hear his raised eyebrow. Throughout this whole set some of the chosen extracts can come off as disordered and a little jarring. You don’t always get what you’d expect. Here from the Momus with the Waltz to the end of the Act then straight to Mimi’s farewell to Rodolfo in the snow, then the best bits of the last act.

The Aida disc is conducted by Argio Quadri leading the Orchestra of the Vienna Volksoper and he keeps everyone moving in the right direction. Konya is a square brash Radames in the German manner. So much more the military general and not so much the lover. They even give him almost all of the consecration scene in the Temple with the Amneris, a fairly fruity Cvetka Ahlin, doing double duty as the on-duty Priesterin. She’s subtle during the interview with Aida which I appreciate.

Gloria Davy has poise but was perhaps caught on a bad day. The voice doesn’t really spin and she’s effortful towards the top. Surprisingly we do get almost the whole Nile scene. Then Davy brightens right up and finds her footing when faced with Hans Hotter as her father Amonasro. Hotter is 52 years old here (and the reason I looked it up was because he sounds considerably older. Maybe it was just one of those voices) and he’s all about the words and not so much any legato, Italianate or otherwise.

Surprisingly Konya ends up making the most poetry of the three. The small-ish sounding chorus from the Vienna Staatsoper even gives a wee taste of the Triumphal scene. No judgement scene, which is a disappointment, and then it’s straight to the tomb. Both Davy and Konya are so loud (oddly) in that tomb someone would have thrown in a couple of asps to quiet them down.

Jacques Offenbach’s Hoffmanns Erzählungen really is all Konya’s show. He hogs most of the tracks before we get a taste of Thomas Stewart’s Lindorf and then Mattiwilda Dobbs as a confectioner’s Olympia. All spun sugar and sparkling but with an odd cadenza finale. Stewart is surprisingly seductive during the ‘Diamond’ aria, rarely rising to a forte and he eschews the high note finale.

Also it’s played Olympia / Giuletta / Antonia in the old-fashioned manner. We get only the juicy bits from the “Mirror” duet but it’s so short it’s more like an emergency procedure without anesthetic than an excerpt. The Giulietta is Gladys Kuchta and she displays a plummy timbre that works while the Nicklaus, Cvetka Ahlin again, sounds deliciously like a baby contralto. The conductor is Richard Kraus leading the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and you won’t be surprised that the essential French “transparency” seems to be missing from his, and the orchestra’s, reading.

The Nabucco seems a surprising choice until you hear the forces marshalled and realize how strong all the singers represented here are. The chorus, so essential to this work, does striking work. I fully expected to look up and see them standing in my living room their contribution was so vivid. The great Finnish bass Martti Talvela walks away with the whole show as Zaccaria. He gets both his big scenes and he deserves them. He’s absolutely towering. Konya’s back as a rousing Ismaele and the ever versatile Evelyn Lear appears in the mezzo role of Fenena. Of course she was the Marina on the famous Boris recording with Chaliapin after all and as she used to say, “An American never says, ‘No’’.

Stewart does strong work as Nabucco and he’s more lyric than you’d expect. His Abigaille is Liane Synek whom I’ve never heard of until now. She sounds a little like Birgit Nilsson out on a lark. Her vocal placement is very high and she has the same “point” to her production that NIlsson had. She also has just about the same facility with coloratura which is (forgive me, Birgit) inaccurate at best. Horst Stein leads the Berliners and they’ve got this one in their back pockets. All fire and brimstone.

There’s a very interesting La Traviata that’s led by Bruno Bartoletti with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.and Chorus. The cast is Hilde Gueden, Fritz Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau as Papa Germont. Gueden is quicksilver and does a little of that famous Viennese sliding from note to note which isn’t really smiled upon in the bel canto wing. She’s so quick in fact that in her big scena she runs out of notes in some of her cadenzas before the conductor’s had a chance to catch up with her.

Wunderlich is good here and beautifully lyric but if you really want him in this role you need to search out the live performance on the Orfeo label with Stratas and Hermann Prey from Munich in Italian. It’s worth the price of rubies. Fischer-Dieskau, as is his wont, oversings here I’m sad to say. He bellows through “Deine Heimat, die Provence” and pulls the vocal line too far for comfort. We get chunks of the gambling scene scotch-taped together and the chorus and orchestra both do exemplary jobs here.

We also have a Rigoletto once again with Horst Stein now leading the Berlin Philharmonic and what a difference that makes. The sound of the orchestra and their skill is absolutely titanic. Impressive in both dynamic range and precision. Ernst Kozub is the Herzog von Mantua and he has a bit of the goat in his throat. Gisella Vivarelli is a lovely larky-bird coloratura Gilda, pert and clear with good accuti but not so much with the trill.

Fischer-Dieskau here displays that particular and habitual straight tone attack of his that then subsequently fills out the note and it’s bad singing. He’s also fairly guttural at times because of the language and his performance under Kubelík is honestly to be preferred. He’s just pushing too hard and not even honestly fulfilling the demands of the role. Another odd inclusion is the “stealth” chorus after “Caro nome.” Not that they don’t perform it well but, huh?

One last one and it’s the absolute crème de la crème. Tschaikowsky’s Eugen Onegin (that’s how they spell it in the booklet) with Fischer-Dieskau in the lead, Evelyn Lear as Tatyana, Brigitte Fassbaender as her sister Olga, Wunderlich as Lensky, and Talvela as Prince Gremin. I know. Just take that in for a second.

Otto Gerdes leads the Orchestra of the Munich Staatsoper and right from the Einleitung he’s got you. He finds that particular ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky’s music and gives it the perfect space. His leadership can’t be discounted at any point. You constantly hear him pushing the performance forward. Right up front we get the tiny (less than 2 minutes) quartet from Act I and it immediately pulls you in. You can hear all these extraordinary artists really listening to each other right out of the gate.

Then Wunderlich breaks your heart in two with his little aria of love for Olga and Fassbaender gets to finish it with him. It almost brings me to tears every time I return to it. Later they give him his big scene and it’s just a devastation. So clean and true and never sloppy (unlike some Lenskys I could mention). His ardor and then his sense of loss. Tchaikovsky’s characters are always yearning for something they can’t have.

I wish I had more of Lear on recording and this may be the best thing I’ve ever heard her do. She’s vibrant and delicate all at the same time with that particularly glassy timbre at the top of the voice that really fills out far bigger than you’d think it would when she opens the floodgates.

Fischer-Dieskau here is just perfection. His lieder singer’s training makes this one of the best things I’ve ever heard him do. Even the high note at the end of his scene with Tatyana where he tells her to be carefull with her feelings towards men comes off like silk. He seems completely comfortable in the tessitura and mood of the part. Not a moment of straight-tone to be heard.

The two of them practically start a fire in the last scene and Lear seems to really be almost panicked at times. The Chorus of the Staatsoper does excellent work during the party at the Larin’s. Talvela sings all six minutes of Prince Gremin’s aria with all the accustomed authority and grace you can imagine. We do get the duel scene (with gunshot) and a very sumptuous Polonaise the persuasive playing of which more than merits its inclusion. I’m saying right here that this single disc is worth the price of admission. It is available for mp3 download all by itself.

I’ve left out so much wonderful music making and apparently so has DG because there are at least three other highlight discs in this series that weren’t included. A Tosca with Stefania Woytowicz (who’s the Leonora di Vargas on the Forza in this set), Konya and Kim Borg as Scarpia. A Maskenball with Inge Borkh as Amelia, Lear as Oscar, Fischer-Dieskau, and Jess Thomas conducted by Patanè. Plus highlights from the Flying Dutchman with Lear and Stewart that can be got if you search for it.

The engineering is up to the usual juicy Deutsche Grammophon standards with those luscious acoustics that just get better with age in my opinion. There’s a nice little booklet that does list the queue points and which characters are singing but if you don’t know German you’re going to be at loss mostly as there’s no synopsis to put the tracks in their place.