Universal Music’s Blu-ray Audio Operas

Excellent Sound Meets Classic Performances

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Universal Music’s Blu-ray Audio Operas

Universal Music has generally chosen wisely for its important series of Blu-ray audio discs taken primarily from the distinguished Decca opera catalogue. Previous releases include the legendary Georg Solti Ring (now available complete on one Blu-ray audio disc without the expensive extras), the Zubin Mehta/Joan Sutherland/Luciano Pavarotti Turandot, the Herbert von Karajan/Pavarotti/Mirella Freni La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, the Sutherland/Pavarotti Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore, and the popular but less interpretively significant Pavarotti/Sutherland Rigoletto. In my opinion, the Deutsche Grammophon Leonard Bernstein Fidelio and Carlos Kleiber La Traviata that were also recently released are not in the same class, especially from a sonic standpoint. All of the albums contain plush book-like packaging including the original LP covers, remastered CDs and Blu-ray audio discs, plus extensive program notes on the music, artists, and recordings.

The five new releases to be discussed here are all highly regarded classic recordings. With the Solti Ring already on Blu-ray audio, it was just a matter of time before the company reissued the Solti Salome and Elektra. The Decca Ring is considered by many people (myself included) to be the greatest classical recording of all time. Solti’s Salome and Elektra are in the same class sonically and interpretively. The only differences are the size and scope of the projects. Impressive as the Strauss operas are, they are not the Ring.

Birgit Nilsson is the vocal centerpiece of these new reissues. She may not present as an oversexed teenager, but the sheer size of her once-in-a-lifetime voice easily penetrates Strauss’ raging orchestra in both operas. Salome and Elektra “both” require massive orchestras and tend to be grouped together, but the two operas actually sound quite different. Salome’s orchestration is luxuriant and exotic, with a dissonant edge that adds to its dramatic power. Elektra has an even larger orchestra that, despite its size, generally sounds more lean, muscular, modernistic, and dissonant. Solti clearly understands this and completely captures the different tonal color of both operas. Solti has sometimes been criticized for conducting unyielding or overdriven interpretations, but that is not evident in his greatest recorded performances. His Salome and Elektra are brutally forceful at times and capture the full dramatic potential and power of Strauss’ music like no other recording, but they are not overdriven. The final scenes of both operas reveal Solti at his best. Whether it is Salome addressing Jochanaan’s severed head or the final E flat minor to C major chords of Elektra, Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra deliver the goods.

The amazing sound and producer John Culshaw’s production undoubtedly enhance the perhaps unprecedented dynamic impact of these recordings. The most critical and realistic aspect of the Decca opera sound at this time is the nearly ideal balance between singers and orchestra, as opposed to the customary inappropriate spotlighting of vocalists on other major labels at the expense of the orchestra. This is an issue that’s critical in Strauss’ operas. These recordings are as close as possible as you would hear live in an opera house, and as Strauss specified, the orchestra does not overwhelm the singers. Salome and Elektra both have a wide and deep soundstage, but the wide-open airiness of the Solti Ring is not quite as apparent here. They both have a slight sense of strain and edgy high frequencies (especially on the remastered CDs) that is largely absent in the Blu-ray audio Ring. Blu-ray audio does not completely mitigate this, but they are still the best sounding Salome and Elektra, and are far superior to anything you will hear on any other label.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s British Decca made an agreement with RCA whereby Decca teams (including Culshaw and Gordon Parry) recorded classical works in their European venues that were distributed by RCA in the United States (apparently in return for RCA being able to use Decca artists, and, perhaps, not recording in Europe or the United Kingdom). The deal was terminated in the mid-1960s, after which the rights for the recordings reverted to Decca. Thus the Karajan/Leontyne Price Tosca with the Vienna Philharmonic was originally released on the deluxe RCA Soria series, but it is now clearly a Decca recording distributed by Universal.

Any discussion of Tosca traditionally begins with the legendary mono 1953 EMI recording with Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Tito Gobbi, conducted by Victor de Sabata. There is little doubt about the superiority of the cast. Callas has her vocal critics, but she is second to none as a singing actress, especially in Tosca. Di Stefano was in his prime for this recording, and if you think Callas was in a class by herself dramatically, listen to Gobbi’s Scarpia and his peerless musical snarls. De Sabata’s masterful conducting produces an intensely dramatic performance. All of this is captured in pretty good mono sound.

The Decca-engineered RCA Soria Tosca cannot be legitimately described as better, but it is totally different in ways that some might prefer to the EMI version. Price is temperamentally flaccid compared to Callas, but her luscious, darkly colored voice is just as clearly more innately beautiful than Callas’ instrument. She makes an excellent and dramatically viable Tosca. Di Stefano is still a pretty good Cavaradossi, but he is well past his prime. Giuseppe Taddei is a superb Scarpia, but he is certainly not in Gobbi’s class. This recording has been called the Price Tosca, but it is really the Karajan Tosca. He and the Vienna Philharmonic produce an impossibly luxuriant sound that is the polar opposite of the smaller-scaled La Scala recording. Karajan emphasizes tonal beauty and was a surprisingly good Puccini (and Verdi) conductor at the peak of his powers before he developed the mannered sound sculpting that marred his later career. The brass section sounds especially sumptuous, which is hardly surprising since this was the time of the Decca Salome and Elektra. The La Scala Orchestra was good, but it could not produce this kind of instrumental sound. Culshaw’s sometimes controversial effects (including remarkably realistic bells and cannons) were designed to enhance the music’s dramatic impact as opposed to being overtly sensational. And then there is the bass drum. Puccini devised for Tosca the most striking and even seductive bass drum sonority in all of opera. Just listen to the stunning soft chords at the end of Act II (after Tosca kills Scarpia). The Decca team captures that bass drum perfectly. You can barely hear it on the EMI recording.

I had no idea that Solti’s Aida, originally released by RCA in 1962, was part of the Decca-RCA deal because of the Rome recording site, and it was produced/engineered by the RCA team (Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton). Anyway, it is now a Decca Blu-ray audio release, so it appears to have reverted to Decca. Solti’s hyper-dynamic style is well suited to Aida. This performance is thrilling, but it is also excellent in the many contrasting intimate sections. Price is the only soprano who ever came close to Renata Tebaldi in this opera. Jon Vickers has the power for Radames, but he just doesn’t sound Italian. While Rita Gorr makes a good Amneris, at times she comes perilously close to sounding squally. Robert Merrill (Amonasro) and Giorgio Tozzi (Ramfis) represent extravagant casting. The Rome Opera Orchestra plays out of its collective mind for Solti. The treblish sound and extended dynamic range are electrifying, but the lower registers of the orchestra are somewhat missing in action, so the recording lacks the weightiness of Karajan’s dark, burnished, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in his 1959 Decca recording (produced by Culshaw) with Tebaldi at the peak of her powers as Aida and Carlo Bergonzi as Radames.

The Decca Solti/Nilsson Tristan und Isolde is a very good recording with the expected excellent sound, but it is not on the same level as Solti’s Ring, perhaps because Solti was less temperamentally suited to Tristan. Nilsson made another recording of Tristan und Isolde for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1960s at Bayreuth with Karl Böhm in the pit and Wolfgang Windgassen as Tristan. It is critically fashionable to say that Nilsson is better in the Bayreuth recording, but truth be told, there is little difference between her Decca and Deutsche Grammophon Isoldes. There is however a major difference between Fritz Uhl (Solti’s Tristan) and Windgassen, even though Windgassen was near the end of his career. Deutsche Grammophon accommodated Windgassen’s potential lack of stamina by recording the three acts separately before a live audience at Bayreuth. It worked because Windgassen can actually effectively sing with Nilsson, even in Act III. Böhm conducts with a Solti-like intensity that is immediately apparent in the beginning of the prelude and continues to the end. This is indeed a special performance. Bayreuth’s legendary acoustics are perhaps the main reason for the much more natural balance between the singers and orchestra than is usually the case with Deutsche Grammophon. The sound is quite acceptable, but it still cannot compete with the other four recordings discussed here.

All five of these Decca Blu-ray reissues are classic interpretations, and Salome, Elektra, Tosca, and Aida have audiophile sound. The Blu-ray audio discs are the best sounding versions of these operas available on silver disc. It is hard to imagine any serious operaphile and audiophile who cares about the individual operas not having these recordings in his collection. Hopefully, Universal will continue this series with the Decca Karajan/Mario del Monaco/Tebaldi Otello, the Decca Karajan Aida, and the more recent Decca Charles Mackerras/Renée Fleming/Ben Heppner recording of Dvořák’s Rusalka.