CD 1 Opera is said to have begun in Florence around 1600. The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1587–1643) was one of its first great exponents, but our survey begins with the great flowering of Romantic Italian opera in the so-called ‘bel canto’ era at the start of the 19th century with the operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. The term ‘bel canto’ literally means ‘beautiful singing’ but that did not preclude the subject matter of the operas from being powerful and dramatic. The Greek-American soprano Maria Callas opens the programme with a matchless account of the aria ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s Norma, one of the milestones in ‘bel canto’ literature. She is followed by two more recent singers – Edita Gruberova and Natalie Dessay – in more Bellini, and then the light soprano Margherita Carosio, whom the more dramatic Callas replaced at short notice in 1949 in Venice in a performance of I puritani that catapulted her to international fame and instigated a major international revival of many operas of the ‘bel canto’ era. In the Donizetti arias that follow we encounter two legendary tenors of an earlier generation: the very stylish Tito Schipa and the greatly-loved Beniamino Gigli, whose honeyed tone and beautiful mezza-voce singing were undiminished even in this relatively late recording of ‘Quanto è bella’. The CD concludes with music by Rossini by a diverse collection of singers including the Americans Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, Rockwell Blake and Thomas Hampson, the Peruvian tenor Luigi Alva and the colourful Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia, whose Rossini heroines – their music restored to its original lower keys – were greatly admired.
CD 2 brings us to the works of Giuseppe Verdi, undoubtedly the greatest composer of Italian opera, whose works are performed today in every opera house in the world. The Swedish-born Jussi Björling, who opens this CD, was essentially a lyric tenor but he had the ability to add a metallic ring to his voice that enabled him to sing dramatic roles equally well. Other tenors heard later on this disc include the Spanish lyric tenor Alfredo Kraus, the French tenor of Sicilian ancestry, Roberto Alagna, the Mexican Rolando Villazón and two robust Italian tenors: Franco Bonisolli and Franco Corelli. We also encounter the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, whose sonorous vocal timbre is unmistakable, and the Italian baritone Renato Bruson. Among the women are the creamy-voiced New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa and two outstanding Americans: Martina Arroyo and Leontyne Price, who were among the first black singers to become leading artists at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
CD 3 continue with more Verdi and introduces two Australian singers who both brought dramatic power to their performances, the tenor Donald Smith and the soprano Margherita Grandi, whose Lady Macbeth caused a sensation at Glyndebourne both before and after World War II. Two more Spanish singers appear here for the first time: the tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, of whom the latter can truly be described as legendary. From Greece we hear the superb mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa as Eboli in Don Carlo and there is another appearance by Callas, this time as Aida, a role also sung magnificently by the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. The German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is most famous for his performances in German opera and on the concert platform, but his ability to sing Verdi was also outstanding, as can be heard in his Iago, opposite the impassioned Otello of the American tenor James McCracken. The CD ends with one of the greatest Verdi baritones of the post-war era in one of Verdi’s greatest masterpieces: Tito Gobbi as Falstaff.
CD 4 brings us to the operas of Puccini that usher in the era knows as ‘verismo’, in which realism and contemporary drama begins to replace the generally more historical stories set by the earlier composers. On this disc Gigli re-appears as the caddish American naval officer Pinkerton who breaks the heart of the vulnerable young Japanese geisha known as Madame Butterfly, and Butterfly herself is portrayed by two inimitable interpreters of the role: Victoria de los Angeles and Renata Scotto. The Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, heard here as Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, excelled in Italian opera and we also encounter here the Sicilian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, who made a number of acclaimed operatic recordings opposite Maria Callas in the 1950s. One of today’s greatest divas, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu is heard as Tosca; the fiery Bulgarian Ljuba Welitsch sings Musetta, a role that she memorably performed at Covent Garden a number of times after the war; and the English dramatic soprano Eva Turner in ‘In questa reggia’, demonstrates with her astonishingly powerful upper register why she was the definitive Turandot.
CD 5 opens with the tenor who still today stands unchallenged as the model for all others: Enrico Caruso, the boy from a poor family in Naples who rose to the top of his profession with a glorious voice and innate musicianship that shine through the primitive recording technology of 1902 in one of his signature arias: ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Also on this disc is another Italian legend: Luciano Pavarotti, in the ‘Cherry Duet’ from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, opposite the charming Mirella Freni, and the exciting American-Italian soprano Dusolina Giannini, who joins Gigli in a hair-raising account of the confrontation between Santuzza and Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. The only Russian heard in this collection is the mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova, who sings an aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, and there is another famous if somewhat flawed Spanish singer, the tenor Miguel Fleta, who contributes an aria from Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo. No new composers of Italian opera have emerged in recent years and this survey concludes with a scene from Amelia al ballo by the Italian-born American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, delightfully sung here by Margherita Carosio in the true Italian tradition.