The Singer or the Song?

One night about 30 years ago, I settled into my seat in the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Opera House where I had gone to attend a performance of La Forza del Destino. A woman already seated a few places away let out a small cry of anguish, for she had just read the hastily printed strip of paper the management had inserted in the program book, announcing some change in the cast. She grabbed her coat and purse and walked out. I stayed. I was there to hear Verdi, not Madame xxx, though I would certainly have enjoyed her art.

In a similar way, I used to be disdainful of CDs that offer some diva or divo performing a mixed grill of operatic excerpts. I want to hear the piece, whole and entire, not the singer. Yet, I did pick up a few such anthologies at an estate sale a while back, and came to realize an advantage of such collections – you get to hear pieces you might not otherwise hear. Of course it’s a pleasure to hear Bryn Terfel, on his DG disc “Tutto Mozart” offer Non più andrai, but I especially enjoyed the concert arias on the disc that I had never come across. In some cases, it is good to hear excerpts because you might not want to sit through the whole piece. I am not going to stand in line for a ticket to Le Prophet (Meyerbeer) or Cinq-Mars (Gounod) or Le Cid (Massenet) or Le Roy d’Ys (Lalo) anytime soon, but I was happy to taste a sample of these works on Vesselina Kasarova’s disc of French arias on RCA Victor, “Love Entranced“. I can say the same thing about the von Weber and Mendelssohn works on Karita Mattila’s collection, “German Romantic Arias“. Even with more familiar music, it can be illuminating to hear a string of pieces by a single composer side by side for the sake of comparison, as in Angela Gheorghiu’s “Verdi Heroines” disc for Decca. The singing on all four of these discs is first rate, but I have to admit that these anthologies are not such a bad way to encounter the music itself as well.

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