The Feast of Seven: The Best Opera Recordings of 2018

Seven notable opera recordings in seven different styles.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The seven best opera recordings of 2018. Art © the respective classical music labels.

Although Superconductor mostly features coverage of live performances, recordings are and continue to be an important part of the classical music genre: the „permanent“…well…record of art that will endure in physical form for decades or even centuries after a performer has moved on to whatever awaits. I don’t get to write about recordings anywhere near as often as I would like to, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to and pay attention to what is new.

To kick off our year-ending „Best of 2018“ series, here are seven memorable opera recordings for 2018. Chronological order by style. And this year, there’s no Wagner or Strauss!):

Early 17th Century (1639)
Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (SDG)
English Baroque Soloists and The Monteverdi Choir cond. Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been using his SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) label to fill in some of the key gaps in the catalogue and record operas that he didn’t get to lay down when he was with a bigger record company. Here, his company of period players tackle the least known of the three surviving Monteverdi operas in a live recording made in Poland. Monteverdi digs deep to chronicle the violent events surrounding the end of Homer’s Odyssey. As the heroic Ulysses, Furio Zanasi gives a performance of heroic gravitas. Lucile Richardot is a compelling Penelope and their final duet showed where opera would be going in the next five centuries.

Early 18th Century (1738)
Handel: Serse (Deutsche Grammophon)
Il Pomo D’Oro cond. Maxim Emelyanychev
Although it bombed onstage way back in 1738, Handel’s Serse (a.k.a. „Xerxes“) was the opera that served to bring baroque opera back before the ears of New Yorkers when it took the stage in 1997 at the New York City Opera. Here, this recording by the period ensemble Il pomo d’oro and its brassy young conductor Maxim Emelyanychev may do the same, injecting some badly needed vitality into period performance practice. Mr. Emelyanychev has chosen to pair a countertenor (the amazing Franco Fagioli) and a trouser Arsamene (Vivica Geneaux), twisting the usual performance practice. Biagio Pizzuti is hilarious as the servant Elviro, kind of an early Da Ponte-style comic hero. Captured in pristine sound, this comic romp is the recommended cure for anyone who is burnt out on Handel after singing two Messiah performances this holiday season.

Late 18th Century (1791)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito (Deutsche Grammophon)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Fresh off her tremendous recording of Dido in last year’s Les Troyens, this recording, the fifth in an ongoing Mozart cycle recorded live in Baden-Baden, features Joyce DiDonato as Sesto. This is one of the greatest trouser roles ever written. Despite Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s puzzling tempos (the marches are sometimes leaden and she has to sing „Parto, parto“ at an almost unmanageable pace) she shines brightly. This set is also a redemption of sorts for the much maligned tenor Rolando Villazón, who shines in the title role. If anything, its presence in the catalogue might show non-Mozarteans that the hastily written Clemenza is one of the composer’s greatest late achievements.

Early 19th Century (1823)
Rossini: Semiramide (Opera Rara)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment cond. Sir Mark Elder
After Rossini unleashed Semiramide, changing tastes meant that the much-loved opera seria genre was no more. This privately financed studio recording features all the music that the big guy poured into Semiramide and it sprawls onto four generous discs. Yes, it’s a hefty investment but if you love good singing, it’s worth it. Albina Shagimuratova  is fabulous in the title role, a Babylonian ruler who gives new meaning to the term „killer queen.“ She is flanked by a strong cast of lesser-knowns, singing against an expertly led palette of period instruments.

Early 20th Century (1927)
Korngold: Das Wunder der Heliane (Naxos)
Philharmonische Orchester Freiburg cond. Fabrice Bollon
It’s kind of amazing that this exists: a second recording (and the first in almost two decades) of Korngold’s most ambitious opera. Heliane is a dense construction of orchestral whipped cream, cloying Christian mysticism and a plot of erections and resurrections that makes any critic wince. And yet, the music is a miracle in itself: warm, moving and swirling with that command of orchestral transition that made Korngold his own brilliant voice. This last gasp of Romanticism gets the royal treatment in this Freiburg recording under the baton of the ambitious conductor Fabrice Bollon. Annemarie Kremer and tenor Ian Storey are each excellent but the real winner here is baritone Aris Argiris, who gives a breakout performance as the evil Ruler.

Late 20th Century (1983)
Bernstein: A Quiet Place (Decca)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal cond. Kent Nagano
Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure, Bernstein is (rightfully) celebrated as a conductor and educator. However he is often (unjustly) neglected as a serious composer. His late masterpiece was the disturbing domestic opera A Quiet Place, which is not to be confused with the 2018 horror movie of the same title. This is a deep exploration of domestic unrest and the effects of death on a small American family, extrapolated from and expanding on an earlier Bernstein opera, the one-act Trouble in Tahiti. This glowing recording, only the second of the opera ever made, uses a new chamber version of the score, reduced by Garth Edwin Sutherland. It is an invaluable document, conducted with detail and loving care by Kent Nagano.

21st Century (2016)
Heggie: It’s a Wonderful Life (PentaTone)
Houston Grand Opera cond. Patrick Summers
Jake Heggie’s opera is an engaging and joyful American classic and it deserves frequent performances. Since staging opera is expensive, settle for this live recording of the opera. It is a wonder for those who couldn’t make it to Texas for the 2016 world premiere. Yes, it’s based on Frank Capra’s classic American film. It stars William Burden as a memorable and tormented George Bailey and mainstay American artists Rod Gilfry and Anthony Dean Griffey as Mr. Potter and Uncle Billy. Full digital sound captures the chamber orchestration and the audience’s laughter, this has been in my headphones throughout the holiday season and it has brightened things considerably.

If you enjoyed this article, it’s time to end 2018 with a visit to Superconductor’s Patreon page. Help support the cost of independent music journalism in New York City at the low cost of just $5/month.