The Classic 100 Opera
“your 100 favourite opera moments as voted by listeners of ABC Classic FM”
ABC Classics 476 9524
8 CDs TPT: 9:00:00+
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Verdi’s Lament of the Hebrew Slaves in their Babylonian exile – which is far and away the best known chorus in the opera set in the time of the Biblical King Nebuchadnezzar – was bound to get a high placing in this collection of Australia’s most loved opera moments. In fact, Va, pensiero is placed second and kept from top spot only by In the Depths of the Temple from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.
The Classic 100 Opera moments as voted for by listeners to ABC Classic FM are contained in eight CDs which run for more than nine hours.
But, just as in ABC Classics’ Top 100 Piano Pieces, there is virtually nothing in the liner notes booklet about voting figures which, I’d imagine, would be of real interest to those who took the trouble to vote for their most loved opera extract.
How many listeners voted all up? How many voted for each of the pieces on disc? What were the demographics: did voters in, say, Tasmania indicate a greater interest in Verdi or Puccini than South Australian voters? How many listeners in the Northern Territory cast their votes in favour of Richard Strauss or Rossini? What were the figures for NSW?
John Crawford, program manager of ABC Classic FM, contributes a two-page article on the project which is printed in one of the two liner note booklets. But mystifyingly – and disappointingly – the identical article is also printed in the second of the two liner note booklets.
Why is this – especially when the space pointlessly taken up by the identical article in booklet No 2 could have been used to infinitely better advantage to throw light on the voting figures? This curious silence regarding the voters is precisely what happened when ABC Classics brought out its Classic 100 Piano Pieces compilation.
Of the 100 excerpts on disc, 57 are Australian recordings, most of them of splendid quality. W.A. musicians are very sparsely drawn on, though; the WASO features in four pieces, soprano Sara Macliver once.
On of the most memorable offerings, in fifth place, is a beautiful account of Dido’s Lament sung by mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell. Interestingly, this is the only piece out of the 100 which was specially commissioned for the set – and what a good idea it was, with Campbell unerringly revealing the poignant interior mood of the recitative and aria. She is accompanied in fine style by the Orchestra of the Antipodes conducted by Antony Walker.
A number of the choices raise intriguing questions. Wotan’s Farewell from Wagner’s The Valkyries – sung as if to the manner born by John Wagner – is placed 40th which means that in the ranking it has evidently greater public appeal than, for instance, Una furtiva lagrima (placed at 56TH), the Bell Song from Lakme (at 71) and the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen which comes in, strangely, as low down the list as 75th, with the overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro listed 84th and that most ebullient of arias – Largo al factotutm from Rossini’s Barber of Seville – amazingly low on the list at 90th place. Also bordering on the incredible is the placing of The Birdcatcher’s Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute near rockbottom in 98th place.
Unsurprisingly, Mozart comes top with 19 excerpts, Puccini at 13, Verdi 10 and Wagner on eight. Bizet gets four places. And Monteverdi, Gluck, Massenet, Godard (he of the exquisite Berceuse de Jocelyn), Lehar, Gershwin (Summertime), Mascagni and Catalani are each represented by one item.
Most of the performances are of stunning quality, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Mozart offerings bound to propel him to the international fame his voice deserves. Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham with Eschenbach conducting the Vienna Philharmonic make magic of The Presentation of the Rose from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. And Dame Joan Hammond’s account of Marietta’s Song from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is genuinely touching. Jussi Bjorling’s Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci has lost none of its power to move. It’s placed 41st.
The sometimes strikingly unexpected rankings – which see Brunnhilde’s Immolation from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung twenty two places ahead of the Willow Song from Verdi’s Otello – would make the voting figures very interesting. So here’s hoping the powers that be reveal just how Australia voted for its favourite opera excerpts.
Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn