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With 40 releases, Decca’s Opera Series is building into a historic collection of definitive recordings that capture an extraordinary operatic legacy from the latter part of the 20th century.

Let’s face it, we live in a post-recording era when it comes to opera. Yes, there has been some sterling work done in recent years to cover the missing highlights of the Baroque period – René Jacobs’ Handel, Christophe Rousset’s Lully and Jean- Christophe Spinosi’s Vivaldi spring to mind. But the core repertoire – Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini – has been pretty much done and dusted, and record companies are increasingly reaching back into their vast archives to refresh, rather than renew, their operatic legacy.

You have to ask, why not? The economics of making new opera recordings just don’t make sense these days, so it’s hardly surprising that many labels are now reaping the rewards of the investments they made during the ‘golden age’ of opera recording in the 1960s and ’70s.

The last word in the legacy of opera on record has to go to one label: Decca. In the postwar years of the 20th century, it notched up at least a hundred superb – you could even call them definitive – recordings of complete operas, ranging from the usual suspects (Le nozze di Figaro, Aida, Tosca) to rarities such as Massenet’s Esclarmonde, a virtuoso showcase for Joan Sutherland at the height of her powers in the 1970s, and Krenek’s jazz-inspired Johnny spielt auf, a re-release from Decca’s landmark Entartete Musik series that featured music banned by the Nazis (the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra give this raucous score their all, under music director Lothar Zagrosek). Another offbeat highlight is Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Kovanshchina, recorded at the Kirov in 1994 with Valery Gergiev sounding fresh and dynamic. Charles Dutoit’s Troyens makes a substantial splash.

It is, of course, Decca’s legendary stable of artists that make the label’s legacy so compelling. Among the conductors, you’ll find Karl Böhm at Bayreuth in 1967; Herbert von Karajan conducting Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic; Sir Georg Solti, unsurpassed in Verdi (the series features the 1977 recording of Otello with the amazing but curiously under-celebrated Carlo Cossutta in the title role and a ravishing Margaret Price as his Desdemona). Alongside these, you’ll find Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Chailly, Sir Colin Davis… most of the great luminaries of opera are represented.

The range of singers is no less illustrious, from Birgit Nilsson in Wagner to Pavarotti in Verdi and Puccini, Sutherland in Donizetti, Te Kanawa singing Strauss and Mozart, Freni, Bartoli, Fleming, Terfel – there’s hardly a single singer of any international standing that’s missing from the list, with one notable exception so far: Plácido Domingo. His myriad fans must be eagerly awaiting the 1998 Carmen with the American mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, among a host of other superb releases made for the Decca Records stable over the past 30 years.

So far, 40 operas have been released in the series, in two batches. There are plans for the series to continue mining Decca's extensive archive, which will be welcome news for opera fans around the world.

There’s nothing really new in these recordings, and the cover for each release makes no attempt to pretend otherwise, with an image of the original pack-shot dropped against a colourful backdrop. What is new is the engagement with technology: each CD features a digital insert which unlocks online content including a multi- language libretto that can be read on a Kindle, IPAD, or home computer. There’s also a chance to browse all other titles in the series and an opportunity to review titles and publish the reviews online.  The actual booklets, meanwhile, contain full tracklists, production information and a detailed synopsis. 

The series is essentially an exercise in repackaging rather than remastering, so the sound quality will vary on CD, depending on the original masters and their analogue/digital status. There’s nothing revelatory, but it’s all very affordably priced and provides a chance for those of us who are long in the tooth to look afresh at old friends. Meanwhile, a new generation of opera lovers can only wonder at the riches of an age of recording that has all but disappeared.

Franz Wulf Read the full review on Agora Classica

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