If You Want It All...
Herbie's got it! That's what Birgit Nilsson called him, Herbie. She was a hugely famous opera singer with a gigarhugantuan voice who had the right to call him that because she was a famous opera singer with a gigarhugantuan voice, and I'm not a famous opera singer with a gigarhugantuan voice, so I will just keep going and pretend I didn't just write that. Bad blogger... His name is on practically every major composer's list of advocates, though. The heads on the busts and statues of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Vivaldi, Berg, Stravinsky, Mussorgky, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, and others were inflated by the pride he took in his interpretation of their work while he was one of the top conductors in the world (Let a guy relish a little in hyperbole and, please, keep the "heat expansion" card in the deck). He found something beautiful about every class and species of classical music, something he tried very hard to make the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic understand. With those orchestras he produced some of the most famous and critically acclaimed recordings in the world of classical music, which include symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, tone poems of Richard Strauss, and concertos of Mozart. However, he made no secret of the fact that opera was his first and his greatest musical love.
That's my magic Karajan acronym. The music of (W)agner, (V)erdi, and (P)uccini was one of Karajan's specialties, none being better than he was at drawing the fun details out of it. He took his time with things, making sure that every moment (at least in my ears) made an impact. Not all opera crazies believe his (M)ussorgsky was some of the best ever as I do, but before I start vomitting superlatives and similes all over it, I have some "definitive" recordings to discuss, recordings that most of my fellow fans aren't to be found without and that any newbie really has to have. First, a disclaimer: I am not responsible for the addiction these may cause, the effects of which can include chills, repeated emotional self-harm, short and intense episodes of sobbing or heaving, and some real bull ants of withdrawal symptoms in the event of sudden deprivation of listening ability (preventable with an emergency power generator and waterproof MP3 player or iPod casing). First on the list is Puccini's "La Boheme," starring Mirella Freni, Karajan's favorite soprano (one of the very few who ever made him cry) as Mimi, and Luciano Pavarotti (no extra words needed) as Rodolfo. Then there's his "Il Trovatore" with Maria Callas (Callas!), Giuseppe di Stefano and Fedora Barbieri, which is on the top of Grammophone's list of best recordings of the masterpiece, and one of my favorite opera recordings of all time. His "Aida" with Renata Tebaldi (otherwise known as "La Voce d'Angelo" or "The Voice of an Angel," and the audience "rival" of Maria Callas), Carlo Bergonzi (one of the Twentieth Century's known tenor greats), and the flawless mezzo, Giulietta Simionato, has "Legends" written right on the front of its case. Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was the first step toward greatness that Karajan took in the opera house, and there's a recording to prove that all the doting his colleagues did over his conducting of it was deserved, a performance that includes Helga Dernesch as Isolde and Jon Vickers as Tristan. Now, as for the Mussorgsky opera, which is "Boris Godunov," which is my favorite opera of all time, which is said to be the ultimate masterpiece among Russian operas, which is awesome: Karajan's performance stars Nicolai Ghiaurov, my favorite bass (and Mirella Freni's husband), as Boris, and the can-shoot-ya-dead-with-a-C soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, as a villain that would make Catherine de' Medici proud. If you don't got it, you gotta get it.
The Karajan Rep
The greatest musicians come with sets of problems and abilities as we all know (We've all seen "The Phantom of the Opera...") and Karajan had a unique combination of traits that has made him one of the prime entrees for sharp-toothed critics and dirty-mouthed haters all over planet "Opera." Almost every article on the Net includes some something on his reputed vanity, his need for control over everything in his musical circle, and the money he had a talent for making. However, one of the more fascinating things about him, something I've already mentioned, something that many critics consider a drawback, was his knack for spotting beauty and a resulting obsession over making it with his orchestras and singers. In my opinion, this made him pleasantly unique. Sure, those who honor the intentions of composers are admirable for doing so, and some composers wrote their music with a view to creating something more human than thoroughly beautiful. I've listened to and loved a lot of their blackness and harshness, their realism, but the ravishing sounds that classical music is best known for exist for a reason, and that reason is one which Karajan knew very well: escape. Classical music is designed to make us feel and even see things that ordinary experiences often don't reveal to us, parts of ourselves that remain largely hidden from the senses in the day-to-day. It can create for each enraptured listener a world where his or her inner self can exist with all of its pieces (and then some) intact. Such a large range of emotions is written into classical scores that many critics and listeners have complained about Karajan's tendency to over-polish the music he chose to conduct. I wonder, though, how much of the life we know should be injected into classical music, how much will continue to be added to it until it's no longer music. Karajan held the belief that the concert hall and opera house are places for ideas and philosophies that are extracted from life and expanded into sound spheres that generate wonder, awe, and emotion in its most complete and sometimes ethereal form. Honestly, I can't help but agree.
Whew! That was a little less prosaic than usual, but, then, so was Karajan. I hope you've enjoyed this feature, my friends! Check out Everyone's Opera's Facebook page for some sublime Karajan video content. I hope you visit again next Wednesday! A quick note: I will be posting reviews of opera and other classical vocal performances that I tie into via radio or video broadcast the day after each performance from now on. I hope you likes! Friday is the Metropolitan Opera's performance of "La Donna Del Lago." I hope you enjoy my review on Saturday! Ciao, my fellow opera freaks and opera newbies!