More than any of the maestros who cut their teeth in the late 1950s and 1960s Claudio Abbado deserves to be hailed as a true all-rounder. One of the most respected conductors of his generation and the heir to Karajan at the Berlin Phil, he coupled the precision and drive of a Toscanini with the fluidity and grand designs of a Furtwängler. Like those two conductors (and also de Sabata who he cited as an influence), Abbado was always at home in the hurly burly of the opera house – and that despite his notorious shyness. He became principal conductor at La Scala in 1969, a key artistic relationship that he developed over the next 16 years, and unlike some Italian maestros proved keen to embrace operatic repertoire from France, Germany and Russia.
Claudio Abbado. Photo © Peter Fischli/Lucerne Festival
The 60CD Abbado Opera Edition brings together his complete opera recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca over four decades including 20 complete operas with bonus aria collections and a disc of overtures, plus a fine recital with a young Anna Netrebko as well as Kaufmann’s award-winning Wagner album. You also get the entertaining 1998 Berlin Gala. Needless to say, it’s a roll call of the finest singers of the day and the orchestras with whom Abbado was most famously associated, outfits like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and the two orchestras he founded: the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
Perhaps Abbado’s most enduring operatic legacy is as a Verdi conductor and each of the six operas here deserves to be if not the top pick, then at least in the top three recordings of all time. Chief honours go to his legendary Macbeth with Piero Cappuccilli and Shirley Verrett in blistering form and Abbado urging his forces onwards as if Shakespeare’s witches are on his tail. Simon Boccanegra, a tougher nut to crack, is equally superlative with Cappuccilli, José van Dam and Nicolai Ghiaurov compellingly dramatic, while Mirella Freni and José Carreras are the sweetest lovers on disc.
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Abbado was fortunate to record frequently with Plácido Domingo in his absolute prime, making his Aida – a fine Katia Ricciarelli, steadier than you might imagine – and the five-act French version of Don Carlos both highly recommendable. The latter, with Leo Nucci as Rodrigue and Ruggero Raimondi and Ghiaurov twin juggernauts as Philippe and the Inquisiteur respectively, was the first serious attempt to record Verdi’s original intentions.
The field for decent versions of Un Ballo in Maschera is crowded, but Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli grace an ideally paced outing so no quibbles here. Meanwhile, Abbado carried off a coup in capturing Bryn Terfel’s much-praised Falstaff in superb sound back in 2001, even if some older recordings convey the story with a little more character.
Rossini was Abbado’s other Italian composer of choice and here we get five examples, including not just one but two takes on Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The first is the sparkling 1972 recording – the first to use the Zedda revised edition – with Teresa Berganza one of the finest Rosinas ever, Hermann Prey an elegant, if slightly straight-laced Figaro and Luigi Alva feeling a tad elderly as Almaviva. Sadly, the other is a woefully miscast 1993 version with Frank Lopardo a rank-toned Almaviva, Domingo an unconvincingly lightweight Figaro and Kathleen Battle an equally inappropriate Rosina.
Far better are La Cenerentola – Abbado’s dazzlingly dynamic first opera recording from 1971 – with Berganza perfectly cast and Alva better than he is in the Barbiere – and L’Italiana in Algeri with a captivating Agnes Baltsa (why do some seem to prefer the matronly Marilyn Horne?) and Raimondi a textbook Mustafa. Best of all is the vastly entertaining live recording of Il Viaggio a Reims with a stellar cast executing some of the most virtuosic vocal music Rossini ever wrote. Star turns include Ricciarelli, Lucia Valentini Terrani, Francisco Araiza, Samuel Ramey as the stuffed-English-shirt Lord Sidney and Raimondi as the pedantic Don Profondo whose aria mimicking a dozen European accents is an absolute riot.
Always a stylish Mozartean, Abbado’s three recorded operatic forays are a mixed bag, let down – when they are let down – by casting. The least successful is Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside outdone by Terfel’s Leporello (the only reason to get this set) and faceless turns by Carmela Remigio as Donna Anna, the usually reliable Soile Isokoski as Donna Elvira and Uwe Heilmann as Don Ottavio. Le Nozze di Figaro is better with Sylvia McNair and Lucio Gallo a fine Susanna and Figaro and Bo Skovhus a decent Count, but Cheryl Studer was on the way out when she recorded the Countess and Cecilia Bartoli makes far too much of a meal out of Cherubino.
The best is the late (2006) recording of Die Zauberflöte which benefits from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Abbado paces it magnificently and the near perfect cast includes Dorothea Röschmann as a sublime Pamina, Christoph Strehl as a fresh-toned Tamino, Hanno Müller-Brachmann as a witty Papageno, René Pape as Sarastro and Erika Miklósa as Queen of the Night.
The two French operas here make you regret Abbado never recorded more as he has a natural elegance and his ear for sonic detail is second to none. The 1977 Carmen with Berganza, Domingo and Sherrill Milnes has never been bettered, while the pretty decent Pelléas et Mélisande includes Maria Ewing’s intriguingly detailed Mélisande and José van Dam’s psychologically intense Golaud. Matters are only let down by François Le Roux’s dry Pelléas.
Another late triumph for Abbado was his 2011 live Fidelio from Lucerne with Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme ideal as Florestan and Leonore and Falk Struckmann a powerful Pizarro. His 1988 recording of Schubert’s Fierrabras gave the world a real surprise, revealing a work with a great many musical pleasures thanks to Abbado’s urgent advocacy and a fine cast including Josef Protschka as Fierrabras, Karita Mattila, Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson.
Listening to his detailed, deeply refined recording of Lohengrin with the Vienna Phil one can only regret that Abbado didn’t put more Wagner onto disc. Siegfried Jerusalem makes a slightly grainy hero with Cheryl Studer sensitive as Elsa and Waltraud Meier a superbly malevolent yet musical Ortrud. Hartmut Welker is a nasty sounding Telramund (though sadly not in a good way).
Finally, two live recordings from Vienna show Abbado at his most vital and dramatic. Berg’s Wozzeck with Franz Grundheber and Hildegard Behrens as the doomed Wozzeck and Marie. Fine turns from Heinz Zednik and Aage Haugland as Captain and Doctor mean this should be in every opera lover’s collection. Last but not least, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina stars Haugland as a ripe Ivan Khovansky, Marjana Lipovsek as a compelling Marfa and Paata Burchuladze as a sonorous Dosifey. If Khovansky’s arrival and the execution scene don’t convince you that this is the greatest Russian opera of them all, then I’m a Dutchman.
Of course, much of this has been boxed up before – the Verdi, for example – but with, by my reckoning, 15 must-haves, the Abbado Opera Edition represents outstanding value for money as well as being a great introduction to much core repertoire.