The 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth is May 22, and the world's opera houses and symphony halls are filled with his music this year along with the compositions of Giuseppe Verdi, whose 200th birthday is Oct. 10.
The final 10 of Wagner's 13 operas are repertory staples, and here are recordings of them recommended by The Associated Press:
"Die Fliegende Hollaender (The Flying Dutchman)" — Antal Dorati, conductor; Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (recorded 1960, Walthamstow Town Hall); Decca. While technically out of print at the moment, this recording is readily available from online vendors. The tempi can seem a bit slack at times, but George London is authoritative and pained in the title role and Lyonie Rysanek is haunting as Senta.
"Tannhaeuser" — Sir Georg Solti, conductor; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Boys Choir (recorded Sofiensaal, Vienna, 1970); Decca. There isn't a totally satisfying choice. Solti uses the revised 1861 Paris version of the score rather than the original 1845 Dresden or the slightly altered 1860 Dresden and leads an account that stays because of its lushness. Chrisa Ludwig's Venus is the best of the voices, but Rene Kollo's Tannhaeuser is a bit light.
"Lohengrin" — Rudolf Kempe, conductor; Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus (recorded 1962-63, Theatre an der Wien); EMI. Sweet-voiced Jess Thomas' Lohengrin and Elisabeth Gruemmer's Elsa match well with the biting darkness of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's Friedrich and Gottlob Frick' King Heinrich.
"Tristan und Isolde" — Wilhelm Furtwaengler, conductor; Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus of The Royal Opera, Covent Garden (recorded 1952, Kingsway Hall, London); EMI. There are so many top choices here, and this wins out over Karl Boehm's passionate recording of Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, Carlos Kleiber's driven studio set with Kollo and Margaret Price from 1980-82 and Antonio Pappano's pulsating 2004-05 studio recording with Placido Domingo (who never sang the role on stage) and Nina Stemme. Furtwaengler's pacing seems almost mystical. Kirsten Flagstad, then 57, gets some assistance from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with her second-act high-Cs. Ludwig Suthaus's Tristan is somewhat gruff but filled with longing.
"Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" — Sir Georg Solti, conductor; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (recorded live at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in September 1997); Decca. Some prefer the 1967 recording by Rafael Kubelik with Thomas Stewart, Gundula Janowitz and Sandor Konya, but Solti's last version of Wagner's only comedy has stunning sound, majestic and dynamic conducting and vocal sheen from Ben Heppner's ever-hopeful Walther, Rene Pape's deeply understanding Pogner and Karita Mattila's ebulliant Eva. Jose van Dam's Sachs overcomes its slight lack of heft with humanity.
Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("Das Rheingold," ''Die Walkuere," ''Siegfried" and "Goetterdaemmerung") — Joseph Keilberth, conductor; chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival (recorded at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival); Testament. Perhaps the most difficult decision. Solti's studio set from 1958-65 on Decca was the standard for years, with Flagstad and London for the opening installment and Nilsson and Han Hotter taking over starting with "Walkuere." But in 2006 Testament released this recording made by Decca, which supposedly was suppressed under pressure from John Culshaw, producer of the Solti set. Keilberth's recording has unmatched life and vibrancy. Ramon Vinay's Siegmund, Astrid Varnay's Bruennhilde and Wolfgang Windgassen's live Siegfried (he also sang on the Solti), all shine and give the Testament the edge, although Gre Brouwenstijn's Sieglinde lacks the polish of Regine Crespin's on the Solti.
"Parsifal" — Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor; chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival (recorded at the 1962 Bayreuth Festival); Philips. A classic that's still leaves all other recordings falling short. Knappertsbusch's spacious tempi make for a rendition that's unsurpassed in the story of the grail and "innocent fool." Hotter is imposing as Guernemanz, Thomas is a bright Parsifal and Gustav Neidlinger a menacing Klingsor.