There are so many fine singers on today's stages -- why in the world collect CD remasterings of sopranos from earlier eras? Simply put, because virtually none of today's sopranos possess the individual timbre, interpretive insight and sheer charisma of sopranos of years past whose voices shine on disc as never before.
Take Victoria de los Angeles, for example. Nowhere can her sheer love of singing be better heard than on The Fabulous Victoria De Los Angeles: "A Lifetime Achievement" (Testament). A superb remastering of a 1960 Gerald Mooreaccompanied recital, the disc offers a "typical" de los Angeles evening of Schubert, Brahms, Faur and others. Only in recordings made in the 1930s by Elisabeth Schumann and Lotte Lehmann will you find such carefully nuanced, artifice-free interpretations of Schubert's "Wohin?" and Brahms' "Vergebliches Stndchen." For art song aficionados, this disc is a treasure.
New to opera? For core lyric/dramatic Italian repertoire, start with Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. Grab Tebaldi: My First Record (Fono), filled with 1949 and 1950 recordings of Verdi, Puccini, Boito, et al. The booklet is in Italian, the sometimes ridiculously over-reverbed selections ripped off from 78s, but the singing is absolutely right. Beauty of tone, absolute sincerity, and convincingly idiomatic phrasing, both here and on the two-disc The Great Renata Tebaldi (Decca), leave opera queens no choice but to shed pretense and acknowledge true royalty.
While Tebaldi may have the feminine warmth of heart, Callas cuts to the center of the heart when she is not slashing it to bits. The single disc The Very Best Of Maria Callas (EMI) focuses mostly on Callas' romantic repertoire; her "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen and unforgettable "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" from Gluck's Orphe stun anew with their individuality. Just when you think you know what Callas is all about, another facet of her greatness is revealed.
Then there was the great Beverly Sills, who possessed a voice that could tear your heart out. Although saddled with the nickname "Bubbles" ever since her childhood appearance in a Brillo soap commercial, Sills touched deepest, not in comedy, but in the tragic roles of Bellini, Donizetti, Moore and others.
Thanks to the superb 24-bit, 96 khz remastering on The Singers: Beverly Sills (Decca), music lovers can hear Sills' famed performance of Richard Strauss' "Breit' ber mein Haupt" in sound that finally does it justice. This is a truly magical, transcendent performance -- a Strauss interpretation that rings as true as those by Elisabeth Schumann (who toured the United States accompanied by Strauss). As in her recording of Mozart's "Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!," Sills sings slowly, using her unique, disembodied tones to touch listeners in new ways. This compilation is a must-have.
Talk of Sills leads to her coloratura "rival," Joan Sutherland. While Sills was the deeper artist of the two -- Sills in good voice would invariably hypnotize where Sutherland would either stun or somnambulate -- she could deliver neither the knock-out impact of Sutherland's "Santo di patria ... Allor che I forti corrono" from Verdi's Attila, nor the radiant highs of her "Son vergin vezzosa" from Bellini's I puritani. La Stupenda -- The Supreme Voices of Joan Sutherland is filled with stupendous coloratura recordings from Joanie's best years.
The woman who could sing French songs to perfection was Dame Maggie Teyte. Dubbed "l'Exquise" by her teacher Jean de Reszke, Teyte debuted at age 18 in concerts conducted by her life long friend, Reynaldo Hahn. One of two Englishwomen coached by Debussy for the role of Melisande, Teyte's famed downward portamentos, lyric purity on high, and voice filled with tenderness and sadness were perfect for the "impressionist" repertoire. So ideal were Teyte's voice and sensibility that once, when Debussy witnessed a rehearsal in which a conductor was attempting to alter her interpretation, he boomed out, "Laissez-faire Maggie Teyte!"
Teyte's career was resurrected in 1936, at age 48, by a set of Debussy recordings accompanied by the great Alfred Cortot. As she aged, Teyte's singing became more transparent, as though she were revealing secrets to her audience that she dared not share any other way.
The Singers: Maggie Teyte (Decca) brings to CD long-unavailable recordings from 1932 and 1937. Teyte's charm in "Tu n'es pas beau ... je t'adore" from Offenbach's La Perichole proves incomparable. This disc is like a pearl, waiting to be discovered and treasured.
Equal revelations come with the thrilling sensual beauty of The Singers: Frida Leider (Decca). Marvelous in Mozart (listen to the "Dove Sono" on this disc and her "Or sai chi l'onore" available elsewhere), Leider was prized for her Wagner. Her 1925 "Du bist der Lenz" Die Walkre scene with Melchior (frustratingly shorn of the first act climax), "Liebestod," and "Zu neuen Taten" must be heard. Do not be put off by the acoustic recordings; the purity of Leider's voice survives.