Verdi, Mozart and the verists all play principal parts in the recording industry's current campaign to stock the burgeoning compact-disc catalogue with new performances of the basic opera repertory sonically tailored for the digital age.
Yet, among the familiar favorites of recent months, the records commanding the most attention often involve more obscure works reaching commercial release for the first time. Ernest Chausson's "Le Roi Arthus" (Erato ECD 88213, three CDs) fills a gap in most listeners' knowledge of late 19th-Century French opera in a generally sophisticated performance. Like many of his Gallic contemporaries, Chausson was drawn for inspiration to the legends of Celtic antiquity. And like the others, he sought, with only intermittent success, to avoid the omnipresent specter of Wagnerism.
In "Le Roi Arthus," given its premiere in 1903, four years after the composer's death in a bicycling accident, Chausson settled upon the King Arthur myth, in particular the Guinevere-Lancelot relationship, the errant knight's spiritual crisis and Arthur's final mystical ascension.
Chausson's own libretto contains its share of overly purple passages, but the music inclines to an attractive through-composed chromaticism, spiced with an occasional nod to Wagnerian leitmotif, in a bracing amalgam of recitative and aria. Another "Tristan und Isolde" this isn't, but the opera maintains a strong individuality throughout.
Erato's recording derives from a 1985 Radio France concert performance, explaining the occasional lack of theatrical atmosphere. But Armin Jordan, who has become a discographic specialist in late French Romanticism, conducts the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique with an ear attuned to both texture and drama. Gino Quilico imparts baritonal fervor and impeccable linguistic savvy to Arthur. Tenor Goesta Winbergh conjures a remarkably fervent Lancelot, while Teresa Zylis-Gara brings a shrill soprano and curious French to Guinevere's plaints.
Winbergh is also one of the main attractions of London's new version of Mozart's "Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail" (417 402-2, two CDs), a project inspired by Sir Georg Solti's desire to record the Singspiel with Edita Gruberova before the Czech soprano dropped the role of Konstanze from her repertory.
Gruberova sails through the coloratura rigors of "Martern aller Arten" with no evident strain, but the role really demands a heavier dramatic coloring than she can muster. Kathleen Battle's silvery Blonde is an ideal mixture of endearing indignation, vocal blandishment and impeccable style. Winbergh invests Belmonte with suitable elegance, Heinz Zednik's Pedrillo melds a reliable light tenor with abundant theatricality, but Finnish basso Martti Talvela is now sadly unable to lend the harem guard Osmin the necessary evenness of tone.
Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus in his typically explosive, monumentally contoured style; the Janissary Chorus will rattle any set of speakers, thanks to London's vivid sonics.
Yet the conductor, whose Mozart has always seemed under appreciated, maintains a consistent dramatic alertness. This is not a performance that degenerates into a series of isolated showpieces for five gifted singers. And Solti deserves credit for using his cast to recite the long stretches of unaccompanied dialogue, rather than recruiting a separate group of actors, as was the prevailing custom in the bad old days.
Angel has returned to England's prestigious Glyndebourne Festival for its new "Cosi fan Tutte" (CDCC-47727, three CDs), recorded in the studio with cast and conductor of Peter Hall's 50th-anniversary Glyndebourne production, but this project marks a retreat from the accomplishment of the same team's "Don Giovanni." Bernard Haitink leads the London Philharmonic through a sonorous, generalized reading, which conscientiously evades the sublime ambiguities in which Mozart enveloped his two pairs of faithless lovers.
Whatever attitudes towards the characters Hall instilled in his cast they have transfered poorly to disc. Healthy vocalism abounds in the predominantly American cast. Soprano Carol Vaness attacks "Come scoglio" fearlessly. Mezzo Delores Ziegler lends her Dorabella a ripe, impulsive allure, and the two swains, tenor John Aler and baritone Dale Duesing, blend acceptably. But only Claudio Desderi's wily Alfonso reveals any sense of involvement in a genuine dramatic situation. It is much too easy to tune out of this "Cosi."