PUCCINI: "TOSCA." Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjorling, Leonard Warren, Fernando Corena; Erich Leinsdorf conducting forces of the Rome Opera. RCA 4514-2-RG (2 compact discs). This set, recorded in 1957, always languished in the shadow of the legendary Callas-Di Stefano-Gobbi-De Sabata collaboration on Angel. At this distance, however, it is easy to savor the special virtues of the Met-oriented version under the knowing, somewhat Teutonic leadership of Leinsdorf. Milanov at 52 could still float other-worldly pianissimi that made everything else--a stock characterization and some hooty top notes, for instance--seem irrelevant. Bjorling's silvery tenor and clean yet idiomatic phrasing created a memorable Cavaradossi (even though he could not caress "O, dolci mani" as tenderly as Di Stefano had). Warren's baritone, alternately burly and silken, depicted a bigger-than-life Scarpia. They don't make singers like this anymore.
RICHARD STRAUSS: "ARIADNE AUF NAXOS." Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Kathleen Battle, Agnes Baltsa, Gary Lakes; Vienna Philharmonic conducted by James Levine. Deutsche Grammophon 419 225-1/2/4 (2 compact discs). Herbert von Karajan recorded the definitive version of Strauss' fragile masterpiece for Angel some 30 years ago, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Rita Streich and Irmgard Seefried ideal in the central soprano roles. For all his straightforward verve and authority, Levine cannot enforce the same delicacy in the comic scenes or the same pathos in the heroic/tragic passages. Tomowa-Sintow sounds clumsy and shrill in the title role, and Baltsa introduces a rather heavyweight Composer. Only Battle's pure-toned, delicate Zerbinetta can compete with memories of her illustrious predecessor. Gary Lakes, the incipient Bayreuth Siegmund, makes an immature though promising debut as Bacchus. This "Ariadne" is not for a desert island.
ARIAS OF VERDI, PUCCINI, MASSENET, TCHAIKOVSKY AND BIZET. Francisco Araiza, tenor; English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alberto Zedda. Philips 420 070-2 (compact disc). Araiza, arguably the finest Mozart-Rossini tenor of the day, cannot resist the temptation of more heroic repertory. His vocal transition may be causing some alarm in the opera house, but he sings here with easy verve, intelligence and panache. The inevitable "Rigoletto" and "Traviata" arias come complete with elegant cabaletta flourishes, and the "Boheme" romanza actually makes Rodolfo sound like a sensitive lover, for a change, not a vocal athlete. Araiza is equally persuasive with the Gallic urgency of Des Grieux and Werther.
ROSSINI: "IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA." Roberta Peters, Cesare Valletti, Robert Merrill, Giorgio Tozzi, Fernando Corena. Erich Leinsdorf conducting forces of the Metropolitan Opera. RCA 6505-2-RG (3 compact discs). This welcome re-release documents, more or less, the prevailing Met standard for Rossini in 1958. We didn't know it was a golden age at the time. Peters is so pert and agile as Rosina that one forgives her for not being the mezzo intended by the composer. Merrill's hearty if unsubtle Figaro, Tozzi's grandiose Basilio and Corena's classic Bartolo are even better than memory suggested. The revelation, however, is Valletti, who musters the coloratura of the seldom-heard rondo finale (familiar from its recycling in "Cenerentola") with astonishing finesse. Leinsdorf, though not exactly typecast as an opera buffa expert, balances brio and introspection.
VERDI: MESSA DA REQUIEM. Cheryl Studer, Dolora Zajic, Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey; Riccardo Muti conducting forces of La Scala. Angel/EMI CDS 49390 (2 CD discs). This should have been an extraordinarily poignant Requiem. It isn't. An amalgamation of recent live performances and studio patches, it finds Muti unexpectly erratic, the soloists in less than top form. Pavarotti floats some lovely soft tones, but otherwise sounds rough. Studer fails to keep her resplendent, oddly Germanic soprano under optimum control. Zajic, though obviously talented, cannot camouflage her inexperience, and Ramey settles for dull routine. The most vital contribution comes from the Scala chorus.
MOZART: "DIE ZAUBERFLOETE." Helen Donath, Sylvia Geszty, Peter Schreier, Gunther Leib, Theo Adam; Otmar Suitner conducting the Dresden State Orchestra and Leipzig Radio Chorus. RCA 6511-2-RG (3 CD discs). This uninspired performance dates back to 1970, and its issue at this time is hard to explain. Suitner either plods or rushes through Mozart's potential magic, and the cast is uninspired. Schreier offers an uncharacteristically aggressive Tamino, Donath a merely pretty Pamina. Leib finds little charm in Papageno. Sylvia Geszty is just another squeaky Queen of the Night and, at the opposite vocal extreme, Theo Adam reveals a lightweight Sarastro. The sloppy annotation doesn't even bother to identify the Sprecher or the secondary singers. Boring.