For as long as I can remember, the classical-record business has been perceived as floundering in a state of perpetual crisis, but the picture right now does indeed look grim for top-of-the-line labels. High overhead, expensive, ego-driven artists, a glutted global market, consumer indifference to new recordings of warhorse favorites, confusing pricing practices, a dearth of charismatic personalities -- all the majors are coping with these and other woes as they cut back on new releases and cancel costly projects, all the while looking for new ways to stir up a bit of excitement in the marketplace.
Complete opera sets, which now cost a fortune to record, are the principal casualties. Only performances with the few bankable superstars that are left get made nowadays, and perhaps that's just as well -- who needs another mediocre Bohème or Aida when there are already dozens of fine versions to choose from? What we have been seeing lately, and I suspect that the trickle will soon become a flood, are live recordings from opera-house and radio archives, standard works and rarities featuring musical legends from the recent past. Attracted by important singers and conductors in works they never recorded commercially, collectors are snapping them up, while the companies are more than delighted to peddle desirable, ready-made recordings requiring a minimum of expense to produce. EMI Classics sparked the trend a year ago by releasing several live performances by Maria Callas, and since then much tantalizing authorized material has turned up from various sources, including the Salzburg Festival, the Bavarian National Opera in Munich, the Vienna State Opera, and even our own Metropolitan Opera.
The irony is that most of these treasures have long been available on pirate labels. In an attempt to beat the pirates at their own game, the Met some time ago came up with its "Historic Broadcast Recordings" series. These handsomely produced boxed sets -- available only to those making a $150 contribution to the Metropolitan Opera Fund -- boast state-of-the-art sound restoration. The latest album contains the performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut broadcast on December 10, 1949, starring Dorothy Kirsten and Jussi Bjoerling, an important release. Kirsten never had the opportunity to sing her best roles in complete recordings, and Manon was among her most impressive creations, while Bjoerling's Des Grieux on a 1954 commercial RCA recording is nowhere near as gloriously sung as it is here.
Thorny legal issues with music unions and artists' estates prevent the Met from making more extensive use of its recorded past, a problem that does not seem to exist for European opera companies. Some time ago, Koch International released a fabulous, 48-disc series excerpting the prewar performances of dozens of great singers at the Vienna State Opera. Now complete operas are arriving from Vienna, all of them recorded in the house between 1955 and 1984. Four recent sets from Deutsche Grammophon are conducted by Herbert von Karajan, whose turbulent reign at the Staatsoper (1957-64) coincided with the most artistically satisfying years of his career. The works are Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (457 678-2), Wagner's Tannhäuser (457 682-2), Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (457 674-2), and Pizzetti's Murder in the Cathedral (457 671-2) -- operas Karajan otherwise never recorded.
All four performances have obvious drawbacks. The Strauss is not only heavily cut, but Act Two is also barbarously rearranged; the Wagner is seriously hobbled by a leathery Tannhäuser (Hans Beirer); the Monteverdi is an outrageously souped-up edition that sounds like a cross between Respighi and Rimsky-Korsakov; and Pizzetti's parlando setting of the T. S. Eliot play will not be to all tastes. Yet each set offers much to savor: the seductive beauty of Sena Jurinac's Poppea, the declamatory grandeur of Hans Hotter as Thomas Beckett; gorgeous orchestral sound in the Strauss as well as Leonie Rysanek's stunning Empress, perhaps the soprano's definitive statement of her signature role.
BMG/RCA has also gained access to the Vienna State Opera archives, and the first installment from this quarter includes at least one essential item: Berg's Lulu (74321 57734-2), the full three-act version conducted by Lorin Maazel on October 24, 1983. The performance may get a bit disheveled at times, but the temperature is white-hot, with Julia Migenes's mesmerizing Lulu fearlessly mowing down every male obstacle in her way. The 1955 Don Giovanni (74321 57737-2), conducted by Karl Böhm, should not be missed, even by those who object to hearing the opera sung in German. This all-star cast -- George London, Lisa della Casa, Sena Jurinac, Irmgard Seefried, Anton Dermota, Erich Kunz, Ludwig Weber, and Walter Berry -- proves that the famous postwar Vienna ensemble was no myth.