Various Artists

Opera: New Generation

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This two-disc set is a sampler of operatic singers from the corporately related Virgin Classics and EMI labels, and like most such samplers it delivers a good deal less than it promises. The marketing is scattershot, for one thing: the two-disc set purports to offer both the "new generation" of singers and "greatest arias" -- whether of these particular artists or of opera in general is not made clear, but neither contention would be defensible. The booklet notes consist of a history of opera in five paragraphs, which isn't a whole lot of use to anybody. The selections date as far back as 1991, and the artists involved are as venerable as Felicity Lott, who made her debut in 1976, and, for Zoroaster's sake, José Van Dam, who was born in 1940. All this said, the newbie buyer looking for a selection of opera arias for the car stereo could do much worse than this set. The group of singers represented is diverse, and it would give a U.S. listener, especially, an idea of some exciting new trends in European singing. There are some genuinely newsworthy new artists, such as Latvian soprano Elina Garanca; the drastically different qualities of her low, middle, and top registers make much more of "Come scoglio," from Mozart's Così fan tutte, than is usually the case. There are French singers, who get a good deal less ink in anglophone countries than they deserve; Sandrine Piau and Véronique Gens both have soaring instruments familiar to those who have followed recent operatic and sacred releases of the eighteenth century, and some proportion of those who buy this album will be hooked. Countertenors are rarely heard on collections of this kind, but here is the energetic Philippe Jaroussky in an aria from Vivaldi's Giustino. There are superb interpreters who fly under the general radar; hear Susan Graham's passionate reading of "When I am laid in earth," from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, in which she seems to hang on every word. And all these singers are balanced out with a selection of hunks and crowd-pleasers on disc 2, which is devoted to Italian and French repertoire from the nineteenth century; disc 1 starts with Mozart but works its way back to the early Baroque. The Donizetti selections by Rolando Villazón and Roberto Alagna are not the best-known of these young singers, but they're enough to enter the artists in the next-Three-Tenors sweepstakes. Early music fans will be heartened by this collection, and nearly everyone will find something to enjoy.

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