Der FreischutzThe budget label Opera d’Oro made the interesting/inspired/bizarre decision to have a single artist, Rafal Olbinski, a Polish-born surrealist, create paintings to use on the covers of all their albums. One thing is sure, it was a brilliant marketing concept if their goal was to create an immediately recognizable brand -- their covers pop out at you in a way few others do. Olbinski’s paintings, which take up about three-fifths of the cover, are so surreal and often so garish and often so provocative that they practically scream out at you to take a closer look, even though you may find them aesthetically unappealing. (This would be the point to lament the fact that LP covers offered a potential for artistic expression that was radically diminished by the advent of CDs.) At their best, the paintings tap into the viewer’s subconscious and stir up associations that reveal truths about the opera that can’t be put into words.

The cover of Wozzeck is an example of Olbinski’s skill at capturing an opera’s essence in a profound way -- the more you consider the details, the creepier it gets.
Samson et Dalila
Olbinski frequently uses faces as a design element, like the Wozzeck cover. Sometimes the facial image has an immediately obvious symbolism, as in his cover for Samson et Dalila, where Dalila's pale image comes between Samson and his hair.
Frau Ohne Schatten
Others, like Die Frau ohne Schatten, use imagery that's more obscure, and more psychologically unsettling, particularly in the connection it makes between weeping and fertility. The complexity of its symbolism reflects the complexity of the characters’ relationships, and it ultimately offers some profound insights into the meaning of the opera.
Don Carlo
Similarly, the cover for Don Carlo is larded with layers of significance that open up on closer inspection, and reveal genuine truths about the opera.
Fanciulla del West
Some of the covers are more light-hearted, like Der Freischütz above, and La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). The cowboy boot with a daisy for a spur is a terrific visual analog for Minnie, the heroine of the title. The petals lying on the ground suggest the game of “He loves me, he loves me not…,” a nod to the sentimentality and sweetness that ultimately characterize the opera.
Other covers are just plain strange. It’s hard to reconcile the image for Der Rosenkavalier with the stylishness and sophistication of the opera and its characters. While Olbinski may not have a lot of technical sophistication as an artist, he does sometimes create a truly probing image that gets at the core of an opera’s meaning in a visually astonishing way.