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Conducting in Opera Recordings

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I imagine most opera lovers have favorite recordings of their favorite operas determined in large part by the singers. How big a role does the conducting play for you? Are there recordings that are at least partly spoiled for you by the conducting despite an excellent cast? Conversely are there recordings that are elevated for you by exceptional conducting?
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The relative importance of the conductor and the singers depends as much on what operas we're talking about as it does on who's conducting and singing. This is reflected in the way we refer to recordings. Recordings of Wagner's operas, in which the orchestra is sometimes more important than the singers to the musical and dramatic impact of the work, are commonly identified by their conductors. We speak of the "Furtwangler Tristan" rather than the "Suthaus/Flagstad Tristan," despite the stature of the singers, in recognition of the conductor's unique and powerful vision of the complex score. Similarly we speak of the Kempe Lohengrin, the Solti Ring, or various Knappertsbusch Parsifals.

Furtwangler's Tristan is important to me mainly because of him, although all the singers are at least good. Flagstad, the most celebrated of them, can be heard to generally better effect, both vocally and dramatically, in various live recordings from the years of her prime, where she also has the Tristan of Melchior and some other outstanding singers of the interwar period.

I could say much the same about several other Wagner performances (I've named a few above), but I can't think of an instance of Italian opera in which the conducting has been as important to me as the singing, not even in late Verdi or Puccini. Concomitantly, we tend to refer to recordings of Italian opera by their lead singers more often than by their conductors. Even though Victor de Sabata conducts Tosca brilliantly and contributes greatly to the classic status of his recording, we generally identify that recording as the "Callas Tosca," mentioning the other artists or conductor if we need to distinguish it from the "second Callas Tosca."
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I'm not sure this is true, and, personally, I've come to think of it as the De Sabata Tosca, possibly because he seems to me to be the most important element in its success, and maybe because I don't think Tosca was that important to Callas as an artist. It's mostly because of this recording, and because she sang the role quite a lot at the end of her career, that she is so much associated with it. She didn't much like the role or the opera, and, apart from the unadverturous Met, didn't sing it at all between 1953 (the year of the De Sabata recording) and 1964. Despite the excellence of its cast, it is De Sabata's conducting that has elevated the recording to classic status.

On the other hand, Callas's participation in any recording means that most of the operas she particpated in are referred to by her name, even the Callas Parsifal! :ROFLMAO: We talk of the Callas Butterfly when referring to the 1955 recording, but the Karajan Butterfly, when referring to the one with Freni and Pavarotti, though Karajan conducted both.

Actually, now that I think of it, there are quite a few other Italian opera recordings that are generally referred to by their conductor's name, Don Carlo for one. The Giulini, the Solti, the Karajan or the Abbado, and so on. Also the Bohème with De Los Angeles and Björling is usually referred to as the Beecham, so is his Carmen with her, and, as far as I can remember, all other recordings of that opera are usually referred to by their conductors, other than of course the Callas Carmen.

Maybe it is Callas who is the exception to the rule. There are others too. Most of Sutherland's complete recordings are referred to by her name, not her husband's.
Good points, but musicians such as yourself, and other musically knowledgeable people, may think somewhat differently about this.

Operas differ in the degree to which they can be described as "vehicles" for singers, and on the whole Wagner's operas are, for good reason, less likely to be seen that way than many other popular works, even with respect to his principal roles, and even when those roles are sung by "star" singers. It seems intuitive that "singer's operas" are more likely to be thought of in terms of the singers, and that the conducting will get less attention. To a minority of us the conductor may be extremely important in Norma, Lucia, Trovatore, Romeo et Juliette, Fidelio, Carmen, Tosca, Turandot and Pagliacci, but I'll wager that the first, and for many opera lovers and in certain contexts the only, thing people want to know in these and other works is who is singing the major roles. I suspect that the star singers govern their choice of recordings, and that they think of these performances as "belonging" to these singers. Very few people, I suspect, buy or reject recordings of these operas because of the conducting, whereas discussions and purchases of Wagner recordings often place primary importance on the conducting.

I have no statistics to back up these impressions, but I think I observe plenty of evidence right here on the forum. On the other hand, it may simply be that I'm more particular about who conducts Parsifal than who conducts Boheme.
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Prelude: Yikes!
None whatsoever. 0. I also don't listen for the quality of prompters or page turners or the dozens of other people who contribute to creating an artistic recording or production. I listen for soloists. In fact, I wish that every single opera either cut the entire chorus or just limited them to participation in soloist-dominated scenes and arias. Such a waste of time.
Well, there go Lohengrin and Parsifal.

I'm not even sure how people think they can tell who's conducting. You can't hear a conductor. There is only so much liberty you can even take: the music is already written.
I assume you think the same about most musicians who are not singers. How can you tell who's playing the piano? Why does it matter, since "the music is already written?"

I could conduct a Wagner opera with Melchior and Flagstad and Thorborg and Andresen and make a smash hit out of it.
You wouldn't make a hit of it. You might make a mess of it. If it did turn out to be a hit, it would be a hit in spite of you.

When I (used to) go to operas, nobody walked out discussing the mastery of the conductor. And I mean no one.
Well, there's at least someone who walked out discussing the conductor as well as the singers. I did. That's because I'm a musician and a lover of music, not a voice therapist or an opera queen.

I've heard hundreds of singers and can tell them all apart basically instantaneously. Can any of you really say you've heard hundreds of conductors and can immediately pick out who's conducting? How many Parsifals have you really heard, by how many separate conductors? Can you even isolate anything they do besides tempo regulation? You're telling me there are works for which tempo is the single most important consideration, above trumpet intonation, trumpet tone security, trumpet tone, trumpet attack, trumpet dynamic control, then applied to every single other instrumentalist and vocalist?
This reads like an attempt to justify a profoundly limited understanding or appreciation of music or opera. No one is telling you that "there are works for which tempo is the single most important consideration." It's you who are telling us that the only difference you can hear between one conductor and another is how fast they play the music, Such a confession would be fine if you weren't also telling us that our knowledge that the conductor's art is much greater than that very likely has no basis in reality.

Why not just admit that although voices are all that matter to you, you respect the interests and perceptions of those for whom music is a more complex and meaningful language, and for whom opera is a complex art form in which singing may play the most defining, but far from the only, part?

I'll bet Mozart, Verdi and Wagner would be sad to learn that the musical worlds they imagined into being meant less to you than the noises supersoprano Helmwige Fartnagel-Krummholz makes with her lateral cricoarytenoids.
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Wind instruments have more individual tone than pianists, yes, but pianists are still directly involved in producing the sound as individual interpreters. Conductors really are not capable of getting an entire ensemble to use rubato and rapid alternations of dynamics in the way a soloist is; thus, their individual stamp on the music is dramatically less noticeable.

Conductors, confronted with a diverse band of instruments with widely differing timbres, are responsible for balancing dynamics, specifying articulation, inflecting rhythm, infusing energy, and determining an overall sonic texture and expressive conception to which all these effects contribute. If you think this is a simple matter you are truly out to lunch. The stamp a great conductor can put on a score, and the difference between one conductor's way with music and another's, can be very dramatically noticeable. And it can make the difference between a dull, prosaic performance and an exciting, moving one, even when the same musicians are playing and the same singers are participating in both performances. I do concede that truly great conductors are rare, but even beneath that level there's an important difference between very good and routine, and between different conceptions of the score. Having sung for years, played the piano all my life, and conducted a little, I can attest that producing one line of music is a hell of a lot simpler than fusing the elements of a complex score into something sonorously beautiful, cohesive and expressive.

I think we basically agree here! Flagstad can make a hit out of a ho-hum chef d'orchestre's work.
A "hit" is not the same as a great performance. And I find that most singers, emphatically including Flagstad, are variable in the musical and dramatic strength of their work. Having good colleagues, as well as other factors, makes a difference. Singers attest that a great conductor can lift them to a higher level, and any reasonably musical person who experiences much opera will hear the difference. I never saw much opera in the theater, but Nilsson's vivid Isoldes for the dynamic Bohm at Bayreuth and Orange were not equaled, musically and dramatically, by her Isolde under the literal, prosaic Leinsdorf at the Met (though I'm glad I got to hear her anyway). I could probably say much about Leinsdorf's pedestrian (my opera companion's estimate) conducting if there were much worth saying. By contrast, detail after detail of Furtwangler's way with the score is distinctive and worth discussing. His recording is worth the money for Brangaene's warning alone, unequaled by anyone else's in its pacing, balances, dynamics, articulation, and resulting sense of tragic and timeless rapture.

You profoundly undervalue what a conductor can do.

I do not accept that loving music necessarily entails appreciating conductors for anything more than competence
Loving music needn't entail understanding anything at all about what it takes to make a great musical experience out of the lines and dots in a score. But the person confronting that score needs to know what it takes, if a great experience is to result. "Competence" does not describe what it takes.

Perhaps [Mozart, Verdi and Wagner would] be sad to see conductors getting credit for their masterworks.
Who does that?

Also, I think they understood, Mozart especially, the special hold that a virtuosic singer has on the audience. In his day, as now, people were drawn by star singers more than anything else. Of course, Verdi started trying to wrest control from the singers, and Wagner went even further, attempting to sand down their peaks of stardom into one smooth TOTALARTWORK, but there is something truly human about identifying with the flamboyant individual: people still go see Tom Cruise flicks, not Jerry Bruckheimer flicks. People wear Tom Brady jerseys, not Robert Kraft jerseys.
Opera is a sung play. A play is about human beings. The singing is the primary means by which they tell their story, regardless of the composer's style. Therefore people naturally focus most on the singing, as they don't, say in Beethoven's 9th. There's also eye appeal, and the eye is a very dictatorial sense organ. We want to see. So what? None of this necessitates devaluing the conductor.

Any of my favorite singers can stand in front of a piano and create a sublime, transcendent work of art with no conductor in the room.
Is there a pianist? I presume you're not suggesting an a capella rendition of Gotterdammerung.

Conductors need musicians to play. Coaches put teams together and manage them, and conductors organize large groups of musicians, but does anyone really think that coaches are even half as important as the star players? Put the world's best coach of any sport on a team with middle-of-the-road talent, and you'll get middle-of-the-road results, as has been proven over and over again.
Analogies are not always successful. This one isn't.

Obviously, you have every right to be condescending toward the art of conducting. But why defend your bias as if it were some kind of virtue, or some mark of superior understanding? Your descriptions of what conductors do reveal neither.
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