Reference and Must-Have Recordings

by Helmut Weber

January 2022

This list of reference and other very good (must-have) recordings has been compiled from similar lists having appeared in OPERA-L, on the late Mike Richter's Website, from serious critiques in various contemporary and historic books and magazines about opera recordings, for example
  1. H. Schnoor: Oper, Operette, Konzert, Bertelsmann-Verlag 1956
  2. Ch. Ecke: Ewiger Vorrat klassischer Musik - Schallplattenführer (3 vols.), Rowohlt-Verlag 1959-1962
  3. F. Herzfeld: Schallplattenführer für Opernfreunde, Ullstein-Verlag 1962
  4. U. Schreiber: Schallplatten Jahrbuch 1 - Klassik Auslese, Braun-Verlag 1970
  5. I. Harden: Musik Report 1971 - Das kritische Handbuch der klassichen Musikschallplatte, Bielefelder Verlagsanstalt 1971
  6. A. Blyth (ed.): Opera on Record, Hutchinson, London 1979
  7. E. Greenfield, R. Layton, I. March: The New Penguin Stereo Record and Cassette Guide, Penguin Books Ltd. 1982
  8. K. Löbl, R. Werba: Opern auf Schallplatten, ECON-Verlag 1983
  9. M. Boyden: The Rough Guide to Opera Vol. 4, 2007
  10. J.M. Fischer: Große Stimmen - Von Enrico Caruso bis Jessye Norman, Metzler-Verlag 1993
  11. M. Versin: CD-Führer Klassik, Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 2003
  12. M. Richter: Opera Video Reviews
  13. Fono Forum - monthly journal, since 1967
and from my own knowledge, taste and collection, aquired in more than 40 years of collecting. The record lists of various collector friends have also been most valuable for me in order to isolate the favourite recordings.
To define a reference recording, Mike Richter wrote on his reference recordings page: "It is rarely if ever possible to identify the best recording of any opera. There are too many degrees of freedom among company, conductor, soloists, edition and sound quality for any one performance to be the choice on all counts. However, there are some cases where a single recording has assumed classic proportions and provides a basis of comparison with any other performance. Many great works have no single reference recording. The consensus is that one of the Callas recordings of Norma is the first choice, but there is substantial disagreement over which of the two studio versions or of the many live performances. At the other extreme are Traviata and Madama Butterfly, where virtually every recording has its devotees, but none is so widely admired as to be a touchstone for future releases."
Agreeing to these wise words there are only a few recordings in this list which are marked as reference recordings by a red R. The other unmarked recordings are considered here to be very good, such that they are worth to be present in every opera friend's collection. Except for some good reasons we considered only complete recordings.
In some cases of rare and seldom played works where to my knowledge only one recordings exists, we have mentioned this one here without reasoning about it's quality. As the only recording of an opera it deserves a certain respect.
All listed recordings of an opera are ordered with respect to age. We include the label of a commercial recording, for this seems to be relatively stable during the live of a recording. The number is not included for the opposite reason. Labels of non-commercial live (indicated by live) recordings are subject to rapid changes and also are not unique in many examples. Therefore they are not given here with some exceptions. In the case of a historical recording we give the original label for reasons of respect for the original publisher, not the more random label of a reissue.
The technical state of quality of a recording is not listed here. Usually it does not influence the artistic value of a recording, at least if it sounds not too bad. But for the reader it might be useful to know something about the recording technique. From the recording date given in most cases the following is quite easy to conclude: recordings made before 1954 are mono, those after 1957 are usually in stereo, from 1980 on digitally recorded. Studio recordings normally are sounding better than live or even in-house recordings.

To give an example how the resulting recommendation evolved in a certain case, let us consider Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), certainly one the operas of the standard classical repertory and a relatively often recorded one, too. In ref. 2. we have Konwitschny (1960), Dorati (1961) and Sawallisch (1961), in 3. Fricsay (1952), in 4. Klemperer (1968) and Böhm (1971), in 5. we find Klemperer (1968), Sawallisch (1961), Konwitschny (1960) and Keilberth (1955), 6. mostly recommends Knappertsbusch (1955), Sawallisch (1961) and Klemperer (1968), in 7. we find Konwitschny (1960) and Keilberth (1955), in 8. Klemperer (1968) and Knappertsbusch (1955), in 10. Keilberth (1955) and Knappertsbusch (1955). Mike Richter remarked no reference recording in this case. The author has heard all of them and particularly likes Klemperer, Konwitschny, Knappertsbusch and the live recording of Sawallisch (1959). But no one seems to be a reference recording.

   A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Adam, Adolphe

d´Albert, Eugene

Alfano, Franco

Arne, Thomas

Auber, Daniel Francois Esprit

Barber, Samuel

Bartok, Bela

van Beethoven, Ludwig

Bellini, Vincenzo

Benatzki, Ralph

Berg, Alban

Berlioz, Hector

Bizet, Georges

Boito, Arrigo

Borodin, Alexander

Britten, Benjamin

Busoni, Ferruccio

Catalani, Alfredo

Cavalli, Franceso

Charpentier, Gustave

Cherubini, Luigi

Cilea, Francesco

Cornelius, Peter

Corigliano, John

Debussy, Claude

Delius, Frederick

von Dittersdorf, Carl Ditters

Donizetti, Gaetano

Dvorak, Antonin

Egk, Werner

von Einem, Gottfried

Fauré, Gabriel

von Flotow, Friedrich

Giordano, Umberto

Glinka, Michael

Gluck, Christoph Willibald

Goetz, Hermann

Goldmark, Karl

Gounod, Charles

Halévy, Ludovic

Händel, Georg Friedrich

Haydn, Joseph

Hahn, Reynaldo

Henze, Hans Werner

Hindemith, Paul

Holst, Gustav

Humperdinck, Engelbert

Janacek, Leos

Kienzl, Wilhelm

Kodály, Zoltan

Korngold, Erich Wolfgang

Krenek, Ernst

Lalo, Edouard

Lehár, Franz

Leoncavallo, Ruggero


Lortzing, Albert

Marschner, Heinrich

Mascagni, Pietro

Massenet, Jules

Mayr, Johann Simon

Méhul, Etienne Henry

Menotti, Gian Carlo

Mercadante, Giuseppe Saverio

Meyerbeer, Giacomo

Montemezzi, Italo

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus

Mussorgsky, Modest

Nicolai, Otto

Offenbach, Jacques

Orff, Carl

Pfitzner, Hans

Ponchielli, Amilcare

Poulenc, Francis

Puccini, Giacomo

Reimann, Aribert

Reyer, Ernest

Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicolai

Rossini, Gioacchino

Saint-Saëns, Camille

Salieri, Antonio

von Schillings, Max

Schmidt, Franz

Schönberg, Arnold

Schreker, Franz

Schubert, Franz

Schumann, Robert

Shostakovich, Dimitrij

Smetana, Bedrich

Spontini, Gasparo

Straus, Oscar

Strauss, Johann

Strauss, Richard

Stravinsky, Igor

Sullivan, Arthur

Tchaikovsky, Pjotr I.

Thomas, Ambroise

Verdi, Giuseppe

Vivaldi, Antonio

Wagner, Richard

Wagner, Siegfried

von Weber, Carl Maria

Weill, Kurt

Wolf, Hugo

Zandonai, Riccardo

Zeller, Carl

von Zemlinsky, Alexander

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