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Top 10 Verdi CDs and MP3s for Your Classical Music Collection

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is commonly regarded as the greatest composer of Italian opera. His twenty-six operas did not make a revolutionary break with the past, but rather refined and perfected an art form that had already come to occupy a central role in Italian culture. Verdi had an unmatched gift for melody, and even people who have never seen nor heard an opera can recognize some of Verdi's most famous tunes. While most of Verdi's operas stretch the bounds of plausibility, they feature powerful emotions, violent conflict, and quick-moving action -- characteristics which make the stories entertaining and provide plenty of opportunity for tender melody, fierce rhythm, and grand orchestration. All but one of Verdi's mature operas are tragedies, and Verdi has a special gift for humanizing his heroes and heroines even as they meet their ultimate fate.

Verdi was born in 1813 in a small village in northern Italy. At the age of eighteen he moved to Milan to study and compose. His first opera premiered at La Scala in 1839, and he spent the next decade composing operas at a furious pace. By the mid-1850s Verdi had become the most famous composer of Italian opera as well as a potent symbol of the Italian nationalist movement. His triumvirate of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and La Traviata were cornerstones of the international opera repertoire, and they retain that status today. After Aida in 1871 Verdi's output slowed down, and he produced only two operas -- both based on plays by Shakespeare -- in his final thirty years. When he died in 1901 he was regarded as a national hero, and his casket was accompanied to its final resting place by hundreds of thousands of mourners.

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1 La Traviata -- Angela Gheorghiu, Sir Georg Solti
The most heart-wrenching tragic ending in opera history. Review...

2 Aida -- Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, Erich Leinsdorf
An Egyptian princess has to make the ultimate choice. Review...

3 Rigoletto -- Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Richard Bonynge
A hunchback powerless against the whims of Fate. Review...

4 Requiem -- Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Carlo Maria Giulini
The most dramatic of Requeims. Review...

5 Il Trovatore -- Plácido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Zubin Mehta
Who will have the last revenge? Review...

6 Falstaff -- Bryn Terfel, Claudio Abbado
Verdi's greatest comedy. Review...

7 Othello -- Plácido Domingo, Cheryl Studer, Myung-Whun Chung
Jealousy, the green-eyed monster. Review...

8 The Force of Destiny -- Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, James Levine
Love and death in Spain. Review...

9 Don Carlos -- Plácido Domingo, Ruggiero Raimondi, Claudio Abbado
Grand opera and drama in sixteenth-century France. Review...

10 A Masked Ball -- Luciano Pavarotti, Margaret Price, Christa Ludwig, Sir Georg Solti
Based on a true story. Review...


La Traviata
Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Violetta); Frank Lopardo, tenor (Alfredo); Leo Nucci, baritone (Germont); Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Featuring the most heart-wrenching tragic ending in operatic history, La Traviata is a love story between the courtesan Violetta Valery and her young admirer Alfredo Germont.  Following the script of many age-old tales of true love, Violetta and Alfredo try desperately to protect their love in the face of circumstances that threaten to tear them apart. Full of misunderstandings, emotional turmoil, and outlandish drama, Verdi's masterpiece has been performed thousands of times by the best artists of each era, including Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, and Maria Callas.  As one of the most famous operas in the world, La Traviata is sure to give many newcomers to opera a shock: many musical motifs popularized in modern-day entertainment originated in this opera. Angela Gheorghiu has made the part of Violetta entirely her own, and Sir Georg Solti never lets the intensity falter. This performance is also available on DVD.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Leontyne Price, soprano (Aida); Plácido Domingo, tenor (Radamès); Grace Bumbry, mezzo soprano (Amneris); London Symphony Orchestra, John Alldis Choir, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

Verdi's Aida is at once opera at both its most grand and its most personal. The opera tells the story of an Ethiopian princess caught between the two men in her life: her lover Radamès, prince of Egypt, and her father Amonasro, king of Ethiopia. Amonasro commands the Ethiopian armies in their battle against Radamès and the Egyptians, and Aida and Radamès must both make the ultimate choice of whether to betray their love for their respective countries. The lovers' decision -- and the tragedy that ensues -- makes for a supremely gripping story. Verdi's music ranges from the delicate (Radamès's aria "Celeste Aida") to the bombastic (the Grand March, which accompanies the entrance of the Egyptian army and, in some productions, their elephants). Leontyne Price and Plácido Domingo are two of the greatest Verdi interpreters on record, and they come together in this stellar recording led by Erich Leinsdorf.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano (Gilda); Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Rigoletto); London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Richard Bonynge, conductor

The story of Rigoletto shows how even the most well-laid plans can go hopelessly awry. The lecherous Duke of Mantua has his eyes on Gilda, who unbeknownst to him is the daughter of the Duke's hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto. When Rigoletto gets wind of the Duke's intentions he does all in his power to stop the Duke and exact revenge, but betrayal, miscommunication, and even a curse combine to turn the tables on Rigoletto. The final scene, which depicts the worst fear of every father, is a masterpiece of operatic tragedy. Musically, the opera is best known for the Duke's aria, "La donna è mobile," which is perhaps Verdi's most popular tune, instantly recognized throught the world. Luciano Pavarotti's name can hardly be dissociated from the aria and the role of the Duke; Richard Bonynge's recording, made when Pavarotti was in his prime, features the great tenor as well as a tremendous supporting cast, and has been the gold standard for Rigoletto for more than 35 years.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano; Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

Verdi's Requiem takes its inspiration from two of Italy's foremost artists: the composer Gioacchino Rossini and the poet Alessandro Manzoni. Verdi composed one movement of the Requiem in 1869 for a compilation Mass in honor of Rossini's death, but this Mass was never performed. Four years later, the death of Manzoni (a personal hero of Verdi's) inspired the composer to expand his single movement into a full Requiem Mass. With more than twenty operas already under his belt, Verdi had vast experience writing dramatic music for chorus, and this expertise is evident throughout the Requiem; indeed, the Requiem has been described as "a magnificent opera disguised as a sacred work." Carlo Maria Giulini's recording, featuring the great soprano Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, has been the classic interpretation of this work for more than forty years.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Il Trovatore
Plácido Domingo, tenor (Manrico); Leontyne Price, soprano (Leonora), Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo soprano (Azucena); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Il Conte di Luna); New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Zubin Mehta, conductor

Il Trovatore is a story of revenge: the Count di Luna wants to get even with the troubadour Manrico for stealing the heart of his beloved Leonora, and the gypsy Azucena seeks to pay back the Count for the death of her mother. These stories play out through a tableau of duels, battles, marriages, and even a conversion to nunnery. But all is not as it seems, and the final determination of who is avenged has shocked audiences for 150 years. The great Verdi singers Plácido Domingo and Leontyne Price as well as a stellar supporting cast come together under Zubin Mehta to produce what is commonly regarded as the greatest Trovatore on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Bryn Terfel, bass baritone (Falstaff); Thomas Hampson, baritone (Ford); Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Radio Chorus, Claudio Abbado, conductor

Falstaff is the last opera Verdi wrote and is the only one of his major works that is not a tragedy. The story, adapted from Shakespeare's plays The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, features wife switching, double crossing, costume changing, and even the title character jumping headfirst into a laundry basket. When the dust settles, Falstaff's arrogance has been turned down a notch, and he leads a great fugue that proclaims, "All the world's a joke. We are all born fools." Bryn Terfel does an admirable job filling the shoes of the larger-than-life Falstaff, and Claudio Abbado conducts with thrilling precision.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Plácido Domingo, tenor (Otello); Cheryl Studer, soprano (Desdemona); Sergei Leiferkus, baritone (Iago); Bastille Opera Orchestra, Paris Opera Children's Chorus, Bastille Opera Chorus, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor

Verdi's Otello, composed in 1887, shows the composer's reaction to musical devopments in the sixteen years since his previous opera, Aida. During this time many important works made their premieres, including Bizet's Carmen, Wagner's Ring cycle, and all of Brahms' symphonies. Verdi's response was to unify his music by repeating orchestral motives throughout the work and by keeping each act as a continuous whole rather than breaking it into separate arias, duets, and choruses. The story, adapted faithfully from Shakespeare's play Othello, demonstrates the terrible consequences of unchecked jealousy. Plácido Domingo turns in a remarkable performance as the Moor of Venice, and Sergei Leiferkus makes a convincingly evil Iago.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
La Forza del Destino
Leontyne Price, soprano (Leonora); Plácido Domingo, tenor (Don Alvaro); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Don Carlo); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo soprano (Preziosilla); Gabriel Bacquier, baritone (Fra Melitone); London Symphony Orchestra, John Alldis Choir, James Levine, conductor

La Forza del Destino tells of the conflict between the South American nobleman Don Alvaro and the Spanish Don Carlo. Don Alvaro is in love with Don Carlo's sister Donna Leonora, but has accidentally killed Alvaro and Leonora's father, causing Don Carlo to seek revenge at all costs. His quest takes him from Seville to the countryside, a battlefield, and finally a monastery, where he exacts his revenge -- but only at a terrible price. The great Verdi trio of Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes sparkle under James Levine.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Don Carlos
Plácido Domingo, tenor (Don Carlos); Ruggero Raimondi, bass (King Philippe II); Katia Ricciarelli, soprano (Queen Elisabeth of Valois); Lucia Valentini-Terrani, mezzo soprano (Princess Eboli); Leo Nucci, baritone (Rodrigue); Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan, Claudio Abbado, conductor

Don Carlos is Verdi's grandest opera, and his only major work that is in French. Premiered in Paris in 1867, the opera in its full version consists of more than four hours of music. The story is based on the life of the Carlos of Asturias, a sixteenth-century Spanish prince. Don Carlos is betrothed to Elisabeth of Valois, but because of a complicated political deal Elisabeth marries Don Carlos's father, Prince Phillip II of Spain. Claudio Abbado leads the first complete recording of the opera in French; for those preferring the Italian version, Carlo Maria Giulini's recording -- also featuring Plácido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi -- is not to be missed.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera
Un Ballo in Maschera
Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Riccardo/Gustavo); Margaret Price, soprano (Amelia); Renato Bruson, baritone (Renato/Count Anckarström); Christa Ludwig, mezzo soprano (Ulrica) Kathleen Battle, soprano (Oscar); National Philharmonic Orchestra London, London Opera Chorus, Royal College of Music Choir, Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Un Ballo in Maschera is based -- very loosely -- on the1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot while attending a masked ball. Verdi adapted Eugène Scribe's fictionalized account of the assassination, but Italian censors forced him to move the setting from Sweden to colonial America. King Gustavo then became the colonial governor, Riccardo, Earl of Warwick. Though this recording was made in 1983, Luciano Pavarotti somehow takes twenty years off of his voice.

Similar works: Top 10 Opera