I wouldn’t normally give a “Rack Filler” CD a moment’s thought, but here I am actually recommending one! 40 Most Beautiful Arias is pretty much exactly what it says on the box, and at $12 from Amazon for over 2 hours of achingly beautiful music on a 2-disc set, it is a pretty good deal. It is also available for streaming on Qobuz, TIDAL, Spotify, Apple Music, and others. It sets out its stall straight out of the gate with Plácido Domingo in the prime of youth fairly belting out the iconic “Nessun Dorma,” and doesn’t let up from there.
Many people can’t stand opera, and to be fair, you can see where they’re coming from. Hour after hour of tedious recitative, all in Italian, interspersed with the occasional aria, and all sung by strangled and warbling voices seemingly intent on shattering glass. But oh, those arias! An operatic aria’s prime objective is to be the ultimate expression of the musical concept of melody, and melody lies at the fundamental core of music itself. The finest operatic arias ascend to some of the loftiest, most soaring peaks that the medium of music has ever attained. The power of the human voice at its loudest, purest, and at the same time at its most expressive, is arguably at its zenith here. You may not have a clue what they’re singing, but opera singers leave you in little doubt what they’re singing about. In many ways, it can actually be a benefit that they are singing in a foreign language. Taking all that into consideration, an album of just the arias can be very appealing indeed, and this particular one is a keeper.
These opera arias are collected from the Warner Classics catalog, and it is pretty much stacked from beginning to end with major international names, including the aforementioned Plácido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Cecilia Bartoli, José Carreras, Barbara Hendricks, Luciano Pavarotti, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Marilyn Horne, Karita Mattila, Jennifer Larmore (whose “Ombra mai fu” is heartbreakingly beautiful), and many others. Even those of you who never listen to opera are bound to recognize many of these iconic tunes (even if only from British Airways commercials), and it will be all you can do to stop yourself from humming along with them!
The recordings themselves range from good enough to very good. Nothing really stands out as being either very bad or truly exceptional. But whoever has selected 40 arias from the catalog to cram onto two discs has mostly done a very creditable job. With one exception though, which might make you leap from your listening chair and scream at your loudspeakers in frustration. The famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers suddenly stops half way through – an absolutely unforgivable sin. If you want to know what it’s supposed to sound like, here it is on YouTube, sung by the impossibly talented hunks Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky [who, so very sadly, passed away last year]:
A lot of people find opera to be too heavy going for them, and that is fine. But a lot of those same people do enjoy the occasional signature aria when they hear one, usually out of context. This album is for those listeners. It is not designed to make an opera fan out of you, but it is an album you’ll still want to play from time to time, just to make you feel good – not to mention impressing your future in-laws. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spun it up. Enjoy!