Mussorgsky: "Boris Godunov." Boris, the "Russian Macbeth," is a historical character, though it is not certain (as Mussorgsky assumes) that he murdered a young son of Ivan the Terrible to reach the throne of Russia. In any case, Mussorgsky's epic treatment of his coronation, his uneasy, guilt-ridden reign and his sudden death as a hostile army marches to topple him from the throne is arguably the greatest of all political operas. An adequate Russian version is available on CD from Philips, and a fine Bolshoi production has been issued on videotape by Home Vision, but it may be worth waiting for the movie and audio recording now being prepared by Erato with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony.
Menotti: "The Consul." The Washington Opera's next attraction captures with fine precision the special flavors of despair characteristic of the mid-20th century. Like all of Menotti's work except for "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and "The Medium," it still awaits an adequate recording in home video formats. No audio recording is currently available; the original cast album with Marie Powers and Patricia Neway deserves reissue on CD.
Berg: "Wozzeck." One could say that this powerful, atonal work about a man beaten down by society and driven to murder and suicide sensitively expresses 20th-century despair. But the extraordinary libretto (virtually untouched by the composer for his 1926 opera) dates from 1837. CD and video editions are still awaited; the current production of the Vienna State Opera would serve well for either. Good LP versions were issued by Deutsche Grammophon (with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau perhaps a shade too refined in the title role) and CBS (with brilliant conducting by Pierre Boulez and an excellent Wozzeck by Walter Berry).
Puccini: "Tosca." Puccini's drama of love, sadism and aborted revolution in a police state may be the most popular of all political operas, and there are already eight editions on CD. Those who swear by Maria Callas (in what may have been her most powerful role) will find two CD editions. The earlier one, with Franco Corelli, is generally considered preferable. Those willing to sacrifice a bit of dramatic impact for a lot of vocal quality should investigate the excellent Zinka Milanov-Jussi Bjoerling version recently remastered on CDs and issued by RCA at a reduced price. In video formats, the Metropolitan Opera production (available on Pioneer Artists LaserDisc) somewhat surpasses the Arena di Verona production (available on tape from Home Vision).
Monteverdi: "The Coronation of Poppea." The first operatic treatment of blind ambition is still one of the most powerful. A good performance using original instruments and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is available on CD from Teldec. In video, the Glyndebourne production is available from Home Vision.
Verdi: "Macbeth." Attitudes toward this opera have fluctuated for two reasons: It has to stand comparison with Shakespeare's incomparable original, and it is relatively early Verdi, not quite up to the standards of his other Shakespearean operas, "Otello" and "Falstaff," in music or libretto. It is simpler and more melodramatic than Shakespeare, of course, but that is to be expected. At the moment, its reputation is deservedly high, and among the composer's many operas with political overtones it may be the one with the most concentrated political focus. The five editions available on CD include a good one conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli (this week's guest conductor with the National Symphony) on three Philips CDs, a well-sung, vintage reissue featuring Leonard Warren, Leonie Rysanek and Carlo Bergonzi bargain-priced on two RCA CDs, and the sound track of the Claude d'Anna film on two London CDs. In video, the striking Glyndebourne production is available from Video Arts International.
Beethoven: "Fidelio." The plot gimmick is a bit implausible (wife disguises self as a man to be close to her husband, who is a political prisoner) and the last-minute rescue when everything seems most desperate is more than a bit melodramatic. But with Beethoven's music (including his most famous and dramatic overture) it has strong impact. The Washington Opera will be presenting it next month; meanwhile, there is an excellent edition conducted by Leonard Bernstein on two Deutsche Grammophon CDs and the excellent Glyndebourne production conducted by Bernard Haitink is available from Video Arts International.