I love Christmas: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that. The register of my joy at this time of the year is secured by the glühwein, the television specials, the tree markets, and the carols. I love Christmas like Kanye loves Kanye. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, the particulars of Kanye’s love for himself. But the wisdom of our memes is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the internet’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that I love Christmas as much as Kanye loves Kanye.
It’s a good thing, too, that Spotify stops tracking my listening data in late October for its annual Wrapped feature, usually well before I start to play certain albums on repeat: the Vince Guaraldi Trio, the Robert Shaw Chorale, Sharon Jones, Sufjan Stevens, Bob Dylan… Yet, despite both a love of Christmas and of opera, I’ve tended to shy away from listening to opera singers’ Christmas albums.
That changed a few months ago, when I decided the best thing for my mental health as we entered another pandemic wave would be to assemble every opera singer’s Christmas album and listen to it for the purposes of ranking them. The problem with this mission, as it turned out, was that classical singers’ holiday albums are a little like Japanese mascots: Just when you think you’ve accounted for all of them, you learn that there’s a stoat wearing an acorn for a hat representing a ski resort in Nagano, and then you realize that every ski resort needs to be examined and how the hell do you compare a one-eyed bird whose head is sandwiched between two hamburger buns with an anthropomorphic hard-boiled egg that sprinkles itself with salt?
This highly scientific ranking attempts to put each singer on even footing with their compatriots. At its best, a Christmas album isn’t just a haphazard baker’s dozen of carols (though there are plenty of those). Rather, it’s like being invited to a musician’s house for a holiday party. Curation is important, as is performance, but the grand unifying principle is simple: Based solely on the album itself, is this a Christmas party I want to go to?
A few disclaimers: For the most part, I’ve avoided compilations unless they’re the only source of some recordings (such as the case of the Fritz Wunderlich Christmas album). I’ve also ignored albums of sacred songs that happen to include one or two seasonal tunes (see: Vittorio Grigolo, Juan Diego Flórez). There are also plenty of recordings that feature a singer here or there (such as Gerald Finley’s gem of a cameo in this Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recording, or Olga Borodina’s guest spot on the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir’s “Russian Christmas”). In the spirit of this experiment, however, I kept it to singer-driven recordings. All of this was done in the interest of keeping this venture to a tight 85 albums, clocking in at a total of 4,824 minutes. That ought to be enough for anyone for one season. If I missed your favorite, please let me know—ideally no sooner than December 1, 2022.
For those moments when a singer utters the line “our savior is born” and it’s hard to tell whether they’re referring to Jesus or themselves.
- Montserrat Caballé, Montserrat Martí: “Our Christmas Songs” (RCA, 1996): I’m pretty sure this is what’s on that tape in horror flick “The Ring.” I’m pretty sure that Caballé is aware of this.
- Renata Tebaldi: “Christmas Festival” (Decca, 1971): If you ask Tebaldi, this isn’t phoned in. The real present is her presence.
- Dagmar Pecková: “Nativitas” (Supraphon, 2018)
- Dagmar Pecková: “Exaltatio” (Supraphon, 2020): On both of these albums, Pecková is done up like the Virgin Mary holding an Anne Geddes model. Do with that information what you will.
- Marc Hervieux: “Le Premier Noël” (ATMA Classique, 2009)
- Roberto Alagna: “Christmas Album” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2000): Big Band Aid energy with “The Love of a Child,” and “White Christmas” sounds like he’s trying to Santa Baby too close to the sun.
- Jessye Norman: “Christmastide” (Philips, 1986): I’m not sure if she’s having a Christmas party with this album or if we’re all just going to meet up in a field and witness the Second Coming. Jessye has no time for anything less than the ecumenically sublime.
Sometimes, it’s clear that a singer isn’t champing at the bit to record a Christmas album, and yet we’re still hearing them take the reins on that one-horse open sleigh.
- Christina Johnston: “Christmas with Christina Johnston” (Tadlow, 2017): Blink twice if you need help, Christina.
- Plácido Domingo: “My Christmas” (Sony, 2014): I’m not sure if a 70-something Domingo asking a 27-year-old woman “Won’t you heat up my love tonight?” on one of these tracks is irony or satire.
- Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras: “The Three Tenors Christmas” (Sony, 2000): “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” What have you done, indeed, Three Tenors. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
- Anna Maria Kaufmann: “Christmas with Love” (Solo Musica, 2015): Who’s going to tell her that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a song about sex and not Jesus?
- Plácido Domingo: “Christmas with Plácido Domingo” (Sony, 1981): The intonation is better than in his 2014 follow-up and features a Domingo at the peak of his vocal powers. Still, his performance feels like he’s going through the motions.
- Renate Holm: “Süßer die Glocken Nie Klingen” (Gramola, 2010): Ah yes, that old Christmas chestnut…[checks notes] “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave.”
- Jochen Kowalski: “Christmas Vocal Music” (Cariccio, 1998): His face on the album cover says it all.
- Éva Marton: Christmas with Éva Marton (Hungaroton, 1996): I’m not sure what “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s “Otello” and “Dich, teure Halle” from “Tannhäuser” have to do with the holiday season, but go off, Éva.
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: “Nacht, heller als der Tag: Christmas with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau” (Orfeo, 2017): I love Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone. Unfortunately, he doesn’t sing a note on this album. Instead, between tracks from a folk-guitar duo, he offers poems and recitations (including a text by Bertolt Brecht, because nothing says Christmas like Brecht). It’s the Christmas album equivalent of your dad taking you through the McDonald’s drive-through just to order a single black coffee.
Either it took the singer a little extra Christmas spirit to record these albums, or it takes a little extra for us to listen to them. Either way, cheers.
- Plácido Domingo, et. al.: “Christmas in Vienna, Vols. I-VI” (Sony, 1993-1999): If you can tell me, without checking, which was the year that Domingo and company sang “Kum Ba Yah,” I’ll rank these individually. Until then, all six albums are getting lumped into one here like the grotesque, antifreeze-laced Long Island Iced Tea that they are.
- Lucas Meachem: “All I Want” (Lucas Meachem, 2021): A four-track EP that’s like Jonas Kaufmann meets Here Comes Treble. This was so preoccupied with whether it could, it didn’t stop to think if it should.
- Susanne van Els: “Christmas” (Et Cetera, 2005): Once recreational weed is legalized in Germany, I know what I’m re-listening to.
- Jonas Kaufmann: “It’s Christmas!” (Sony, 2020): Yup.
- Jessye Norman: “Jessye Norman à Notre Dame: A Christmas Concert” (Philips, 1990): At first I thought this was just grand opera cosplaying as Christmas music, which I was very much OK with. Then a children’s choir came in with a heavily-accented “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and Jessye joined in, and I had to question whether I was on mescaline.
- Anne Sofie von Otter: “Home for Christmas” (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999): There’s a “Midsommar” vibe in “Stille Nacht,” “Il est né” is unhinged, and this is the only “White Christmas” I will accept. I’ll have what she’s having.
- Natalie Dessay: “Casse-Noisette” (Éditions Gallimard Jeunesse, 2019): Not strictly speaking a Christmas album, but a revised narration of “The Nutcracker” via Natalie Dessay. I’m not saying you need to have an extra egg nog to enjoy this, but every Christmas album should include Natalie Dessay talking about “a royal sausage on a bed of sausages with its foaming sausage.”
- Angela Gheorghiu: “Guardian Angel” (MediaPro, 2014): I will not have a word said against this woman. Absolutely perfect. No notes.
They’re not the most exciting gifts, but we’ve got eight nights to fill and you can always use a new pair of Gold Toes, so go write your Bubbe a thank-you note.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, they’re just getting the job done.
- Plácido Domingo, Sissel Kyrkjebø, José Carreras: “Christmas in Moscow” (Sony, 2002)
- Irmgard Seefried: “Nacht voller Wunder” (Preiser Records, 1970)
- Raimo Sirkia: “White Christmas” (Ondine, 1996)
- Monica Whicher: “Lullabies and Carols for Christmas” (Naxos, 2010)
- Theresa Nelles: “Romantic Christmas Music from Cologne Cathedral” (Aeolus, 2020)
- Angelika Kirchschlager: “Angelika Kirchschlager Sings Christmas Carols” (Sony, 2008)
- Clemens Unterreiner: “Christmas with Clemens Unterreiner” (Gramola, 2017)
- Monica Groop: “Loista joulun tähtönen!” (Ondine, 1995)
- Marian Anderson: “Christmas Carols” (1962)
- Rolando Villazón: “Feliz Navidad” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2018)
Pure Moods: Classical Christmas Edition
Remember in the late ’90s/early ’00s when we went all in on spa music?
- Yoshikazu Mera: “Precious” (BIS, 2000)
- Gino Quilico: “Noël” (Guy Cloutier, 2002)
- Measha Brueggergosman: “Christmas” (Kelp Records, 2014): “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella” and “Lo, How a Rose” are some of my favorite interpretations, but other tracks suffer a Kenny G saxophone and Yanni-esque lyrics like: “Singin’ my joy out through and through/Celebratin’ the holidays, Gentile or Jew/Don’t care who knows I can’t carry a tune/Just wanna sing in the choir with you.”
- Suzie LeBlanc: “La Veillée de Noël” (ATMA, 2014): Points for focusing on old Acadian carols, though at times the interpretation feels a bit like Enya performing a set at The Carlyle.
- Gino Quilico: “Secrets of Christmas” (Analekta, 2016): When this album is good, it’s very, very good. But then it seems to ask me to “imagine a world where time drifts slowly and where music carries me away.”
Points for Originality
Repertoire you can’t guess just by shaking the box.
- Emma Kirkby: “Christmas Music” (BIS, 2000): A mix of works that are very much in line with Dame Emma’s expertise in baroque and classical repertoire. Some are almost laughably standard (such as Pachelbel’s Canon), but, like a technical challenge on “Great British Bake Off,” it’s less about originality as it is about execution.
- Lilli Paasikivi: “Joulu Tullut On” (Ondine, 2003)
- Gitta-Maria Sjöberg: “Nordic Winter and Christmas Songs” (Danacord, 2015): A very understated recording, but one that knows exactly what it’s about.
- Ramón Vargas: “Christmas with Ramón Vargas” (Claves, 1999): At times a bit staid in delivery, but a strong curatorial choice focusing on Christmas music written by classical composers.
- Barbara Hendricks: “Christmas Songs” (Warner Classics 1995): Some standards here that can sound Disney-ified at times, but worth it for the Swedish and Czech repertoire.
- Catriona O’Leary: “The Wexford Carols” (Heresy, 2014)
- Catriona O’Leary: “Strange Wonders: The Wexford Carols, Volume II” (Heresy, 2021): A lovely two-disc feature of lesser-known carols, but some have lapsed into obscurity for a reason.
- Renée Fleming: “Christmas in New York” (Decca, 2014): Fleming doesn’t try to be an opera singer vacationing in the American songbook here. Rather, she leans into her jazz training fully, and it works.
- Timothy Dickinson: “The Holy Boy: Christmastide in Albion” (Prima Facie, 2021)
- Derek Welton: “On Christmas Day” (Albion, 2011): If your tastes tend more towards Hot Anglican Bummer this time of year, this recital disc by Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton has you covered.
Good Performances of Predictable Rep
You can probably fill out your bingo card pretty quickly on this one, but you live to hear this rep in the right hands.
- Maria Stader: “In Dulci Jubilo” (Deutsche Grammophon, 1963): Please make the children’s choruses stop.
- Luciano Pavarotti: “O Holy Night” (Decca, 1976): No, seriously, please make the children’s choruses stop.
- Eileen Farrell: “Carols for Christmas Eve” (Sony, 1960)
- Paul Plishka: Christmas with Paul Plishka (Naxos, 1995)
- Kiri Te Kanawa, Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson: “Our Christmas Songs for You” (Warner Classics, 1996)
- René Kollo: “Merry Christmas” (Eurodisc, 1990)
- Fritz Wunderlich: “The Christmas Album” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016)
- Renata Scotto: “Christmas with Renata Scotto at St. Patrick’s Cathedral” (VAI Music, 1981)
- Kiri Te Kanawa: “Christmas with Kiri” (Decca, 1986)
- Peter Schreier: “Peter Schreier singt Weihnachtslieder” (Berlin Classics, 1975): I’m asking you very nicely to make the children’s choruses stop.
- Anne Sofie von Otter: “Noël” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006): More operatically-inclined than her first Christmas album, but a delight to listen to nonetheless.
- Jessye Norman: “In the Spirit: Sacred Music for Christmas” (Philips, 1996): Worth it for “Balm in Gilead” alone.
- Kathleen Battle: “A Christmas Celebration” (EMI, 1986)
- Bryn Terfel: “Carols & Christmas Songs” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2010): Big Mr. Fezziwig energy.
- Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: “Stille Nacht” (Warner Classics, 1957)
- Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Stade: “A Carnegie Hall Christmas” (Sony, 1992)
Depending on what you’re in the mood for, these 15 albums should be welcome additions in any stocking.
- Kiri Te Kanawa: “Christmas with Kiri Te Kanawa: Carols from Coventry Cathedral” (Warner Classics, 1995)
- Peter Schreier: “Weihnachtsmusik im Alten Sachsen” (Eterna/Berlin Classics, 1983)
- Peter Schreier: “Lieder zur Weihnacht” (Eterna/Berlin Classics, 1983): It’s hard to choose between these two albums, both originally recorded in East Germany and now re-released on Berlin Classics, but Schreier’s clarion tenor lends itself well to Christmas-themed lieder and baroque arias alike.
- Christiane Karg: “Licht der Welt: A Christmas Promenade” (Harmonia Mundi, 2021): A new release for this year, but an excellent curatorial vision combined with flawless technique should make this a quick go-to (especially if, like me, you’ve heard enough “Ave Maria” to last several lifetimes).
- Marian Anderson: “Marian Anderson Sings Christmas Carols” (Sony, 1952): Anderson’s earlier Christmas album is the stronger of her two, and the piano recital setting (versus full orchestra) is the ideal setting for her jewel-hued voice.
- Thomas Hampson: “Christmas with Thomas Hampson” (Teldec Classics, 1991)
- Karita Mattila: “Karita’s Christmas” (Ondine, 2002)
- Marilyn Horne: “Christmas with Marilyn Horne” (Sony, 1983): Listen to a track like “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” to hear the symbiosis between choir (here, the Mormon Tabernacle) and soloist that eludes some other singers. While Horne’s album is traditional, you get the sense that she’s the sort of grandmother who would spike the punch at her party and let you and your partner sleep in the same bed, even though you aren’t married.
- Meredith Hall: “Oikan Ayns Bethlehem: Celtic Christmas Songs” (ATMA, 2005)
- Peter Mattei: “Christmas with Peter Mattei” (Ladybird, 2011): With zero apologies to People Mad at Opera.
- Joan Sutherland: “Joy to the World” (Decca, 1965): Joan’s voice sparkles like the morning sun on freshly-fallen snow in this recording.
- Daniel Behle: “Meine Schönsten Weihnachtslieder” (Sony, 2018): A tight curatorial concept that sounds like one of those booze-filled, bongo-accompanied office holiday parties straight out of Desk Set.
- Leontyne Price: “Christmas with Leontyne Price” (Decca, 1961): Flat-out gorgeous with a sense of depth and intimacy in the performances.
- Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen: “Silent Night” (Sony, 2018): One of my favorite discoveries of this entire venture.
- Barbara Hendricks: “Shout for Joy” (Arte Verum, 2010): The mix of Bach and spirituals feels entirely genuine to Hendricks as a musician and her interpretation is like a fizzy bottle of champagne on Christmas Eve.
Bonus Round: An ”O Holy Night” Showdown
Because everyone wants to hit that money-note…
- Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras (2000): Three tenors, not a single competent performance.
- Angelika Kirchschlager (2008)
- Renata Tebaldi (1971)
- Plácido Domingo (1981)
- Marc Hervieux (2009)
- Jochen Kowalski (1998): Good, but at just one verse, a bit perfunctory.
- Ramón Vargas (1999): On the flip side, this version is over eight minutes long (although worth it for the high note).
- Raimo Sirkia (1996)
- Yoshikazu Mera (2000): Lovely high note, but the orchestration is… of its time.
- Jonas Kaufmann (2020)
- Gino Quilico (2014): A little flat, and could have done without the choir.
- Gino Quilico (2002): Better vocally, weirder orchestrationally.
- Measha Brueggergosman (2014): Great until the Kenny G saxophone comes in.
- Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (2015)
- Roberto Alagna (2000): It’s like James Horner orchestrated it and Alagna is Jack, Rose, the Titanic, AND the iceberg.
- Paul Plishka (1995)
- Theresa Nelles (2020)
- Renata Scotto (1981)
- Roberto Alagna (1996)
- Bryn Terfel (2010)
- Barbara Hendricks (1995)
- Angela Gheorghiu (2014): “I’m Casey Kasem, and this is our weekly countdown…”
- Anne Sofie von Otter (1999): This is the Laser Floyd version of “O Holy Night” and I am extremely here for it.
- Barbara Hendricks (2010)
- Luciano Pavarotti (1976)
- Marilyn Horne (1983)
- Kathleen Battle (1986)
- Jessye Norman (1986)
- Thomas Hampson (1991)
- Rolando Villazón (2018): Good choir work and not as showboaty as other tenors.
- Peter Mattei (2011): Spread that high note on toast.
- Kiri te Kanawa (1986)
- Karita Mattila (2002): Karita at the peak of her vocal powers.
- Joan Sutherland (1965)
- Marian Anderson (1952)
- Leontyne Price (1961) ¶
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