A Night at the Opera
We all know that many of the best opera recordings are only available on CD, rather than DVD. But sometimes, even if I can't get to an opera house, I want a fuller experience--costumes, staging, lights. Here are 30+ productions, all available on home video.
Some of my ratings may look wrong (sometimes very wrong) to you. But I've tried to consider each production as a whole, not just the singing and orchestra. Unless the cinematography is really wonderful or really awful, I've mostly ignored it.
I've included a few recommendations for CDs, just for fun.
Gorgeous production design (alas, no elephants), and with a notably fine chorus. Price is fine, but both she and Pavarotti are outshone by a scintillating Toczyska. Overall, this is solid but not thrilling. ” - blue_sock_monkey
A fine if imperfect production. Pavarotti sings with ease; Millo is very very good rather than great; only Nucci's Renato disappointed me. Attractive period staging (yes, it's in Sweden as it should be), except for the strange dancing topiary. ” - blue_sock_monkey
An energetic and pretty production, although the direction is strictly amateur-hour. Berganza plays the minx to perfection. Prey is rather too lightweight, while Basilio's famous patter song comes off like a damp squib. Great work in the pit.
CD recommendation: 1982, Neville Mariner conducting, with Agnes Baltsa, Thomas Allen & Francisco Araiza (Decca 2002). ” - blue_sock_monkey
A triumph (despite the obvious fact that Pavarotti has the sniffles). Delicious singing sweeps us along through this simple tale. The staging and costumes are somewhat bland, though I do like the sets. Every "Musetta" after Nishkin has disappointed me--her Waltz here has never been bettered.
1972, Herbert von Karajan conducting, with Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Rolando Panerai (Decca 1987)
1974, Sir Georg Solti conducting, with Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, Sherrill Milnes (Sony 2005). ” - blue_sock_monkey
First-class throughout. Baltsa, a less naturalistic actress than Ewing, is irresistable; Carreras is both dignified and touching; an electric Ramey brings the house down. The dancing is unusually good, and the finale is superbly staged.
CD recommendation: 1977, Claudio Abbado conducting, with Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas, Sherrill Milnes (Deutsche Grammophon 2005) ” - blue_sock_monkey
This one has an almost Dickensian atmosphere: sordid surroundings, lotsa dirty straw, mobs of irritating children. Sultry Ewing acts with great conviction, though I was less impressed with her rather nasal vocals; McCauley's Don José is more pathetic than tragic, and his voice is sometimes coarse, while Holloway's Escamillo is never compelling. But I absolutely loved McLaughlin's tender Micaëla, sung with a sweet purity.
Warning: The sound on the DVD is atrocious (especially the crunches and crackling of people walking through straw). ” - blue_sock_monkey
Great vocals of often-banal lyrics, and there's far too much dialogue. Dandridge is vibrant; Belafonte makes a handsome but not compelling tragic hero. The setting (a WWII-era army base and city) works well. This movie contains the single most erotic moment in all opera: Belafonte blowing on Dandridge's toes to dry her nail polish. ” - blue_sock_monkey
The catalogue of sins against love--artificiality, greed, ambition--gets a nice work-out here. The design is dark and a little drab. The singing and interpretations are strong (though I wish "Stella" had sung all three of the lost loves). ” - blue_sock_monkey
I should have liked this better: The costumes and sets are appealing, Gruberova, Stratas et al sing well, it's a fine opera. And yet somehow it failed to charm me. Possibly it's the pacing--these must be the slowest recitatives ever recorded. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Verdi's masterpiece done proud. Opulent costumes, intelligent staging, fabulous performances (except for Louis Quilico). Domingo's whingey, unstable yet wildly attractive Carlo is fascinating; Freni is lovely and dignified, a worthy heroine who made me care about her tragedy.
CD recommendation: 1970, Carlo Maria Giulini conducting, with Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes (EMI 2000) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Splendid cast in terrific production. Ramey revels elegantly in slime. Fulanetto, Battle, and Tomowa-Sittow are stand-outs; only Winberg gave a thin performance. Stark sets add to the semi-surreal atmosphere.
CD recommendation: 1985, Herbert von Karajan conducting, with Samuel Ramey, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Kathleen Battle (Deutsche Grammophon 1986) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Allen is a splendidly self-deluded Giovanni; Gruberova a delicate, tragic Anna. Murray's Elvira, unfortunately, is not fiery enough, and Desderi's Leporello too is underpowered. An opinionated orchestra keeps the pace strong. Unmemorable sets and costumes. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Rysanek sings insanity like nobody else. But the acting and staging were so stylized that I felt emotionally distanced throughout. The dreary postmodern sets are mostly invisible in murky lighting. The production starts at such an emotional extreme that there is nowhere much to go with it (a fault with Strauss more than this production). ” - blue_sock_monkey
Battle is enchanting in every way; Pavarotti sings with great personality; Una furtiva lagrima is simply brilliant. Dara is the show's weak link vocally, but he's got the shtick down to an art, and his barcarolle is wonderfully done. The extremely pretty sets and costumes are like chalk drawings come to life--the perfect touch to set the mood for this joyous winner of a production.
CD recommendation: 1989, James Levine conducting, with Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle, Enzo Dara (Deutsche Grammophon 1990) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Stark setting (sort of Pushkin Meets Thornton Wilder's Our Town, with rather too many chairs and dried leaves) is effective in setting the mood for this somber production. Fleming never conveys the gawky awkwardness of the teen-aged heroine, but the opera is so well-sung it may not matter to you. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Freni and Gedda really deserve a 10 for giving me a wonderful experience with an opera I don't particularly like. Everyone sings beautifully and acts up a storm. The simple sets and costumes work well; it's a pity the picture on my DVD is a bit fuzzy. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Sutherland and Kraus were past their vocal primes when this was filmed, and moreover I confess that it's disconcerting how much Sutherland here resembles Rupert Everett in drag. Nonetheless this is a hugely successful production: a splendid opening scene out on the moors, a glittering wedding sextet, an indubitably thrilling Mad Scene. Among the orchestral highlights: an exceptionally lovely harp solo preceding Lucia's first entrance. The costumes are a weird mix of periods (Sutherland is in mid-17th century get-up, while most of the cast is attired in Elizabethan, with bits of plaid pinned here & there), and the gothic sets are overly detailed.
CD recommendations: 1971, Richard Burgoyne conducting, with Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov (Decca 1985)
1970, Thomas Schippers conducting, with Beverly Sills, Carlo Bergonzi, Piero Cappucillo (Westminster Legacy 2002) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Frankly disappointing. The Victorian sets and costumes, while they make no sense whatsoever (was that the point?) are lovely; the Met orchestra under Marco Armiliato plays with energy and sensitivity. Kwiechien, Beczala (filling in for Rolando Villazon), and Abdrazakov are admirable, as is the chorus. But Netrebko simply does not deliver, either vocally (despite some lovely moments, she's actually flat more than once; coloratura is clearly an effort for her throughout the opera) or dramatically--her Lucia is more neurotic than insane, with minimal facial expression or bodily anguish. There's also some silly stage business (a comical photographer disrupting the famous sextet; the ghost of Lucia knifing Edgardo in the finale) that detracts from key moments. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Thomas Hampson and Paoletta Marrocu sing Verdi (not one of his greatest scores) at the Zurich Opernhaus. It's exceedingly well-sung and acted, but emotionally distant--possibly this was merely my problem with the postmodern staging. If you are one of those sadly deprived people who don't already love opera, this is probably not the right introduction to it--Zeffirelli's Otello is far more accessible. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Huang's voice is distinctly thin, but sweet. The other roles are fairly well cast, and Liang is excellent as the moral center. I find that realistic staging is a mistake for this ultra-faux piece of japonais, but the production is very pretty. My problem here is mostly with the direction, which is both amateurish and intrusive--and I certainly did not need to hear Puccini re-scored with live crickets.
CD recommendation: 1966, Sir John Barbirolli conducting, with Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Rolando Panerai (EMI 2002) ” - blue_sock_monkey
A Glyndebourne Festival production of Britten's opera, with a fine cast plus pretty sets and costumes. If you like this opera, this one should work for you. I confess that--given an Oberon written for contra-tenor, plus a few sopranos and a whole chorus of prepubescent boys gallumphing about as fairies--the score is a bit too squeaky for me. ” - blue_sock_monkey
This is the famously amateurish outdoor recording. Some find that the technical problems--the disruptive mistral winds swamping the microphones, the occasionally out-of-focus camera--add atmosphere. I wanted to hear every note, especially from the superb Caballé, because the performances are rousing. Never quite leaps into believability, yet the finale is touching and effective. ” - blue_sock_monkey
With such a cast, this should have been exhilarating. But Skram lacks charisma as the arch-schemer, and is outshone by Luxon's naughty Count. The ladies balance rather better. Sets, costumes, and blocking are bland and sometimes clumsy. Overall, magic was in short supply here--except for the Act III sextet.
CD recommendation: 1981, Sir Georg Solti conducting, with Thomas Allen, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Lucia Popp (Decca 1983) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Shakespeare goes to the opera, with excellent results. Ably sung and acted; Domingo is in fine voice here. A first-class production of Verdi's work, despite extensive small trims to the score. ” - blue_sock_monkey
The opera is so strange in form, and so emotionally abstract, that it's difficult for me assess. This production is quite pretty; the visual symbolism, while obvious, is not too distracting; it's well-sung. The orchestra's pace was a mite slow. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Is this a wonderfully sung production? No. But it's colourful, frenetic, and great fun. ” - blue_sock_monkey
I found this exciting, both in staging and singing (the opening orgy is perhaps gamier than many are willing to accept). Gruberova sings like an angel, and she made me believe in her self-sacrifice; Pavarotti's acting is stronger than usual here, a kind of Henry VIII on drugs. Wixell is outstanding in melding complexities into a unified character. The direction is competent but not memorable.
CD recommendation: 1978, Julio Rudel conducting, with Beverly Sills, Alfredo Kraus, Sherrill Milnes (EMI 1996) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Jones is an exquisite, tenderly cynical Marschallin, matched in effectiveness by the radiant Popp. Fassbaender sings well, but is less satisfying as an actress (or should I say actor?). Sumptuous costumes and strong pacing carry it triumphantly through. The cinematography here is unusually good for an opera staged for the camera. Not to be missed. ” - blue_sock_monkey
A solid production that nonetheless failed to move me. I'm determined to try this one again, though, to see if it was the music that I failed to connect with, or the show. ” - blue_sock_monkey
The Il Tabarro is a good production of a distinctly gloomy piece, done here troppo verismo. Pons, given the best of Puccini's vocals, is very strong; Stratas was rather screechy. Domingo is not powerful here, but has some fine moments.
I was more impressed by the Pagliacci. The cast is solid, and the melodrama (sobs notwithstanding) satisfying. Amara has the phoniest opera laugh of all time, but I still like her. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Exquisitely staged amidst wonderful Roman locations. Domingo is in fine form, especially in E lucevan le stelle. Milnes, too, impresses, and has a great death scene. Kabaivanska's voice is a tad matronly, powerful when needed, and while not a great actress, she puts the emotions across in a sort of Alla Nazimova manner. The production is filmed with effective simplicity and almost too much good taste.
CD recommendations: 1953, Victor Sabata conducting, with Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tito Gobbi (EMI 2003)
1990, Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting, with Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, Bryn Terfel (Deutsche Grammophon 1992) ” - blue_sock_monkey
This was my first opera as well as my first opera-on-film, and I was emotionally overwhelmed at the time. Looking back, I find it's more of a mixed bag: Stratas is unimpressive in the upper registers, the settings and costumes are sometimes over-the-top; and I'm not happy about the final scene. But Domingo is wonderful despite the weird make-up, and, overall, this still works extremely well for me.
CD recommendation: 1971, Aldo Ceccato conducting, with Beverly Sills, Nicolai Gedda, Rolando Panerai (EMI 1988) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Traditional staging, with a radiant Gheorghiu at the center. Vargas, too, is in admirable voice; his acting is not of quite the same quality. Maazel paces well in the pit. A very very satisfying production. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Why the low rating? Because it's merely sung well, not brilliantly. And the postmodern staging was too too precious for words. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Marton has a powerful and effective (though not pretty) voice; even Domingo--who sings here with great beauty--was occasionally swamped by the orchestra. Mitchell is warm and infinitely lovable, giving her death scene great emotional impact. The supporting cast is strong, and the costuming is fanciful and gorgeous; the sets were somewhat awkward. I enjoy this immensely.
CD recommendation: 1965, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting, with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, Renata Scotto (EMI 1988) ” - blue_sock_monkey
Not the most visually appealing of productions. But it's solidly sung; the orchestra is remarkably good, with strong forward momentum; and there's plenty of dry ice and lighting effects to create atmosphere. I failed to connect with any of the characters except Loge, which I blame mostly on Wagner. ” - blue_sock_monkey
The saga continues. Much good stuff from noble Norman, perky Behrens (who is not always sufficiently powerful), and soulful Morris. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Jerusalem--looking not unlike Fess Parker--brings a welcome energy into this installment. Behrens has an especially lovely awakening. But somehow the marathon duet didn't pack quite the wallop I expected. ” - blue_sock_monkey
A satisfying conclusion, though it felt rather a long time coming. ” - blue_sock_monkey
An enjoyable if sometimes confusing look backstage as the San Francisco Opera mounts the Ring Cycle. There's no absurdly quasi-religious reverence here for Wagner or about the work the company is doing. But you may respect the singers, orchestra, and crew rather more after viewing this. Worth a look if only for the hysterically funny plot summaries provided by stagehands at odd moments in between shifting scenery and playing poker. ” - blue_sock_monkey
Featuring a lovelorn hunter, his prey, and lots of small excerpts from Wagner's operas, especially the Ring. My favorite part is the interpretation of the Venusberg ballet. ” - blue_sock_monkey
If you don't think this is a hoot, you don't deserve to go to the opera. ” - blue_sock_monkey