The opera video recording is in some ways a rather recent phenomenon. Before the DVD there really wasn’t a very satisfactory way of distributing a product with a decent sound though there were TV broadcasts and some have been preserved in the catalogue. Most of the extant recordings are “made for TV” and tend to show the limitations of the technology of the time. Interestingly, most pre 1980 recordings are of films made in the studio and lip synched to a pre-recorded track. There are only a handful of recordings of live performances in the opera house plus some pioneering BBC recordings of Britten works where the singers are “live”.
Here then, in reverse chronological order, are the pre 1980 recordings I find most interesting.
Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress, Glyndebourne, 1975. This is a TV broadcast of the stage show. Technically it really shows its age and it shows just how patchy opera house acting was back then. The director really doesn’t seem to have much of a role other than traffic direction. The sets and costumes, by David Hockney, are still in use.
Strauss, Salome, Film, 1974. This Götz Friedrich/Karl Böhm collaboration is maybe The Plan 9 From Outer Space of opera films. It’s studio filmed and lip synched of course. It’s just bizarre and has to be seen. The singing isn’t bad but the acting, sets and costumes are like a bad flashback to the 70s.
Puccini, Madama Butterfly, Film 1974. Included as the representative for all of J-P Ponelle’s lip synchers. The singing; Domingo, Freni, Ludwig, etc is brilliant. The film itself showcases everything that’s wonderful and bizarre about Ponelle. Most of the other Ponelle’s are worth seeing though I find his L’incoronazione di Poppea camped up beyond tolerability.
Britten, Owen Wingrave, Film, 1970. The best, I think of the BBC Britten films though both Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are well worth seeing. This is totally compelling and the entirely straightforward treatment works rather better than the 1950s updating used in the later Channel 4 film. The cast is made up of Britten stalwarts of the era and it makes a compelling case for a much neglected work.
Mozart, Don Giovanni, Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1961. Few documents of an opera production can match this for historical significance. It’s the production that opened the new Deutsche Oper, by Carl Eber; the man sacked from his post as director of the Stadtische Oper by the Nazis. Fischer-Dieskau sings the title role; auf Deutsch natürlich. It’s showing its age in everyway but is a must see for anyone interested in the history of opera.
Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Salzburg, 1961. We are really fortunate to have this one. The production is as traditional as they come but it preserves Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin and, wonder of wonders, it was recorded on wide screen 35mm film stock. Restored, it looks and sounds wonderful. It’s the one recording from this era that we have where few allowances for the recording need be made.
Weill, Die Dreigroschenoper, Film, 1931. To finish up, much the oldest opera recording I’ve seen. It’s much more Brechtian than operatic and the filmed version is heavily cut and altered relative to the stage version. Still, it was made for cinema distribution, not TV, so technically it’s not bad at all.
Next up Going for Baroque.