Well not strictly baroque. I wanted a category for pre-Mozart rep since so many houses (and audiences) ignore it and there are some very odd ideas about performing it. So we are going to cover ground from the earliest days of opera to the late 18th century here, including staged versions of oratorios, because I rather like them. Here, in rough order of composition, then are my picks; from Monteverdi to Rameau.
Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea, Aix-en-Provence, 2000. It all starts with the Venetian cleric. Of all his works L’incoronazione di Poppea is the one that seems to speak most directly to a modern audience. It’s about sex and power and gender relations and betrayal. What’s not to like? It’s also well served on DVD with several fine recordings. I’m plumping for Klaus Michael Grüber’s production recorded at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000. If I had ever seen the actual DVD of Robert Carsen’s super sexy Glyndebourne production that might have pipped it but all I have of the Carsen is a torrent of the TV broadcast. Grüber’s version is very elegant and stylized. There’s also a predictably Benny Hill like David Alden production if you are in the mood.
Purcell, King Arthur, Salzburg, 2004. Purcell’s stage works, Dido and Aeneas aside, have the probably deserved reputation of being hard to stage effectively. This Salzburg production by Jürgen Flimm shows one way it can be done effectively. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and features excellent music making by, among others, Michael Schade, Barbara Bonney and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. If it were a technically better recording it would have made my “all time” list.
I tend to prefer Handel’s English language oratorios to his Italian operas. They have more choruses and ensembles and freer, more flexible music. In recent years it’s become the fashion to stage them and there have been some wonderful results. Pride of place goes to Peter Sellar’s searing production of Theodora (Glyndebourne 1996). This is one of the best pieces of music theatre I have ever seen and if it was up to modern recording standards might well have topped the “all time” list. Other worthy realisations of oratorios include the 2007 Zürich Semele by Robert Carsen (again!) with an extraordinary performance by Cecilia Bartoli and Claus Guth’s very disturbing 2009 Messiah from Theater and der Wien which features very fine performances from Bejun Mehta and Richard Croft among others.
Of the Italian operas I retain a fondness for Giulio Cesare and David McVicar’s 2005 Glyndebourne production has all the exuberance which the Met seems to have subsequently knocked out of him. Add in Danni de Niese at her most charming and wonderful work from Sarah Connolly and what’s not to like? ETA: As Michelle points out, there’s also the Carsen Rinaldo from Glyndebourne. The concept may not be to everyone’s taste but I think it works and Brenda Rae is just brilliant as Armida. Good work from the chorus and excellent video direction make this one to see.
17th and 18th century French rep seems to exist in a little world of its own with people like William Christie arguing passionately for it but nobody much listening. I’ll confess to a loathing for Lully; perhaps brought on by too much Opera Atelier. But Rameau is a different beast (and so far left alone, curiously, by OA). There are elegant productions like Robert Carsen’s Les Boréades and more rambunctious ones like José Montalvo’s Les Paladins. Craziness, projections and Stephanie d’Oustrac in red booty shorts. And no twirling in low heeled pumps.
Next up A Mountain of Mozart.
Update as of December 19th 2016. There have been quite a few really good Handel releases in the last few years and I think three deserve to be on this list. Two of them are recordings of Alcina, though quite different. The 2011 production by Adrian Nobel marked the return, after a lengthy absence, of anything pre-classical to the Wiener Staatsoper. It’s a visual and aural treat anchored by Anja Harteros in the title role. In some ways Katie Mitchell’s 2015 Aix production is even better. I’ve never seen the relationship between sex and magic so well thought through and it has a really good ensemble cast. Barry Kosky’s approach to staging the oratorio Saul (Glyndebourne 2015) is nothing if not original and breaks away totally from the Peter Sellars approach. The chief attraction here is Chris Purves in a tour de force performance of the title role.