I’ve reviewed over 500 Blu-ray and DVD recordings on this blog. So I thought I’d have a crack at picking some favourites. There’s a problem, of course, in comparing recordings made over the course more than 80 years. There is just no way that “made for TV” recordings pre 2000 can stand up against modern HD productions when it comes to sound and, especially, picture quality so I’ve tried to invent some categories to allow mention of some of the best of them. It’s going to take a while to sort through all the categories so let’s start with a highly personal set of choices for best overall recording. Some of them even surprised me.
Here I was looking for a combination of insightful production, top notch performances and technical excellence. I expected it to be heavy on mid/late 20th century works and maybe the baroque but it’s not. Here, in order of composer, are my top picks. I’ve excluded Mozart discs. There are so many good ones it seemed to justify a seperate category.
Berg, Wozzeck, Barcelona, 2007. This is a Calixto Bieito production. It’s brilliantly human and bleak and the video direction captures the director’s large tableaux extremely well. Franz Hawla and Angela Denoke are stunning and the conducting is incisive too. Technical quality is high for the “just before HD” era.
Britten, Billy Budd, Glyndebourne, 2010. Perhaps Michael Grandage’s best work. The production concept, framed by the timbers of an 18th century man o’war is brilliantly claustrophobic. There’s truly great singing from Jaques Imbrailo and John Mark Ainsley among others and Mark Elder’s conducting is top notch. On Blu-ray picture and sound are top notch.
Ravel, Double Bill, Glyndebourne, 2013. Mostly picked for the L’heure espagnole which features great comic performances from Stephanie d’Oustrac and Elliott Madore in a mad cap production by Laurent Pelly. Great fun.
Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Metropolitan Opera, 2007. One of the early HD broadcasts and still one of the best. It’s classic Robert Carsen simplicity, elegance and insight married to strong performances from Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. It’s one of Brian Large’s last efforts behind the camera and one of his best. Mysteriously the Met dropped this production for a vastly inferior one but the COC bought it and it still exists.
Verdi, La Traviata, Aix-en-Provence, 2011. François Sivadier’s production is dark, dangerous and incredibly moving. It’s a Traviata shorn of “prettiness” focussing on sex, money and power. Natalie Dessay is brilliant and the rest of the music making is very good too. Technical values are high.
Wagner, Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 2013. François Girard’s production is stark and compelling. The cast, headed by Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape is exceptional. The video direction is much better than most MetHD efforts and the technical quality is superb. ETA April 13th, 2017: Dmitri Tcherniakov’s very different but utterly compelling production of Parsifal recorded at Berlin’s Staatsoper also belongs on the list.
Next up, From the Archives; the best pre-1980 recordings.
Update on 19th December 2016. To the above I would add Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Berg’s Lulu recorded at Brussel’s La Monnaie in 2012. It’s not perfect but it’s a stimulating production and it has an astonishing performance of the title role by Barabara Hannigan.
Update on 24th December 2017. Alex Ollé/La Fura del Baus’ production of Bellini’s Norma recorded at Covent Garden in 2016 is exemplary. Careful, insightful production, fine music making, superior video direction and excellent technical values add up to a most satisfying recording.
Update on 28th June 2019. Puccini, Tosca, Baden-Baden, 2017. This is the first Tosca I’ve seen that tries to do something different. It’s set in some near future dystopia. It’s dramatically and visually compelling with great performances from Kristine Opolais as Tosca and Marco Vratogna as Scarpia. There’s incisive conducting from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil play superbly for him. The Blu-ray recording is excellent.
Update on August 18th, 2021. There are two recordings I’ve reviewed for Opera Canada that would make this list. The first is Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Théatre des Bouffes du Nord, 2018. It’s a brilliant collaboration between Robert Carsen and William Christie that brings the baroque to Brexit Britain. The review is in the Summer 2021 edition. And, upcoming in Fall 2021 is a very fine recording of Handel’s Ariodante; Salzburg, 2017. It features a clever gender bending oroduction by Christof Loy and a brilliant performance by Cecilia Bartoli in her first breeches role.
Update on May 12th, 2022. The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s recording of Janáček’s Jenůfa features fabulous conducting from Simon Rattle combined with an unbeatable cast to create a really intense musical and dramatic experience which, despite there being other fine recordings of this piece, now takes top spot.
No Mozart recordings are included in this list because Wolfy has a post all to himself. Robert Carsen’s Die Zauberflöte and Idomeneo and Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni would certainly make the overall list.