There are a lot of really good video recordings of the Mozart operas. So many that they risked swamping the other categories so I decided to pull them out into a separate post. What I’ve tried to do is select the best recording for each of the major operas although I don’t think there’s an Idomeneo that stands the test. Same rules as the all time best category. To be considered the disk must be a worthwhile production, excellently performed and filmed and with better than average sound and video quality. So herewith the three da Ponte operas, the two major Singspiels and La Clemenza di Tito.
La Clemenza di Tito -There are really two strong contenders here. Martin Kusej’s 2003 Salzburg version and the Hermann’s Paris version from 2005. The Kusej production has some interpretative issues but it also has a compelling Tito in Michael Schade and is overall very well sung (The Ah perdona is the ring tone on my phone). The Paris version is probably more straightforward even if it did introduce the phrase “Berenice’s potato” in to the critical lexicon. It’s also very well sung. Both disks are well recorded with good quality picture and sound. My top pick is Salzburg but that’s largely based on a preference for Michael Schade’s neurotic Tito which not everyone will share.
Così fan tutte – There are three strong, Regie type productions of this piece available and each have their merits. There’s also a very pretty, largely traditional, Glyndebourne version by Nicholas Hytner. I haven’t seen the DVD but based on the TV broadcast I’d say it would be the best bet for the Konzept averse. The oldest of the Regie productions is the famous hippy production by Doris Dörrie (2002 Berlin). It’s very interesting, well sung and well acted but the orchestral playing is a bit ponderous and the recording isn’t quite top notch. Next up is the Salzburg M22 version by the Hermanns. It’s sparse, bleak, very well sung and features a truly villainous Don Alfonso in Tom Allen. It was clearly challenging to film and may have worked better on stage than on disk. The final contender, and my personal pick, would be Claus Guth’s 2009 Salzburg effort. It’s the conclusion of his da Ponte cycle and all the elements introduced in the other two works; feathers, creeping forest etc are there. It’s also pretty dark. The singing and acting across the board is excellent but there’s a real stand out Despina in Patricia Petitbon. She’s weird and wonderful and makes the thing for me. This is also the best option from a technical point of view with absolutely first class picture and sound. ETA Feb 2017: The 2013 Salzburg production directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf is also very interesting and features a fantastic performance by Malin Hartelius as Fiordiligi.
Don Giovanni – If we are doing a mountain of Mozart, this is the Everest. There are so many good video recordings of this most complex and interpretable of operas that it’s hard to even know where to start. Let’s start by tossing a bone to the traditionalists. The 2000 Metropolitan Opera recording is Zeffirelli by way of Lawless with added Levine so it’s totally crinolines and tricorn hats. It’s well sung by a starry cast for the most part though video recording and technical quality aren’t what they might be. Of the more modern productions, there are, I think, three real contenders. Martin Kušej’s 2006 Salzburg production is supremely intelligent and asks all sorts of questions about consent, collusion and delusion in sexual relations. There’s also some very good singing and acting but the conducting, the video recording and the technical quality, especially the sound, aren’t brilliant. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production has been written about so much recently, not least by me, that further comment on the production seems entirely superfluous. The DVD version, recorded in Aix-en-Provence in 2010, has a very committed and capable cast and a very good conductor and orchestra. Technical quality is fine but the video direction rather lets it down. So, my favourite… Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production. It’s high concept. Don Giovanni is mortally wounded in the opening scene and is dying throughout. It’s a drink and drug fuelled nightmare and while the singing is excellent no-one is allowed to let sheer prettiness of singing get in the way of the drama. Technical values are high and while Brian Large’s video direction may not completely represent the stage production it makes quite a compelling film in its own right. Terrific music theatre.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Tricky territory here. This is such a flawed piece and it begs for reinterpretation. Fortunately there have been some pretty good attempts. The best of them, unfortunately, aren’t state of the art technically. For that one goes to the less dramatically incisive (but still pretty decent) De Nederlandse Opera 2008 production. For new ways of looking at this opera there are two strong candidates. Hans Neuenfels’ 1998 Stuttgart version doubles up the singers with actors and makes changes to the dialogue without drastically altering the basic story line. It’s effective but it is a 1998 recording and shows it. Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïff’s 2004 production for the Aix-en-Provence Festival also uses extra characters and has Bassa Selim portrayed by a dancer. Both Pedrillo and Blonde are sung by people of colour which also subverts some of the plot elements in an interesting way. It’s very well performed and technically adequate and would be my top pick. Lurking somewhere in the ether is Stefan Herheim’s near legendary M22 production but that’s been unavailable for years and I’ve not seen it.
Le nozze di Figaro – One might think that there would be a ton of competition here but that’s not really the case. There are over a dozen recordings in the catalogue going back to the 1950s but almost all are very traditional and I’m not about watching endless traditional productions of mainstream Mozart. One that does stand out from that pack is the 1994 Glyndebourne production featuring a young Gerry Finley as Figaro and an all too rare appearance by Alison Hagley as Susanna. Unfortunately the sound quality isn’t great. Probably the best bet for traditionalists would be David McVicar’s 2006 ROH version with a really excellent cast. It’s a very interesting production though hardly radical and the performances are absolutely first class. Technically it’s a good recording in every way too. So where does one go for a more original take? Oddly enough, it’s Claus Guth in Salzburg, thus completing a Guth trifecta on the da Pontes. Actually this production is as much Nikolaus Harnoncourt as Guth with his unusual tempi carefully matched to Guth’s Strindbergian drama. This disk also features one of Anna Netrebko’s best performances. It has state of the art sound and picture quality and the only flaw is Brian Large’s rather quirky camerawork. This is the production that played in 2016 at the COC though it did have a rather different feel in that incarnation.
Die Zauberflöte – In a very crowded field three recordings stand out for me. The earliest is David McVicar’s 2003 production with Colin Davis at Covent Garden. It’s essentially traditional, if a little bleak, and the music making is a little old fashioned which will, of course, suit many people. Also Simon Keenleyside with a duck on his head. Worlds apart from this is Pierre Audi’s bright and lively 2006 Salzburg production. It has very high musical values and is a really good recording. A great one to introduce children to opera with. My top pick though is the 2013 Baden-Baden version by Robert Carsen (who else?). It’s intelligent and thought provoking without throwing the baby out with the bath water. The singing and playing is excellent. The video direction is as good as it gets and the recording is state of the art.
In doing this retrospective I’m beginning to feel that I really do need to flesh out or revise some of the older reviews. A good excuse to rewatch some old favourites I guess.
Next up Contemporary Opera on DVD.