The Sopranos: Now on DVD

Photo: EMI Classics; Opus Arte; TDK Music; Illustration by Sean McCabe

The complete opera on CD, lovingly recorded take-by-take in the studio with a starry cast, is essentially extinct. Rising costs and overrecording of the standard repertory are to blame, as is the collapse of the studio system. (The cost of producing those elaborate multi-language libretto booklets was a factor as well.) Gone are the days when every major record company had its stable of stars who regularly went into the studio, all accompanied by important (and union-paid) orchestras and prima donna conductors. EMI has one last recording of this type in the works: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an expensive project built on the star power of Plácido Domingo, who has always yearned to sing Tristan. And after that … nothing.

But that’s not to say recorded opera is dead. The DVD is rapidly becoming the preferred format, as fans gobble up the huge selection that’s rapidly coming to market. Major opera houses the world over have built up a backlog of filmed performances ready for release, bringing production costs way down. Since the disc carries extra interviews and multilingual subtitles, there’s no need for all that expensive printed material. In the end, DVD may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to opera recording.

The future of today’s singers is clearly on DVD, and New Yorkers who think the world begins and ends at the Metropolitan might benefit from a quick tour through Europe, where stage productions are often far more risk-taking. One stop should be at the Théâtre du Châtelet, where Berlioz’s gigantic Les Troyens (five hours, on BBC/Opus Arte) received its first complete performances in Paris a mere 200 years after the composer’s birth. Susan Graham (Dido) and Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandra) head the cast, both mesmerizing under John Eliot Gardiner’s inspired musical direction.

Meanwhile, across town at the Opéra National de Paris, director Robert Carsen takes a minimalist view of Dvorák’s Rusalka (on TDK), a stark staging that treats this woodsy fairy-tale opera as a tragic, up-to-date film noir. It’s a reminder that even the most famous singers must adapt as they travel: Renée Fleming is asked to portray a nymph in a harsh modern setting rather than the otherworldly creature she presents in the Met’s more traditional, romantic staging.

One of the most prolific sources of DVD opera is the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, which recently played host to a production of Ambroise Thomas’s French grand-opera version of Hamlet, distributed on DVD by EMI Classics. Despite the bowdlerized ending, the opera is truer to Shakespeare’s spirit than one might suspect, and the score contains many powerful passages. Baritone Simon Keenlyside brings a thrilling brooding intensity to the title role, and Natalie Dessay gives a dazzling account of Ophélie’s mad scene, never missing a note even while engaged in some truly grisly acts of self-mutilation.

Connoisseurs of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle can now choose from the Met’s old-fashioned storybook kitsch (Deutsche Grammophon), Patrice Chéreau’s absorbing industrial-age vision from Bayreuth (Philips), or a new deconstructionist interpretation from the Staatsoper in Stuttgart (TDK). I’m partial to the last of those, in part because it takes me back to the city where I studied as a lad, and partly because the approach is so off-the-wall. Each opera is staged by a different director, but there is still a crazy sort of continuity here, of the “Ring” viewed as a supersize family soap opera—Das Rheingold takes place in a tacky McMansion, and instead of triumphantly entering Valhalla at the end, the gods solemnly march down into the cellar. Viewers who find this offensive can always turn off the picture and listen to a surprisingly strong cast of Wagnerians.

Videos dating back further than twenty years are sparse, but there are a few treasures from the distant past. One is an Ariadne auf Naxos from the 1965 Salzburg Festival (TDK), authoritatively conducted by Karl Böhm and preserving the luminous Composer of Sena Jurinac. Another gem is a delightful Falstaff from the 1976 Glyndebourne Festival (Arthaus Musik), enshrining the late Donald Gramm’s lovable impersonation of the fat knight. Rarities already abound, such as the first revival in 160 years of Antonio Salieri’s sumptuous Tarare (Arthaus Musik). There’s also plenty of trash to avoid, like a tired Zeffirelli Carmen (TDK) staged in the Arena di Verona two summers ago with a cast of third-rate singers from the provinces. Such fiascos are bound to turn up as DVD producers flood a profitable market, but there’s more than enough out there to program fascinating year-round seasons at home.

The Sopranos: Now on DVD