Four recent DVDs from the Met

For the holiday season 2014 OperaMetro recommended two boxed sets of CDs of remastered analog audio recordings of historic Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, one box devoted to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, the other to Wagner’s. Those were the days, my friends! This post is now a blog on the page Historical Recordings.

In the following holiday season, 2015, OperaMetro recommended four DVDs of performances recently telecast in HD live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. This is now recreated here as a blog on this page.

The four DVDs are indeed recent for now but likely to become historic for younger members of today’s audience who, looking back as we do, will say ‘those were the days, my friends.’ Who today ever imagines that someday it will be 50 years of ‘last seasons’ later?

Fleming in  Rusalka  in winter of 2014

Fleming in Rusalka in winter of 2014

Renée Fleming owned the role of Rusalka at the Met. I say this using the past tense because backstage after a review performance in late January of 2014 she confided that she was retiring the role from her active repertory. Fleming’s Rusalka is finely tuned mix of the cool, passionless water sprite with the passionate woman betrayed by the man she loves. Rusalka has transformed herself through magic to get legs for the land and perhaps a soul, all at the price of her voice.

As in many fairy tales, the problem is her man, here just called the Prince, passionately sung in this performance by Piotr Beczała. Not much of a conversationalist, Rusalka quickly becomes less interesting to him than an intrusive loud hot foreign Princess, forcefully sung by Emily Magee. Men are so weak. In the end, though, the Prince seeks his true love out in the lake in the forest, begs her forgiveness, and willingly reunites with her through his death. John Relyea is the Water Sprite, so called in the list of characters, but actually he is Rusalka’s father; Dolora Zajick is Ježibaba, the witch who renders the magical transformation. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is expertly conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This Otto Schenk production is that of the Metropolitan Opera's premiere, new in November of 1993, mounted for the great Slovakian soprano Gabriela Beňačková, whose Rusalka on Supraphon CDs is well worth the listen; Renée Fleming assumed the title role in May of 1997; the sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen capture the mystery of the magical forests and lakes, in contrast to the elegance of the Prince’s country estate in the middle act. It is stunningly beautiful on Blu ray.

Rusalka is Dvořák’s take on the legend of the mermaid who, in most of the operatic versions, pines for a love life with a mortal, call her Undine of Lortzing, Loreley of Catalani, and let’s not forget Natasha, the Miller’s daughter in the Даргомыжский version. Or they’re just sirens bent on troublemaking: Die Rheinnixen of Offenbach or Woglinde, et al. from you know where. You’ve seen perhaps The Little Mermaid from Disney or Splash? The operas rarely end so happily.

Janáček’operas have mostly reflective soliloquies, not really ‘arias’ per se. Hence one can say without hesitation that Rusalka’s Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (the Song to the Moon in Act I) is the most popular aria from the entire Czech repertory, though Mařenka’s introspective Ten lásky sen, jak krásný byl from Act III of Smetana’s Prodaná Nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) I find very touching indeed, especially as rendered by the late dear Lucia Popp, another great Slovakian soprano, in the DG DVD of Die verkaufte Braut from the Wiener Staatsoper in 1982 (sung in German). It’s another recommendation for the holidays, believe me.

Decca’s new DVD of the Met’s Rusalka comes in both the standard DVD format or on Blu ray. For the record, no pun intended, know that la Fleming recorded Rusalka with an excellent cast including Ben Heppner in the studio for Decca under Sir Charles Mackerras, released on CD in 1998.

But if dreamy takes on fairy tales bore you, try Fleming’s previous video essay of the role under Robert Carsen’s direction at the Opéra National de Paris in 2002, released on 2 TDK DVDs. James Conlon conducts. In this, Rusalka is a watery tart who dwells, one surmises, in the lower level pool of a major hotel and she clearly can walk already. For the record, Mr. Carsen likes water and/or chairs in his productions. Rusalka is invited up to the room of a wealthy man, etc. etc. It’s actually quite clever and Fleming is touching in her own inimitable way. Dvořák is still Dvořák, so the soundtrack is quite nice. But the timeless archetypal magic is missing.

Ambrogio Maestri as Verdi's Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri as Verdi's Falstaff

Speaking of which, Robert Carsen’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff preceded Rusalka in early December of 2013. As I took my seat at the Met on review night, I remember thinking that any Carsen production could go either way, as alluded to just above. But I kept an open mind as I always do. I was completely entranced by Carsen’s Falstaff throughout, particularly by the final scene in which Falstaff ‘resurrects’ himself after his evening-long abasement at the hands of Windsor’s gentry. He struts back triumphantly into the spotlight at the finale, striding toward us on top of a long grand elegant dining table (with chairs of course). It is wonderfully entertaining.

The sets by Paul Steinberg and costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel capture post WWII English fashions, a time when the sun was even further setting on the landed British aristocracy. Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff is a masterful creation: bold, literally enormous and knightly. His foils are slimy lowlifes; Ford in this is a Texan type with oil money dripping from him, the sort who probably drives his Cadillacs only a few times before burying them nose first into the sand. (You must remember that photo, si?)

All the merry women are settled in the décor of the 50s. Angela Meade and Stephanie Blythe in particular are finely etched characters. The young love of Nannetta and Fenton, charmingly sung by Lisa Oropesa and Paolo Fanale respectively, is charmingly highlighted by stop action and magical changes of lighting. James Levine once again lets Verdi’s infectious score sparkle and shine. Available on a Decca DVD, this Falstaff is a winner all around. High on my list of favorite operas always, probably already before my ears had formed in my mother’s womb.

Perhaps I overstate here.

The nostalgic side of me will miss the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production, new at the Met back in 1964, but, as they say, it’s ‘in the can,’ preserved on a DG DVD: a 1993 performance with Mirella Freni and Marylin Horne. Paul Plishka sings the title role. James Levine conducts.

Spreading the net wider: I very much like Herbert von Karajan’s Falstaff from Salzburg in 1982 on Sony Classical DVD with Raina Kabaivanska, Christa Ludwig, and Giuseppe Taddei in the title role. I’d recommend Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff from Covent Garden (BBC/Opus Arte) were it not for Graham Vick’s intolerably stupid production. Terfel is Terfel and good vocals are all around. You can always turn the picture off.

In the historic Verdi broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (see the page Historical Recordings), Leonard Warren is Falstaff in 1949, along with Regina Resnik, Giuseppe Valdengo, a young Giuseppe di Stefano as Fenton and Licia Albanese as Nanetta, all under the baton of Fritz Reiner; But the great Tito Gobbi is my cherished favorite in a fine recording from 1956 on EMI CDs paired with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Fedora Barbieri, Rolando Panerai, Anna Moffo, et al., conducted by von Karajan. There are many others. As operas go, Verdi’s Falstaff has been finely served up by the recording industry.

Anna Netrebko, Lady Macbeth as hot, not cold

Anna Netrebko, Lady Macbeth as hot, not cold

As long as we’re on Verdi and Shakespeare, Macbeth sizzles with Anna Netrebko as the notorious Lady Macbeth on a DG DVD of the HD telecast in October of 2014. Macbeth that season was literally one of the hottest tickets at the Met in a long time. Netrebko’s voice has darkened considerably over the past few seasons without much loss to the shine of her upper register. She’s certainly got the strength and volume: the Lady’s soaring vocal lines over all soloists, a loud orchestra and chorus at the end of Act I are not a problem for her at all. Most often a riveting stage performer, Netrebko here is at her best, allowed to let her inner tiger out. With the blond wig she’s Marilyn Monroe’s evil twin on a bad night. Netrebko is joined by an exquisite cast including Željko Lučić as Macbeth, Joseph Calleja as Macduff, and Rene Papé as Banquo. Fabio Luisi conducts with his usual clarity and precision. This is a very hot performance!

The production, new in 2007, is by Adrian Noble, with sets and costumes by Mark Thompson. It’s updated to circa 1940s in Scotland (or could be anywhere in the dark, really).

Other fine recordings of Macbeth include the RM ARTS DVD from the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1997. Renato Bruson (a favorite baritone of mine) stars in the title role and the exciting Mara Zampieri is Lady Macbeth. Giuseppi Sinopli conducts. On audio I’m a big fan of Shirley Verrett, a greatly underappreciated artist, whose Lady Macbeth is captured to perfection in a DG CD recording from 1976. She’s joined by Piero Cappuccilli, Plácido Domingo, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Claudio Abbado conducts. Real audiophiles will want the RCA/BMG CD recording of (most of) the cast of the Met’s 1959 premiere season of Macbeth, including the great Leonard Warren and my dear Leonie Rysanek, but also with Carlo Bergonzi and Jerome Hines. Erich Leinsdorf conducts. Those wanting the frisson (and flaws) of a live performance please refer to the Met broadcast performance from that season with most of the same cast, available in the boxed set of Verdi operas cited on the page Historical Recordings.

Fleming and Gunn star in the Met's  The Merry Widow

Fleming and Gunn star in the Met's The Merry Widow

The last of the Met’s four is Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, a new production at the Met in the 2014-2015 season. On a Decca DVD, it stars Renée Fleming as Hanna, the so-called Widow, Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo, Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut, as the charming and vivacious Valencienne, the wife of the older Baron Mirko Zeta, taken by Sir Thomas Allen. Director and choreographer here, Susan Stroman is a major part of the sparkle.

Hannah Glawari is a diva role for sure. Renée Fleming soars through her two showcase airs (Vilja, of course, and the Waltzerlied (Princess Anna Elisa’s Liebe, du Himmel auf Erde from Act II of Lehár’s Paganini), which is inserted to give the final scene a little more weight and tenderness of its own. She plays the society lady, she married rich, remember, but when things get a little scrappy she finds her inner farm girl (Hannah’s that is, not Ms. Fleming’s) to give her character more depth. Danilo is expertly and handsomely handled by baritone Nathan Gunn. Vocally, the part lies well within his comfort zone, both singing and speaking. His character’s complexities shine through too.

Soprano Kelli O’Hara, in her Met debut, is, as I said above, charming and vivacious as Valencienne; Camille de Rosillon, her French suitor, is sung by Alek Shrader. Noteworthy for his comic timing and character is Carson Elrod in the speaking role of Njegus, listed as Danilo’s Assistant. He’s consistently very funny. Bravo! Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Another pleasant Merry Widow, on DVD released by Opus Arte, is also in English, starring British diva Yvonne Kenny as Hannah, Bo Skovhus as Danilo, Angelika Kirschschlager as Valencienne, and Gregory Turay as Camille. This Lotfi Mansouri production for the San Francisco Opera is conducted by Erich Kunzel in 2002.

But if you go for vintage recordings, best advice is the EMI 1953 Die lustige Witwe in German with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Erich Kunz, Nicolai Gedda, and Emmy Loose, conducted by Otto Ackermann. One a single CD, it’s a good deal. The dialogue is omitted.

Or to sample really historic Lehár, one of EMI’s Composers in Person discs features the man himself conducting many of his favorite singers (Tauber, Réthy, Novotná, among others) in arias and duets from his operettas. Now that’s about as close to home as one can get.

Wishing you a very happy holiday season. Good music. Will it really be near 70 degrees on Christmas Eve 2015?

But how long ago does that seem now?

Ciao, J.