A Night in at the Opera (At Home)

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Mostly Mozart is winding to a close. Summer festivals are all but over and the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's new season is a month away. But for those of you opera junkies that need more, there has been an onslaught of DVD releases that are perfect for a lazy Summer afternoon or stay-at-home date. To help you decide we have our top ten picks.

Lully: Armide (Christie, Les Arts Florissants; Fra Musica)Lully’s Atys was the opera to originally put William Christie and his Baroque band on the map. It returns to BAM this fall, but in the meantime you can tide yourself over with this interpretation of another one of the French master’s works, filmed at the Château de Versailles and starring Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the title role with a cast that also includes Paul Agnew and Laurent Naouri.
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For a different taste of French opera, Valery Gergiev’s powerful rendition of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which was delivered in a magnum-powered concert reading at Carnegie Hall last winter, is preserved here in a fully-staged production designed by the same team behind the Valencia Ring Cycle. Daniela Barcellona sings Didon, Lance Ryan tackles Aenée and Elisabete Matos takes on Cassandre.

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Jurowski, The Glyndebourne Festival; EMI)
Director Jonathan Kent’s fiery (literally) production of Mozart’s amorous chef d’oeuvre tempers the mid-century British austerity of An Education with Fellini’s Dolce Vita excess for a production that, while far from traditional, is passionately argued and sumptuously laid out. With Vladimir Jurowski leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a cast that includes Luca Pisaroni as a show-stopping Leporello, Gerald Finley as a suave Giovanni, Anna Samuil as a chilling Donna Anna and Kate Royal as a steely Donna Elvira, there’s plenty of ear candy if the eye candy is not to your taste.
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Like this Giovanni, a new, and equally Fellini-esque, DVD of Tosca for Decca was an earlier release this spring, but the opportunity to see Pisaroni’s father-in-law, Thomas Hampson, sing Scarpia is not one to pass up. Fans of Jonas Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi (performed in New York last spring) can also relive the fun of his “Vittoria!”s on extended repeat.

Handel: Theodora (Bolton, Freiburg Barockorchester; C Major)
This Handelian rarity was staged at the Salzburg Festival for the first time to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, yet the performances couldn’t be livelier. Bejun Mehta, Christine Schäfer and Bernarda Fink make for that sort of ensemble that most audiences dream about in fantasy casting sessions, and they’re in expert hands with Ivor Bolton. As one of Handel’s oratorios, the action here is more static, dramatically speaking, but with such skilled singing actors as these, the piece moves at an enlightened pace.
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Equally in command of the Baroque repertoire, René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are in top form (also with Mehta) in an account of another Handel oratorio, Belshazzar, for Harmonia Mundi.

Berg: Lulu (Levine, Metropolitan Opera; Sony Masterworks)
James Levine and Alban Berg make for a pairing far more harmonious than any of Lulu’s love affairs. John Dexter’s inspired production of this twelve-tone titan was seen last season at the Met and remained fresh and fervent, and is seen here in its premiere, starring the incomparable Julia Migenes as the titular siren with Franz Mazura, Evelyn Lear and Kenneth Riegel. As the Met continues to fête Levine, who has now conducted with the company for 40 years, releases such as this provide a vital insight into his career and remind us of why he’s managed to carry on for so long.
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Also hot off the reissue press are two other DVDs in the Sony-Levine collection: A 1978 production of Verdi’s Otello starring that mountain of sound Jon Vickers opposite Renata Scotto and the recently-deceased Cornell MacNeil, plus a 1978 double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci starring Plácido Domingo in each opera’s lead roles, plus Tatiana Troyanos, Teresa Stratas and Sherrill Milnes. Both productions are directed by that little-known minimalist Franco Zeffirelli.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Levine, Metropolitan Opera; Deutsche Grammophon)
If more modern Levine is more your speed, his ebullient read of Donizetti’s impish comedy is complemented by an all-star cast. Anna Netrebko delivers a sumptuous and acrobatic performance as Norina, supported by sweet-voiced tenor Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto and Marius Kwiecien lapping up the debonair, Figaro-esque role of Dr. Malatesta (or, in English, Dr. Headache). Towering over them all, literally and at times even figuratively, is John Del Carlo as the duped Don who attempts to preserve his fleeted youth—and screw over his nephew—by marrying the young, nubile Norina. Otto Schenk’s production is a subtle update to the turn of the century, but proves that traditionalism isn’t a four-letter word.
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Equally traditional, though at times eminently forgettable, is Gilbert Deflo’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame for Barcelona’s Teatro del Liceu. What makes it one to watch, however, are performances from living legend Ewa Podles as the Countess and Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk as a dark and dangerous Hermann. Ludovic Tézier, who gave a delicious performance as Enrico in the Met’s Lucia di Lammermoor this past winter, sings an equally moving Prince Yeletsky.