Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Video Guide to Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Should you wish to educate yourself about opera using the Metropolitan Opera On Demand, I have put together a list.  I am recommending only videos, but if you enjoy audio performances, there are plenty of those to choose from.  These recommendations are based on my taste, but the operas selected cannot help being slanted toward the biases of the Met repertoire.  Sometimes the best performance comes from other houses which I will deal with later.

Please note that the HD performances began in 2006.  I include a performance date for my selections to show which of a number of performances I have selected.  I have bolded the best examples based on the criteria of significance of the opera in standard repertoire and quality of the performance.  The operas for each group will be listed chronologically by premier date.

If while exploring this outline, you come across a composer or performer who attracts your attention, do not hesitate to follow this attraction where it leads.


We begin with the Baroque where I have included only two examples. 

Giulio Cesare Handel 27-Apr-13
Agrippina Handel 29-Feb-20

There is nothing Baroque about the production of either one of these operas.  The first concerns itself with the British Empire, which in turn makes the opera a lot of fun.  There is dancing and Natalie Dessay.  Joyce DiDonato is the star of Agrippina which is also a lot of fun.


Iphigénie en Tauride Gluck 26-Feb-11
Le Nozze di Figaro #8 Mozart 11-Nov-98
Don Giovanni #10 Mozart 22-Oct-16
Cosi fan tutte #14 Mozart 27-Feb-96
The Magic Flute #4 Mozart 30-Dec-06
La Clemenza di Tito Mozart 1-Dec-12
Fidelio Beethoven 28-Oct-00

Many of these selections are from the period before HD transmissions into movie theaters, but they remain my favorites.  Examples from HD are Iphigénie en Tauride with Domingo and Graham (the HD was on a bad day), Don Giovanni with Simon Keenlyside (not my favorite), The Magic Flute in the Julie Taymor production in English, and the excellent La Clemenza di Tito (a serious opera) with Elīna Garanča, best of the Mozart HDs.

To round out the list I have included two filmings of Cecilia Bartoli in her Mozart period:  Le Nozze di Figaro (still my favorite) and Cosi fan tutte.   Last but certainly nor least is Karita Mattila's spectacularly wonderful Fidelio.  This is the best possible introduction to this opera.  We go back in time when the selection is better. 

In this era we still have show piece arias, but they are mixed with ensembles and other music to enhance the drama. All these productions are relatively conservative with the possible exception of Magic Flute.

Bel Canto

Il Barbiere di Siviglia #7 Rossini 24-Mar-07
La Cenerentola #28 Rossini 27-Oct-97
La Donna del Lago  Rossini 14-Mar-15
Le Comte Ory Rossini 9-Apr-11
Anna Bolena Donizetti 15-Oct-11
La Sonnambula Bellini 21-Mar-09
L'Elisir d'amore #13 Donizetti 13-Oct-12
Maria Stuarda Donizetti 19-Jan-13
I Puritani Bellini 6-Jan-07
Lucia di Lammermoor Donizetti 19-Mar-11
Roberto Devereux Donizetti 16-Apr-16
La fille du régiment Donizetti 26-Apr-08
Don Pasquale Donizetti 13-Nov-10

As you can see, bel canto is popular at the Met under Peter Gelb.  Since La Cenerentola was originally mounted for Cecilia Bartoli, it is only fair to recommend her version.  She is young and lively in this film.  All the rest are from HD performances which are probably over represented here.

The most famous of the operas from this repertoire are the four comedies Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Joyce DiDonato), L'Elisir d'amore (Anna Netrebko), La fille du régiment (Natalie Dessay) and Don Pasquale (Anna Netrebko), plus the ever popular serious opera Lucia di Lammermoor.  This Barber of Seville with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez is good but unusual, because it includes the big aria from La Cenerentola at the end sung by Juan Diego.  It becomes his opera.  It is a good teaching version if you remember that you won't see this aria in other performances of the same opera.

For both Netrebko comedies she is at her peak for this genre.  Best of all the comedies is Natalie's Daughter of the Regiment, which is simply exquisite.  If you can't get enough of bel canto comedies, then by all means try Le Comte Ory.

For Lucia di Lammermoor I have chosen the wonderful performance with Natalie Dessay.  It is perfection both for singing and for acting.  No one does mad scenes like Natalie.  There is rather more serious bel canto in the rest of the list than is generally seen.  Plunge in anywhere, but I preferred La Donna del Lago with Joyce DiDonato.  Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux form a kind of unofficial trio of operas called the Three Queens.  The list does not yet include the magnificent Norma of Sondra Radvanovsky.

Bel canto means beautiful singing and is applied specifically to Italian opera in the early nineteenth century.  In the bel canto, especially the serious bel canto, the aria still reigns supreme.  Perhaps this explains the popularity of the comedies which often include simpler songs and greater emphasis on acting.  

Giuseppe Verdi

Nabucco #18 Verdi 7-Jan-17
Ernani Verdi 17-Dec-83
Macbeth Verdi 11-Oct-14
Rigoletto #9 Verdi 16-Feb-13
La Traviata #1 Verdi 28-Mar-81
Il Trovatore #20 Verdi 3-Oct-15
Un Ballo in Maschera Verdi 8-Dec-12
La Forza del Destino Verdi 24-Mar-84
Don Carlo Verdi 11-Dec-10
Aida #12 Verdi 1/3/1985
Simon Boccanegra Verdi 29-Dec-84
Otello Verdi 13-Oct-95
Falstaff Verdi 14-Dec-13

How is one to choose?  Verdi is the most important composer in the history of opera.  This is the Met archive, so I have tried to choose those performances that are the best.  To be honest really good Verdi is hard to find.

From the HD performances I loved Netrebko's Il Trovatore and the wonderful Falstaff.  I can't pick between Netrebko and Guleghina in Macbeth.  You choose.  Rigoletto is OK but comes in a somewhat bizarre modern production.  Spoiler alert:  Gilda dies in the trunk of a car.  If you enjoy modern productions, by all means see this one.

From before HD I have chosen the spectacular Ernani with Lucciano Pavarotti. One really must hear Pavarotti in his prime.

We have examples of Placido Domingo from both his tenor and his baritone phases.  Remember many people consider him the finest operatic tenor of all time.  In Nabucco in HD he is a baritone.  This is not in bold, so you may skip it for later.  In La Traviata and Otello he is a tenor.  Otello is considered his finest achievement and a must see.

I have included two operas which starred the great Leontyne Price:  La Forza del Destino and Aida.  It is important to be familiar with her work, though these are from the end of her career.

Verdi is bel canto with heavier singing, heavier orchestration and stronger dramatic elements.  He requires heavier voices that retain some flexibility, which can be hard to find.  He is often writing about European politics.

Richard Wagner

Tannhäuser  Wagner 31-Oct-15
Lohengrin Wagner 10-Jan-86
Tristan und Isolde Wagner 8-Oct-16
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Wagner 8-Dec-01
Das Rheingold Wagner 23-Apr-90
Die Walküre Wagner 8-Apr-89
Siegfried Wagner 26-Apr-90
Die Götterdämmerung Wagner 5-May-90
Parsifal Wagner 2-Mar-13

From the HD performances I have chosen only Tannhäuser in a very old fashioned production, Tristan und Isolde in a fairly modern production with Nina Stemme, and Parsifal in a modern production with Jonas Kaufmann.   All of the singers in this Parsifal are outstanding.  I omitted other versions of Tristan because I hate the production.

If you have the time, you should definitely view The Ring cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Die Götterdämmerung) from 1989-90.  I did not choose the Ring with the giant log machine because it should not be your first Ring.  Some people love it, but I prefer the Wotan of James Morris.  I also prefer his Meistersinger.  However, you should not miss the Siegfried of Jay Hunter Morris that is in the more recent Ring..

Wagner starts out much like French grand opera, but gradually eliminates the subdivision of opera into preludes, arias and recitatives to create a ceaseless stream of floating harmonies that only stop when the curtain falls.  These can seem painfully long, or you will be swept up in the drama, and it will fly by.  Don't hesitate to break your viewing into digestible segments even though he doesn't help with this.  Orchestration also becomes heavier here in keeping with trends in France.  That's in case you thought he invented it himself.

French and Russian Romantic

La damnation de Faust Berlioz 22-Nov-08
Les Troyens Berlioz 8-Oct-83
Faust Gounod 10-Dec-11
The Pearl Fishers Bizet 16-Jan-16
Romeo et Juliette Gounod 15-Dec-07
Boris Godunov Mussorgsky 23-Oct-10
Carmen #2 Bizet 16-Jan-10
Samson and Delilah Saint-Saëns 28-Sep-98
Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky 24-Feb-07
Les contes d'Hoffmann Offenbach 31-Jan-15
Manon Massenet 7-Apr-12
Pique Dame Tchaikovsky 15-Apr-99
Werther Massenet 15-Mar-14

Here the emphasis shifts back to HD performances since there is so much to choose from.  There is only one film of Pique Dame, and it is pre-HD.  There is also only one Samson and Delilah from before HD, but with Domingo and Borodina it has the perfect cast for this opera.

The riches from the HD period for this group of operas is astounding.  We even have three versions of Eugene Onegin in two different productions.   I have chosen the Hvorostovsky/Fleming performance, but you may prefer one with Netrebko.  All three are marvelous.

We have two versions of Les Troyens, one from the 80s with Domingo and the other in HD in 2013 with Susan Graham.  If I were you I would watch both even though it's a huge opera.  Both are wonderful.  The expansion of orchestration in the nineteenth century was led by Hector Berlioz and is on display here.

For me the best of the French HD after Les Troyens are Carmen with Elina Garanča (it might be the best Carmen ever), a beautiful Werther also with Jonas Kaufmann, and Les contes d'Hoffmann with Vittorio Grigolo whose manic acting suits Hoffmann.

This is a great period of opera with many beautiful performances, but I prefer a different Manon.  French opera distinguishes itself from German and Italian by almost always including ballet.  This goes all the way back to Louis XIV and perhaps earlier.

One offs

The Bartered Bride Smetana 21-Nov-78
Die Fledermaus Strauss J 31-Dec-86
Rusalka Dvorák 8-Feb-14

Nothing is bolded.  You should see The Bartered Bride because Lucia Popp is singing.  This Die Fledermaus features Kiri Te Kanawa.


Cavalleria Rusticana Mascagni 25-Apr-15
I Pagliacci Leoncavallo 25-Apr-15
Manon Lescaut Puccini 29-Mar-80
La Bohème #3 Puccini 15-Mar-77
Andrea Chenier Giordano 15-Oct-96
Tosca #5 Puccini 10-Oct-09
Madama Butterfly #6 Puccini 7-Mar-09
Francesca da Rimini Zandonai 7-Apr-84
La Fanciulla del West Puccini 8-Apr-92
La Rondine Puccini 10-Jan-09
Turandot #17 Puccini 7-Nov-09

Opera remained popular in Italy after Verdi, but the musical style changed to something more legato with virtually no coloratura.  The plots are usually but not always concerned with ordinary people.

We have a few operas in our list from before HD, generally featuring Pavarotti (La Bohème, Andrea Chenier) and Domingo (La Fanciulla del West, Manon Lescaut, Francesca da Rimini). It is important to see these great artists in their prime.

Some important performances from the HD series are Patricia Racette's Madama Butterfly, and Angela Gheorghiu's La Rondine.  For Turandot you may choose from Nina Stemme, Maria Guleghina and Eva Marton.  All are excellent.

This group is usually the most popular with newcomers, so you may wish to begin here.  There are certainly many wonderful performances to choose from.  These operas follow the lead of Wagner and transition smoothly from one section to another, a practice that is called through-composed.

Richard Strauss

Elektra Strauss R 30-Apr-16
Der Rosenkavalier Strauss R 7-Oct-82
Ariadne auf Naxos Strauss R 12-Mar-88
Arabella Strauss R 3-Nov-94
Capriccio  Strauss R 23-Apr-11

In the past there have been many wonderful Strauss performances.  If you love Kiri Te Kanawa, you will want to see her Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.  If you love Renee Fleming, you have two versions of Der Rosenkavalier to choose from plus Capriccio.  I have chosen the Ariadne with Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle.  And I enjoyed Nina Stemme's Elektra.  I wish there were more Strauss examples.

Strauss operas are filled with lush orchestration, a love for the soprano voice and occasionally talky vocal lines. 


Bluebeard's Castle Bartók 14-Feb-15
The Nose Shostakovich 26-Oct-13
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Weill 27-Nov-79
Lulu Berg 21-Nov-15
Peter Grimes Britten 15-Mar-08
Billy Budd Britten 11-Mar-97
Dialogues of the Carmelites Poulenc 4-Apr-87
Nixon in China Adams 12-Feb-11
The Ghosts of Versailles Corigliano 10-Jan-92
L'Amour de Loin Saariaho 10-Dec-16
The Tempest Ades 10-Nov-12

The further we get from Puccini the slimmer the pickings.  One of the greatest twentieth century operas in a fabulous performance featuring Jessye Norman and Regine Crespin is Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.  It's very serious but very much worth it.  But if you don't like serious, what are you doing here? 

The HD productions for The Nose and Lulu are more themselves art objects to be admired than they are theatrical performances.  The visual riches distract from the story.  Maybe you would enjoy them.

I recommend Teresa Stratas for Weill and Corigliano.  She is completely charming.  From the HD series I very much enjoyed the Bluebeard's Castle.  We would need to discuss this whole area of repertoire to get an idea of what would interest you.  The DVD selections not from the Met are far more representative.

This guide is intended to give insight into the riches on the website of the Metropolitan Opera.

Potentially interesting is this list of items missing from Met on demand video repertoire:

The Flying Dutchman Wagner
Adriana Lecouvreur Cilea
Jenůfa Janáček
The Cunning Little Vixen Janáček
Wozzeck Berg
Vĕc Makropulos Janáček
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Shostakovich
Porgy and Bess Gershwin
Akhnaten Glass

A few of these are listed in Met futures. In 2019-2020 they show new productions for Glass’s Akhnaten, Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Berg's Wozzeck.  No Janáček.

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