I might be a little bit obsessed with YouTube. No, not that YouTube. You can keep your Logan Pauls and PewDiePies and the like. I’m here for that juicy opera content!
Give me Natalie Dessay vocal range compilations. Give me disco Non so più. Nowhere else can you find so many productions of your favorite operas, often complete and with subtitles!
While the pandemic and social distancing may have spoiled us with free livestreams and recorded re-casts of performances from the Met, Wiener Staatsoper, and more, YouTube has always been the go-to one-stop-shop for many opera singers and fans.
This week, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite productions that can be found on this video streaming legend as we hopefully (and anxiously) prepare for the return of live performances.
Bizet: Carmen (1969)
Wiener Staatsoper and Wiener Philharmoniker
Conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Cast: Grace Bumbry, Jon Vickers, Mirella Freni, Justino Diaz
I had to do a little bit of digging to find this one again (thanks, YouTube algorithm). Through some fortuitous stroke of fate, this was one of my first real encounters with opera.
I was in high school and at that point had never seen a full opera (except Amahl and the Night Visitors). I had heard much of the music from a CD my parents kept at the back of the CD rack at home, but had never watched the opera, nor did I have any sense of the plot. While perhaps this isn’t the most cutting-edge production of Carmen I’ve seen, it is a solid one with an excellent cast.
Bumbry brings a lot of variety to the role, her voice alternatively forceful and proud or delicate and beguiling when necessary. She also acts the HECK out of it, navigating Carmen’s shifting whims and inner conflict with ease. Vickers plays an earnest Don José, whose temperamental jealousy and sudden outbursts feel surprising, even to himself at times. His vocal excellence in this recording pairs well with both Bumbry and Freni (who plays a devoted Micaëla). Von Karajan’s conducting is wonderful (duh), though several of the tempi verge on the slow side from time to time.
Corigliano: The Ghosts of Versailles (1992)
The Metropolitan Opera*
Cast: Teresa Stratas, Renée Fleming, Marilyn Horne, Graham Clark, Håkon Hagegård, Gino Quilico
Since we recently covered American opera on the podcast, I thought I’d throw one of my favorite contemporary American operas on this list — The Ghosts of Versailles. A difficult and massive opera to produce, it is one of Corigliano’s most well-known works. (It also makes me wish the Met would produce more new works, since they clearly have the ability and resources to execute them well.)
Mixing familiar characters from Le nozze di Figaro and Il barbiere di Siviglia with new plots and ghosts of Marie Antoinette’s court, The Ghosts of Versailles feels like a microcosm of opera in America - traditional and contemporary. I saw the incredible production of the opera at LA Opera several years back and haven’t stopped thinking about it since (nor its Grammy-winning recording). This 1992 production is packed with a stellar cast, and it seems they could truly pull whomever they wanted in the 90s.
Two standouts are Stratas’s Marie Antoinette and Horne’s Samira. Stratas balances the fine line between desire and resignation to her fate in her delivery of Marie Antoinette. This is the true center of the plot, and she must navigate between her hope of survival in the imagined realm of the play and the tragedy of her already-passed actual death. Her aria “They are always with me…” is a showcase of a woman swept up in forces outside her control, finding small moments of respite, and thrust towards the inevitability of death. Horne provides the most momentous comic relief in the opera as the colorful Turkish singer Samira who must constantly battle for attention in her increasingly ridiculous arias “I am in a valley...” and “Ya omri.”
Handel: Acis and Galatea (2010)
Royal Opera / Royal Ballet
Conductor: Christopher Hogwood
Cast: Danielle de Niese, Charles Workman, Paul Agnew, Matthew Rose, Ji-Min Park
This may be Handel’s most popular “pastoral” opera, but this production is far from boring. In addition to sound vocal performances all around and well-conceived acting, this production includes professional dancers from the Royal Ballet, which brings an entirely new level of dramatic interest.
These dancers (namely Lauren Cuthberson and Edward Watson) serve as avatars of the main characters, which creates an emotionally charged gesamkunstwerk. It lends a more sensual, comprehensible, and somehow intimate tone to the production (despite there being more performers onstage). The playing from Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment matches and enhances the atmosphere created onstage, and Hogwood is able to pull a cohesive and altogether lovely sound from orchestra and singers alike. I particularly appreciate how both the singing and playing feel appropriate for the scale of the work and the space of the Royal Opera House - the approach is neither too light, nor too grandiose.
Of course, there are many excellent productions on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet that are free to access. But have I missed your favorite? Let us know and we might even feature it on one of our Opera Watch Parties! Oh, I’ll be sure to share more of my personal favorites in the future.
*Note: This production is conducted by known s*xual pr*dator James Levine. Please watch at your own discrection.