While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on live performances, the number of (mostly) free streams and the availability of first-rate archival material continues to grow. Last week I highlighted OperaVision, a majorly well-curated site that should be on every opera lover’s itinerary as well as some outstanding streams at home and abroad. With so much quality content, the trick is figuring out what you need to catch ‘live’ and what is sticking around online for more leisurely viewing over the coming months. This week I thought I’d cover both kinds of content in an operatic travel itinerary that takes in New York, London and Berlin before heading home again to Oz.
As the pioneer of live cinema broadcasts, the Met has a proven track record when it comes to the technical ins and outs of filmed opera, with one of the richest archives to boot with recorded productions dating back to the early days of DVD. That breadth and depth allowed it to jump right in as soon as the COVID crisis struck, and stream a nightly opera on its website.
Each stream is for free. What you need to remember, though, is that each opera only hangs around for 23 hours before the next one kicks in. Get your time differences wrong, and instead of watching Sir Andrew Davis conducting Renée Fleming in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (stream starts Friday, May 8 at 9:30 am) you might find yourself instead watching Pavarotti and Scotto from 1977 in the classic Zeffirelli La Bohème (stream starts Saturday, May 9 at 9:30 am). This week the programme is especially strong, so apart from the two previous, I thought I’d highlight three real must-sees:
Sunday May 10 at 9:30 am: The Opera House
I saw this fascinating documentary in the cinema a couple of years back. It’s full of things I didn’t know (especially about the old Met) and contains priceless archival footage. Susan Froemke’s film, which streams on what would have been the last night of the 2019–20 Met season, tells the story of how the new Met at Lincoln Center came to be built. The long trek to opening night in 1966 almost rivals that of the Sydney Opera House and features a similar tale of political machinations. The lead up to the ill-fated world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra is worth its own soap opera and the interviews with the elderly but feisty Leontyne Price who starred in it are – forgive the pun – priceless.
Wednesday, May 13 at 9:30 am: Thomas Adès’s The Tempest
One of the most successful contemporary operas of the last decade, Robert Lepage’s spectacular 2012 staging is conducted by the composer himself. Meredith Oakes’ libretto is based – a little awkwardly to my mind – on Shakespeare’s classic play but no cavils about the cast, which stars Simon Keenlyside as an authoritative Prospero, the stratospherically endowed Audrey Luna as Ariel, Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, Alan Oke as Caliban and Iestyn Davies as Trinculo.
Thursday, May 14 at 9:30 am: Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos
The late, great Jessye Norman did far less stage work than she should have done, but this grandly traditional 1988 staging of Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera offered her the chance to inhabit a signature role. Conducted by James Levine, Norman’s sumptuous portrayal of the abandoned Ariadne features breath control that will knock your socks off, plus she’s a hoot in the prelude as the opera’s haughty prima donna. Pundits back then liked to play up a supposed rivalry between Norman and the production’s Zerbinetta, soprano Kathleen Battle. This is a chance to compare, contrast, and see what all the fuss was about. As a young man, I wore out my old VHS video copy playing Norman’s Es gibt ein Reich over and over again. So do catch it if you can.
In theory, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden has as rich an archive as the Met, but when COVID-19 hit they came later to the party and chose to stream just the one opera a week. The good thing is, though, that they leave them up for a month for viewing on demand. If you are quick, you can still catch Jonathan Miller’s Armani-designed Così Fan Tutte (available until May 10), but I’m recommending you check out something a little rarer.
The opening night of Benjamin Britten’s commission to celebrate the accession of the young Queen Elizabeth still remains one of opera’s mysteries. With the Royal Family in attendance – and “an invited audience of stuck pigs”, as Britten noted waspishly – one philistine dubbed it “Boriana”. The second night ‘paying’ audience was considerably more enthusiastic, and yet it was the canard of a lukewarm reception that stuck. For the Britten centenary, the Royal Opera House took the bold step of reviving it rather than the more obviously marketable Grimes, Dreams or Budds. Richard Jones’ witty, retro pageant production presents the work as a show within a show – a royal variety performance, set in a village hall circa 1953, complete with new Queen in gracious attendance. Susan Bullock doesn’t quite erase memories of Sarah Walker in the role for ENO in the 1980s – check out the overwhelming YouTube clip above if you don’t believe me – but it’s a fine cast and a vastly underrated opera. Available until May 24.
Sunday, May 10 at 8 pm (and available for 24 hours)
The Berlin State Opera (or Staatsoper unter den Linden as its officially known) also has an enviable archive and here they are presenting a classic staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Originally a theatre director, the late Patrice Chéreau metamorphosed into one of the greatest of opera directors by encouraging his singers to work like actors. His famous centenary Ring Cycle at Bayreuth is still the greatest staging of Wagner’s tetralogy for precisely that reason and his take on Berg’s harrowing tale of a soldier ground down by the system is just as potent. Conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it stars Franz Grundheber – one of the finest Wozzecks of our time – and the wonderfully nuanced Waltraud Meier as his ill-fated partner Marie.
With the cancellation of this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour on the very eve of its opening, Opera Australia were perhaps the very hardest hit of all our arts companies. They can be forgiven, then, for coming a little late to the streaming party. And while they may not have decades of cinema broadcasts to fall back on, what they do have looks pretty unique, including the world’s largest and most comprehensive video collection of performances by Dame Joan Sutherland.
Lyndon Terracini has been keen to get something like this off the ground for years, and now it looks like OA | TV: Opera Australia on Demand has finally got the green light. With all that Dame Joan, plus exclusive content from the OA back catalogue, it will also stream its productions of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (La Traviata with Emma Matthews is already up) and top it off with new series of chat show-style interviews conducted by Terracini himself.
The first posted full show is Sutherland in The Merry Widow, but even better are the fileted aria’s in the section labelled “The Best of Dame Joan Sutherland”. In the latter part of her career, Sutherland’s voice was often better suited to the opera house than to the recording studio, and if you don’t believe me check out her renditions of Era desso il figlio mio from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, her Parigi, o cara sung with Pavarotti in their 1983 gala concert, or the technique on display in Lakmé’s Bell Song. A stroll down memory lane too for anyone with fond memories of the hair and gowns of a bygone era.