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An Ounce of Otello

My first recording of Verdi’s Otello came in a fat album — 20 pounds’ worth of 78-rpm discs. My latest recording comes on a five-inch silver disc weighing less than an ounce. It contains not only the sounds of Verdi’s magnificent score — their clarity and resonance far beyond the reach of engineers in the olden days of the 78 — but the sights of a stunning performance as well. The stupendous opening pages play off in a hurly-burly so realistic as to give you the shivers; it’s only after several replayings that you realize that Otello’s storm-tossed ship comes from stock footage, and that invisible stagehands armed with buckets of water are creating the havoc onshore.

You also realize, perhaps a tad less joyously, that a slight but noticeable gap exists between what you see and what you hear — that the sound of Jon Vickers’ stirring “Esultate” doesn’t exactly match the lip movements of Verdi’s tragic hero onscreen. And then you decide, and hold to that decision over the next two hours or so, that the impact of the performance — Vickers, Peter Glossop’s richly probed Iago, Mirella Freni’s heartbreaking Desdemona and the leadership of Herbert von Karajan both as conductor and director — outweighs by some distance the awareness that the dubious art of the lip-synch still falls somewhere this side of perfection. (The EMI release of the Simon Rattle–led Porgy and Bess, if anyone’s interested, consists of the 1988 audio recording plus a 1992 mime and lip-synch job by mostly — but not entirely — the same cast. Go figure.)

Suddenly there is opera on DVD, and the pickings are already lavish. Some of the current catalog has been reprocessed from the previous laser-disc format of fond memory: Karajan’s Otello on Deutsche Grammophon, for example, and his Don Giovanni on Sony, James Levine’s Ring from the Met (only the Walküre so far, but the rest sure to come), Carlos Kleiber on the Strausses, Ingmar Bergman’s miraculous The Magic Flute. There’s also a lot more. European opera houses and festival managements are far more likely than their American counterparts to sell their wares to television producers. Some smart DVD producers, probably realizing that this new format has zoomed in the American market far beyond laser discs, have cast their nets wide. The German company ArtHaus, distributed here by Naxos, has picked up some worthy material from several festival resources, from lordly Salzburg down to tiny Ludwigsburg; another label, Image Entertainment (based right up the block in Chatsworth), has also been building an interesting catalog. Most of the performances are recorded live, with a small concomitant glitch here and there, but at least they’re not lip-sunk.

Let’s browse. A recent release from ArtHaus includes three Mozarts in three widely different performance attitudes. From Stuttgart comes The Abduction From the Seraglio in one of those high-concept productions, like the fare at the Long Beach Opera, that either works brilliantly or goes splaat. We start with Belmonte’s first aria, he in Mafioso duds, shadowed by a doppelgänger in similar getup. Then the tattooed and garishly clad Osmin does his number, while pulling from a large chest first a severed head, then another, then several other limbs. Hans Neuenfels is the stage director, famous (I’m told) for innovative stage work; he also has rewritten the dialog. Splaat.

A Così Fan Tutte from Zurich looks a lot more promising. Cecilia Bartoli is the Fiordiligi; in a previous audio recording she’s the Dorabella; her debut at the Met was as Despina. (Surely there exists technology for an all-Bartoli Così? Splaat.)There is splendid music-making here, under Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s enlivening baton, even on an almost bare and poorly lit stage. But Bartoli’s Fiordiligi is all wrong; the high notes don’t jab against Agnes Baltsa’s mellower Dorabella, and you have to look hard at times to find out who is singing which. One nice touch, however, which most of the DVD operas haven’t gotten around to yet: There’s a 20-minute “behind the scenes” addendum, with Harnoncourt’s wise comments a real bonus.

A Magic Flute from Ludwigsburg, on a tiny stage in a small jewel of a theater, shouldn’t be as good as it is, but I find it delightful: simple props deployed with great wit, a cast with no spectacular voices but none less than charming, a folk-opera staging in which an element often lost in more deluxe productions is restored. I could not forgo the Bergman version (on Criterion), but I’ll keep this one, too.

More high-concept stuff, both on ArtHaus: Der Freischütz from Hamburg is robbed of all sense by Peter Konwitschny’s staging (modern dress, TV screens, etc.) despite the fine conducting of Ingo Metzmacher and Albert Dohmen’s and Jorma Silvasti’s strong work as villain and hero. A staging of La Damnation de Faust from Salzburg, on the other hand, opens out Berlioz’s uneven oratorio with lighting effects and other splendid diableries, all around the stunning Méphistophélès of Willard White and the demonically inspired conducting of Sylvain Cambreling. Also from Cambreling at Salzburg (but this time on Image) there’s a modern-dress, deliciously askew Rake’s Progress that makes as much sense of Stravinsky’s enigmatic fable as any version I’ve seen. It dates from the summer of 1996, three months before — and, would you believe, even better than — the Sellars/Salonen production in Paris. Dawn Upshaw sang the Anne in both: virtuoso quick-change artistry if ever there was.

Above all, I treasure Carlos Kleiber on the Strausses: Die Fledermaus of Johann; Der Rosenkavalier of Richard — both on DG. Something about this elusive, unique figure bursts right through the video screen; his work in the pit, occasionally glimpsed on the videos, is an act of communication as much as of leadership. Molding a waltz tune by Johann, or the sublime final trio by Richard, he seems to be guiding every one of us — out front, in the pit, on the stage — into a sense of closeness with the music that sets him apart from any other musician I’ve experienced, even the greatest. If this doesn’t make sense, so be it. I was hypnotized once by Kleiber in person; I am hypnotized twice by these discs.

I recognize all the arguments against scaling the grandeur of opera down to TV-set size. Opera on audio may be an imperfect commodity, but it leaves room at least for the visual imagination to work, in a way that a close-up of Bartoli’s dimples or Siegmund’s swordplay merely stifles. But then these Kleiber performances come along, or Ingmar Bergman’s little girl held spellbound by The Magic Flute (even in the wrong language), and you give in.