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Monday, March 19, 2012

Opera in Your House

Classic CDs from the Met

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New York's Metropolitan Opera is sometimes accused of elitism, but none can say it hasn't strived to expose opera to the widest audience (without dumbing down by staging Carmen in a biker gang). Just as nowadays the Met screens performances in cinemas around the country, in earlier decades the company took advantage of new technology to broadcast concerts on coast-to-coast radio.

The Met's broadcast archives are rich and the gatekeepers are doling out treasures in the form of CD releases. The latest batch includes performances of Gaetano Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (1940), Ambroise Thomas' Mignon (1945), Georges Bizet's Carmen (1952) and Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman (1955). Those sad souls more concerned with high fidelity than high performance may cluck occasionally, but these discs are more than merely interesting historical documents. They are audio records of classic stagings of enduring work.


And by the way, the monophonic sound is clean and everything important stands out; the broadcasts were state of the art for their time, not crudely rigged-up affairs. Likely, if these releases were DVDs, we might comment that the level of acting has actually improved since the '40s and '50s in even the finest opera houses. In those days, singing was prized above all else (as, actually, it should be) and whether the voices came from well-drilled choruses or the fiery stars, nary a slack note is heard on these recordings.


The repertoire represented by the Met broadcasts is considered standard fare—and there is a reason these 19th century gems have survived that go well beyond the charge against opera audiences for being unadventurous. However interesting it may be, most of the newer work isn't as memorable. Unlike many mid-century and post-modern composers, these operas were written with popular audiences in mind. Their stories, often embarrassing melodramas, contain all the elements of pulp fiction Hollywood would later embrace. Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman is even an example of early science fiction in its depiction of a mechanical woman (she sings beautifully!) and allusions to what is human (and how can we recognize it when we see it)? From the rousing choruses and the pinnacles of ecstasy (or agony?) reached during the arias, the music had strong vocal lines. Individual numbers could be hummed on the street, the melodies insisted on sticking to memory and the emotions were stoked to burst beyond the mundane.
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