When I was growing up, one of my mother’s constant lessons was “Get value for your money.” If you’re an opera lover, one of the best ways to do so is to subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera’s streaming service, Met Opera on Demand. The site has a tremendous library featuring HD and PBS telecasts dating back to the Scotto/Pavarotti “La Boheme” in 1977, and a slew of radio broadcasts from the 1930’s to the present, with performances being added to the site on a regular basis. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.
While I haven’t really dipped into the video component yet (It’s baseball season after all. Go Mets!), I’ve been having a ball listening to the broadcasts. It’s been both educational and entertaining. For example, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” when I saw it in the house (a pity the Met doesn’t do it more often). Met Opera on Demand lets you hear both Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei sing Yeletsky’s big aria, and what a joy it is to savor two different approaches—the first, more dramatic, the second more lyrical.
I was present at the Met for a number of the broadcasts, and I get a particular charge out of revisiting these performances. I saw that featured “Giulio Cesare” in which David Daniels shone in his Met debut, and to hear him again, when I’m now a full-fledged baroque opera fan, is a treat. That unearthly mezzo-soprano/countertenor blend he and Stephanie Blythe produced in their duet remains a stunner. I was also pleased to discover my memory did not play tricks with respect to the length of the ovation Mirella Freni received at the conclusion of the Letter Scene in “Eugene Onegin.” This was one of the few times I ever saw an opera singer break character to acknowledge applause. Had she not smiled and nodded to the cheering audience, the performance wouldn’t have been able to continue. Speaking of Ms. Freni, while I was present for the videotaping of the excellent “Falstaff” in which she appears as Mistress Ford (available for streaming), there’s an even better radio broadcast of this opera that originally aired three years later. Barbara Daniels replaces Ms. Freni, but Paul Plishka is still Falstaff, the ensemble is tighter, Paul Groves is a better Fenton and Barbara Bonney tops her earlier performance as Nanetta by singing the final ascending line of her aria seemingly in one breath.
The earlier radio broadcasts that pre-date my opera-going, not to mention my birth, are particularly fascinating. Fortunately the quality of sound of those long ago performances does nothing to harm virtuosity—I’m currently in the middle of a 1940 “Die Walküre” with Kirsten Flagstad, Marjorie Lawrence and Lauritz Melchior that’s pure electricity. It’s a privilege to hear Leonard Warren’s distinctive baritone in the full range of his Verdi roles, and perhaps best of all, as Tonio in “I Pagliacci.” An extra-pleasant surprise is hearing what an astute vocal actor Richard Tucker was. His sarcastic bark of laughter during his confrontation with Eileen Farrell’s Santuzza in a 1960 “Cavalleria Rusticana” is chilling. And what a pleasure to experience Cesare Siepi’s gorgeous sound! On the other hand, I’ve listened to a few broadcasts that would have been better left on the shelf. They’re not necessarily terrible, but they do remind you that in addition to the stars who sang, the Met, like any other opera house, had to rely on its B and C list singers to fill out its long season.
The site is particularly instructive with respect to how performance values have changed over the decades. There’s a 1946 “Rosenkavalier” featuring the terrific Ochs of Emmanuel List, as well as the Octavian of Risë Stevens in her prime. While she’s in good form, it’s evident she was really a contralto stretched into mezzo territory. A young Eleanor Steber is a lively Sophie–I never knew she had been such a high flier. Unfortunately, their voices don’t reach that ideal blend that Strauss evidently wanted for the two characters they portray. Nor does this happen in a 1964 broadcast slackly led by Thomas Schippers. Lisa Della Casa, displaced from the Marschallin by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, is the Octavian, Judith Raskin the Sophie, and on first hearing two things are immediately apparent: sopranos have no business singing Octavian, and the rehearsal time for this performance was probably negligible. Fortunately there are two “Rosenkavalier” broadcasts currently available that make amends. A 1969 performance with Karl Böhm on the podium (speaking of greater care for musical values), featuring Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig and Reri Grist, is a stunner. The last two produce the magical vocal blend Strauss envisioned for Octavian and Sophie, and the beauty of their sound is matched, if not topped, in a 1983 broadcast in which Judith Blegen’s soprano is almost an overtone of Tatiana Troyanos’ mezzo in their duets. With the bonus of Kiri Te Kanawa’s Marschallin, it’s a wonderful performance.
I look forward to more Met broadcasts and delving into the video archive in the near future. I can’t recommend Met Opera on Demand enough.