If you are in London on a summer afternoon and you see groups of men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns carrying picnic baskets and boarding a train in Victoria Station, you are observing lucky owners of hard-to-get tickets to the opera at Glyndebourne. The audience is elegant at these performances, where formal wear is mandatory, but the productions are even more elegant. Two of them have just been issued on Arthaus DVD -- Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress and Mozart: Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and the elegance is evident not only in the music but in the sets, costumes and acting as well.
Glyndebourne is one of the places (Salzburg and Vienna are others) where opera is treated with a curious combination of earthy energy and almost religious reverence. Both "The Rake's Progress" and "The Abduction From the Seraglio" take place in a sort of never-never land. Stravinsky's 1951 opera, with a libretto by W.H. Auden, is based on a series of 18th-century cartoons by William Hogarth depicting the descent of a young man into insanity because of his lack of moderation and self-discipline. Hogarth's work attempted a realistic if exaggerated picture of London in his time. Stravinsky and Auden push it into fantasy, with a Devil figure manipulating the plot, a machine that supposedly turns stones into bread, a marriage to a bearded woman and other details. Stravinsky's skillful music is neoclassical, and an all-star cast under the baton of Bernard Haitink gives a very stylish performance.
The 1782 Mozart opera, one of his earliest still regularly performed, is set in an imaginary Middle East, with an impossibly benign Pasha who hopes to win the true love of a slave girl. A cruel overseer (brilliantly sung and acted by Willard White) steals the show. The music is bright and energetic; the small cast (five singers) faces virtuoso singing and acting demands and emerges triumphant. The orchestra is excellent (the London Philharmonic under Gustav Kuhn), and the staging captures precisely the dimensions of this brightly colored fantasy.
Wagner: Gotterdammerung (Opus Arte, 3 DVDs). With this release, Opus Arte completes a recording of the "Ring" cycle, from Barcelona, that is one of the best available in home video. It is staged (in a rather abstract, postmodern style) by Harry Kupfer, one of the world's best opera directors. Conductor Bertrand de Billy paces and accents the cycle tastefully. But the primary asset of this production is the casting, mostly with young performers who find acting as important as singing.
Lully: Persee (Euroarts DVD). Rameau: Les Indes Galantes (Opus Arte, 2 DVDs): Two of the most important French baroque operas receive recordings that look definitive. Early French opera, with its emphasis on dance and visuals, benefits greatly from video, and both are handled well in these productions. The two works contrast sharply. "Persee" (a 1682 tragedie lyrique) is deeply serious and steeped in Greek mythology. "Les Indes Galantes," composed a half-century later, is a frivolous extravaganza that was a wild success at the box office, with exotic scenery (Mount Olympus. Turkey, Peru, Persia and the North American wilderness), a lot of dancing and even a volcanic eruption. Both operas are superbly performed, "Persee" by the Opera Atelier of Toronto with Tafelkmusik in the pit, Herve Niquet conducting, and "Les Indes Galantes" by Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie.
Opera Proibita (Decca, with texts and translations): Opera was banned in Rome from 1703 to 1719, resulting in a lot of cantatas and oratorios that are not opera (no sets or costumes) but sound like it. There were great composers in Rome at that time: Georg Friedrich Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Caldara. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has recorded 15 arias from their non-operas, many recorded for the first time. The material ranges through an operatic variety of emotions and styles; the singing is, as always with Bartoli, beautiful, and Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre provide idiomatic accompaniment.
Ernest Chausson: Le Roi Artus, Op. 23 (1895) (Telarc, 3 CDs with libretto). This is a masterful treatment of the familiar story of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, told dramatically in a style that recalls Debussy and Wagner but retains its own distinctive personality. Conductor Leon Botstein leads an expert cast and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance that is powerful and sensitive.
Thomas Ades: Piano Quintet. Schubert: Trout Quintet (EMI). Ades is better known as a composer than as a performer, but this disc shows him as a formidable pianist in his own quintet and Schubert's. The two works contrast rather sharply in style but coexist comfortably on the same disc.
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Violin Sonata, Piano Pieces; Two Ricercari; Sandburg Songs (Naxos). Ruth Crawford Seeger was one of the most musically fascinating American composers of the early 20th century, progressive in style but always accessible. The 10 works in this collection deserve to be well known. They are beautifully performed and recorded.
Arvo Part: Lamentate (ECM New Series). Arvo Part celebrates his 70th birthday on Sept. 11, and ECM New Series, which has been working with him since the 1980s (a total of 10 CDs), is observing the occasion by issuing recordings of two fascinating and highly contrasted works. "Da pacem, Domine," exquisitely sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, is a medieval Latin prayer for serenity, with music that has already achieved that goal. "Lamentate" is a purely instrumental work for piano and orchestra in 10 brief movements that depict the variety of pain and suffering modern life can inflict on a sensitive soul. The first three movements are marked "Menacing," "Pitiless," "Fragile," but the victim (portrayed by the piano) survives the assaults of the orchestra (brilliantly conveyed by brass and percussion) and works its way to a positive conclusion. Pianist Alexei Lubimov, conductor Andrey Boreyko and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra respond to all the music's drama.