Audio opera recordings are close to being dead. They're too expensive to make, too expensive to buy, and even the reasonably successful ones take years to recoup their costs. Occasionally a new opera recording will come out and make a splash, like Rene Jacobs' superb Marriage of Figaro. But most of the opera recordings being released these days are DVD recordings. Most of these were originally made for television, and feature all the usual problems of stage events on television: performers who are projecting to a theatre look kind of weird in close-up; videotape isn't very flattering to the sets or the performers; the not-so-great picture quality is all too evident in the DVD format. With opera you have an additional problem, which is that you can't just pick a DVD for the musical quality, as you would an audio recording; you also need to find a production you like. For most people, this means avoiding:
a) Eurotrashy decadence
b) Pompous, stiff productions (where everybody stands around and strikes poses like Lasparri in A Night at the Opera)
c) Cutesy productions where the director has allowed, or perhaps ordered, all the singers to mug a lot and do unfunny comic business (the curse of Rossini opera stagings).
As time goes on and more productions are recorded with DVD presentation in mind, video quality and sound quality should improve; what will happen with productions is anybody's guess -- with the knowledge that their productions might be captured for posterity, will directors be less likely to take risks? There are some performers who become less spontaneous, less willing to take risks, when there's a microphone present; one wonders if this could happen to directors too, if they know that somebody might be watching their productions 50 years from now. But on the other hand, some opera houses are putting on 50 year-old productions, just with different performers. So maybe it's all a moot point.
I don't have a lot of opera DVDs, in part because I'm careful about them (I don't buy unless I'm sure I'll like the performance and the staging) and most video stores don't rent opera DVDs, so it's hard to try before you buy. But here are a few I've bought and liked:
Verdi, Falstaff, La Scala Opera, conducted by Riccardo Muti. -- This is a gimmick production, re-creating the sets and costumes from an early 20th century performance of Falstaff. The retro approach works here; the staging may ignore the serious undertones of the comedy, but that's all right with me, because I find Falstaff kind of unpleasant when taken too seriously (like its source, The Merry Wives of Windsor, it's basically a story about a likable guy, Falstaff, being treated with horrible cruelty by a bunch of not very likable women). Muti's conducting is excellent, and the cast, led by the young Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, is very fine all around; a particular plus is that all but one of the singers is Italian (the tenor is Spanish). It's not often we get to hear idiomatic, non-internationalized Italian opera nowadays. The performance takes place in a small theatre in Verdi's hometown; the downside of the small size of the theatre is that the orchestra has to use a smaller-than-usual string section, but the plus side is that the small stage translates very well to the TV screen.
J. Strauss, Die Fledermaus, Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. The late Kleiber was just about the best Johann Strauss conductor of his time; he understood that Strauss's music is great light music that needs to be light and fun, not soupy or sentimental. The director, Otto Schenck, also understands that Fledermaus is the least sentimental of Viennese operettas, and plays it without most of the tiresome schtick that you usually see in productions of this work. The cast has one drawback -- Eberhard Wachter, the Eisenstein, was never vocally right for this part and could barely sing at all by the time this was made -- but overall it's a very entertaining production.
R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Vienna State Opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Another Schenck/Kleiber collaboration. Schenk's ultra-traditionalist approach doesn't really give the story much help -- and in this opera, which consists of a rather thin story stretched out to three hours, the story really needs some help from the director -- but Kleiber is great and the cast (Felicity Lott, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Barbara Bonney, Kurt Moll) was grade A. Oddly, the DVD has curtain calls for Act 1 but
not for the other two acts.
Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte, cond. John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner staged this production himself, and does a surprisingly good job; he has strong ideas about the piece, not all of which come off -- like having the sisters occasionally sing each other's lines -- but many of them do, like the general idea of having the two sisters start off as very similar to each other and then gradually becoming "individualised" as they become more self-aware. Moreover it's a production where the characters really act like something real and important is at stake for them, which is how Cosi works best: not a silly romp but a serious comedy about how our romantic ideas about love and sex conflict with the realities. Good performances from a mostly young cast.
Verdi, Otello, La Scala, cond. Muti. Most of the available DVDs of Otello feature Placido Domingo; this one is probably the best. Domingo is past his vocal prime, but even in his prime he was never quite vocally right for this part, so that doesn't matter all that much; he sings well and brings the benefit of a lot of experience to his acting of the part. The production is pretty good, not too gimmicky but not too traditionalist, and the all-Italian supporting cast is, again, a plus.
I recently ordered a Vienna Il Trovatore conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (who conducted this opera more often than any other), with Domingo, Raina Kabaivanksa, and Fiorenza Cossotto. I've heard mixed things about it, but I'm certainly looking forward to finding out about it first hand.