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Let me reassure you that I have watched all 27 hours of this boxed set on your behalf – over a day of my life lost unto me. And to start with the conclusion: proceed with some caution.

But I must emphasise the riches, and there are many. This is a collection of 11 operas filmed live at Glyndebourne between 1972 and 1980, ranging from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria to Verdi’s Falstaff, so hopefully there’s something for everyone, including six operas by house god Mozart. They were all adeptly filmed by director Dave Heather for broadcast by Southern Television (which seems quite remarkable these days) and form an important record of a major festival. If you are looking for an assurance of quality, you get four dames, six knights and countless singers of renown for your money.

Casting seldom comes starrier than Le nozze di Figaro, which boasts Ileana Cotrubas, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Benjamin Luxon and Knut Skram under the baton of John Pritchard: a line-up that any opera house in the world would have been proud to have assembled. But it’s not all megastars: the names Kay Griffel, Elizabeth Gale, Nucci Condò and Reni Penkova may not be as exalted, but as an ensemble they cheerfully make light work of the vocal intricacies of Falstaff. Josephine Barstow is a famously thrilling Lady Macbeth; Janet Baker a grave and contained Penelope in Ulisse. But likewise the lesser-known Horiana Branisteanu makes an incisive Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Some singers recur – as well as the Figaro Count, Luxon is an excellent Ulisse and Ford (Falstaff), a slightly less exciting Don Giovanni and Leporello (Magic Flute). Elizabeth Gale’s purity of tone and engaging stage presence also delight as Barbarina (Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni) and Marzelline (Fidelio). Some casts work wonderfully well together, such as Leo Goeke, Felicity Lott, Samuel Ramey and Rosalind Elias in The Rake’s Progress, and the ensemble of Così fan tutte. There is a huge amount to enjoy.

So what’s the catch? I haven’t yet commented on any conductors; not because they are bad – John Pritchard, Raymond Leppard, Bernard Haitink and Gustav Kuhn don’t really need a thumbs-up from me. It is just that the orchestral sound is murky, the voices are favoured, and apart from choice of tempi it is difficult to form much of an opinion. Likewise the picture quality. Do remember that these are films made for TV 40 to 50 years ago, so the visuals are sometimes optimistic. The gloom suits Macbeth, but Don Giovanni could have done with someone turning the lights up, and in the famous David Hockney production of The Rake’s Progress the blurry cross-hatched 18th-century scenery pulses like a particularly lurid bad trip.

Some productions stand the test of time really well – Peter Hall’s production of Fidelio is exemplary, and has the bonus of the vibrant Elizabeth Söderström in the title role. His traditional Figaro is winning and the elegant Monteverdi would still be acclaimed if new today. However, the gloomy Giovanni doesn’t come across as anything special. There is one real turkey, John Cox’s production of Idomeneo, which is dull on almost every account, though Barstow’s Elettra attempts to rescue it – I would have been peeved if I had made the effort to see it in 1974, so why would I want to watch it forty-five years later. Cox’s Magic Flute was considered a classic of its time, but on this showing it was not far above a pantomime. The Così is traditional but reeks of the 1970’s, with its pastel frilliness, plus Dorabella looks like Frida from Abba and Don Alfonso like Barry Humphries’ ghastly creation, Sir Les Patterson. (Come on directors out there, it’s a gift from me – Così, Abba, Sir Les – run with it.)

The set is presented abysmally. There is just the info on the back cover which is repeated in a booklet. It is incomplete – full casts are not given, just the leads. Names are misspelt, (Anne Hoewlls [sic]); diacritics ignored, (Soderstrom [sic]); information is inaccurate, (Hockney did not direct The Rake’s Progress, he designed it – John Cox directed). The box promises subtitles – alas they are not available for all performances, so be warned. A poor show for a product that will cost you in the region of £50.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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