A Night at the Opera - at Home

New video and CD contracts have put N.Y.'s Metropolitan on the cutting edge of home-tech

FOR a long time, radio and television have brought the Metropolitan Opera to a big audience outside New York City, thanks to the Texaco broadcasts and the PBS-TV stereo simulcasts. Now the Met is launching into compact-disc and home-video ventures that will likely make it the most prominent opera presence in the home-entertainment field.

Since the beginning, the Metropolitan has been one of the finest opera companies in the world. But with the arrival of James Levine in the early '70s, the orchestra finally got a conductor willing to devote the vast amount of time needed to transform an intermittently excellent opera orchestra into a first-class orchestra. Levine's nearly two decades of effort have resulted in a slew of new recording contracts.

The Met, which was recorded by Columbia Records in the late '40s and by RCA Victor in the following decade, has not been in the recording studios, with one exception, since the early '60s. That exception was Deutsche Grammophon's (DG) landmark 1972 recording of ``Carmen,'' conducted by the late Leonard Bernstein and featuring Marilyn Horne, James McCracken, and Adriana Maliponte.

About five years ago, DG once again announced that it would bring the company into the studio - this time to record the Met's recently completed ``Ring'' cycle concurrently with the live stage performances.

DG plans more recordings, and now Sony Classical (formerly CBS Masterworks), under the direction of former DG guiding light G"unther Breest, has gotten into the act, too.

According to Joseph Volpe, the Met's new general director, talks are under way with London/ Decca as well. ``I guess it's one of the phenomena where you start with one company and then another company [gets interested]... ,'' Volpe told me in a recent interview.

Why, I asked, was there all this new interest in recording?

``I would attribute the majority of it to James Levine,'' Mr. Volpe said. ``If Jimmy doesn't record here, he'll only record in Europe. Jim has brought the orchestra to a level which probably is higher than it's ever been, and hopefully we're not going to stop here.''

As for the high costs of recording American orchestras, Volpe confirmed that the Met orchestra has made certain financial concessions. ``They made an investment in this,'' he says, ``and they made it because they wanted to - because they are musicians, because they are artists, because they wanted to do it with Jimmy. It was all of that. That was not easy for them, but it got this thing started, and now it's starting to really go.''

Alison Ames, vice-president for artists and repertoire at DG Records, says that even with concessions, ``the costs are considerably higher than they are in Europe. There's no question.'' But Ms. Ames points out, ``It's not just the musicians' costs. [It's] getting our team over here and our equipment, renting the Manhattan Center, and all of the concomitant things are just more expensive than they are in Europe, even with the weak dollar.

``The fact is, however, the Met orchestra is just practically without peer, a superb orchestra,'' adds Ames. ``And the kind of ensemble work that they are used to with Levine ... after 20 years together is just way beyond anything we can get with any other partnership in the world, period.''

In addition to the ``Ring,'' another DG recording is due out shortly: Donizetti's ``L'Elisir d'Amore,'' with Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle.

Still to be recorded this season are Verdi's ``La Traviata'' and part of Wagner's ``Parsifal,'' which will be completed next season.

On other labels, Schoenberg's ``Erwartung,'' with Jessye Norman, has been taped for Philips. As for Sony Classical, its first Met opera, ``A"ida,'' was captured last spring, with Aprile Millo and Placido Domingo. This spring Sony will record two more Verdi operas, ``Luisa Miller'' and ``Il Trovatore,'' as well as Wagner's ``Der Fliegende Holl"ander.''

Irwin Katz, vice-president for artists and repertoire at Sony Classical, says his company is interested in the Met partly because it has ``probably one of the finest orchestras in the world.''

He explains, ``It's important for a world-class label such as Sony Classical to be able to compete in the opera marketplace ... [with] the best opera houses with the best conductors and the best possible casts. So when ... that's your strategy, there are only a couple of places to go: Scala, Vienna, ... Covent Garden, and of course ... the Met.''

Ames observes that the Met gives her label ``a kind of international appeal and breadth that other companies don't have. ... To be able to have both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra doing the `Ring' in your catalog is a pretty fabulous offer to be able to make to prospective customers. Because of our commitment to Levine, we want to represent him at home as well as in his European musical homes.''

In addition to audio CDs, home video CDs and LaserDiscs are also becoming significant formats for Met recordings.

Pioneer Artists put the first Met lasers on the market, offering more than a dozen to date. Some of those are now considered classics. Zandonai's ``Francesca da Rimini,'' taped in 1984, is possibly the most exquisite video production of an opera ever.

Sony Classical is discussing a video relationship with the Met. As Katz explains it, ``At some point or another we will be involved doing both recording for video as well as the audio.''

For now, it is the Polygram group, primarily DG, that is involved in Met videos in a major way. Ames says home video ``was a good way for us to broaden [our] relationship [with the Met] and have some things we wouldn't have had another way - the [Zeffirelli production of Puccini's] `Turandot,' for example.''

Also included among DG's current CD-video releases are Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos'' with Jessye Norman in the title role, and Bizet's ``Carmen,'' with Agnes Baltsa and Jos'e Carreras. Levine conducts all three productions.

The ``Turandot'' is spectacular, with a blazing performance from Eva Marton in the title role, with often impressive support from Pl'acido Domingo as Calaf and Leona Mitchell as Liu and from Levine. The visuals are impressive, with exceptional closeups lending an intimacy to the extravanza. The digital sound is superb.

What impact will the new recording and video exposure have on the Met?

The Met's home market will be its strongest, notes Ames. ``However, the level of the performances, whether they're pure audio for us or the video productions that we've licensed from them for LaserDisc, ... is so high that no ... opera lover outside the United States can fail to be impressed by them.''

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