The music is Divine or better. The librettos are of substantial literary and dramatic quality, and Mozart invariably tweaked his librettists toward a unified musical/dramatic Whole. No other opera composer between Monteverdi and Janacek worked with librettos of such intelligence. And it's not for lack of trying! Every one of Mozart's major operas - Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, Die Zauberflöte, and La Clemenza di Tito - is staged in several theaters around the world every year. There are seven to twelve DVDs of different productions of every opera listed. Not many of them are as ghastly as the 2003 Royal Opera House performance of Die Zauberflöte with Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night, or as bizarre as the travesties offered by the Salzburg Festival M22. But, much as I love Mozart's operas, much as I seldom miss a chance to hear a live performance, I can't think of a single filmed staging that matches my ideal in all three categories of musical interpretation, dramaturgy, and visual artistry.
I'm not alone in this opinion. Look at the reviews here in the amazoo of "the Big Seven" and notice how many of them are four star apologetics. How can there be 47 reviews of Don Giovanni, the Greatest Opera in History, that average out to four stars??? Some of the best stagings, especially the older ones, are marred by poor sound recording and/or hampered by unreconstructed Romantic vocal technique. Some of the most gorgeous singing is wasted on dreadful sets, lumpish acting, or misconceived directorial antics.
The principal singers of this production from Paris could hardly be better. Susan Graham sings the castrato role of Sesto with every sort of HIPP brilliance. Catherine Naglestad is almost as perfect as Vitellia. Hannah Minutillo gives us an Annio of resonant energy and polish. Other reviewers have carped at the choice of Christoph Prégardien, a Schubert Lieder specialist, for the role of Tito; I had my doubts in his first scene also, but as the plot thickens Prégardien's voice gets more compelling, and there's no carping at his control of his 'instrument.'
But then there's acting. Expressive movement and facial control for those cinematic close-ups. Graham and Naglestad act as well as they sing; it's almost disconcerting to hear them sound like ordinary American Girls in the interview clips attached as bonuses. Minutillo handle herself well on stage but she's compromised by an absurd hairdo and the femininity of lipstick in the role of an ardent young male. And Prégardien? He couldn't possibly look less imperial or more professorial, but he gains credibility in his second aria as a Man of Conscience and Clemency. By the second act, I was finding myself in his corner, even though he's paunchy and has no physical grace whatsoever.
And then there's the visual. Sets and costumes. Utterly mediocre! They're supposed to be Timeless and Universal, but to my eyes they're unworthy of the music or the libretto. Add to that drabness a few touches of "unprepared absurdity" - yes, a giant baked potato is hauled across the stage in Tito's first scene, and Vitellia does paint parallel equal signs on her cheeks for no obvious reason - and you have what? ... minor annoyance! Just listen to the music! And hope that some day somewhere an opera company will stage a performance of Mozart that's satisfying on all levels.
Why FIVE stars? It's Mozart. And the singing is superb.