All 22 Mozart Operas on DVD

Deutsche Grammophon and Decca/London have announced a first in the history of opera on DVD: the simultaneous release of Mozart's entire oeuvre of operas and operatic fragments. Captured live at the 2006 Salzburg Festival as part of the 250th-anniversary celebration of Mozart's birth, the 19 DVDs feature striking productions of all 22 operas, plus a wealth of bonus interviews with conductors, singers, and other members of the artistic team.

All 51 hours of music and drama—perhaps the most extensive audio-video project of all time—is processed in what series producer Roland Ott terms "state-of-the-art" high-definition and 5.1-channel Dolby Surround Sound, as well as PCM stereo. Release in the Blu-ray and/or HD DVD formats is expected at a future date.

To be made available in the US as a complete boxed set on February 13, the milestone collection has already surpassed sales expectations in Europe, with close to 1000 complete sets sold. Part of the enticement lies with the casts and productions. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), for example, features such top-tier artists as the spectacular Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night, René Pape as a sterling, pensive High Priest Sarastro, and Paul Groves as Tamino. With the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera conducted by Riccardo Muti, and a modern production in fanciful, primary colors, this performance of the opera is as compelling visually as it is vocally. Don’t miss Pape's designer denim casuals and provocatively demonic goatee in the bonus section.

Anne Olschewski, who is in charge of international promotion and marketing for the project, considers Le Nozze di Figaro perhaps the most visually interesting production. Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, this performance has a dream cast ca 2006: the glamorous and ardent (albeit technically impaired in the coloratura department) Anna Netrebko, Bo Skovhus, Dorothea Röschmann (a glorious Pamina in a rival Zauberflöte that also features the amazing Damrau and an intentionally dumb-ass Simon Keenlyside), Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Christine Schäfer, and veteran Marie McLaughlin. Most of these artists are either in their prime or fine and still improving.

Early-music specialist Harnoncourt is also said to play the opera in slow motion to underscore Mozart's revolutionary connection between politics and humanity. The Beaumarchais play on which the opera is based, with its criticism of the nobility and championing of the "common man and woman," has been credited with fomenting the French revolution. Had it not been not for the censors, Mozart would have set far more of Beaumarchais' revolutionary dialogue than he did.

While the Figaro DVD will shortly become available in the US as part of the boxed set, the opera's individual release will be delayed until June, to allow DG to issue both it and a highlights disc on CD. Clearly, while releases of operas on DVD are fast outpacing those on CD, there appears still to be a vital market for a CD-only version of an opera starring Universal Classics' hottest young soprano, Anna Netrebko.

Don Giovanni, with the mellifluous Thomas Hampson in the title role, features an equally starry cast. Even the lesser-known operas, most of them making their DVD premieres here, feature such top-class singers as Ramon Vargas, Magdalena Kozena, Wayne Croft, Miah Persson, Béjun Mehta, Laura Aikin, Diana Damrau, and a host of younger, European-based artists who are far more likely to be recorded on DVD than on CD or SACD.

Of these productions, 90% reflect the zeitgeist of new directors who tend to appeal to viewers of all ages. Some of the more obscure directors especially whet the appetite. Take, for example, the incorporation of puppet theater into director Thomas Reichert's productions of Der Schauspieldirektor and Bastien und Bastienne (available together on a single DVD). Director Günter Krmer pairs with conductor Marc Minkowski to present Mitridate, re di Ponto on a mirrored stage. In yet others, a "Freudian" interpretation shows "human frailties as actual virtues," according to the promotional copy. It's not clear to me what's Freudian about such an approach, but it does arouse my curiosity.

Every veteran opera lover has his or her favorite CD, and perhaps DVD, version of the Mozart Top Six: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and Die Zauberflöte. But few of us have discs or vinyl of Ascanio in Alba (conducted by Iván Fischer), or Apollo et Hycacinthus and Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots (both on one DVD). In fact, some of us may have never even heard of some of these operas. On the levels of edification, enjoyment, and sheer entertainment—the last value sorely missing from many audio-only recordings—this remarkable project scores a solid 10.