Maybe I should explain my headline. For anyone approaching this work for the first time, or wanting to really settle down and get to grips with it, this is surely the best possible way.
First of all, the music making: it is superb. The London Philharmonic is spectacular. The many tricky solos in winds and brass are stunningly played, not only very accurately, but with beauty of tone and appropriate expression. The tuning of the strings in some tricky passages (the prelude to the Graveyard Scene for example) is pristine and the harpsichordist is simply a virtuoso (he accompanies the Graveyard Scene with exemplary clarity and point). Haitink's conducting is exceptional. He is very accurate, superb at pointing details and while he is aware of the composer's own rather dry manner in this score (Stravinsky led two recordings, the second in stereo with some help from Robert Craft), he also knows how to expand and color the music, just enough to remind one how beautiful the music is and how touching the opera is. The sound is excellent.
Hockney's Hogarth inspired but very witty sets offer some of the same 'out of kilter' homage to a visual style the music does to a range of composers from Monteverdi through Mozart to hints of Verdi and earlier Stravinsky. They are remarkable both in a large sense for their atmosphere and wit (sometimes charming, sometimes edgy) and in a smaller sense for their amazing detail (and the pristine DVD picture allows one to scrutinize the sets at leisure to find all kinds of things semi-buried in the images). There are other ways to go, but as the other reviewers have mentioned, this follows Stravinsky (who saw a Hogarth exhibition and got the idea for the opera) and Auden with both precision and brilliant invention.
John Cox's production is perfect in its deft, observant staging, simple believable gestures and where needed, strong theatricality. Again the implications both of the surface of the glittering text by Auden/Kallman, and the depths suggested by the story and music are elegantly and effortlessly realized.
The cast is good to excellent -- but whatever one thinks of this or that vocal passage, one is always watching recognizable and understandable human beings (except for the slippery villain Nick Shadow, which is how it should be). The sad destiny of Tom and his beloved Anne is very moving but not overdone, just as Nick wears his villainy lightly and with charm.
The great performance here is Samuel Ramey, on the brink of world stardom, as Nick. No one has sung this role as well, his sound is improbably gorgeous, his words are abundantly clear, his phrasing is musical. His interpretation is buoyant with a slightly smarmy smile and some elegance of manner but his curse of Tom has immense force. On the issue of 'interpreting' Nick, well there, others have sometimes been more inventive, but as a whole Ramey is thrilling.
Rosalind Elias is well above average as Baba, and sympathetic, which is important in the part but hard to achieve. Van Allen fairly early in what would be a long career has good resonance and presence as Trulove, and only Mother Goose and the Auctioneer are merely solid.
The two leads are good, not perfect, but very moving. Lott, early in a long career, has a less well focused tone than she would display later and does not do the great scene that ends act one in quite the thrilling style of say Hilde Gueden (from the Met broadcast of the opera's premiere season in that house) or more recently, Dorothea Roeschmann live. But her simple, direct manner works very well in the last scene, which is crucial.
Goeke does very well, all considered, it's a long and tricky part. As with Lott there is some lack of glamor in his sound except when he uses a very lovely head voice but his singing is clean, stylish and he is a fine musician. As with Lott, sincerity is his strong suit, and it works very well. Both of these singers are very understandable as human beings, she unrealistically faithful, he foolish but fundamentally decent and both are loving. At the end they are devastating.
Some more off beat productions attest to the opera's durability and ability to fascinate an audience. But this is so true to the spirit of the work and so wonderfully realized it's impossible to do without it if one has any response to the work at all.