Articles and Reviews

Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and painting. We call these recordings "HDVDs." In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Learn what's available. Pick the titles that suit you best for your personal excelsisphere. It's always been relatively easy to educate yourself about world literature, but hard and expensive to learn about the fine arts. But now with a decent TV, surround sound, and this website, you can at modest cost vastly expand what you know about the arts.

February 25. We just posted a revised review, "A+" grade,  and screenshots of the excellent NHK recording of the Mendelssohn Piano Concreto No. 1 and the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream music. We recently posted an updated review and screenshots of the "A+" operetta Die Fledermaus.

The Poulenc Dialogues des carmélites is the most successful modern opera.  We have 3 HDVDs of this now, and we recently put up reviews about all of them, which you can find here.  For those keenly interested in this important opera, we have added to our Special Stories a fabulous masters degree thesis on point by Gale Elizabeth Lowther. 

We have the most complete and best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. So we posted a "hit-parade" story with our top picks. We just added the new The Winter's Tale to the list of best modern ballet and dance titles.

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Wednesday
Feb252015

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sommernachtstraum

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sommernachtstraum or Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Seiji Ozawa conducts a 20th-year anniversary concert of his Japanese Mito Chamber Orchestra in 2009 at the Mito Art Tower. Yu Kosuge is the piano soloist. For A Midsummer Night's Dream, the orchestra is joined by soprano Akiko Nakajima, mezzo Katherine Rohrer,  ladies of the Tokyo Opera Singers (Chorus master: Masanori Mikawa), and narrator Yukiyoshi Ozawa (Seiji's son, an actor). There is also an 8-minute bonus of the Bach Air on the G String from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. The information in the collector's booklet is 99+% in Japanese, but there are nice subtitles in English on the disc. This title was recorded with 96kHz/24 bit sound sampling on all tracks. The disc has 5.0 PCM sound output.  Grade: A+ for both performances.

Two delicious confections from the Mendelssohn Konditorei! This title was made in Japan primarily for their home market. The Mito Chamber Orchastra, promoted by Seiji Ozawa, is an elite western-style chamber orchestra in Japan with star Japanese musicians and a few European players. Written material on the keepcase, booklet, and disc is almost entirely in Japanese. But there is just enough information in English for a westerner to work his way through the menus. And for the speaking and singing portions of the disc, there are English subtitles. This is more than just a delightful music recording. It's proof from the Japanese Broadcasting Company (NHK) that Japanese musicians can compete with the best in the world and that NHK can make a better HDVD of a symphony than the European and Americans.

We start with Yu Kosuge as piano soloist in the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1. After you work your way through the menu, here's the title screen:

With only 36 players and a soloist on stage, it's relatively easy for the TV director to follow the the best-practice standards for making an HDVD of a symphony orchestra. The most important single good practice is to give the audience plenty of whole-orchestra shots. In the screenshot below we see the best view of the whole orchestra in this track---you can see all the musicians except for a couple of second violinists who are partly obscured by the piano and the conductor. There are many long-distance shots with this and other angles:

Yu is an energetic performer who is fun to watch:

Following best practices, there are only a couple of shots of Ozawa such as the one below. The emphasis is all on the soloist:

The TV director also was alert to show sections at work. For example, here during the Andante there's a mellow, languid theme with the low strings (violas, cellos, and double-basses) and a single horn playing to the soloist. The camera catches this in a smart, perfectly framed shot that shows all the active players as well as the resting second horn at the edge. In this shot you see exactly what you are hearing:

The piano concerto lasts about 20 minutes as a warm up for the main event. Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream is complete with the Overture (written when Mendelssohn was 17) and the Incidental Music (written when Mendelssohn was 35). I was familiar with this music from the A Midsummer Night's Dream Ballet recorded by the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  I could tell that the singers on that disc were rendering poetry from Shakespeare, but I could not understand a word.

Below from the Midsummer Night's Dream segment are two fine whole-orchestra shots of the full Mito chamber orchestra plus soloists and the chorus. The TV director gives us many such shots, and he often lets them run on for up to 45 seconds. Just think---a TV director who actually lets you relax and enjoy watching and hearing the orchestra for a satisfying period of time before snatching you away to another view. In the first view below, you can see all the violins playing together. In the second view you see all five strings sections at work. Multi-section shots like these are almost never seen in the DVDitis-infected symphony titles we get these days from the European and American Blu-ray publishers:

 

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Tuesday
Feb242015

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice motion picture. Michael Radford directed and wrote this film in 2004. Stars Al Pacino (Shylock), Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio), Lynn Collins (Portia), Zuleikha Robinson (Jessica), Kris Marshall (Gratiano), Charlie Cox (Lorenzo), Heather Goldenhersh (Nerissa), Mackenzie Crook (Launcelot Gobbo), John Sessions (Salerio), Gregor Fisher,(Solanio), Ron Cook (Old Gobbo), Allan Corduner (Tubal), Anton Rodgers (The Duke), David Harewood (Prince of Morocco), and Jules Werner (Franciscan Friar). Music by Jocelyn Pook; cinematography by Benoît Delhomme; editing by Lucia Zucchetti; produced by Cary Brokaw, Michael Cowan, Jason Piette, Barry Navidi, and Luciano Martino. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 surround sound. Grade: Help!

This movie was apparently made in the Netherlands to help Dutch-speaking folks (most of whom know a lot of English) enjoy this Shakespeare play. The language of the film is English. But the only subtitles are in Dutch, and we think the original packaging was in Dutch. Later the owners decided to reissue the film to a wider audience in English packaging.

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title. We would like to know how closely this movie follows the Shakespeare original text and whether it would help prepare the viewer to tackle reading the real deal.

Tuesday
Feb242015

Coriolanus

Shakespeare Coriolanus motion picture. Ralph Fiennes directed this film in 2011. Stars Ralph Fiennes (Caius Martius Coriolanus), Gerard Butler (Tullus Aufidius), Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia), Brian Cox (Menenius), Jessica Chastain (Virgilia), John Kani (General Cominius), James Nesbitt (Sicinius), Paul Jesson (Brutus), Lubna Azabal (Tamora), Ashraf Barhom (Cassius), Slavko Štimac (Volsce lieutenant), Dragan Mićanović (Titus), Radoslav Milenković (Volsce politician), Harry Fenn (Young Martius), and Jon Snow (TV Anchorman). Screenplay by John Logan; music by Ilan Eshkeri; cinematography by Barry Ackroyd; editing by Nicolas Gaster; produced by Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, and Colin Vaines. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 surround sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title. We would like to know how much the screenplay varies from Shakespeare's text and whether watching this would help one to then tackle the real deal.

Tuesday
Feb242015

King Lear

Shakespeare King Lear motion picture. Trevor Nunn directed this television film in 2008. Stars Ian McKellen (King Lear), Romola Garai (Cordelia), William Gaunt (Earl of Gloucester),  Jonathan Hyde (Earl of Kent), Philip Winchester (Edmund), Sylvester McCoy (The Fool), Frances Barber (Goneril),  Monica Dolan (Regan), David Weston (A Gentleman), Guy Williams (Duke of Cornwall), Seymour Matthews (Curan), John Heffernan (Oswald) Ben Meyjes (Edgar), Julian Harries (Duke of Albany), Naomi Capron (Maid), Kieran Bew (Soldier), Peter Hinton (Duke of Burgundy), and Ben Addis (King of France). Music by Steve Edis; cinematography by Paul Wheeler; editing by Dave Thrasher; art direction by Emma Davis; produced by Andy Picheta and Richard Price. Released 2008, disc has 5.1 surround sound. Grade: Help!

This is from the RSC, so we would expect it to follow Shakespeare's text as closely as a stage version would. Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Sunday
Feb222015

Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus operetta to a libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genée. Directed 2003 by Stephan Lawless (with assistant Titus Hollweg) at Glyndebourne. Stars Pamela Armstrong (Rosalinda), Thomas Allen (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Lyubov Petrova (Adele), Malena Ernman (Prince Orlovsky), Håkan Hagegård (Dr. Falke), Pär Lindskog (Alfred), Ragnar Ulfung (Dr. Blind), Artur Korn (Frank), Renée Schüttengruber (Ida), and Udo Samel (Frosch, a speaking part). Vladimir Jurowski directs the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader Peter Shoeman)  and the Glyndebourne Opera Chorus (Chorus Master Bernard McDonald). Set design by Benoit Dugardyn; costumes by Ingeborg Bernerth; lighting by Paul Pyant; choreography by Nicola Bowie; directed for TV by Francesca Kemp and produced for TV by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2008. Package says 24-bit sound was used, but my Oppo 93 player reports 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling. The disc has 5.0 PCM surround sound. Grade: A+

When this was produced in 2003, HDVD was still over the horizon. But both the video and sound recordings were brilliantly handled.  So this was picked by Opus Arte in 2008 as one of the best recordings available to publish early in both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. I watched this many times in 2008, but then I set it aside as new HDVDs came out. After six years of neglect, I just pulled it off the shelf again. It hasn't aged a day.

Die Fledermaus (The Bat) is considered an operetta. But both the score and the libretto are quite sophisticated,  and there isn't too much of the silliness that afflicts so many operettas. So I think of it as a comic opera.

Die Fledermaus is about a wild party which has big surprises for a lot of people who know each other. First we meet Adele (Lyubov Petrova), who gets a (bogus) invitation to the party. (Ida, the chorus girl will be there, but she didn't sent the note to her sister):

Adele works as a maid for Gabriel von Eisenstein (Thomas Allen) and his wife Rosalinda (Pamela Armstrong). Gabriel must go to jail (gaol) for eight days because of the incompetence of his lawyer, Dr. Blind (Ragnar Ulfung). Here Blind promises to do better on the appeal with a list of strategies he has already worked out:

Dr. Falke (Håkan Hagegård) invites Eisenstein to the party while he still has his freedom:

The statement below from Falke is the only true thing he tells Eisenstein. Falke is known around town as "die Fledermaus" or "Bat" because of a practical joke Eisenstein pulled on Falke. Soon Falke will get his revenge on Eisenstein:

Eisenstein and Falke leave for a dinner before the party, leaving wife Rosalinda alone, poor thing. But then Rosalinda's discarded lover, Alfred (Pär Lindskog) shows up. Alfred has a Bösendorfer piano, but the Bösendoncker mentioned here by Rosalinda is a different instrument that vibrates at a frequency below the range of human hearing:

The temptation of Rosalinda:

 

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Tuesday
Feb172015

Dialogues des carmélites

Francis Poulenc Dialogues des carmélites opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2013 by Olivier Py at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Stars Patricia Petibon (Blanche de La Force), Sophie Koch (Mère Marie de l’Incarnation), Véronique Gens (Madame Lidoine), Sandrine Piau (Soeur Constance de Saint Denis), Rosalind Plowright (Madame de Croissy), Topi Lehtipuu (Le Chevalier de La Force), Phillippe Rouillon (Le Marquis de La Force), François Piolino (Le Père confesseur du couvent), Annie Vavrille (Mère Jeanne de l’Enfant Jésus), Sophie Pondjiclis (Soeur Mathilde), Matthieu Lécroart (Thierry, le médecin, le geôlier), Yuri Kissin (Le second commissaire, un officier), and Jérémy Duffau (Le premier commissaire). Chœur des Carmélites: Caroline Allonzo, Solange Añorga, Elizabeth Bartin, Anne-Lou Bissières, Béatrice Dupuy, Anne-Sophie Durand, Carolina Fèvre, Claire Geoffroy-Dechaume, Laure Slabiak, Sophie Van de Woestyne, and Mayuko Yasuda. Jérémie Rhorer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra & Chœur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées  (Chef de chœur Alexandre Piquion). Set design and costumes by Pierre-André Weitz; lighting by Bertrand Killy; directed for film by François-Rene Martin. Released 2014, disc has Dolby 5.1 sound. Grade: A+

On July 17, 1794, 16 members of the Carmel of Campiègne were guillotined in Paris by the French Revolutionary government. The true facts of this event are considerably more complicated than indicated by the story of the opera we now review, the Dialogues des carmélites. Thousands of priests, nuns, and other Catholics were killed during the Great Terror including even larger groups of nuns in other parts of France. Amazingly, two of the Campiègne martyrs were civilian employees who stayed with their employers, three were lay sisters, and one was a novice. The group had several years of stressful living during which any of them could have saved their lives. If I understand the theology involved, it would be a sin to seek martyrdom (just a dramatic way to commit suicide). But they were allowed to refuse to disband their association: it would then be up to God to determine to consequences. A few members returned to their families. But for many months the 16 renewed their vows each day, hoping to save their country and church by facing down the Revolution, which was becoming increasingly violent and unstable. When God called them for the ultimate sacrifice, they were ready. They were transported in carts to what is now the Place de la Nation wearing their forbidden habits (because their civilian clothes had been taken to the laundry). They renewed their vows and continued singing as each mounted the scaffold. The civilian employees went first to the machine, then the lay sisters, then the novice, and the Prioress was the last to die. This event must have sent a huge shock wave over all France. Ten day later, Robespierre was himself guillotined and the Great Terror was over.

There should have been 17 Carmel martyrs. Marie de l'Incarnation was the leader in taking the vow, but she was away on Church business when her sisters were condemned. Her superiors ordered her not to return. Later she wrote a detailed account of the true story which eventually led to the beatification of the 16 who died.

Dialogues des carmélites is only roughly based on true events. But all the words of the libretto are precious because they come down to us from a nun who was an eye-witness thru the auspices of 3 artistic geniuses. More about that later. We have a wonderful resource to tell us more about the Carmélites and this opera. Consult the deep, detailed, and readable thesis published in 2010 by musician Gail Elizabeth Lowther called A Historical, Literary, and Musical Analysis of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites.

Dialogues des carmélites personalizes the story of the Carmel martyrdom through a fictional character called Blanche de la Force. Blanche, a member of the French aristocracy, was created as the alter ego of the German woman of letters, Gertrude von Le Fort, who published in 1931 a popular novel called Die Letzte am Schafott (Last on the Scaffold). Below we meet Blanche's father, the Marquis de la Force (Phillippe Rouillon), and her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Topi Lehtipuu). They are worried about Blanche:

Blanche (Patricia Petibon) suffers from a pathological fear of life. She is also intensely religious. For her, every night is a terrifying replay:

In the two images above you will note the bare electric light on a slender stand. Py and Killy use this odd prop several times on the frequently dark stage. This is appropriate for an opera that is usually presented as a psychological rather than an historical drama, but it must have caused fits for video director François-Rene Martin. Below we see Blanche declare her decision to become a nun ("him" should be "Him"):

Blanche applies for admission to the Carmelite order. The old and terminally ill Prioress, Madame de Croissy (Rosalind Plowright) sees Blanche as a poor candidate:

Mme Croissy explains that the Order is not place of mortification, enforced virtue, or refuge. The sisters must be strong to support the Order: the Order does not support them:

Still, Croissy takes pity on Blanche and decides to give her a chance:

 

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Tuesday
Feb172015

Dialogues des carmélites

Francis Poulenc Dialogues des carmélites opera to libretto by the composer based on the play by Georges Bernanos. Directed 2008 by Nikolaus Lehnhoff at the Staatsoper Hamburg. Stars Wolfgang Schöne (Marquis de la Force), Alexia Voulgaridou (Blanche de la Force), Nikolai Schukoff (Le Chevalier de la Force), Kathryn Harries (Madame de Croissy), Anne Schwanewilms (Madame Lidoine), Gabriele Schnaut (Mère Marie de l'Incarnation), Jana Büchner (Sœur Constance), Olive Fredricks (Mère Jeanne), Susanne Bohl (Sœur Maltilde), Benjamin Hulett (Father Confessor for the Convent), Mortiz Gogg (Officer), Frieder Stricker (First Commissionar), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Second Commissionar), Jan Buchwald (The Jailor), Peter Veit (Thierry, a Lackey), and Rainer Böddeker (Doctor). Simone Young conducts the Philharmoniker Hamburg and the Chor der Staatsoper Hamburg (Chorus Master Florian Csizmadia). Sets by Raimund Bauer; costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer; associate direction by Heiko Hentschel; dramaturgy by Annedore Cordes; lighting by Olaf Freese; TV direction by Andreas Morell. Released  2010, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: B

In 1794, 16 Camelite nuns were guillotined in Paris because they had taken a vow of martyrdom and refused to abandon their Order. This atrocity appears to have had a huge impact on public opinion. Only 10 days later the French Revolution Reign of Terror came to its end (with the execution of Robespierre).  By happenstance, one of the nuns who took the vow of martyrdom, Mère Marie, was not arrested and survived to write her true story of the events. The lost nuns were beatified in 1906.

The Carmelites' story became the basis for fictional treatments by Christian artists, each of whom added embellishments aimed at making the story more compelling to their audiences. In 1931, Gertrud von Le Fort wrote a novella, Die Letzte am Schafott (Last on the Scaffold) in which she added a fictional victim called Blanche de la Force. Blanche was both an alter-ego for Le Fort and a character that all readers could identify with. While he was suffering from a terminal illness, George Bernanos wrote a play based on Le Fort's book called Dialogues des carmélites. The Bernanos play was published after his death. Poulenc used it as the basis for the opera libretto he wrote himself. The opera premiered in 1957 (the year I was a senior in high-school). So when you dip into the caldron of this opera, you will taste of an old true story laced with political, philosophical, and theological ingredients from 3 distinguished artists and thinkers who lived right up to our times. This is pretty stern stuff for those of us used to thin-moral fare such as Don Pasquale, La Traviata, and The Magic Flute!

Meet Blanche de la Force (Alexia Voulgaridou), the only daughter of an aristocratic French family in say, 1790. Blanche, a fine but timid soul, suffers from deep ill-defined fears that are, I think, stand-ins for the concerns any well-informed person would have had in pre-revolutionary France, the Weimar Republic, Vichy France, or during the Cold War:

Blanche's brother is Le Chevalier de la Force (Nikolai Schukoff). He is worried about his sister:

Poulenc wrote 12 scenes separated by orchestral interludes and grouped into 3 acts. The producers take advantage of the interludes to provide the video viewer with helpful road signs in German. If you are a Carmélites novice, you can follow this opera well without studying up on it in advance. The translations into English are a bit skimpy at times. Below the German text says, "Blanche asks the gravely-ill Prioress to admit her to the Carmelite Order." The translation provided misses some of this:

The Prioress (Kathryn Harries) has to make a hard call. Blanche is weak. The Prioress seeks strong women who can support the Order; the Order doesn't support it's members. Blanche says she wants to lead an "heroic" life. But the life of a nun is not heroic. Also, the Church does not encourage those who desire martyrdom (I think because that is just a form of suicide). Only God can decide who will be a martyr:

But Blanche is eager and determined, so she is admitted as a novice. Blanche befriends another novice, Constance (Jana Büchner), who is as cheerful and extroverted as Blanche is dour and reclusive. Constance dreams that the two friends will die young and together:

 

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