Here's news about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and painting. I call these recordings "HDVDs." In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Pick the best titles for your excelsisphere.

July 24. Work Baldmer just posted a story about From the New World, in which Andris Nelsons directs the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 4 pieces that are connected (sometimes just barely) with the US and modern music. Good ideas, but for us, the video content is dragged down by DVDitis.

We now have 4 HDVDs of the Verdi opera Rigoletto. The best is the Met "Rat Pack" version with Diana Damrau. Arthaus has a traditional contender at a super-budget price, and there's also a traditional Rigoletto from Regio di Parma. The caboose is a well-intended but weak updated version from Opera Australia. See all 4 now near the top of the journal.

I recently posted a story about a 2015 Accentus title with (1) Mozart concert arias, (2) Mozart Symphony 35, and (3) the Beethoven Egmont. 3 different segments got 3 different grades. Bryan Balmer recenty posted a story about a Richard Strauss concert in Dresden---the Last Songs segment gets an A-, but the Alpensinfonie gets a D+ for DVDitis. I also just posted a story about a similar recording made earlier with Renée Fleming singing Strauss songs and a different version of Eine Alpensinfonie!

Help up stamp out DVDitis! But how do you spot the symptoms of this dread disease?  Check out the new Wonk Worksheet that lets you play doctor! Fill one out, send it to us, and maybe go viral!

There's too much DVDitis out there infecting our classical music Blu-rays. But there are exceptions. Here's a list of the best classical music HDVDs, all with 96kHz/24-bit sound, no DVDitis, and mostly grades of A+:

  1. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 from NHK with the Berlin Philharmonic under Ozawa
  2. Mahler Symphony No. 1 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  3. Brahms Symphony No. 2 from NHK with the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Ozawa
  4. Schumann Piano Concerto & Bruckner Symphony 9 from NHK with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under  Haitink.
  5. Mozart Symphony 35 & Haydn Cello Concerto from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  6. Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 and Midsummer Night's Dream Music from NHK with Mito Chamber Orchestra under Ozawa
  7. Tango! from Challenge Records---Piazzolla tango nuevo by the Isabelle van Keulen Ensemble
  8. Winterreise from Challenge Records with tenor Prégardien and Gees on piano
  9. Mutter Live---The Club Album from DG. (This only got a" B+")
  10. Capuleti e i Montecchi opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  11. Porgy and Bess opera from San Francisco Opera and EuroArts
  12. Mozart Chamber Music from AIX Records with the Dover Quartet + guest artists. (This one got an "A")

The table below shows typical metrics for the best NHK symphony HDVDs mentioned above and can serve as benchmarks for diagnosing DVDitis:

Title Pace   Supershots   Conductor Shots
Tchaikovsky Symphony 6    14.5 seconds per clip   38%   24%
Mahler Symphony 1 9 seconds per clip   21%   11%
Brahms Symphony 2 11 seconds per clip   39%   13%
Bruckner Symphony 9 13.5 seconds per clip   34%   20%
Mito Chamber Orchestra 11 seconds per clip   40+%   18%


A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale supershots. Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of all the clips.
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Sunday
Jul242016

From the New World

From the New World symphony concert. In 2010 Andris Nelsons directs, at the Herkulessaal in Munich, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks) in a concert of pieces related to the New World:

1. Charles Ives The Unanswered Question (American composer)

2. John Adams Slonimsky's Earbox (American composer)

3. Igor Stravinsky Le Chant du Rossignol (Song of the Nightingale) (Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles longer than in any other city)

4. Dvořák Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" (inspired by Dvořák's experiences in America)

Perhaps you could make a case that all of these pieces explore "new worlds" of music as all of the composers lived in the 20th century (Dvořák just barely). Video director was Agnes Méth. Released 2013, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D

Print critic Rob Cowan in the October 2013 Gramophone (page 59) states that "Nelsons is a real boon, perhaps the most visually likeable conductor since Carlos Kleiber, his gestures clear, his facial expressions warmly appreciative of everything in the music that moves him." Below are some examples of Nelsons' face making; some love it and others consider him a disruptive clown. These are not shots of spectacularly exciting points in the concert---he pretty much looks like this constantly:

Cowan loved this recording as did Michael Cookson and Leslie Wright, in separate reports for musicweb-international.com, and Robert Cummings writing for Classical Net Review. I agree this was an excellent performance of interesting music well-recorded as to sound. But I have reservations about video content. But before we get into my critique, I'll show you some more screenshots.

The Unanswered Question

This is one of Ives' most popular pieces, perhaps because you just don't have time to get tired of it in 5 and 1/2 minutes. Like much of Ives, it's unlike anything else you have experienced. First, an outside-the-hall string orchestra provides a somewhat static foundation similar in feeling to the Barber Adagio for Strings.  Second, a solo trumpet (also offstage) asks 7 wistful questions in a mood similar to the strings. All the audience sees is an on-stage quartet of flautists (can be other woodwinds) which answers the trumpeted questions in increasingly aggressive and profuse strains of premeditated art.  All this is most atmospherically performed and filmed. 

Next below, from inside the hall, we have an image of the strings outside of an entrance to the hall (with workers in the rear cleaning around the concession stand):


During the performance, this is a typical view of the strings from a different angle (a whole-orchestra shot!)

Below are two shots of the four flautists on-stage. The first shot, made before the performance begins, shows an open stage door in the back. This is the little room where the trumpet player hides. The trumpeter makes his first and only video appearance during the applause:

 

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Monday
Jul182016

Rigoletto

Verdi Rigoletto opera to libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed 2013 by Michael Mayer at the Met. Stars Piotr Beczala (Duke), Željka Lučić (Rigoletto), Diana Damrau (Gilda), Štefan Kocán (Sparafucile), Oksana Volkova (Maddalena), Maria Zifchak (Giovanna), Robert Pomakov (Monterone), Jeff Mattsey (Marullo), Alexander Lewis (Borsa), David Crawford (Count Ceprano), Emalie Savoy (Countess Ceprano), Earle Patriarco (A Guard), and Catherine Choi (Page). Michele Mariotti conducts the Met Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master Donald Palumbo). Met Ballet choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Sets by Christine Jones; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Kevin Adams. The English subtitles in this production contribute enormously to its success; I think the credit for this should go to David Rebhun. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

This is the Met "Rat Pack" production that premiered January 2013. The realization of some of Verdi's characters are inspired by famous personalities in the US in the early 1960s, and this is covered briefly in one of the extras. All of the stars when interviewed say they sing for this updated show exactly the same as they sing in a traditional version. The music and libretto are unaltered. But for viewers in the US anyway, the Met does an amazingly good job of updating the setting of this opera by 400 years from a royal principality to modern times.

Las Vegas in 1960:

The Duke (Piotr Beczala) is a charismatic casino owner with ties to the American mafia.  His connections to the mob provide a neat analog to the kind of power a Duke might have had in earlier centuries. At this point I should explain that the Met orchestra is one of the best opera bands in the world, and this title offers good proof of that. The orchestration is admirably beautiful and refined throughout. The balance between the orchestra and the singers seems always to be perfect so that the dialog is startlingly clear. Here we also have a fantastic set of star singers and actors with many productions of Rigoletto behind them. But I sense in this video that they are all excited about being in this zany new Met blowout.

Now read the subtitles in the image below. I don't have the Rigoletto score. But I'm pretty sure this English text bears little direct relationship to what Maria Piave wrote in 1850. The Met commissioned subtitles would make this production work, and the result is a big boost in entertainment value for the HT viewers. I can't think of any other opera HDVD where the English subtitles have been handled so well:

Rigoletto (Željka Lučić) is here created in the mold of Donald Rickels, the great American "insult comic" who went by the name of "Don." The word "Don" in many languages means "Lord." So here we have a Duke and a Lord consorting, all of which is forbidden by the United States Constitution, which proscribes titles of nobility in America. Further I note that in the subtitles below, Lord Rigoletto claims to be "untouchable." The title "untouchable" in American folklore is reserved for agents of the FBI and other government police units that suppressed mob activities in the United States in the 1930s.  (I told you the subtitles here are great.) An insult comedian is one who gets laughs by being as obnoxious as possible to everyone else including the audience. This explains, of course, why the other members of the Duke's entourage hate Rigoletto:

Don Rickles:

Monterone (Robert Pomakov) curses Rigoletto. Making Monterone an Arab big shot was another stoke of genius. Few in the world in 1960 worried about being cursed. But who knows what an Arab billionaire might do if somebody messed with a daughter:

Below Sparafucile (Štefan Kocán). In the English subtitles, Sparafucile kills with a knife. (In German he uses a "messer" and in Spanish a "cuchillo", both of which mean knife.  But in Italian he uses the original and out-dated "spada" or sword.)

 

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Friday
Jul152016

Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi Rigoletto opera to libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed 2006 by Gilbert Deflo at the Zurich Opera House. Stars Leo Nucci (Rigoletto), Piotr Beczala (Duke), Elena Moşuc (Gilda), László Polgár (Sparafucile), Katharina Peetz (Maddalena), Kismara Pessatti (Giovanna), Rolf Haunstein (Monterone), Valeriy Murga (Marullo), Bogusław Bidziński (Borsa), Morgan Moody (Count Ceprano), Angela Kerrison (Countess Ceprano), Manuel Betancourt (Usher), and Martina Welschenbach. (Page to the Duchess). Dancers: Camilla Hoffmann, Megan Laehn, Julia Cheremeteff, Patricia Fässler, Eric Müller, Maurizio Tuozzo, Christian Altenburger, and Marc Meyer. Nello Santi conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House (Chorus Master Ernst Raffelsberger). Stage production by Aglaja Nicolet; set design by William Orlandi; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; choreography by Megan Laehn; directed for TV by Felix Breisach. Released 2008, disc features 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

The Duke (Piotr Beczala) is a libertine who also has a fatal attraction to women:

Rigoletto (Leo Nucci) is a hunchback jester who is a favorite of the Duke:

There's an orgy going on, and it's interrupted by Count Monterone (Rolf Haunstein), who claims that his daughter has been dishonored by the Duke with encouragement from Rigoletto:

Monterone challenges the Duke and puts a curse on Rigoletto:

Rigoletto is shaken by the curse. He's also surprised on his way home by an encounter with a professional assassin named Sparafucile (László Polgár) who offers his services. H'm. If Rigoletto could have Monterone killed, would that dispel the curse?

 

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Friday
Jul152016

Rigoletto

Verdi Rigoletto opera to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed by Stefano Vizioli in 2008 (after the 1987 Pierluigi Samaritani production) at the Teatro Regio di Parma Verdi Festival. Stars Francesco Demuro (Duke of Mantova), Leo Nucci (Rigoletto), Nino Machaidze (Gilda), Marco Spotti (Sparafucile), Stefanie Irányi (Maddalena), Katarina Nikolic (Giovanna), Roberto Tagliavini (Count of Monterone), Orazio Mori (Marullo), Mauro Buffoli (Matteo Borsa), Ezio Maria Tisi (Count di Ceprano), and Scilla Cristiano (Countess di Ceprano).  Andrea Battistoni conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio Di Parma (Chorus Master Martino Faggini). Set and costumes originally designed (1987) by Pierluigi Samaritani and revised by Alessandro Ciammarughi; lighting by Franco Marri; directed for video by Andrea Bevilacqua. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

Leo Nucci (Rigoletto) almost has had a lock on singing the hunchback. Here he's shown with Count Monterone's daughter. (Monterone's daughter is a mute and uncredited role created by the director; she does not appear in the Verdi libretto.) Monterone complains that his daughter has been traduced. But, on the other hand, the director doesn't picture the daughter exactly as a vestal virgin: 

And this Rigoletto is nastier than the norm. He really earns the curse he receives from the aggrieved father:

As a man, I have a hard time seeing why women fall to all fours panting in the presence of some of the lousiest men---while they ignore the noble and good men (like I was) who court them. But even I can see why Gilda (Nino Machaidze) would fall for this Francesco Demuro as Duke of Mantova:

The Duke reports that Gilda could have ruined everything for everybody. She . . .

Andrea Bevilacqua provides a ton of dramatic close-ups---next below is Marco Spotti as Sparafucile, the hit man:

Is Rigoletto thinking of assassinating Monterone? Maybe, and it's always a good idea to know an assassin:

Rigoletto's secret---he has a daughter:

 

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Friday
Jul152016

Rigoletto

Verdi Rigoletto opera to libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Directed 2010 by Elijah Moshinsky at the Sydney Opera House. Stars Alan Opie (Rigoletto), Emma Matthews (Gilda), Paul O'Neill (Duke), David Parkin (Sparafucile), Elizabeth Campbell (Giovanna/Maddalena), Christopher Hillier (Count Ceprano), Jane Parkin (Countess Ceprano), Andrew Moran (Marullo), David Corcoran (Borsa), Gennadi Dubinsky (Count Monterone), Jodie McGuren (Page), and Clifford Plumpton (Court Usher). Giovanni Reggioli conducts the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Concertmaster Aubrey Murphy) and the Opera Australia Chorus (Chorus Master Michael Black). Designs by Michael Yeargan; lighting by Robert Bryan; directed for TV by Cameron Kirkpatrick. Executive Producer was Chris Yates; Supervising Producer was Sam Russell; Audio Director was Tony David Cray. Released  2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D

The vast majority of orchestras we hear in Blu-ray opera recordings are excellent. But the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra deployed here sounds like a regional band or even a semi-pro community effort. This is evident right from the start in the Act 1 Prelude, and it continues to drag down the production while undermining the singers throughout. The SQ is OK, but the best recording engineers can't help a weak performance. Can director Moshinsky, who has worked all over the world and done Rigoletto numerous times, salvage something here with good personal directing and stagecraft?

Moshinsky sets this Rigoletto in 1960, when people were doing the twist and cameras had flashbulbs. Glamorous blonds were the hottest ever, especially at wild parties in unidentified European jurisdictions:

Below meet the Duke (Paul O'Neill). He's putting the make on Countess Ceprano (Jane Parkin) while her husband look on and steams:

The inspiration for the designs is the movie La Dolce Vita, which stared Anita Ekberg:

The Duke has an official hunchback clown named Rigoletto (Alan Opie) as part of his entourage.  Next below we see Rigoletto dealing with Count Monterone (Gennadi Dubinsky).  Monterone is upset because his underage daughter is at the party:

And here she is, pretty in pink, being tutored by the Duke (the daughter is an uncredited moot role that's not in the libretto):

I was a twister in 1960. But at no time during my life have I known of one person putting a curse on another. This technique of negotiating, like dueling,  has gone out of style. But Monterone threatens Rigoletto with a curse. Rigoletto goes to his dressing room. A stranger named Sparafucile is waiting. Sparafucile is a hit man making a cold call as part of his marketing plan:

 

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Sunday
Jul102016

Mozart Symphony No. 35

Mozart Symphony No. 35 concert. Here's the program:

1. Mozart concert arias sung by soprano Christine Schäfer:

  • Misera, dove son? - Ahi! non son io che parlo, K. 369
  • Ah, lo previdi! - Ah, t'invola, K. 272
  • Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! K. 418 (Lucas Macias Navarro, oboe)

2. Mozart Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner")
3. Beethoven Egmont Incidental Music with soprano Juliane Banse and narrator Bruno Ganz

Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2011 and 2012 at the Lucerne Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny.  Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B- blended grade for 3 segments

Mozart Concert Arias

Various composers, and especially Mozart, wrote short, opera-style vocal pieces with rich orchestration, often as showcases for particular singers who would show off their skills in concerts. There's usually enough text for the singer to create a highly dramatic scene that can be appreciated in isolation. Accentus doesn't provide any lyrics or discussion of the three arias recorded here. The subtitles are not all that great either.  But in the first two screenshots of Christine Schäfer below, you start to understand what these arias typically are about---a noble woman is trapped by the actions of the men around her in a situation from which death is the only escape:

The angles above are "realistic" shots of Schäfer, and there are 74 of these in the video. The shot below (with Schäfer singing of grim pain) is "not realistic" because it's not a view that the audience could share:

And why would the videographer make a shot of Schäfer's back even once? This is really a tacky thing to do:

But the next shot below can be justified. The orchestra gets the lead for a few bars, and even Schäfer is enjoying it:

 

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Saturday
Jul022016

Vier Letzte Lieder

Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2014. Below Thielemann and soprano Anja Harteros:

Pop quiz: what instrument are the two gents below playing? [Answer below]

And what is this gent below playing in the percussion section?

The following three works are presented on this Blu-ray:

  • Wolfgang Rihm's orchestral piece Ernster Gesang (Serious Song)

  • Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), with an inserted fifth song “Malven” (in a version orchestrated by Wolfgang Rihm in 2013). The combined presentation of five songs is therefore titled Letzte Lieder (Last Songs). Because the title Vier Letzte Lieder is so famous, we call it that way in the Alphalist. Here are the songs, all sung by soprano Anja Harteros:

    • I. “Fruhling” ("Spring")

    • II. “Malven” ("Mallows" or Malva . . . the plant genus)

    • III. “September”

    • IV. “Beim Schlafengehen” ("When Falling Asleep")

    • V. “Im Abendrot” ("At Sunset")

  • Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie

Recorded in the Dresden Semperoper on 8-9 June, 2014. Total timing of the music is approximately 89 minutes, while the total duration of the video is nearly 103 minutes including orchestral tuning and applause. Video Director is Michael Beyer. Sound is presented in 48 kHz/24-bit (PCM and DTS-HD MA 5.1). Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Overall Grade: C+

 

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Saturday
Jul022016

Strauss: Renée Fleming In Concert

Richard Strauss: Renée Fleming In Concert. Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the 2011 Salzburg Festival.  The disc features the following pieces, all by Richard Strauss. Selections 1-5  are various songs (unrelated to each other) with Renée Fleming singing soprano. Eine Alpensinfonie was the composer's last tone poem:
1. "Befreit"
2. "Winterliebe"
3. "Traum durch die Dämmerung"
4. "Gesang der Apollopriesterin"
5. "Mein Elemer!" (from the opera Arabella)
6. Eine Alpensinfonie 

Produced for Blu-ray by James Whitbourn; directed for video by Michael Beyer.  Music was recorded with 24kHz/24-bit sound sampling; released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+ blended overall grade

This all-Richard Strauss title came out in 2012, and I'll call it the "Fleming/Alpen video." It has a great opera singer, Thielemann, a Gramophone top-20 German orchestra, and Strauss songs for a warm up to a great tone poem. Later in 2015 a similar title came out that I'll call the "Harteros/Alpen video." It also has a great opera singer, Thielemann, a Gramophone top-20 German orchestra, and Strauss songs for a warm up to the same great tone poem. Bryan Balmer just published a detailed review of the Harteros/Alpen video in which he gave the soprano a good grade for the songs and the orchestra a bad grade for the tone poem. So now I jump in with a long-overdue review of the Fleming/Alpen video. And I also give my soprano a good grade and an even worse grade for the tone poem.  In both recordings great work by the ladies is overshadowed by a tone poem video that's crippled with a dreadful case of that dastardly, obnoxious, grave disease we call DVDitis.

If you're going to read either of these reviews, you would want to read both.  I'm publishing this Fleming/Alpen review so it falls right under the Harteros/Alpen review in the journal. I'll link the two so you always can read them together.

If you started with this Fleming/Alpen review and you don't already know about DVDitis, you should go now to Balmer's Harteros/Alpen review. There you can bone up on DVDitis and the tools we use on this website to identify and fight the disease. Then you will be ready for the rest of this review.

Renée Fleming Singing Strauss Songs

Fleming warms up the crowd and the band with 5 nice songs that last 23 minutes (not counting the rests between songs). I did a Wonk Worksheet for these 23 minutes. I suggest you print out this WW and keep it handy.  Look in the middle of the WW for the number 64 in a circle. This says that this short video has 64 realistic clips of Fleming singing. In the next 5 screenshots you see some of these 64 clips, all shot from different angles or ranges. In most of these shots you also see quite a lot about what the orchestra in doing:

 

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Thursday
Jun302016

The Rape of Lucretia

Britten The Rape of Lucretia opera to libretto by the Ronald Duncan. Directed 2015 by Fiona Shaw at Glyndebourne. Stars Christine Rice (Lucretia), Allan Clayton (Male Chorus), Kate Royal (Female Chorus), Duncan Rock (Tarquinius), Matthew Rose (Collatinus), Michael Sumuel (Junius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Bianca), and Louise Alder (Lucia). Leo Hussain conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Leader Pieter Schoeman). Set design by Michael Levine; costume design by Nicky Gillibrand; lighting design by Paul Anderson; film direction by François Roussillon; produced by George Bruell. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Thursday
Jun302016

Othello

Shakespeare Othello play. Directed 2015 by Iqbal Khan at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stars Hugh Quarshie (Othello), Lucian Msamati (Iago), Joanna Vanderham (Desdemona), Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Cassio), David Ajao (Montano), Nadia Albina (Duke of Venice), Scarlett Brookes (Bianca), James Corrigan (Roderigo), Ayesha Dharker (Emilia) Eva Feiler (Citizen of Venie), Owen Findlay (Gentlemaand n of Cyprus), Guy Hughes (Soldier), Gwilym Lloyd (Gratiano), Rina Mahoney (Citizen of Venice/Messenger), Ken Nwosu (Gentleman of Cyprus), Brian Protheroe (Brabantio), Jay Saighal (Gentleman of Cyprus/Herald), and Tim Samuels (Lodovico). Set and lighting design by Ciaran Bagnall; costume design by Fotini Dimou; music by Akintayo Akinbode; sound by Andrew Franks; movement by Diane Alison-Mitchell; fights by Kevin McCurdy; screen direction by Robin Lough; produced by John Wyver. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

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