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.

July 5. I just updated and added screenshots to our review of the A+ Twin Spirits, a poly-discipline chamber work about the love of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck. This wonderful title came out in 2009. I haven't heard anything about it in a long time. I think it's being unjustly ignored, so I'll give it a boost now. Lately we have been getting more visitors from Germany  than from the United States, so I ran the subtitles on this in German!

I recently posted a review and "A" grade for a San Francisco Opera traditional Lucrezia Borgia with Renée Fleming. I grouped it with a review of a stripped-down approach to Lucrezia Borgia from the Bavarian Opera with Edita Gruberova, also graded "A."

Lang Lang and the Houston Ballet teamed up in the Lang Lang Chopin Dance Project which was recorded in Paris in 2013. Quiet, unobtrusive, charming, and groundbreaking, it gets another "A" for the Imp. We recently posted a review of the new Royal Opera Ballet Swan Lake (Osipova and Golding) with screenshots and a "B-" grade. Osipova is terrific, and this is a much better recording than the Swan Lake the ROH published in 2010. Still, not even the best stars can fully rescue a show with worn-out sets, designs, and costumes. Read our story that covers both the 2009 and 2015 ROB versions of this classic work.

We have the best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. See our "hit-parade" story with our top picks.

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Sunday
Jul052015

Twin Spirits 

Twin Spirits, a poly-discipline performance art concert, portrays the lives of and love between composer Robert Schumann and his pianist wife, Clara Wieck. It appears this was the brainstorm of June Chichester, a member in 2005 of the Board of Directors of the Royal Opera, who wanted a special program to raise charitable donations for the opera and other causes. Chichester recruited John Caird, a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to create a play with a narrator, actors to speak the roles of Robert and Clara based on their actual words in letters and other surviving documents, and musicians to perform excerpts from their music. Specialists know well the stranger-than-fiction story of Robert's and Clara's passionate and all-conquering love cut short by Robert's gruesome early death. But the purpose of Twin Spirits was to introduce this to a wider audience while recruiting celebrities to donate their services.  (You can see on the back of the keepcase that part of the purchase price of a Twin Spirits HDVD goes to charity.)

The best I can tell, Twin Spirits has been performed perhaps 20 to 30 times in the UK and the US in the last 10 years, usually in small theaters to audiences that can pay up to, say, $500 for tickets to the show and maybe a cocktail party with the stars. A good number of top artists have contributed. But it seems that every performance so far has featured Commander Gordon Sumner, whose stage name is "Sting," and his wife, Trudie Styler. I suspect that Sting has always been the bankroll behind Twin Spirits. And it's poignant to have a modern celebrity married-couple play the roles of Robert and Clara, whose real-life love story is one of the best-documented and most-celebrated in history.

John Caird had a world of good material to work with. He came up with a show that is high-brow enough to please the fastidious but also engaging and dramatic enough to drain every tear duct in the house. It's all true, but the facts have been massaged for effect. The music is presented in small excerpt doses and is rearranged in all kinds of ways to keep the story moving while giving the musicians opportunity to show off. Here are works from which music is derived:

1. Robert Schumann (RS) "Préambule" from Carnaval
2. RS "Bittendes Kind" from Kinderszenen
3. RS "Hasche-Mann" from Kinderszenen
4. RS "Von fremden Ländern und Menschen" from Kinderszenen
5. Chopin "Adagio" from Variations on 'Là ci darem'
6. RS "Stille Tränen" from Zwölf Gedichte
7. Clara Schumann (CS) "Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen"
8. RS Duet: "Er und Sie"
9. CS Piano Concerto in A minor---Romanze
10. RS "Romanze No. 2" from Drei Romanzen
11. RS "Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins" from Carnaval
12. Mozart Duet: "Là ci darem" from Don Giovanni
13. RS "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" from Dichterliebe
14. RS "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'" from Dicherliebe
15. RS "Ich grolle nicht" from Dicherliebe
16. CS "Sie liebten sich beide"
17. RS "Ich habe im Traum geweinet" from Dicherliebe
18. RS "Stille Liebe" from Zwölf Gedichte
19. RS "Traümerei" from Kinderszenen
20. RS "Frage" from Zwölf Gedichte
21. RS "Trio No. 1 in D minor---Finale: Mit Feuer" 

The words and music of Clara Wieck are portrayed by Trudie Styler (actress), Rebecca Evans (soprano), Natalie Clein (cello), and Natasha Paremski (piano). The words and music of Robert Schumann are portrayed by Sting (actor), Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Sergej Krylov (violin), and Iain Burnside (piano). Special arrangements of various musical selections are by Martin Ward. Recorded in 2007 and released 2009, disc has 5.0 PCM sound. Grade A+

Enough of words; time for screenshots. Since this is a celebrity charity event, there will surely be celebs also in the audience such as Sir Alfred Brendel and Commander Willard White:

Below is Trudie Styler as Clara. Her words here ("Farewell from your Clara, true to you to the death") came from Clara as a teen-ager desperately in love with Robert. Here she means that she would be willing to die for him. These words become an ironic leitmotif for Twin Spirits. They came true, but not as she imagined it. Robert died when Clara was only 37, and Clara lived for another 40 years. She wore only black and never remarried after she lost Robert:

Here's another shot of Clara with two of her alter-egos, Natalie Clein on the cello and Natasha Paremski on piano:

Clara's third alto ego is the soprano Rebecca Evans, here singing "He came in storm and rain", a song Clara composed. In this review I'll focus on the story rather than the numerous musical excerpts, but I do have at least one screenshot of every musician:

Sting as Robert:

 

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Tuesday
Jun302015

Sommernachts Konzert 2015

Sommernachts Konzert 2015 (Summer Night's Concert 2015). On May 14, 2015 Zubin Mehta conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in the annual Summer Night Concert. Performed at the Baroque Park at the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna. The program in 2015 features pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. Directed by Henning Kasten. Released 2015. Grade: Help!

Here is the program:

1. Richard Strauss, Fanfare für Wiener Philharmoniker  

2. Carl Nielsen, Makarade: Overture

3. Edvard Grieg, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor (Buchbinder)

4. Alfred Grünfeld, Soirée de Vienne (Buchbinder)

5. Christian Sindling, Frühlingsrauschen (Rustle of Spring) (Buchbinder)

6. Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

7. Jean Sibelius, Finlandia

 Encores: 

8. Hans Christian Lumbye, Kopenhagener Eisenbahn-Dampf-Galopp

9. Johann Strauss II, Wiener Blut - Walzer

Seems to be a well-balanced program of classical music and classical pops from stellar forces in a beautiful outdoor venue. Probably suffers from significant DVDitis. Please help us by writing a mini-review about this title.

Tuesday
Jun302015

Carmen

Bizet Carmen opera to libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Directed 2014 by Franco Zeffirelli at the Arena di Verona. Stars Ekaterina Semenchuk (Carmen), Carlo Ventre (Don José), Irina Lungu (Micaëla), Carlos Álvarez (Escamillo), Francesca Micarelli (Frasquita), Cristina Melis (Mercédès), Federico Longhi (Le Dancaïre), Paolo Antognetti (Le Remendado), Seung Pil Choi (Zuniga) and Francesco Verna (Moralès). Henrik Nánási conducts the Arena di Verona Orchestra and Chorus. Set design by Franco Zeffirelli. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

We already have 8 HDVDs of Carmen, including an "A+" traditional version from the Royal Opera (Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann) that is head-and-shoulders better than any other and a neat, cynical update from the Liceu (Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Algana, and Marina Poplavskaya) that got good reviews everywhere and a B+ in this website. The market doesn't need another Blu-ray Carmen unless it's truly superior. And the least thing we need is a another circus-like production staged in one of those outdoor areas designed for a wine-jug-and-sparkler audience.

But now we must contend with exactly that---a Carmen filmed in 2014 in Arena de Verona. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read this was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. So I did some research; and it's true, at least in a way. Zeffirelli did a Carmen in Verona in 2003 that was published in DVD. Then I think the vast Zeffirielli set was put away in mothballs.  The set was unpacked in 2014 for a revival that could be recorded for HD TV and video. I checked and Zeffirelli is still alive (July 1, 2015). He was about 91 years old when his Carmen bit the  sand of the Verona arena in 2014. I also saw on the Internet what I think are photographs of Zeffirelli in Italy when he was, I take it, present for the Carmen rerun. It's awesome to think that he was still jet-setting around in 2014. But his pictures also give new meaning to the phrase "phantom of the opera."

I saw some clips on the Internet of the the 2014 Verona Carmen. It's blatantly extravagant. Please don't get me wrong. I applaud till my hands bleed for anyone who can get 15,000 people to turn out for an opera. But as we discussed before in a review of a Tosca at Arena de Verona, most of the things you do to appeal to 15,000 in the huge outdoors will later poison the show for those viewing an HDVD of the performance in a cozy home theater. Still, to be fair, I'll be inspired by Jean Brodie in her prime and allow that if you like videos of operas in Roman arenas, you are probably going to really do back-flips for this Carmen. (From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: "For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like!")

Please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title. Maybe I'm wrong about my preliminary assessment of this video.

Sunday
Jun282015

Lucrezia Borgia

Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia  opera to a libretto by Felice Romani. Directed 2012 by John Pascoe at the War Memorial Opera House in San Fransisco. Stars Renée Fleming (Borgia), Michael Fabiano (Gennaro), Elizabeth DeShong (Maffio Orsini), Vitalij Kowaljow (Duca Alfonso), Christopher Jackson (Jeppo Liverotto), Brian Jagde (Oloferno Vitellozzo), Austin Kness (Apostolo Gazella), Ao Li (Ascanio Petrucci), Daniel Montenegro (Rustighello), Igor Vieira (Gubetta), Ryan Kuster (Astolfo), Blanche Hampton (Princess Negroni), Jere Torkelsen (A Voice) as well as Mary Finch, Claire Kelm, Sally Mouzon, and Sally Monro (Ladies of the Court). Riccardo Frizza conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (Acting Concertmaster Laura Albers) and Chorus (Chorus Master Ian Robertson). Production designs by John Pascoe; lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff; choreography by Lawrence Pech; directed for TV by Frank Zamacona. Producers were Jessica Koplos and Matthew Shilvock; David Gockley was Executive Producer. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

This San Francisco production has impressive traditional sets, beautiful costumes, and apt personal directing for great old-style story-telling. I recently reviewed a modern version of this opera with stripped-down mise-en-scène directed by Christof Loy in Munich. I suggest you consult that review first if you are not familiar with the plot of Lucrezia Borgia.

The first screenshot shows Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in a wonderful period-inspired costume created to please modern taste:

Wearing the trousers is Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini, Gennaro's best friend and comrade-in-arms:

Our heroes bow before the Duke and Duchess of Grimani in Venice at a party; the next day the soldiers will depart for Ferrara to visit Duke Alfonso d'Este, the husband of Lucrezia Borgia. The elaborate costumes help me distinguish the various factions involved:

Lucrezia Borgia (Renée Fleming) is in Venice to see Gennaro, her son abandoned as a baby. We never learn about the sad history of this mother and son, and Lucrezia will not reveal the truth to anyone until the end of the opera:

 

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Sunday
Jun282015

Lucrezia Borgia

Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia opera to libretto by Felice Romani. Directed 2009 by Chistof Loy at the Bayrische Staatsoper. Stars Edita Gruberova (Donna Lucrezia Borgia), Franco Vassallo (Don Alfonzo), Pavol Breslik (Gennaro), Alice Coote (Maffio Orsini), Bruno Ribeiro (Jeppo Liverotto) , Christian Rieger (Don Apostolo Gazella), Christopher Magiera (Ascanio Petrucci), Erik Årman (Oloferno Vitellozzo), Steven Humes (Gubetta), Emanuele D'Aguanno (Rustighello), Christian van Horn (Astolfo), and Elisabeth Haag (Principessa Negroni). Bertrand de Billy conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus Master Andrés Máspero). Stage Music Director: Gregor Raquet. Sets by Henrik Ahr; costumes by Barbara Drosihn; lighting by Joachim Klein; director of photography was Gerald Schäfer; audio engineer was Stefan Kröhn; sound engineer was Jakob Palfrader; video direction by Brian Large; produced by Magdalena Herbst. Disc also includes a 54 minutes documentary "The Art of Bel Canto---Edita Gruberova" by Claus Wischmann and Stefan Pannen. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

John Aitken kindly contributed this (slightly edited) comment as a mini-review of our Chistof Loy Lucrezia Borgia:

"This production was very well received in Munich when I saw it. At this stage in her career Edita Gruberova is ideally cast as the title character and produces some wonderful bel canto singing. Always a favourite in German houses, she scored a great personal success in this production by Christof Loy. The simplicity of Loy's production works very well indeed. Those people who prefer a more traditional approach can choose Renee Fleming in San Francisco Opera's production though even it pales when set against the outrageously over-the-top production given to Joan Sutherland at the Royal Opera House in London (DVD). I much prefer Munich's simple and monochromatic staging which allows the drama to unfold clearly. If Gruberova was the only reason to purchase this version it would be recommended. However, add the splendid Pavol Breslik as Gennaro, Alice Coote as Maffio, and Franco Vassallo as Don Alfonso and you have a truly exceptional cast. Of course this is par for the course in Munich where standards must consistently be amongst the best in the world both in terms of singing and staging. As it is, this is a marvellous performance which I wholeheartedly recommend."

John speaks here of his experience seeing the actual performance at the Munich opera house.  I'll add some comments and screenshots based on my review of the disc published by EuroArts. In the first picture, we see  Loy's simple staging. Loy has 8 operas out now in HDVD, and we have done full reviews of 3 of them. He often uses a plain stage with few props other than chairs, and he often dresses the chorus and many of the stars in modern black and white as you see here (with the pants rolled up to indicate that the men are students or cadets even though in the libretto they are soldiers):

Loy even did a Lulu in black and white as seen in the next shot:

And here's a picture of Loy's basic box in Les vêpres siciliennes: 

But not all of Loy's staging is so drab. Here's a more colorful shot of a scene from Die Entführung aus dem Serail:

Most of the color in this Lucrezia Borgia is provided by the costumes for the leading lady, Edita Gruberova. Here she is portrayed in a surprising sympathetic light as a woman with a conscience:

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Friday
Jun262015

Il signor Bruschino

Rossini Il signor Bruschino opera to a libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa. Performed 2012 by the Teatro Sotterraneo collective at the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro. Stars  Roberto De Candia (Bruschino Senior), Francisco Brito (Bruschino Junior/Police Officer), Carlo Lepore, (Gaudenzio), Maria Aleida (Sofia), David Alegret (Florville), Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore (Filiberto), and Chiara Amarù (Marianna). Daniele Rustioni conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini (Répétitieur and Fortepiano by Carmen Santoro). Set and costume designs by the Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino; lighting by Roberto Cafaggini; directed for video and TV by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2015, Blu-ray disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

This 90-minute, one-act, operatic farce, composed by Rossini at age 21, stresses comic acting more than expert singing. Staging this kind of thing is exactly what the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival and the Teatro Sotterraneo are all about. Per ArkivMusic, there are 2 CDs and 1 DVD of this, so subject title is the world premiere in HD video. This must be pretty good for Opus Arte to offer it.  Show Il signor Bruschino  in your HT first, take a long break for more wine, and then show Don Pasquale.

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

Wednesday
Jun172015

A John Williams Celebration

A John Williams Celebration concert. Performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles 2014. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Features violinist Itzhak Perlman. The bill includes the Olympic Fanfare & Theme; Soundings; and music from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws, Schindler's List, Catch Me If You Can, Amistad and Fiddler on the Roof. Video direction by Michael Beyer; produced by Bernhard Fleischer. Released 2015, 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.

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