This website is about high-definition video recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, painting, and sculpture. We call these recordings "HDVDs." Below are hundreds of stories about HDVDs, including critical reviews that are hard to find on the Internet. But first check out our Title Index/Alphalist, the world's only list of all fine-arts videos available in high-quality HD.

It's July 24. Lorin Maazel died earlier this month. In his memory, we just updated our story about his role in the remarkable Pyongyang Concert he conducted in North Korea in 2008. We recently posted a detailed story and "A+" grade for a magnificent Werther opera title with Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch performed at the Paris Opera Bastille. And while we are in France, check out the story we recently posted on Notre Dame de Paris, the Roland Petit ballet about the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

We recently  went back to 2008 to re-review and add screenshots to a funny (but not silly) Don Giovanni (graded "B+") published by harmonia mundi. We recently reviewed a terrific HDVD of the Shakespeare history play, Richard II (graded "A"). One of our favorites is the Donizetti comic opera Don Pasquale conducted by Riccardo Muti at the Ravenna Festival. It's a perfect mafia opera, and everytime we watch it, it's better than before. We recently updated our review, added screenshots, and bumped the grade up to "A+."

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Monday
Jul282014

Don Giovanni

Mozart Don Giovanni opera to libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.  Directed 2014 by Kasper Holten at the Royal Opera House. Stars Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni), Alex Esposito (Leporello), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Commendatore), Véronique Gens (Donna Elvira), Antonio Poli (Don Ottavio), Malin Byström (Donna Anna), Elizabeth Watts (Zerlina), and Dawid Kimberg (Masetto). Nicola Luisotti conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus. Set design by Es Devlin. Released 2014, 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.

Monday
Jul282014

Michael Nyman - Make it Louder, Please

Michael Nyman - Make it Louder, Please concert film. The Michael Nyman Band perfroms at Studio Halle in Germany. Also features Portrait, a documentary film about Nyman by Silvia Beck. Released 2014, 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.

Monday
Jul282014

Giselle

Giselle ballet. Music by Adolphe Adam to libretto by Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Choreography by Marius Pepita, Jean Coralli, and Jules Perrot. Directed 2014 by Sir Peter Wright at the Royal Opera House. Stars Natalia Osipova (Giselle), Carlos Acosta (Albrecht), and dancers of the Royal Ballet. Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Released 2014, 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.

Monday
Jul282014

A Swan Lake

A Swan Lake ballet. Music by Mikael Karlsson. Choreography and scenography by Alexander Ekman at the Oslo Opera House in 2014. Stars dancers of The Norwegian National Ballet. Per Kristian Skalstad conducts The Norwegian National Opera Orchestra. Costumes by Henrik Vibskov. Released 2014, 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.

Monday
Jul282014

Mahler Symphony No. 9

Mahler Symphony No. 9 concert. Riccardo Chailly conducts the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. Released 2014, disc has dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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Thursday
Jul242014

The Pyongyang Concert

In memoriam: Lorin Maazel recently died (July 13, 2014) at age 84. He conducted and led many of the world's most famous symphony orchestras, published more than 300 classical recordings, and earned 10 Grand Prix du Disque awards.

Perhaps Maazel's most singular and unusual achievement was his appearance in 2008 conducting the  New York Philharmonic at a concert in North Korea at the request of the Communist Government of that country. We happen to have an interesting HDVD title about that appearance called The Pyongyang Concert. This title has been, I fear, neglected in recent years. So in honor of Maazel, I thought I should re-review The Pyongyang Concert and provide some screenshots.

The concert in Pyongyang was played and recorded on February 26, 2008. The program was:

1. National Anthem of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or Wongyun's Aegukka

2. The Star-Spangled Banner

3. Lohengrin: Prelude to Act III

4. Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)

5. Gershwin An American in Paris

6. Bizet Farandole from L'Arlésienne Suite No. 2

7. Bernstein Candide: Overture (encore)

8. Arirang, a Korean folksong popular in both North and South Korea (encore)

The concert video was directed for TV by Michael Beyer. The music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sampling (probably state-of-the-art considering the traveling required) and provided in PCM 5.1 sound.  Still, I doubt the concert would have been released as a recording based on the musical performance alone. The program is rather odd, is afflicted with a brutal case of DVDitis, and is of greater historical than musical interest.

The heart of this title is a unique and impressive documentary called Americans in Pyongyang, directed Ayelet Heller. The documentary was filmed in HDTV and has Dolby Digital stereo sound.  It shows the work done by Maazel, Zarin Mehta (President of the New York Philharmonic), the musicians, and back-stage staff of the orchestra to make this outreach to the people of North Korea. It also covers all the activities of the musicians while in Korea, the concert itself, and further gives us rare glimpes of life in hermit North Korea. To me the documentary is the real story here and the concert is a bonus extra.

This title was produced by Paul Smaczny. He combines the vision of an artist, the wisdom of a philosopher, and the killer instincts of a reporter to help give us what still may have the potential to be the most significant entertainment video ever made. We don't know exactly why the North Koreans asked for this concert. But the reason the New Yorkers went is clearly explained: It might do some good!

The disc was released in 2008. Grade: A for the documentary. I decided not to review or grade the the concert recording itself. It does no harm. You might want to buy the disc for it's Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) or some of the shorter numbers. 

Now for some screenshots. We start by crossing the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel. Don't go for a walk in the woods!

A long convoy of trucks carried all the gear needed to record and televise the concert and make the documentary. The orchestra arrived later at the Pyongyang Airport in a 747:

Everywhere you would see portraits of two men. North Korea is history's only Communist nation where leadership of the county is inherited across generations. "Kim" is a common family name in Korea.  On the left below is Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), the first Communist dictator of North Korea, whom I call "Kim 1." On the right is Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), the son of Kim 1, or "Kim 2." Kim 2 was the dictator from about 1994 to 2011.

The Pyongyang Concert took place in 2008 while Kim 2 was in power. The thought was then afoot that the concert might provide a breakthrough in improving relations between the US and North Korea. This was not to happen, at least not yet. My guess is that Kim 2 started having health problems, which led to an all-consuming power struggle within the inner circle. After the death of Kim 2 in 2011, his son Kim Jong-um ("Kim 3") became the dictator. At this writing in 2014, it appears relations between North Korea and the US have become worse, not better.

This building with the large portrait of Kim 1 is, I surmise, the headquarters of the North Korean Communist Party. If you know for sure what the building is,  please let me know:

The documentary has voice overs in English, for which there are no subtitles. So I made my screenshots with German subtitles. Here is a view from the hotel where the New York Philharmonic stayed. After unpacking, many members of the band decided to go for a walk. No one stopped them from leaving the hotel. "It seemed that nobody thought that we might do this." But after the musicians walked a few blocks, police appeared to shoo them back to the hotel. After that, each member of the orchestra was accompanied by an English-speaking escort:

In Marxist lore, the worst possible apostasy would be a class struggle that turns into a military dictatorship. North Korea has a "Military First" policy. Still, I don't remember seeing a single military uniform at the concert or any of the activities shown in the documentary. But the cameras did see signs of military activity in the city such as this practice parade in review:

 

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Tuesday
Jul222014

Werther

Massenet Werther opera to a libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann. Directed and filmed 2010 by Benoît Jacquot at the Paris Opera Bastille. Stars Jonas Kaufmann (Werther),  Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Ludovic Tézier (Albert), Anne-Catherine Gillet (Sophie), Alain Vernhes (Le Bailli), Andreas Jäggi (Schmidt), Christian Tréguier (Johann), Alexandre Duhamel (Brühlmann), and Olivia Doray (Käthchen). Sung in French. Michel Plasson conducts the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris and the Maîtrese des Hauts-de-Seine (Chœur d'enfants de l'Opéra National de Paris).  Set design and lighting by Charles Edwards and André Diot; costume design by Christian Gase; directed for video by Benoît Jacquot and Louise Narboni. Released 2014, disc was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

This version of Werther was originally created at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2004. It was performed at the Bastille in 2010; shortly thereafter it was released in a very successful DVD.  So it's great now to get it in HDVD. 

Werther is a huge, long workout for two singers (Werther and Charlotte) with two modest supporting roles (Albert and Sophie) and a few extra singers for local color. The third star after Werther and Charlotte is the orchestra, constantly providing Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) to give the over-worked tenor and mezzo some breathing room. So it was appropriate for Benoît Jacquot and Louise Narboni to show the orchestra in the video numerous times in views similar to our first screenshot below. I can't remember any other opera video that comes close to giving the orchestra so much attention. Perhaps because the orchestra is so important in this work, the producers arranged to record the sound with 48kHz /24-bit technology, which allowed for excellent rendition of orchestral colors and dynamics. This video picture here looks a bit dark; but in my HT, the orchestra shots were all enjoyable:

Stage director Jacquot also took charge of the video, which he directed with the help of Louise Narboni. Jacquot's goal was not to make a video record of what the theater audience experienced. Jacquot was well aware of the futility of trying to do that with today's recording technologies. Instead, he set out to create an alternate experience for the home theater viewer that would take advantage of things the video team can show the home viewer that the theater audience cannot see. The same director prepared two products: (1) an opera at the Bastille and (2) an opera film for my home theater!

This is the only opera video I know of where this has been tried. Even François Roussillon (today's leading fine-arts videographer who often worms his way into producing/directing roles) has never gone this far. For Jacquot (and Narboni), making a great video for me was just as important as staging a great show for the Bastille audience.

So what is different about this video to make it so different from the the norm? First, the director repeatedly shows us at home what is going on behind the stage as well as in the orchestra pit. Second, although we get all the whole-stage shots we need, the director puts us much or most of the time somewhere between 10 feet and 10 inches away from the singers. Third, the singers are required to act exactly as they would act in real life in the situations depicted. (Finally, instead of talking, they have to sing exhausting amounts of difficult music; but this is not different from the norm.)

Let's look again at behind-the-scenes views Jacquot mixes in with the stage performance. Here, for example, is a silhouette shot of Charlotte (Sophie Koch) doing exercises while waiting to go on stage:

And here we see Charlotte's father and two of his friends on stage as well as the backs of children getting ready to rush forward on cue. Note the slope of the stage and the tiny TV monitor in top center:

And here we see both the front and back of the garden wall set. I've never seen before such frequent violations of the separation of what is illusion and what is real in a theater production. But it doesn't distract at all from my enjoyment of the drama:

In the picture above, we see Charlotte, age 20,  in the white dress surrounded by her father, the local Bailli (or Baliff), and his 7 younger children. Their mother died, and Charlotte is taking on the role of rearing them. Charlotte is engaged to be married to Albert, who is away on business. The family has recently met Werther (Jonas Kaufmann), a newcomer to the village who is seeking a civil service post with the local Prince. Werther, pious and honorable, is enchanted by village life in the spring, and he sings romantic praises of nature and the sun:

The annual Wetzlar "Friends and Relations" ball is taking place. Because Albert is out of town, Charlotte has no escort. Werther is recruited to appear with Charlotte. The townspeople will understand that Werther is with Charlotte merely to show his gratitude to all the citizens for their hospitality to him. Well, Werther sees things a bit differently because nobody has told him that Charlotte is spoken for. Before the ball, Werther is impressed to see how beautifully Charlotte is taking care of the children:

 

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