Articles and Reviews

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.

February 10.  Dance has benefited the most from HDVDs. See my "hit-parade" story with top dance picks. Opera also has benefited. But we have only a few good classical music HDVDs. The industry is still making classical music HDVDs with video infected by the disease DVDitis. Here's a list of the best classical music HDVDs 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. I argue this is the best symphony recording ever made in any format.
  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")

I recently did an updated review with screenshots of Liszt Piano Concertos with Barenboim and Boulez (Grade "C-"). This provides a good study of the disease DVDitis. And don't miss my review of  A Flight through the Orchestra: Brahms Symphony No. 2, an experiment in making a symphony video which I graded "D-." See for yourself how bad things can get.

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Tuesday
Feb092016

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan")

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra (Saito Memorial Festival Orchestra). The Berlioz was recorded at the 2007 Festival; the Mahler was recorded in 2008. Released in 2009, this title has 5.0 PCM 96kHz/24 bit sound. About 99% of the printed material with this disc is in Japanese. If you don't know that language, it's a humbling experience to navigate your way through the titles and extras, but you can do it.   Grade: A-  for Symphonie fantastique  Grade: A+ for Mahler Symphony No. 1

Hideo Saito (1902-1974) almost single-handedly introduced Western classical music to Japan. His most famous protégé was Seiji Osawa, who was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 27 years. Osawa was a kind of world citizen who seems to be always everywhere except that each September he returned to Japan to lead the Saito Kinen Memorial Festival Orchestra.

Most of the members of the SKMFO were Japanese regulars. But there was also a sprinkling of stellar musicians from the West, some of whom had already appeared on HDVDs reported on this website. For example, from this disc I recognize Rainer Seegers (tympany) and Gábor Tarkövi (trumpet) of the Berliner Philharmoniker. They appear in the Karajan Memorial Concert HDVD. Also, Jacques Zoon, who plays principal flute in the Mahler Symphony No. 1, appears in the HDVD of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The SKMFO appears to be quite inclusive. There are a lot of women in the orchestra. But the big surprise is the blind violin player who regularly appears.

Each year the SKMFO gathers and frantically rehearses to prove they can play major works in a manner competitive with the great Western symphony orchestras. I would say they succeed on this disc. And from the way the performers act after each number, it's clear they also think they have pulled it off. Gramophone magazine in October 2009 declared the SKMFO to be number 19 among the best 20 symphony orchestras in the world!

The performance of the Berlioz piece is fantastically good. The SQ is excellent with 96kHz/24 bit sampling. The HNK engineers put special emphasis on getting accurate information for each individual voice and section in the orchestra. There are two pages in the keep case booklet with details about the microphones used. The result is a clean and vivid audio report with especially impressive dynamic range.  

The PQ is pretty good for 2007. But by current standards it is over-exposed and the resolution is too soft. Picture content is also not quite what we now hope to see.  I think the NHK TV director and engineers in 2007 were still learning how to take advantage of the power of high-definition TV cameras to make HDVDs. The Berlioz piece has a generous number of whole orchestra and multiple section shots that would not have been workable for a DVD recording. That was a big step forward. But the shows still has some DVD bad habits such as too many cuts, too many conductor views, too many backs of musicians (while really featuring the conductor),  and too much panning and zooming.

This title could have qualified for an A+. But for weakness in picture quality and content, I mark the Symphony fantastique down to the grade of "A-" even though the sound is terrific.

A year later, in 2008, the NHK team got another chance to perfect their HDVD recording chops.  This time they came up with a real winner in their recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1. The SQ remains as good as what they had achieved before. PQ is superb with perfect lighting (no glare or bleaching), convincingly accurate resolution, real-looking color balance, and masterful control of depth of focus. But the exciting news is in the realm of picture content. 

I ran the numbers on this Mahler Symphony No. 1. I count 378 cuts in the video. Here's a rundown on these cuts starting with shots that could be used both in HDVD and DVD:

41 shots of the conductor only
6 shots of the conductor made over the backs of musicians
104 solos
46 small-section shots (4 or fewer players)
38 part-section shots

Next, here are the "super-shots" that look great on HDVD but are too long-range to look good in a DVD (due to the lower DVD video resolution):

4 large-section shots
7 multiple-section shots
22 part-orchestra shots
50 most or whole-orchestra views

A Mahler symphony is full of action. So you would expect a lot of cuts. The average cut in this recording lasts more than 9 seconds. Many of the super-shots (groups 6 thru 9 of the above) last considerably longer than 9 seconds. So the pace of this video is about 2 times to 3 times more stately than the pace of a typical Mahler DVD. The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

So now let's see some screenshots of a good HDVD video of a symphony.

During the warm up before the concert starts, the TV director is already at work. He shows us where the horns are on the stage. This is a nice courtesy. The horns can be anywhere, and the TV director wants to get us oriented to the horns as soon as possible:

Here is a full-orchestra shot that takes up 100% of the width of the picture. Because the orchestra is so large, this is just barely workable even with HD cameras. The TV directors will give some of these full views; but to let us see better, he will use many 75% to 90% angles:

Here's a good 90% view showing all the 1st and 2nd violins and more:

And here is a similar but closer shot from the other side of the stage. This view lets you see all the violas, cellos, and basses:

Closer yet you can see the cellos and basses:

Of course, the TV director will also close in on smaller sections. Here we see 7 of the 8 horns in action:

 

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Sunday
Feb072016

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique"). Seiji Ozawa conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin in a disc aimed at the Japanese market (there's a little English on the keep case and the disc menu). This title has not been distributed in Europe or the U.S. It's one of the few fine-art HDVD recordings made to date with 96 kHz/24 bit sound-sampling technology. Directed by Goro Kobayashi; produced by Setsu Mikumo; technical manager was Oleg Anton; video engineer was André Schumann; sound engineer was Felix Kundt, recording engineer was Rainer Höpfner.  Released  2008, disc has 50 minutes of music and 5.0 PCM sound.  Grade: A+

This is one of the  best recordings of a symphony ever made. Even though this was recorded far from Japan in Berlin, NHK (the Japanese National Broadcasting Company) made the investment to get an impeccable product.

Recording the sound with 96 kHz/24 bit sampling technology gives this production a head start in audio fidelity over ordinary HDVDs. The  engineers managed to keep a clean and clear rendition of individual sounds while also building up  a warm sound stage for ensembles, sections, and the entire orchestra. Add to this remarkable dynamic variation in sound level and the result is a gripping trip in the home theater.

The video is also superb.  There was plenty of room for the cameras. The lighting in the Philharmonie building was expertly prepared to match the capabilities of the camera gear. The PQ is outstanding with fine resolution, accurate color rendition and balance (observe how real the sheet music looks and how beautiful the skin tones are), no glare or reflections, and no picture artifacts. When Ozawa enters the stage he walks briskly across the front of the orchestra. The camera follows Ozawa and captures him with no motion defects in the images of the orchestra in the background---something that few video directors can achieve. Later the video director uses panning only a couple of times; the cameras move so slowly that there are no motion artifacts. Zooming is used sparingly and slowly. Focus is always perfect and the depth of field-of-focus achieved is impressive.

Best of all, the video director planned his video for HDVD only. (This performance was not released in DVD.) This title is therefore a model or standard against which other HDVDs of a symphony performance can be judged. So let's look more closely at the the video content on this disc.

I count 205 cuts in the video. Here's a rundown on these cuts starting with shots that could be used both in HDVD and DVD:

43 shots of the conductor only
7 shots of the conductor made over the backs of musicians
15 solos
31 small-section shots (4 or fewer players)
29 part-section shots

Next, here are the "super-shots" that look great on HDVD but are too long-range to look good in a DVD (due to the lower DVD video resolution):

12  large-section shots
17 multiple-section shots
36 part-orchestra shots typically showing 80% or more of the orchestra
14 whole-orchestra views showing the entire band filling 100% of the screen

The first thing you will notice about this video is its dignified, measured pace. The average cut lasts about 15 seconds, which is 3 times more stately than the pace of a typical DVD. Many of the 79 super-shots (groups 6 thru 9 of the above) last for 30 seconds or longer. This approximates "being there" in a way that allows you to relax or to explore yourself the views given you by the director. In the whole-orchestra shots you can follow "waves" of music passing thru different sections of the orchestra just as you do when you are in the live audience. (Contrast this experience to the typical DVD which has only a few super-shots. This typical DVD is loaded up with hundreds of fast clips (5 seconds or less) of close-ups of the conductor and small groups of players. Following such a DVD puts an unnatural strain on the poor viewer's brain).

The abundance of supershots in subject video gives you many opportunities to see whole sections and groups of sections working together as the video director follows the score. There are few similar opportunities in the typical DVD.

In addition to the super-shots, subject video also has plenty of beautiful shots of solo players, small sections, and the conductor. I normally suggest that 15 conductor shots is enough for a symphony. Ozawa gets 3 times that many here, but this is tolerable because Ozawa is able to display intense emotion more effectively than most conductors.

Thanks for being patient. Now to screenshots. Below is a typical part-orchestra view. The angle depends on which instruments are playing. This view comes from the opening moments of the symphony when the bassoon, the double basses, and violas are deployed. This angle picks up the bassoon soloist in the upper left and the strings are to the right. It  might be hard for you to see this in the single still image below. But on your HDVD display, it's easy to see who is playing (moving) and connect what you see with what you are hearing. It really is pretty close to being there:

Next below is a magnificent whole-orchestra view. These shots typically last for a long time. On my display I can easily follow visually and aurally which sections are involved:

Below you see a section shot---all the 1st and 2nd violins. Most DVDs would not attempt to show this kind of large-scale formation. Many DVDs rarely show all the 1st violins and totally ignore the poor 2nd violins. But with HD video, this is an easy shot:

Next below is a pretty multi-section view of all the heavy brass and almost all the other winds. You won't see this on DVD very often:

Now we are getting into shots that you could expect on DVD also, but isn't this a beautiful view of the horns?

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Feb072016

Carmen

Georges Bizet Carmen opera to libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. This was a 2010 revival, directed at the Royal Opera House by Duncan Macfarland, of the 2006 Francesca Zambello production. Stars Christine Rice (Carmen), Bryan Hymel (Don José), Aris Argiris (Escamilio), Maija Kovalevska (Micaëla), Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga), Dawid Kimberg (Moralès), Elena Xanthoudakis (Frasquita), Paula Murrihy (Mercédès), Adrian Clarke (Le Dancaïre), Harry Nicoll (Le Remendado), Caroline Lena Olsson (Lillas Pastia), and Anthony de Baeck (Guide). Constantinos Carydis conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin), the Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna), and the Children of Trinity Boys Choir and Tiffin Girls' Choir (Choirmasters David Swinson and Simon Ferris). Designs by Tanya McCallin; lighting by Paule Constable; choreography by Arthur Pita; revival fight direction by Natalie Dakin of the 2006 fight scenes by Mike Loades; photography directed by Sean Macleod Phillips; directed by Julian Napier; produced by Phil Streater. Released in 2016, 2D disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.   Grade: Help!

This 2D Carmen was shot in 2010. It was released in 2011 in 3D as a motion picture on film at 24 frames per second. It's the same production  that the Royal Opera House shot (in 29.97 digital video) in 2006 (with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann) and released in 2D on the Decca label in 2008. To reduce the risk of confusion, I'll call the Antonacci/Kaufmann version the 2008 show. I'll call the 3D version the 2011 show. I'll call today's subject title the 2016 2D show or just the 2016 show.

The 2016 2D show uses the same sets, props, many of the chorus members, and three of the minor credited singers as those in the 2008 show.

The 2008 show, which I graded "A+," is one of the best opera videos ever made. I was not very enthusiastic about the 2011 show in 3D. Now I'm completely baffled why Opus Arte and the ROH would issue in 2016 the 2011 show again in 2D only. I stated earlier that all 4 main singers in the 2008 show were better than the singers to come later. Also, the director in 2011 distorted the stage action to take advantage of 3D. Will the distorted images look even worse in 2D in 2016? My head is spinning!

Saturday
Feb062016

Beethoven Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 6

Beethoven Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" concert.  Bernard Haitink conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2015 at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Features violinist Isabelle Faust. Video directed by Torben Schmidt Jacobson at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us with a comment about this disc!

Saturday
Feb062016

Faust

Charles Gounod Faust opera to libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Directed 2015 by Stefano Poda at the Teatro Regio di Torino. Stars Charles Castronovo (Faust), Ildar Abdrazakov (Méphistophélès), Irina Lungu (Marguerite), Vasilij Ladjuk (Valentin), Samantha Korbey (Marthe), Ketevan Kemoklidze (Siebel), and Paolo Maria Orecchia (Wagner). Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino (Chorus Master Claudio Fenoglio). Choreography, set design, costume design and lighting by Stefano Poda; assistant stage direction by Paolo Giani Cei; technical direction by Saverio Santoliquido; video direction by Tiziano Mancini. 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.

 

Saturday
Feb062016

Dvořák Stabat Mater 

Dvořák Stabat Mater choral work. Recorded 2015 at the KKL Concert Hall, Lucerne. Mariss Jansons conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir. Features Erin Wall (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), Christian Elsner (tenor), and Liang Li (bass). Released 2016. Grade: Help!

Please help us with a comment about this disc!

Friday
Feb052016

Luisa Fernanda

Federico Moreno Torroba Luisa Fernanda zarzuela to libretto by Federico Romero & Guillermo Fernández Shaw. Directed 2006 by Emilio Sagi at the Madrid Teatro Real. Stars Plácido Domingo (Vidal Hernando), Nancy Herrera (Luisa Fernanda), José Bros (Javier Moreno), Mariola Cantarero (Duchess Carolina), Raquel Pierotti (Mariana), Javier Ferrer (Aníbal), Sabina Puértolas (Rosita), José Antonio Ferrer (Don Florito Fernández), Federico Gallar (Don Luis Nogales), David Rubiera (Bizco Porras), Montserrat Muñumel (Coconut Seller), Ángel Rodríguez (Saboyard); Tomeu Bibiloni (Don Lucas), Juan Navarro (A Captain), Miguel Borrallo (First Guy), Julio Cendal (Second Guy), José Manuel Cardama (A Village Man), Juan Antonio Sanabria (Street Seller), and Joseba Pinela (Olive Shaker). Dancers are Celia Alturas, Cristina Arias, Olga Castro, Remedios Domingo, Ma Ángeles Fernández, Susana Gonzáles, Natalia Martín, Estefanía Palacios, Asunción Quintero, Silvia Rincón, Rodrigo Alonso, Fran Bas, Fermín Calvo, Eduardo Carranza, Jesús Gonzáles, Joaquín León, PedroNavarro, Joseba Pinela, Antonio Resino, and Juan Carlos Robles. Girls played by Martina Campo and Celia Clemente. Jesús López Cobos directs The Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master Jordi Casas Bayer). Set design by Emilio Sagi; costumes by Emilio Sagi and Pepa Ojanguren; lighting by Eduardo Bravo; choreography by Nuria Castejón; assistant stage direction by Javier Ulacia; directed for TV by Ángel Luis Ramírez. Released  2009, disc has PCM 5.1 sound. Grade: A

Per Wikipedia, zarzuela is a "Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular song, as well as dance." I'm reminded of the German singspiels and historical pageants performed in the US.  Luisa Fernanda is the most famous and the last great zarzuela to be written. It's been performed more than 10,000 times in Spain and South America.

My impression is that a complete performance of the Luisa Fernanda libretto lasts for more than 3 hours with a substantial history lesson, mostly in spoken dialog, and Luisa's love story, mostly in singing.  This production directed by Emilio Sagi lasts a bit over 2 hours. Almost all of the spoken dialog was cut. This was appropriate because Sagi was originally hired to stage this as a concert version of the drama at La Scala. An Italian audience could not be expected to listen to an hour of lines spoken in Spanish. And there were, of course, no  costumes or sets for the concert performance.

When Sagi had opportunity to present his Luisa Fernanda at the Teatro Real, he didn't restore the cut dialog. As Sagi himself explains in a bonus extra, his objective was to focus on the souls of the characters in Luisa's love story. A performance of the full Luisa Fernanda libretto would normally be supported with elaborate scenery depicting historic locations in the Madrid el centro and lavish period costumes. But Sagi saw no reason to recreate all the buildings and squares his audience could see for real just by walking for a few minutes around the opera house. So he went for an elegant modern update with lean sets and simple costumes for most of the cast. What Sagi wound up with was, although criticised by zarzuela experts as being too short, an excellent show to introduce zarzuela to non-Spanish-speaking audiences.

In its shortened form, the plot is full of rapid twist and turns that can leave you dizzy. A synopsis on the disc helps, and you can find a full synopsis here by Christopher Webber. (Check out Webber's website at www.zalzuela.net.)

I can only give you the highlights of Luisa's love story. It's about 1886 in Madrid. Queen Isabella II is on the throne. The people are restless and agitating for a democratic Republic. On the right below is Javier (José Bros), a poor but ambitious commoner rising fast as an army officer. He's engaged to Luisa, but lately he's been neglecting her. In the center is Mariana (Raquel Pierotti), an innkeeper who knows everybody and is also a match-maker. On the left is Rosita (Sabina Puértolas) who lives at the inn and is busy looking for a man when she's not working mending clothes. Javier reminisces about his childhood in Madrid (standing near a model of downtown Madrid that reminds everyone where this is taking place):

Now we meet Luisa Fernanda (Nancy Herrera) and Vidal (Plácido Domingo). Vidal is a wealthy farmer who came to Madrid to find a wife. He met Mariana at the inn. Mariana has turned against Javier and has encouraged Vidal to court Luisa. Here Luisa turns down Vidal's sincere proposal of marriage, but you can see she's conflicted:

Vidal isn't going to give up on Luisa:

Next we meet Duchess Carolina (Mariola Cantarero) who is intimate with the Queen. Carolina lives in a palace right across the square from the Inn. Trying to shore up support for the Queen, Carolina is a cool political operator:

 

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Thursday
Feb042016

La reine morte

La reine morte (The Dead Queen) ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Libretto by Kader Belarbi. Choreographed and directed by Kader Belarbi in 2015 at the Ballet du Capitole. Stars Artjom Maksakov (King Ferrante of Spain), Maria Gutierrez (Doña Inés de Castro, Lady-in-waiting of Infanta), Davit Galstyan (Don Pedro, Prince of Portugal), and Juliette Thélin (The Infanta, the King's daughter), Takafumi Watanabe (Jester), Matthew Astley  (Jester/councillor), Kayo Nakazato (Clown/Deceased bride) and Caroline Betancourt (Female clown/Deceased bride ). Koen Kessels conducts the Orchestre National du Capitole. Stage designs by Bruno DeLavenère; costumes by Olivier Bériot; lighting by Sylvain Chevallot. Directed for screen by Luc Riolon; produced by Fabienne Servan Schreiber and Laurence Miller. 

Released 2016, the disc has 5.0 dts sound. Grade: Help!

Please help us with a comment about this disc!

Wednesday
Feb032016

Liszt Piano Concertos

Liszt Piano Concertos concert disc contains the following:
1. Wagner A Faust Overture
2. Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2
3. Wagner Siegfried Idyll
4. Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1
5. Liszt Consolation No. 3
6. Liszt Valse oubliée No. 1

This was performed 2011 at the Philharmonie Hall in Essen as part of the Klavier-Festival Ruhr. Daniel Barenboim is the pianist. Pierre Boulez conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin. Directed for TV by Enrique Sánchez Lansch; Director of Photography was Nyika Jancsó, Audio Producer was Georg Obermeyer; edited by Steffen Herrmann; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released in 2012, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: C-

A Faust Overture

The warm-up is A Faust Overture.  The conducting, playing, PQ, and SQ are decent to excellent.  But the video content is disappointment as this segment has a bad case of DVDitis. This Faust Overture video would maybe be appropriate for a DVD; but it is unacceptable for an HDVD.

For complete information on DVDitis, see our standards for a symphony orchestra recording in HDVD. Briefly, the low resolution of a DVD forces the cameraman shooting an orchestra to use close-up shots of the conductor and small groups of players, usually in a frantic road-runner race of rapid video cuts. But with the power of HDVD cameras, you can shoot the whole orchestra and the larger sections of the band in a way that closely represents what is really happening on the stage. With an HDVD, you should start off with long-range shots and move in only when the score calls for it.

Well, this video of A Faust Overture from Lansch and Jancsó does not have a single whole-orchestra shot even thought it is the first number on the program. (By whole-orchestra shot, I mean a shot that shows every player in a frame that takes up 100% of the TV screen; i.e., as close as you can get and still see it all.) As you see in the screenshot below, we do get, before the concert starts, a shot from the back of the hall in which the players take up about 15% of the screen:

But the image above doesn't count as a whole-orchestra shot. At this range, even the HDVD image doesn't have useful resolution, and you can't tell much (if anything) about any ant-sized player on the stage.)

The next step down from a whole-orchestra shot would be a large-part-of-orchestra shot. This A Faust Overture video has exactly one of these, and you have to wait 10 and 1/2 minutes to get it (at 10:38) as seen next below. This 85% shot is quite nice, and suggests that 100% shots were easily available to the director: 

One step further down would be a whole-large-section shot. This Faust Overture segment has 5 of these, mostly the 4 bass fiddles. There are also 6 shots of entire smaller sections. But we never get even one clear shot of all the violins, the violas, or the cellos.

So if we are not going to get to see the orchestra, what do we get for our money? Well, we get 48 shots of the conductor. 24 of these are close-up shots of Boulez that show you what he's doing (which at his age is as little as possible). The other 24 shots are made over the backs of at least 7 players and in some cases over the backs of something like 40% of the players. These "backs" shots are a usually a waste of time as far as seeing the conductor. They are positively insulting to the players, who are the only folks on the stage making any noise. Next below is a typical "backs" shot:

Next comes 29 part-section shots, many of which involve confusing panning and zooming amidst a sea of heads and string instruments. There are also 21 solo shots, another DVD favorite because it's so easy to get the focus right with one object in the frame.

To be fair, there are some good shots embedded in this morass of DVDitis.  At 9:05 is this neat shot of multiple wind sections:

Below at 10:43 there's a decent shot of the trumpets, bones, and tuba:

My favorite shot is a solo at 12:41 of Mathias Baier, the principal bassoon. This image, with its startling PQ and colors, is as arresting as a Van Gogh painting. This may not be fair to Mr. Baier (who did not sign up to be a movie star), but you imagine that he might just be as sweet, brusk, and quirky as the instrument he plays:

 

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Monday
Jan252016

Manon

Jules Massenet Manon opera to libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille. Directed 2007 by Vincent Paterson at the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Stars Anna Netrebko (Manon), Rolando Villazón (Le Chevalier des Grieux), Christof Fischesser (Le Comte des Grieux), Alfredo Daza (Lescaut), Rémy Corazza (Guillot de Morfontaine), Arttu Kataja (Brétigny, a nobelman), Hanan Alattar (Poussette, an actress), Gal James (Javotte, an actress), Silvia de la Muela (Rosette, an actress),  and Matthias Vieweg (Inkeeper). Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Staatsopernchor (Chorus Master Eberhard Friedrich). Stage design by Johannes Leiacker; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Duane Schuler; choreography by Vincent Paterson; directed for TV by Andreas Morell; produced by Bernhard Fleischer. Released 2008, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit specs, and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio and 5.1 PCM sound. Grade: A

Antoine-François Prévost d'Exiles (Abbé Prévost) wrote his book L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in 1731. It inspired a number of opera and ballet works including this Massenet opera finished in 1884. Manon has probably been the most popular French opera after Faust and Carmen. (In 1893, Puccini wrote an opera based on the same book; for copyright reasons he called it Manon Lescaut.)

Manon is a comic opera, but the libretto, probing human nature on many points, contains a drama laced with considerable anguish leading to a sad death. It's rich entertainment (not designed to make you cry), but it also gives you things to think about.

Manon (Anna Netrebko) is 15 and too interested in material things, so her family is sending her to a convent.   I read Anna was already an outstanding singer as a teenager, and I think someone advised her to remember how girls act at that age. So here she is convincing, at the actual age of 36, in playing the role of 15-year old.  Her cousin Lescaut (Alfredo Daza) meets her at the train station. Daza is the best sergeant in opera; see him also as Belcore in L'elisir d'amore:

Lescaut cautions Manon to behave (while he and some army pals gamble in a back room at the station):

The young man on the left below is Brétigny (Arttu Kataja), a poor nobleman of scant honor. The man on the right is Guillot de Morfontaine (Rémy Corazza) a rich lecher with good political connections. He has three groupies, whom I will try to ID (loving to live dangerously) as (from your left to right): Javotte (Gal James), Rosette (Silvia de la Muela), and Poussette (Hanan Alattar). We will see these characters again. Guillot tried to enter into a conversation with Manon, but his groupies restrain him:

Manon is resigned to her fate as a nun:

Until she meets Le Chevalier des Grieux (Rolando Villazón) another stranger in the station. For both it's love at first plight; and in about 90 seconds, they run away to Paris:

 

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