Articles and Reviews

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. We have the best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. So we recently posted a "hit-parade" story with our top picks. 

It's October 26. We just posted a review with an "A" grade and screenshots of the Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of the Dialogues des Carmélites opera. We recentl posted a review of a 4:3 b&w title shot in 1965-66 with symphony movies from Karajan and Clouzot. Find out about the only serious effort ever to combine creative video with symphony music, why it failed, and what we can learn from this today.

We recently posted our review of the new Royal Opera Ballet Giselle with Acosta/Osipova. We now have reviews up about all the Giselle HDVDs. We still prefer the Paris Opera Ballet Giselle over all others, but you be the judge.

Gramophone magazine just published its annual 2014 Music Awards. In the Opera category they picked the FRA L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges as winner and the Opus Arte Les Troyens as the runner-up. In the Contemporary category they picked the Opus Arte Written on Skin as winner. We have reviews already up on all three picks. Curiously, Gramophone identified all three titles as DVDs and didn't even mention that they are also available in Blu-ray. This is just another shocking example of how slow the print critics are to see the importance of HD video. If you are interested in HD video of fine arts stuff,  come here for your information.

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Sunday
Oct262014

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 (Officier), 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: A

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.

This true story was used as 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 (Lehnhoff?) 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:

 

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Thursday
Oct232014

Herbert von Karajan 1965-1966 Movie Documentary

Herbert von Karajan 1965-1966 Movie Documentary. This title begins with a 1965 motion picture of Karajan conducting the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Wiener Symphoniker and Yehudi Menuhin. Then comes the 1966 motion picture of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker in the Dvořák Symphony No. 9 ("New World"). Finally, there are two bonus items in which Karajan discusses the art of conducting with Menuhin and Prof. Joachim Kaiser as well as a few minutes of Karajan in rehearsal. The filming was the work of motion-picture director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Released 2010, the entire title is in 4:3 black and white. It has PCM stereo sound for the music and mono sound for the extras. Grade: X-B-

Karajan was always interested in all aspects of recording technology. In the 1960s, he tried to increase his audience via motion pictures. He made a number of symphony movies with 35 mm film, mostly in black and white. He was about 50 years ahead of the market. The films cost a lot of money to produce and could only be shown in movie houses. The audience was too thinly scattered around the world for this to pay off. Eventually Karajan abandoned movie films to focus on LPs.

The original film prints shown in this title probably looked great in theaters. But that was long years ago, and the celluloid originals were soon put in storage to rot. The PQ of this title is only fair when compared to, for example, the HDVD version of the Casablanca film with Humphrey Bogart. The sound is straight-jacketed. All this disqualifies this title from our website as performance of a concerto or symphony. Nevertheless, the title is included here as a documentary about the history of fine-arts video.

The motion pictures of Karajan and his symphonic forces were ground-breaking. A number of operas were also produced as motion pictures. But I know of no other classical concert motion pictures. Some classical music titles were produced later in laserdisc and DVD, but these did not have high-definition video. Today we are getting HDVD classical music titles with PQ and SQ vastly superior to the Karajan movies. Still, the best of the Karajan movies were more striking than any other symphony video that was done since right up to the advent of HDVDs in 2007 (and maybe right up to today).  That's because the Karajan movies were shot by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a fully-qualified and experienced motion picture director whose fame in his own field equaled the fame of Karajan as a conductor.

You have to see a couple of these Karajan/Clouzot films to understand what I'm talking about. The musicians in these films were made up, dressed, and positioned (usually very close together and in unusual formations) by Karajan/Clouzot on special stages with decorations and low-level lighting aimed at getting a film noir look. Our first screenshot is the  most dramatic image I have found to illustrate this. (Please note this image is from a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 and is not from subject review title):

The image above is very poor, but you can easily see how shockingly different this is from a normal symphony concert. Is this genius or madness? This reminds me of those photos of the models created by Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler of the central city plan for Berlin as capital of the Third Reich. (Did you know that Karajan was a member of the Nazi Party?)

In the Karajan/Clouzot films, you don't see a microphone anywhere. Karajan looked more like a movie star than a symphony conductor. If you happened to see a few moments of this out of context, you might think it was a propaganda film or a crime thriller in which the conductor will be murdered on the podium.

Clouzot was obviously responsible for the film noir look. But who dreamed up the radical seating plans and the way the musicians were presented as soldiers of music or even robots? I have no idea, but all of this tied in well to Karajan's concept of the conductor as center of the observible universe.

The musicians were conducted by Karajan and directed by Clouzot simultaneously. No wonder they (all men---not a woman in the entire HDVD) all look so very intense and serious. The two films are quiet different, and the design of each is logically related to the character of the music. It's a little like the master chef who spends as much time working on how his dishes look as to how they taste.

With two such super-egos as Karajan and Clouzot at work, astonishing things were bound to happen. But with two such super-egos at work, things will not last long. After making 5 movies, the partnership broke up. Let's turn to some screenshots.

Mozart Violin Concerto

The music starts at the first frame of the film with this image:

Followed by this amalgam of Liberaceism and High Culture with many scores of actual burning candles (one for each musician plus general lighting). In addition to the kitsch, there was also a unique solar-system seating pattern with Karajan as the sun, the musicians in an asteroid belt, and Menuhin presented as a giant gas planet. I never figured out the empty seats:

The first obligation of the video director of any symphony performance is to show the audience adequate whole-orchestra shots so that viewers can, as when they attend a live performance, see where all the different instruments are located. (See our Special Article on this and other requirements for a good symphony concert video.) The solar-system setup made whole-orchestra shots impossible. Even with a camera on a crane, a chandeliers blocks the view:

Never mind, this performance is not about the orchestra. This show is about the sun and its planet:

Of course, the planet gets plenty of screen time in this concerto. So if you're interested in Menuhin, there's a lot for you to like in this performance and in a bonus extra:

 

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Tuesday
Oct212014

Giselle

Giselle ballet. Music by Adolphe Adam revised by Joseph Horovitz. Libretto by Théophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges. Choreography by Marius Petipa after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Directed 2014 by Sir Peter Wright at the Royal Opera House. Stars Natalia Osipova (Giselle), Carlos Acosta (Count Albrecht), Thomas Whitehead (Hilarion), Deirdre Chapman (Berthe), Johannes Stepanek (Wilfred, Albrecht's Squire), Christopher Saunders (Duke of Courland), Christina Arestes (Bathilde, Courland's daughter), Alastair Marriott (Leader of the Hunt), Hikaru Kobayashi (Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis), Elisabeth Harrod (Moyna, Myrtha's attendant), Akane Takada (Zulme, Myrtha's attendant). Pas de Six danced by Yuhui Choe, Valentino Zucchetti, Francesca Hayward, Luca Acri, Yasmine Naghdi, and Marcelino Sambé). Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Peter Manning). Designs by John Macfarlane; lighting  by Jennifer Tipton recreated by David Finn; staging by Christopher Carr; directed for screen by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

This is the same production that was performed by the Royal Opera Ballet at the Royal Opera House in 2006 and published by Opus Arte in 2009. Why did Opus Arte (which belongs to the ROH) do a new Blu-ray of this? The stars in 2006 have mostly retired and how there's a new stable of dancers. My guess is that ROH management wanted to support its current dancers by giving them a change to shine in a new video of this famous ballet. What has changed in 8 years? Many small details have changed, and we will point out a few in our screenshots. And, of course, a fabulous performance by one star can have a big impact on the desirability of a disc.

So which version should you buy now, the 2006 performance  or the 2014? And is the better of these choices as good as the venerable Giselle from the Paris Opera Ballet that was first published in 2009? We will try to answer these questions with the help of our screenshots. (By the way, in this review, I'll assume you already know the Giselle story. If you don't know the story, read some of our other Giselle reviews where we go into the story.)

Natalia Osipova is the new Giselle. Osipova has it all: beauty, acting skill, and incredible dancing ability. Her star is still rising. She did an amazing job in The Flames of Paris at the Bolshoi and in Notre-Dame de Paris at la Scala.  Now it appears she has been recruited to give the ROB a female super-star (that they had trouble developing themselves). Carlos Acosta is the new Albrecht. He has had an astonishing career with more than 10 credits for Blu-rays reported on this website. (Go to the Search tool to see all this.) But he is fast approaching retirement, and his star is now setting into the western seas of choreography and ballet management. Here we see Giselle and Albrecht falling in love. Note how pretty the costumes are even in close-up:

If you will compare the next three screenshots below to the screenshots for the 2006 Royal Opera Ballet disc, you will see that Peter Wright brightened up the set a lot for his update. This in turn makes it much easier for the cameramen to get great high-resolution video images. Wright was no doubt encouraged to do this by the folks at Opus Arte:

Deirdre Chapman is the new Berthe, shown here explaining how the Wilis kill the young men they capture in the forest (the crossed wrists stand for "death"):

In 2006, the Royal Opera Ballet was good at creating a convincing story with careful personal direction of the dancers in the crowd scenes. But Wright reorganized these scenes (especially with the appearance of the royals) and made the directing even better. Everyone on stage received detailed instructions for every move and expression for each second of the drama. The result is a marvelous fusion of the arts of ballet, stage drama, and movie-making. Here Osipova is so fetching acting the role of the shy, innocent village girl. Christopher Saunders is the new Duke and Christina Arestes the new Bathilde, both impressive in their efforts to politely ingratiate themselves with the peasants:

Wright lets Giselle show off her 32 one-foot hops especially to the royal visitors, which helps explain why Bathilde was so charmed by Giselle. Note the joy on Giselle's face:

 

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Thursday
Oct162014

Lohengrin

 Richard Wagner Lohengrin opera to libretto by the composer. Directed 2009 by Richard Jones at the Munich Festival. Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin), Anja Harteros (Elsa), Wolfgang Koch (Telramund), Michaela Schuster (Ortrud), Christof Fischesser (König Heinrich), and Evgeny Nikitin (Herald). Kent Nagano conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Released 2014. Grade: Help!

Another 5-year old  performance that Decca is finally publishing. Why the delay?

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

Thursday
Oct162014

Strauss Tone Poems

Richard Strauss Tone Poems concert [our name]. Andriss Nelsons conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Also sprach Zarasthustra, Till Eulenspiegel, and Macbeth at the Royal Concertgebouw in 2013 and 2014. Released 2014, disc has dts 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
Oct162014

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 Sophie Koch (Mère Marie de l’Incarnation), Patricia Petibon (Blanche de La Force), 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), Annie Vavrille (Mère Jeanne de l’Enfant Jésus), Sophie Pondjiclis (Soeur Mathilde), François Piolino (Le Père confesseur du couvent), Jérémy Duffau (Le premier commissaire), Yuri Kissin (Le second commissaire, un officier), and Matthieu Lécroart (Le geôlier). Jérémie Rhorer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra & Chœur du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Set design and costumes by Pierre-André Weitz; lighting by Bertrand Killy and Hervé Gary; choreography by Natalie Van Parys;directed for film by Olivier Simonnet. Released 2014, dics has Dolby 5.1 sound. Grade: Help!

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Thursday
Oct162014

Ciboulette

Reynaldo Hahn Ciboulette opera to a libretto by Robert de Flers and Francis de Croisset. Directed 2013 by Michel Fau at the Opéra Comique. Stars Julie Fuchs (Ciboulette), Jean-François Lapointe (Duparquet), Julien Behr (Antonin), Michel Fau, Agnès Terrier, and Jérôme Deschamps. Laurence Equilbey conducts the Orchestre Opéra de Toulon and Accentus. Directed for TV by François Roussillon. Released 2014. Grade: Help!

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