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.

April 19. We now have two HDVD titles of the Le Corsaire ballet. We like to group related reviews together to make it easier for you to get the whole story. We just posted a story on the new English National Ballet version where the production was wonderful, but the video is marred. The earlier title from Ballet du Capitole is an excellent video of a weak production. (So there's still room in the market for a Corsaire with a great video of a great production.)

We recently posted a review of Verdi's French grand opera Les vêpres siciliennes as directed by Christof Loy in Amsterdam. We gave this a "D+." We also recently reviewed Les vêpres siciliennes in a new best-selling HDVD from the Royal Opera House. We gave that an "A." In the journal, we show the ROH show first and the Amsterdam comes second.

We recently posted an updated review with screenshots of the "A+" graded opera Jenůfa, which deserves to be on everyone's shelf of favorite opera videos.

We have the most complete and best reviews anywhere of ballet and dance HDVDs. So we posted a "hit-parade" story with our top picks. We just added the new The Winter's Tale to the list of best modern ballet and dance titles.

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Sunday
Apr192015

Le Corsaire

Le Corsaire ballet. Story: Anna-Marie Holmes version of the libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier, based on The Corsair by Lord Byron. Choreography and staging: Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev. Original music composed by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenburg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell, and Albert Zabel, all edited by Lars Payne and Gavin Sutherland. Recorded 2014 as performed by the English National Ballet. Stars Alina Cojocaru (Medora), Vadim Muntagirov (Conrad), Erina Takahashi (Gulnare), Dimitri Gruzdyev (Lankendem), Junor Souza (Ali), Yonah Acosta (Birbanto), Michael Coleman (Pasha), Juan Rodriguez (Pasha Assistant), and Nancy Osbaldeston (Lead Villager). Odalisques danced by Shiori Kase, Alison McWhinney, and Laurretta Summerscales. Lead Roses danced by Nancy Osbaldeston, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Adela Ramírez, and Laurretta Summerscales. Lead Flowers danced by Jem Ghoi, Senri Kou, Jenna Lee, and Jia Zhang. Numerous minor roles are danced by artists of the English National Ballet, students of the English National Ballet School, and pupils of the Tring Park School. Gavin Sutherland directs the Orchestra of English National Ballet. Sets and costumes by Bob Ringwood; lighting by Neil Austin; directed for the screen by Chris Blaine with his brother Ben Blain as Producer for Charlie Productions. Stereo recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and  5.1 dts recorded with 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B

Tamara Rojo was one of the leading (and brainiest) ballerinas in the world when she retired early from the Royal Ballet in 2013 to become Artistic Director of the English National Ballet. This Le Corsaire is first HDVD to be released by the ENB under Rojo's leadership.

The ENB worked hard on this title. They were able to cast in-house dancers for all the named characters in the show. To beef up dancing forces, they included ENB School students and pupils from Tring Park, a grade school for children interested in fine-art careers. To insure the highest-quality content, they hired Anna-Marie Holmes, an independent choreographer with vast experience producing Le Corsaire all over the world. They recruited Bob Ringwood, an independent designer, to come up with gorgeous new sets and costumes. Neil Austin, an independent lighting expert, also came on board. Finally, to do the video, they hired the well-known film-makers, Chris and Ben Blaine.

The screenshots below leave no doubt that the show was a fabulous success for the live audience. But the video falls short with (1) serious resolution and PQ issues, especially in the long Act 1, and (2) a harsh sound tract.

Meet Conrad (the Corsaire or pirate chief) performed by Vadim Muntagirov (who was with the ENB at the time and is now a star with the Royal Ballet). Conrad has come to the capital to find his sweetheart Medora, who was taken away by a slave trader:

The Second Officer of the pirates is Birbanto (Yonah Acosta), who has already found a girlfriend among the local ladies:

Lankendem (Dimitri Gruzdyev) is the slave trader. Here he and his men are drumming up interest in an auction of a bunch of beautiful slave girls.  Lankendem has Medora, but he intends to keep her in his own harem:

Medora (Alina Cojocaru) peeks out of Lankendem's house:

Below the Pasha (Michael Coleman) arrives at the square to buy 3 more girls. Now there are two things you should note about the image below as well as those above: the picture resolution is soft and there is a distinct yellow cast to everything.

I can't image why there should be a problem with raw resolution in a video made in 2014. The videos we are getting these days generally have wonderful resolution and clarity of detail. But I noticed weak resolution in this title even in the very first images showing the orchestra (in the relatively dark pit) playing overture music. My initial reaction was to check the disc to see if maybe I'd been sent a DVD by mistake.

The yellow cast is earlier to grasp: it appears that Neil Austin saturated the stage in Act 1 with yellow flood lights augmented by white spot lights on the stars. The yellow light would be consistent with the colors in the Ringwood designs. Probably this all looked great live. But the yellow cast looks garish, unnatural, and unpleasant on my calibrated HT display.  It also seems to lead to pasty, washed-out skin tones for the dancers. I next played the disc on a new, uncalibrated, inexpensive Visio TV (used successfully for watching commercial TV). On the Visio the yellow cast image was even worse (with gold jewelry worn by the slave girls at the rear of the stage reflecting glare). This would suggest that subject title is not suitable to watch on a typical TV!

 

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Sunday
Apr192015

Le Corsaire

Le Corsaire ballet. Libretto (after Lord Byron's poem The Corsair), choreography, and stage direction by Kader Belarbi. Assistant Choreographer was Laure Muret. Performed 2013 at the Théâtre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Original music composed by Adolphe Adam, with additional music by Anton Arensky, David Coleman, Édouard Lalo, Jules Massenet, and and Jean Sibelius. Stars Maria Gutierrez (Slave-Girl), Davit Galstyan (Corsaire), Takafumi Watanabe (Sultan), Juliette Thélin (Sultan's Favorite Concubine), Demian Vargas (Corsair's Companion), Juliana Bastos and Julie Loria (Two Slaves), Henrik Victorin (Slave Trader), Cédric Pons (Guard) and Joël Sitbon (Guard). In addition, Ballet du Capitole Supernumeraries playing the roles of Concubines, Dervishes, Peris, Corsairs, City Folk, etc. include Nuria Arteaga, Virginie Baïet-Dartigalongue, Taisha Barton-Rowledge, Juliana Bastos, Isabelle Brusson, Olivia Hartzell, Lauren Kennedy, Ina Lesnakowski, Julia Loria, Maki Matsuoka, Solène Monnereau, Gwenaëlle Poline, Pascale Saurel, Vanessa Spiteri, Alexander Akulov, Matthew Astley, Petros Chrkhoyan, Kamill-Ariston Chudoba, Adrien Delépine, Pierre Devaux, Jean-Gabriel Evrard, Julian Ims, Shizen Kazama, Jérémy Leydier, Nicolas Rombout, Henrik Victorin, Yannick Valentian, and Stéphane Motard. David Coleman directs the Orchestre National du Capitole. Sets by Sylvie Olivé; costumes by Olivier Bériot; lighting by Marian Hewlett; Camille Ansquer assisted in designing sets; artistic advice by Martine Kahame; music advice by Elena Rassadkina Bonnay.   Directed for screen by Luc Riolon; produced by Fabienne Servan Schreiber and Laurence Miller. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

Le Corsaire, a pirate adventure story, is part of the Petipa canon, but it doesn't have a standard libretto. The many versions all appear to have the following elements: (1) a dashing pirate commander (the corsaire) and a beautiful slave-girl who are in love, (2) a sultan who buys the slave-girl, (3) a fight over the girl, and (4) a final storm scene where the corsaire and the girl die, or survive. Of course, the more extravagant the plot, the better. Well, the budget at the Théâtre National du Capitole didn't allow anything too wild.

So the result was a Corsaire-lite production, about which I'm now conflicted.  I love the bright lighting provided by Marian Hewlett. This allowed Luc Riolon to make beautiful video images throughout with special emphasis on full-stage and mid-range shots mostly showing all the dancers completely. (The video is spiced up with some appropriate near-range shots, but I don't recall a single close-up). The lighting and video of the storm scene was impressive. I liked the costumes and the sets made mostly of delicate fabrics stretched over big  wire frames that could be lowered from the fly. I also liked the way the music was put together, performed, and recorded.

But I was disappointed with the libretto and the dancing. I usually watch new titles at night after I've finished my pay job. But this Le Corsaire-lite made me nod off every time. Eventually I would wake up not knowing what I had missed. So to review this, I had to arrange to watch it mornings. The reason I could not stay awake is Kader Belarbi's libretto, which deals with the stupidest sultan who ever squandered a fortune and the most pitiful pirates who ever deserved to walk the plank.

Here we are at the slave market. Our Slave-girl (Maria Gutierrez) is on the viewer's left standing with 2 other girls for sale (none of the characters has a name). The Slave-trader (Henrik Victorin) is bowing to the Sultan (Takafumi Watanabe). At your far right in the long rose-colored gown is the sultan's Favorite Concubine (Juliette Thélin):

When the Slave-trader is distracted, the Corsaire (Davit Galstyan), wearing a red bandana, talks to our Slave-girl. The Corsaire's Companion (Demian Vargas), wearing a green bandana, talks to another of the girls:

The Sultan buys our Slave-girl.  This distresses the Favorite because the new girl is so pretty. The Favorite knows the corsaires. She gets the Companion to go to the Sultan's quarters disguised as the new Slave-girl. The Favorite wants the Corsaire and the Slave-girl to have a few minutes to meet and fall in love. Here we see the Favorite's scheme is working:

The Sultan realizes he's been tricked and fetches his new Slave-girl. Now we visit the concubine quarters in the seraglio:

 

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Friday
Apr172015

Les vêpres siciliennes

Verdi Les vêpres siciliennes opera to libretto by Charles Duveyrier and Eugène Scribe. Directed 2013 by Stefan Herheim at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Stars Lianna Haroutounian (Hélène), Bryan Hymel (Henri), Michael Volle (Guy de Montfort), Erwin Schrott (Jean Procida), Neal Cooper (Thibault), Jihoon Kim (Robert), Jean Teitgen (Le Sire de Béthune), Jeremy White (Le Comte de Vaudemont), Nicholas Darmanin (Daniéli), Michelle Daly (Ninetta), and Jung Soo Yun (Mainfroid). Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Vasko Vassilev) and Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director Renato Balsadonna). Dramaturgy by Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach; set designs by Philipp Fürhofer; costume designs by Gesine Völlm; lighting design by Anders Poll; choreography by André de Jong; directed for the screen by Rhodri Huw. Music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

Les vêpres siciliennes is a French grand opera, an opulent, melodramatic genre that flourished and withered shortly before the American Civil War. Vêpres is considered by experts to be B-grade Verdi. This new production of Vêpres directed by Stefan Herheim at The Royal Opera played late 2013 to mixed print reviews. It came out in HDVD about 15 months later and immediately became a best seller! Why?

Herheim gives the HDVD opera fan (the kind with a HT and high-def TV) everything he could ask for. First, there's a real grand opera with lavish sets and costumes, a big orchestra, star singers, and double choruses portraying all the lugubrious, contrived, switch-back, high-drama situations that anyone could possible image or desire. Every twist in the plot is embellished with it's own glorious aria, duet, trio, quartet, or chorus number, all marching along in endless procession as midnight approaches. This is your money's worth. Second, for the younger set, Herheim provides a stylish update: instead of being set in the late-middle ages, the opera happens in 1850 in a Paris opera house. Third, for the intellectuals, there's a modern overlay with imaginary characters appearing throughout (such as a young boy in various costumes) which have meanings that are (usually) relatively easy to grasp from context (few Eurotrash-level mysteries). Finally, Herheim adds dancing whenever he can. Some of the ballet dancers do double duty as silent characters, and the chorus gets to do a lot of peasant dancing as well. (The Royal Ballet pulled out of this production on short notice, probably because its choreographer wanted to mount a discrete 40-minute show right in the middle of the opera, as was customary in Paris in 1850. Herheim then hired completely new free-lance forces to work under André de Jong, and the result is the best use of ballet in an opera that I know of.) So you wind up with more than your money's worth. Now to screenshots.

"The Sicilian Vespers" is the name (here in English) of a successful popular uprising by the people of Sicily against French occupation forces in 1282. Legend says John of Procida, a Sicilian physician and diplomat, led the uprising, which was signaled by the ringing of church bells at vespers on the Monday after Easter. Here we see Erwin Schrott as Procida, who has a ballet school at his palace. He's been reading in the newspaper about the French invasion of his country:

Guy de Montfort, the new French governor, heard about the girls at the ballet school. He and his men break in to rape them. Montfort gets first pick:

From this union a child named Henri Nota will be born. But neither Henri nor Montfort will know about any of this for many years:

The people of Sicily chafe under French rule:

Lianna Haroutounian plays Hélène, a Sicilian aristocrat. (Marina Popslavskaya was scheduled to sing this, but Haroutounian became a real-life heroine when Popslavskaya called in sick.) Hélène's brother was recently executed for sedition, and Hélène is being held hostage by Montfort. But she is fearless in urging her people to resist the occupation (Hélène holds her brother's skull):

 

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Friday
Apr172015

Les vêpres siciliennes

Verdi Les vêpres siciliennes opera to libretto by Charles Duveyrier and Eugène Scribe. Directed 2010 by Christof Loy at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. Stars Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Guy de Montfort), Jeremy White (La Sire de Béthune), Christophe Fel (Le Comte de Vaudemont), Burkhard Fritz (Henri), Balint Szabo (Jean Procida), Barbara Haveman (Duchess Hélène), Lívia Ághová (Ninetta), Fabrice Farina (Daniéli), Hubert Francis (Thibault), Roger Smeets (Robert), and Rudi de Vries (Mainfroid). Also features dancers Barbara Spitz (Barbara Nota), Adam Ster (Henri Nota), Richard Gittins (Frédéric d'Autriche), Katharina Wunderlich (Hélène d'Autriche), and Samon Presland (The Young Montfort) for the Four Seasons ballet segment. Paolo Carignani conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and the Koor van De Nederlandse Opera (Chorus Master Martin Wright). Ballet storybook by Thomas Jonigk; set design by Johannes Leiacker; costume design by Bernd Purkrabek; choreography by Thomas Wilhelm; dramaturgy by Yvonne Gebauer; video by Evita Galanou and Thomas Wollenberger; directed for the screen by Misjel Vermeiren. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

Unless you are already an expert on Vêpres,  please see first our review the 2015 ROH Vêpres production. That story shows how well a properly-financed traditional production of this opera (with modest updating and overlays to cater to contemporary taste) can turn out. But what happens when French grand opera meets a tight Dutch budget? You get a modern production where just about everything other than the singing and the orchestra is broken and doesn't work.

The biggest casting challenge in Vêpres is to find an older baritone and a younger tenor who can together make up a convincing father-and-son team. But, alas, if keeping costs down is major concern, you may wind up with pair like Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester playing the father Guy de Montfort and Burkhard Fritz playing the son Henri. Which man is the older? In fact, Alejandro is 6 calendar years older than Burkhard. But in physical terms, the trim Alejandro appears the same age or younger that the overweight Burkhard. And Burkhard doesn't look anything like a soldier/revolutionary who has just been released from prison---he looks like a computer programmer after 10 years of a diet of pizza and Pepsies:

Duchess Hélène, shown below, is played by the lean and sophisticated Barbara Haveman. She is way too slick to possibly find a love interest in blob Henri. Our tight budget doesn't allow for any costumes other than what's in the warehouse already or hanging in the closets of the chorus members at home. Below we see the peasant garb, which you find on any day in any Dutch grocery store. (I really don't know if management made the singers furnish their own costumes, but it sure looks that way.)

The aristocrats and French soldiers occupying Sicily wear slightly more refined costumes consisting of contemporary black and white. And since there's no money for sets either, it's smart to hire director Christof Loy, who is known for staging elaborate and exotic works (like, for example, Lulu) on empty, vast, dark stages. Since Vêpres has a double chorus, you can't just let all those folks stand around on the stage for 3 hours. Solution: get aggressive by putting 45 or so chairs on the stage so some of the singers can sit in various formations. In the screenshot below, the French occupation forces sit in the front-row chairs while the peasants stand behind. As soon as the chorus members start moving around, it's very hard to tell who is who: 

With a problematic cast plus sets, costumes, and props of little interest, you have to do something to keep the audience awake. Why not some unusual videos projections on the back wall? Everyone in the audience knows the famous overture. So Loy came up with the idea of moving the overture into the middle of Act 1 while showing a video. The video consists of mug shots which suggest that this Vêpres is set in the 20th century somewhere in a country occupied by the forces of a modern (French) secret-police state. Below is the first set of mug shots. In the middle of the top row we see Henri (full name Henri Nota) and Hélène (full name Hélène d'Autriche). To the left of Henri is his mother, Barbara Nota, who doesn't appear in the opera but will be a character in the ballet that is featured later in the opera. To the right of Hélène we see John Procida, whom we will meet a bit later. On the lower row are three Sicilian character with supporting roles. On the far right is Frédéric d'Autriche, Hélène's brother, a revolutionary who was executed by Montfort before the opera begins. It's beyond me how the audience is supposed to absorb all this in real time:

Suddenly the video image of Henri expands:

And now the image blinks!

Suddenly we see the mug shots smiling:

 

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Tuesday
Apr142015

La finta giardiniera

Mozart La finta giardiniera opera to a libretto possibly by Giuseppe Petrosellini. Directed 2014 by David Lescot at the Opéra de Lille. Stars Carlo Allemano (Don Anchise, the Podestà), Erin Morley (Violante, disguised as Sandrina), Enea Scala (Comte Belfiore), Marie-Adeline Henry (Arminda), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Ramiro), Maria V. Savastano (Serpetta), and Nikolay Borchev (Roberto, disguised as Nardo). Emmanuelle Haïm conducts Le Concert d'Astrée (Chorus Master Philippe Grisvard). Atsushi Sakaï was Assistant to the Music Director. Set designs by Alwyne de Dardel; costumes by Sylvette Dequest; lighting by Paul Beaureilles; directed for film by Jean-Pierre Loisil. Released 2009, disc has 5.1 dts-HD sound. Grade: Help!

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

Tuesday
Apr142015

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg operetta. Music by Michel Legrand. Based on the 1964 film of the same name by Jacque Demy. Directed 2014 at Paris’ Châtelet Theatre. Stars Marie Oppert (Geneviève Emery), Vincent Niclo (Guy Foucher), Natalie Dessay (Madame Emery), Laurent Naouri (Roland Cassard), and Leterm (Madeleine Louise). Also features musicians Denis Leloup (trombone), François Laizeau (drums), Claude Egea (trumpet), Pierre Boussaguet (double bass), and Pierre Perchaud (guitar). Michel Legrand conducts the Orchestre national d’Ile-de-France. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Earlier, we decided not to cover an Erato Blu-ray of Legrand songs, Entre elle et lui, on the grounds that it wasn't classical music (even though Natalie Dessay was the star singer).  We have to draw a line somewhere. Now what do we do abount Parapluies? We don't cover musicals. We do cover operetta. Legrand points out that all the dialog is sung. We watched some of the production on You-Tube. As you can see from the artwork above, there's a symphony orchestra on stage. The singers and the action appear in front of the orchestra. It's all so charming. We decided that it's just over the line as a "concert version of an operetta."

We know, the artwork above is for the DVD version. We hope Erato will eventually release artwork of the front and back of the Blu-ray keepcase.

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

Tuesday
Apr142015

Otello

Verdi Otello opera to libretto by Arrigo Boito. Directed 2012 by Elijah Moshinsky at the Metropolitan Opera. Stars Johan Botha (Otello), Renée Fleming (Desdemona), Falk Struckmann (Iago), and Michael Fabiano (Cassio). Semyon Bychkov conducts the The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet. Directed for TV by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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