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.

March 22. We recently posted a review of the "A+" I Capuleti e i Montecchi bell canto opera by Bellini. (We stated this Capuleti was the first HDVD opera recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Our always careful reader Zoltan Glied pointed out, however, that Alcina, which came out in 2011, was an earlier opera recorded to this high standard.)  The Capuleti performance in San Francisco was criticized for modern directing and designs, but we think the Boussard mise-en-scène is exactly right to make this work resonate, in its HDVD version at least, with today's audience.

Lately we have been writing about older titles that came along before we started doing screen shots. So we recently posted a new story about the Handel opera Giulio Cesare with the amazing Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. 

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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Tuesday
Mar172015

Mozart Symphony No. 35

Mozart Symphony No. 35 concert. Here's the program:

1. Beethoven Egmont Incidental Music with soprano Juliane Banse and narrator Bruno Ganz

2. Mozart Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner")

3. Mozart concert arias sung by soprano Christine Schäfer:

  • Misera, dove son? - Ahi! non son' io che parlo!; Ah, lo previdi...
  • Ah, l'invola agl'occhi miei;
  • Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!

Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2011 and 2012 at the Lucerne Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny.  Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please write us a comment mini-review about this title!

Tuesday
Mar172015

Richard Strauss - At the End of the Rainbow

Richard Strauss - At the End of the Rainbow documentary by Eric Schulz. This film explores the work and legacy of Richard Struass. Features interviews with Christian Strauss, Stefan Mickisch, and Brigitte Fassbaender. Released 2015, disc has stereo sound. Grade: Help!

Tuesday
Mar172015

Lang Lang - The Chopin Dance Project

Lang Lang - The Chopin Dance Project, a piano recital by Lang Lang and ballet performance by 16 dancers of the Houston Ballet, all live, featuring the following works by Chopin:

1. Ballade No.1 in G minor op. 23
2. Etude No. 7 in C-sharp minor op. 25
3. Ballade No. 2 in F major op. 38
4. Ballade No. 4 in F minor op. 52
5. Waltz No. 1 in E-flat major op. 18 "Grande Valse brillante"
6. Nocturne No. 1 in F major op. 15
7. Waltz No. 19 in A minor op. posth.
8. Andante spianato op. 22
9. Etude No. 3 in E major opus 10 «Tristesse»
10. Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat major op. 55
11. Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat major op. 22
12. Nocturne in C-sharp minor, op. posth. No. 16

Choreographed by Stanton Welch;  filmed 2013 at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

The 3 ballades here overlap Lang Lang's performance on the recently released HDVD Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall, where he played all 4 Chopin ballades. Of the remaining 9 selections, some are often heard as encores. So if you already have the disc of the show at the Royal Albert Hall, this might not be a compelling buy just for the music. Still, this is a show with 12 dancers being supported by a single musician, so the dancing may be the true focus of this recording even if Lang Lang is more famous than the Houston Ballet. And we saw in the HDVD Dragon Songs recording that Lang Lang is quite able to be a "restrained, meticulous, gracious, and loving accompanist." We have this on our buy list for sure as we are undertaking to review every high-quality ballet title that comes out in Blu-ray. 

In the meantime, please help us by writing a comment that we can place here as a mini-review of this title.

Sunday
Mar152015

I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi opera to a libreto by Felice Romani. Directed 2012 by Vincent Boussard at the San Francisco Opera. Stars Joyce DiDonato (Romeo [trousers]), Nicole Cabell (Giulietta), Saimir Pirgu (Tebaldo), Eric Owens (Capellio), and Ao Li (Lorenzo). Riccardo Frizza conducts the San Francisco Opera (Acting Concertmaster Laura Albers) and Chorus (Chorus Master Ian Robertson). Sets by Vincent Lemaire; costumes by Christian Lacroix; lighting by Guido Levi; directed for screen by Frank Zamacona; Master Audio/Video Engineer was Doug Mitchell; Audio Recording Engineer was Michael Chen. Zoltan Glied first reported this title was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling for both its stereo and surround sound versions, and we confirmed this later.  Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio output. This is (we think) the first opera title in history to have both audiophile sound and HD TV!   Grade: A+

Bellini (in 1830) and Shakespeare (in 1595) both relied on resources that can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance (say, 1350 to 1550). Here are some of the many differences between (1) the Bellini opera as directed by here by Vincent Boussard and (2) the Shakespeare play and the Prokofiev ballet based on the play: 

In the opera, there's no bawdy nurse [instead, there's the family physician and confidant Lorenzo]. There's no Mercutio, Benvolio, Paris [Tebaldo is expected to marry Giuliette],  Friar Lawrence [Doctor Lorenzo gives Giuliette her sleeping pill], Lord and Lady Montecchi [as an outcast clan, they are not even allow to visit Verona], Lady Capellio, Duke of Verona, or the apothecary. Romeo is not a teenager and there are no streets with merchants, harlots, and brawling teen gangs [instead, there is civil war]. There's no love-at-first sight or balcony scene [instead Romeo, a hardened war veteran and spy, and Giuliette have been lovers for some time]. There's no elopement or wedding. [Instead, Giuliette, out of family loyalty, repeatedly turns down Romeo's pleas that she leave with him]. There's no honeymoon night [instead, there's a fast, furious, floor fornication (all the "f" words I know) while Giuliette is supposed to be getting dressed to marry Tebaldo]. Both Romeo and Giuliette die, but neither gets to fall down or drape dramatically over a bed or tomb [instead both die standing up and are presented as shades].  Although there is shared grief, there is no cozy reconciliation of families [instead, the future is open-ended].

Opera fans and critics reviewing this production in print in 2012 seem to have mostly loved the singing and the orchestra. They mostly hated the direction and designs, which were viewed as Regietheater or Eurotrash. I'll defend Boussard and his artistic team. I Capuleti e i Montecchi is extraordinarily short and streamlined. That's because Bellini and Romani got their contracts on an emergency basis and had a deadline of only a few weeks. They finished the new opera on time by cutting everything extraneous and reworking an earlier opera of Bellini that had failed.

I don't see this opera as a love story: to me, it's a story of the isolation, imbalance, and frustration felt by those who cross boundaries in their lives. So now let's take a look at the direction decisions and designs that were upsetting to opera-goers who thought they were going to see a show about the romance of young love.

Although I see nothing on point in the libretto I consulted about the exact location for the opening scene, the story begins, according to the Act I title screen, in the Capuleti stables. The Capuleti knights have been called to assembly. That explains the saddles hanging from the ceiling, a design decision that puzzled some critics who were not clued in. There are other references in the show to cavalry, especially a huge out-of-focus and therefore somewhat abstract image of a man on horseback (probably a knight) that is projected on the back wall of the the set for much of the opera. Note here the beautiful, jewel-like colors achieved in relative darkness of the stage:

The civil war between the Capuleti and Montecchi is heating up again. Leonardo (Ao Li), the family doctor and advisor, urges the dominant Capuleti clan to make peace with the outcast Montecchi group:

Lord Capellio (Eric Owens) asserts that he still demands revenge on Romeo, who killed Capellio's son and heir in a battle:

Tebaldo (Saimir Pirgu) declares his love for Giuliette and promises to kill Romeo:

An ambassador from Romeo appears. The ambassador is in fact Romeo (Joyce DiDonato) himself, but the Capuleti forces don't recognise him in his disguise. None of them has seen him in many years when he went into exile as a youth:

Romeo offers peace if the the Montecchi will be allowed to return to Verona. To seal that treaty, Romeo and Giuliette should marry. The offer is brusquely rejected. But Romeo at least has gotten access to the Capuleti palace and can see Giuliette one more time before she can marry Tebaldo:

Now we visit Giuliette in her chambers. This scene opens with the projection on a front scrim of an image of a statute ("The Lovers" I'll call it). Behind the scrim, a solid curtain rises showing Giuliette in her bedroom behind yet another transparent scrim. When this second scrim rises, the projection of The Lovers dissolves and we see actual sculpture of The Lovers suspended from the ceiling:

Giuliette yearns to see Romeo one more time:

 

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Tuesday
Mar102015

Brahms Serenade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2

Brahms Sereneade No. 2 and Symphony No. 2 concert. Features three works by Brahms: Serenade No. 2, Alto Rhapsody, and Symphony No. 2. Andris Nelsons conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Choir in 2014 at the Lucerne  Summer Festival (KKL Concert Hall). Soloist is Sara Mingardo (alto). Gerarld Häussler was Chorus Master; video directed by Michael Beyer; produced by Paul Smaczny. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Please write us a comment mini-review about this title!

Tuesday
Mar102015

Guillaume Tell

Rossini Guillaume Tell opera to a libretto by Étienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis. Directed 2014 by Graham Vick. Stars Nicola Alaimo, Marina Rebeka, Juan Diego Flórez, and Amanda Forsythe. Michelle Mariotti conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

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

Sunday
Mar082015

Giulio Cesare

Handel Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) opera to libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym. Directed 2005 by David McVicar at Glyndebourne. Stars singers Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra), Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Angelika Kirchschlager (Sesto), Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nireno), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Christopher Maltman (Achilla), Alexander Ashworth (Curio) and Nadja Zwiener (On-Stage Violin).  Actors: Sirena Tocco, Irene Hardy, Hatim Kamel, Trevor Goldstein, Benjamin Timothy, and Ted Sikström. William Christie conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Leader Alison Bury) and the Glyndebourne Chorus (Chorus Master Bernard McDonald). Continuo: harpsichord, Laurence Cummings and Benoìt Hartoin; cello, Jonathan Cohen;  viola da gamba, Richard Tunnicliffe;  bass, Chi-chi Nwanoku; theorbo, Elizabeth Kenny. Set design by Robert Jones; costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; lighting by Paule Constable; movement direction by Andrew George; fight direction by Nicholas Hall; directed for TV by Robin Lough. Music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Opera has 5.0 PCM sound output.  Released 2009, the opera runs 3 hours and 46 minutes, and there are valuable extras for a total of 5 hours runtime on 2 discs.  Grade: A+

Someone defined opera as  a musical play about sex and violence. Giulio Cesare satisfies this definition. But how can you get a contemporary audience to relate to Handel with his quaint-sounding music played on old instruments, complicated 3 and 1/2 hour libretto, and multiple parts written to be sung by castrated men? The answer is by jazzing it up with entertaining elements such as sexy singers, women singers acting as men, updated scenery and props, snazzy costumes, and dancing. If you do this with ideas that are logical, in proportion, and in good taste, you will be deemed "entertaining." Then opera lovers can be induced to focus on the wide variety of musical ideas Handel develops in the work. Nobody does this kind of thing better than the folks at Glyndebourne.

It's March 2015. This Giulio Cesare was filmed almost 10 years ago (2005) when the specs for HD TV were still being debated. Opus Arte released it in DVD in 2006.The DVD version was almost universally praised to the point of suspecting payola. 6 years ago Opus Art published this in Blu-ray (2009), when I gave it an "A+" grade. I just watched this again and was happy to see how well it has held up. I thought you might appreciate a reminder about this title, which is still among of the best baroque opera titles we have. My screenshots introduce you to the main characters and show how the production team, while respecting Handel's music, succeeded in making this entertaining.

The historical time is 50 BC, when Giulio Cesare (Julius Ceasar) was chasing the forces of rival general Pompey in Egypt. From that point on, everything in the libretto is fiction. Director David McVicar updates 1900 years by replacing togas with tunics (of the English empire). There are 8 singing roles: of these, two are bass roles (General Curio and General Achilla) and all the rest are women or counter-tenors. (Handel used 3 castrati). Below we see Giulio Cesare (Sarah Connolly in trousers), on his arrival in Egypt. Connolly is astonishingly effective and convincing as Cesare. (To see Connally in a female role, see her screenshots in Hippolyte and Aricie.):

Next we meet Pompey's wife Cornelia (Patricia Bardon),  and Pompey's young son Sesto (Angelica Kirchschlager in trousers). McVicar brings a lot of humor into his production, but he doesn't slight the serious aspects of Handel's story and music. Cornelia, soon to learn she is a widow, will provide many lamentations throughout the opera. Sesto is a rich character who will grow from a rash child into a hardened killer. In the next shot, a magnanimous Cesare accepts Pompey's peace offer delivered by Cornelia:

General Achilla (Christopher Maltman in white uniform) serves Tolomeo, the King of Egypt and brother of Cleopatra. Achilla is a villian, of course, but Handel gives him a glorious death scene in which he will eventually redeem himself. Here Achilla welcomes Cesare with a special gift:

The freshly severed head of Pompey! Tolomeo hoped in this way to ingratiate himself with Cesare, but this dastardly deed has backfired:

In a simply but beautifully decorated set, Sesto vows he will revenge his father's death. The image you see here and on the cover of the keepcase is the shattered head of Pompey (and not the image of Cesare):

Tolomeo (counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux) is a perpetual bisexual maniac who shows his martial prowess by hacking down defenseless servants. Here he torments his sister Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese) with improper advances, but Cleopatra has an clever answer for his every proposition:

 

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