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+."



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 his most singular and unusual achievement was his appearance in 2008 with the New York Philharmonic at a concert in North Korea at the request of the Communist Government of that country. We happen to have a most 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 screen shots.

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

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

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 rendered 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 mostly of historical rather than musical interest.

The heart of this title is the unique and impressive documentary called Americans in Pyongyang, directed Ayelet Heller. The documentary was filmed in HDTV and has Dolby Digital stereo sound. I consider the documentary to be the real story in this title. It shows all the work done by Maazel, Zarin Mehta, and the musicians and back-stage members of the New York Philharmonic to make this outreach to the people of North Korea. The concert to me 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 huge 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 the two portraits below. 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 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, whom I call "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 soon. 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 successor dictator. At this writing in 2014, it appears relations between North Korea and the US have become worse, not better. (Kim 3's most dramatic action so far was to have an uncle executed for treason. He also had some young women entertainers executed for making pornography.)

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:


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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 the Charlotte is taking care of the children:


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Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris ballet to music by Maurice Jarre. Libretto and choreography from 1965 by Roland Petit is supervised by Luigi Bonino and assistant Gillian Whittingham.  Stars Roberto Bolle (Quasimodo), Natalia Osipova (Esmeralda), Mick Zeni (Frolio), Eris Nezha (Phoebus), and dancers of the Ballet Company of Teatro alla Scala. Paul Connelly conducts the Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala. Sets designed by René Allio; costumes designed by Yves Saint-Laurent; lighting design by Jean-Michel Désiré; directed for the screen by Patrizia Carmine. Released 2014, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Notre Dame de Paris is the name of Victor Hugo's novel; it's called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the English translation. The ballet by Roland Petit depicts a much-simplified version of part of the rich book. The ballet isn't even mentioned by Jennifer Homans in Apollo's Angels, but I think it was a hit in Paris for the Paris Opera Ballet when it was first run at Palais Garnier in 1965. It was performed many times over the years in Paris, and had some success in other venues. There are several DVDs.

Many of the persons credited above, such as Yves Saint-Laurent, are now deceased. Yves was just starting his high fashion career in 1965. But his remarkable designs for this ballet together with his later astounding fame made Notre Dame de Paris into a museum piece. The whole point of doing this now is to recreate the work as it was seen in 1965 but with the latest technology and hottest stars.

If you asked 1000 well-dressed people to name the most beautiful man in history, most would probably answer "Michelangelo's David." But 1st runner-up would surely be Roberto Bolle. And what greater challenge could there be for Roberto, having spend his entire life being and moving beautifully, than to dance the role of the hunchback?  La Scala management had to do this now, before Roberto got any closer to injury or retirement. And who could be a better co-star for Roberto than guest artist Natalia Osipova, formerly with the Bolshoi and now with the Royal Ballet?

Before we get into further discussion of the show, I have a pop quiz. (Answers are at the end of this story.)

Q 1. Which of the three 1965 dresses shown below was created by Yves Saint-Laurent?

Q 2. Who was this lady?

Q 3. More colors. What famous artist exhibited this wall-size display?

The purpose of the pop quiz is to get you into a 1965 mood, even if you were born after that year. Bright colors and jaunty, geometric designs were the rage in Europe and the United States. Now on to our review of subject HDVD.

This is the title screen for Notre Dame de Paris. It looks a bit like the colors behind the lady above, don't you agree?

I don't remember showing splash screens on this website before, but these examples are so neat, I couldn't resist:

Paris in about 1482 (not a typo)---even the people were geometric:


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Mozart Violin Concertos

Mozart Violin Concertos concert. Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2005 plays all 5 Mozart violin concertos and conducts the Camerata Salzburg. This came out in DVD in 2006 in stereo. At that time, no classical music HDVD had been released, but well-informed producers knew that HD TV was coming. So it's quite likely that HD video was made that will benefit from HD TV. But was the sound recorded in a surround format? Or is DG now just distributing a stereo recording over tracks to be played separately on 5 speakers? Released 2014, disc has 5.0 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.


Il trovatore

Verdi Il trovatore opera to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare. Directed 2013 by Philipp Stölzl. Stars Anna Netrebko (Leonora), Plácido Domingo (Count di Luna), Gaston Rivero (Manrico), and Marina Prudenskaya (Azucena). Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin. Set design by Philipp Stölzl and Conrad Moritz; lighting design by Olaf Freese. 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.


Don Giovanni

Mozart Don Giovanni opera to libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.  Directed 2006 by Vincent Boussard at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Stars Johanes Weisser (Don Giovanni), Marcos Fink (Leporello), Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Donna Elvira), Werner Güra (Don Ottavio), Malin Byström, (Donna Anna), Sunhae Im (Zerlina), Nikolay Borchev (Masetto), and Alessandro Guerzoni (Commendatore). René Jacobs conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Insbruck Festival Chorus. Designs by Vincent Lemaire; costumes by Christian Lacroix; lighting by Alain Poisson; directed for TV by Georg Wübbolt. Released 2008, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

This show presents Don John as a big kid in a candy store. The young, attractive cast is refreshing, and all of them have had flourishing careers since 2006. This was a relatively low budget production with one really nice set plus whimsical costumes and props.  The directing is successful at bringing out the humor in the work without being silly. René Jacobs keeps the Freiburger Barockorchester relentlessly moving forward with the raw sound period instruments. SQ, PQ, and video content are pretty good throughout. The screenshots below tend to look a bit dark, but this is no problem when shown in the HT.

The insatiable Giovanni (Johanes Weisser) briefs his servant Leporello (Marcos Fink), on his next conquest:

Leporello is forever complaining:

But this time Giovanni tries an assault instead of a seduction, and the adventure turns sour when Donna Anna (Malin Byström) cries out for help from her father, the Commendatore (Alessandro Guerzoni). Don Giovanni kills the Commendatore; here Donna Anna and her fiancé Don Ottavio (Werner Güra) try in vain to help:

We have just seen Giovanni's first murder. He is all but out of control now, and his end is near. But Donna Elvira (Alexandrina Pendatchanska) loves him so much that she will never give up.  Suddenly their paths cross; now Elvira will stay on Giovanni's case for the short rest of his life:

Leporello tells Elvira about the many hundreds of Giovanni's seductions all across Europe. In this production there's no book; the names of the seduced are written out in the heavens:

Giovanni stumbles onto a wedding party of peasants. Our hero carries a noble's sword; but he is perfectly democratic and would not discriminate against a pretty girl just because she is a farmer's daughter. Nor would he turn down a girl just because she's getting married the next day. Here the bride Zerlina (Sunhae Im) is celebrating with her fiancé Masetto (Nikolay Borchev):


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Richard II

Shakespeare Richard II play. The Royal Shakespeare Company is directed 2013 by Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Stars actors David Tennant (King Richard II), Emma Hamilton (The Queen), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Marty Cruickshank (Duchess of York), Oliver Rix (Duke of Aumerle), Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester), Antony Byrne (Thomas Mowbray), Sam Marks (Bushy), Jake Mann (Bagot), Marcus Griffiths (Greene), Simon Thorp (Earl of Salisbury), Jim Hooper (Bishop of Carlisle), Keith Osborn (Sir Stephen Scroop), Sean Chapman (Earl of Northumberland), Edmund Wiseman (Harry Percy), Joshua Richards (Lord Ross/Gardener), Youssef Kerkour (Lord Willoughby), Gracy Goldman (Lady-in-Waiting), Miranda Nolan (Lady-in-Waiting),  and Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Groom); musicians Charlotte Ashley, Anna Bolton, and Helena Raeburn (sopranos); Chris Seddon, Chris Storr, and James Stretton (trumpets); Kevin Waterman (percussion); and Bruce O'Neil (keyboard). Designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting design by Tim Mitchell; music by Paul Englishby; sound design by Martin Slavin; movement by Michael Ashcroft; fights by Terry King; company text and voice work by Lyn Darnley; assistant direction by Owen Horsley; music direction by Bruce O'Neil; casting by Helena Palmer, CDG; production management by Simon Ash; costume supervision by Stephanie Arditti; company management by Ben Tyreman; stage management by Suzi Blakey; deputy stage management by Klare Roger; assistant stage management by Charley Sargant; directed for screen by Robin Lough; screen production by John Wyver; associate production by David Gopsill. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

When a monarch has no child, there likely will be great distress following his or her death as would-be-successors fight it out for the throne. But it's even worse when a monarch has many children---then the fighting seems to never stop. King Edward III (1312 to 1377) had 5 sons (and daughters also) who survived to maturity. The story of their infighting peaked with the War of the Roses (in about 1450) and lasted until 1603, when Shakespeare was heading into retirement (The Tempest of 1610 was his last play). Shakespeare died in 1616 and the English Revolution headed by Cormwell came on 34 years later.

Richard II is the first of 4 plays Shakespeare wrote (called the Henriad) about the struggles among the descendants of Edward III (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). Shakespeare stayed out of politics, but his innumerable observations in his history plays about the duties and dangers of being king were of keen interest to every educated person in England. Thus Shakespeare made an important contribution to the development of the British constitutional monarchy.

Now for a brief introduction to Richard II and some screenshots.  On the death of Edward III, his grandson (through his deceased 1st-born son) became King Richard II at age 10. Richard II is now age 33. Although he is married, he has no child. He is a aesthete. He has developed a entourage of "flatterers" who are rumored to be homosexuals. With no heir apparent, the buzzards are already circling.  Three strong forces are in contention: the houses of Gloucester, Lancaster, and York. As the play opens, the Duke of Gloucester has just been murdered by unknown assassins. In the screenshot below, his body lies in state. His widow is weeping on the coffin. Richard's Queen has just arrived to pay respects:

Now arrives John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, below seen on the left. On the right is the Duke of York. Both believe (probably correctly) that Richard II himself had something to do with the death of their brother Gloucester. Both wonder if they might be next:

Fighting breaks out even in the cathedral at a funeral. On the left is Henry Hereford, called hereafter "Bolingbroke," the eldest son of John of Gaunt of the house of Lancaster. Bolingbroke is an important person because, were Richard II to die without an heir, Bolingbroke would be the next in line to be King (assuming his old father, John of Gaunt, would step aside). Bolingbroke has a quarrel with Thomas Mowbray. They both seek permission to prove they are in the right by fighting a duel to the death before the King. Richard II is in often-rhyming poetry, and Mowbray's comment to the King shown below is a good example of this:

Lady Gloucester asks John of Gaunt to get revenge for Gloucester's death and thereby protect himself. But Gaunt says he can't because Richard II is implicated. Thus the only solace for Lady Gloucester is in heaven. But you can be sure that all the descendants of Edward III are deeply threatened by this murder:

The King allows Bolingbroke and Mowbray to start their duel.  But the King immediately stops it to pronounce a harsh sentence on them both. Mowbray is banished from England for life. Bolingbroke is banished for 6 years. In this manner Richard gets rid of Mowbray (who knows too much about the death of Gloucester) and Bolingbroke (who is a constant threat as the next-in-line to the throne):


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