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.

May 24. We just posted a screen-shot review with an "A+" grade for the RSC Henry IV, Part 1. It's the dream of a lifetime to see this wonderful recording of this famous play.

We recently posted a review and an "A" grade for the Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia opera with Edita Gruberova. We recently returned from a vacation in Madrid. Seeing the Prado inspired us to update and add screenshots to a review we did some years ago of an HDVD by pianist Joaquín Achúcarro that was partly recorded inside the Prado Museum.

Don't miss our review with screenshots for the new HDVD of the modern opera Experimentum Mundi by Giorgio Battistelli, which we graded "A." Thanks to EuroArts for making this cult favorite available to audiences everythere!

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. _________________________________________________________________________________________________


Henry IV Part I

Shakespeare Henry IV Part I play. Directed 2014 by Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Stars Jasper Britton (King Henry IV), Alex Hassell (Prince Hal), Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff), Trevor White (Hotspur), Sean Chapman (Earl of Northumberland/Earl of Douglas), Joshua Richards (Bardolph/Owen Glendower), Paola Dionisotti (Mistress Quickly), Jennifer Kirby (Lady Percy), Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Prince John/Francis), Marin Bassindale (Peto), Antony Byrne (Earl of Worcester), Nicholas Gerard-Martin (Carrier/Sir Michael), Robert Gilbert (Lord Edmund Mortimer/Carrier), Jonny Glynn (Rakehell), Nia Gwynne (Lady Mortimer), Jim Hooper (Sir Richard Vernon), Yousseff Kerkour (Earl of Westmoreland/Ostler), Sam Marks (Ned Poins), Keith Osborn (Archbishop of York/Sheriff), Leigh Quinn (Traveller),  Simon Thorp (Sir Walter Blunt/Lord Chief Justice),  and Simon Yadoo (Chamberlain/Vinter). Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis; lighting by Tim Mitchell; music by Paul Englishby; sound by Martin Slavin; movement by Michael Ashcroft; fights by Terry King; screen director was Robin Lough; screen producer was John Wyver. Released 2015, this disc has 5.1 dts Master Audio. Grade: A+

Henry IV, Part 1 is the second of four plays Shakespeare wrote (called the Henriad) about the early struggles among the descendants of Edward III (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). The Henriad covers 3 kings and 45 years leading up to Henry VI and the beginning of the War of the Roses.

The RSC and Opus Arte recorded in 2013 a Richard II published in 2014. (We gave that disc an "A" grade.) The only actor who plays the same character in both Richard II and the two Henry IV plays is Sean Chapman as the Earl of Northumberland, so there's little continuity there. But there are 9 actors who play the same roles in both parts of Henry IV. Part 1 of Henry IV is one of Shakespeare's most famous works. So if you invest time in learning the characters in Part 1, you will find it relatively easy to enjoy Part 2.

The Henry IV plays are astonishingly rich because they are history plays and comedies mashed together. In the screenshot below we meet Henry IV (Jasper Britton) not long after he led the English royalties in deposing Richard II. Already there is tension between Henry IV and the royalties who put him in power. The most prominent troublemakers are the Earl of Northumberland and his aggressive son Henry Percy, also known as "Harry", but mostly called "Hotspur." The King already sees Hotspur, a brilliant soldier and leader, as a potential usurper of the crown. The fame of Hotspur is especially galling to the King because the King has a son of his own named Henry, who is often called "Harry" or "Hal." The King is partly estranged from his Harry, who, in stark contrast to the ambitious Hotspur, is a slacker and delinquent. In the quote below "him" refers to Hotspur:

Hotspur (Trevor White):

Now we meet Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) and his friend, the degenerate knight Sir John Falstaff (Antony Sher). They are recovering from a hard night in a London brothel:

Bardolph (Joshua Richards), another of Hal's friends:

Mistress Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) runs a tavern in Eastcheap that is popular with Hal, Falstaff, and company:

Hal knows that he is letting down his father. He contends that his dissolute life will one day make his assent to power all the more glorious:

The history plays are populated mostly by men of action. But Shakespeare's few female roles are vivid. Here we see Jennifer Kirby in the role of Kate, or Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife.  Kate is trying to contend with her ferocious husband:


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Verdi Messa da Requiem

Verdi Messa da Requiem concert. Recorded 2007 at the Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Lorin Maazel conducts the Symphonica Toscanini and Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Chorus Master Piero Monti). Soloists are Norma Fantini (soprano), Anna Smirnova (mezzo-soprano), Francesco Meli (tenor) and Rafał Siwek (bass). Disc is In Memorium marking, in 2007,  the fiftieth anniversay of the death of Arturo Toscanini. Video direction by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

It appears this is the exact same title that EuroArts published in 2012 except for "In Memoriam" artwork added to the front cover in 2015. We have deleted the 2012 version from the Alphalist. We have no inkling why EuroArts would go to the trouble to put this out again with such a small change.

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


Lucrezia Borgia

Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia opera to libretto by Felice Romani. Directed 2009 by Chistof Loy at the Bayrische Staatsoper. Stars Edita Gruberova (Donna Lucrezia Borgia), Franco Vassallo (Don Alfonzo), Pavol Breslik (Gennaro), Alice Coote (Maffio Orsini), Bruno Ribeiro (Jeppo Liverotto) , Christian Rieger (Don Apostolo Gazella), Christopher Magiera (Ascanio Petrucci), Erik Årman (Oloferno Vitellozzo), Steven Humes (Gubetta), Emanuele D'Aguanno (Rustighello), Christian van Horn (Astolfo), and Elisabeth Haag (Principessa Negroni). Bertrand de Billy conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus Master Andrés Máspero). Stage Music Director: Gregor Raquet. Sets by Henrik Ahr; costumes by Barbara Drosihn; lighting by Joachim Klein; director of photography was Gerald Schäfer; audio engineer was Stefan Kröhn; sound engineer was Jakob Palfrader; video direction by Brian Large; produced by Magdalena Herbst. Disc also includes a 54 minutes documentary "The Art of Bel Canto---Edita Gruberova" by Claus Wischmann and Stefan Pannen. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

John Aitken kindly contributed this (slightly edited) comment as a mini-review of our Chistof Loy Lucrezia Borgia:

"This production was very well received in Munich when I saw it. At this stage in her career Edita Gruberova is ideally cast as the title character and produces some wonderful bel canto singing. Always a favourite in German houses, she scored a great personal success in this production by Christof Loy. The simplicity of Loy's production works very well indeed. Those people who prefer a more traditional approach can choose Renee Fleming in San Francisco Opera's production though even it pales when set against the outrageously over-the-top production given to Joan Sutherland at the Royal Opera House in London (DVD). I much prefer Munich's simple and monochromatic staging which allows the drama to unfold clearly. If Gruberova was the only reason to purchase this version it would be recommended. However, add the splendid Pavol Breslik as Gennaro, Alice Coote as Maffio, and Franco Vassallo as Don Alfonso and you have a truly exceptional cast. Of course this is par for the course in Munich where standards must consistently be amongst the best in the world both in terms of singing and staging. As it is, this is a marvellous performance which I wholeheartedly recommend."

John speaks here of his experience seeing the actual performance at the Munich opera house.  I'll add some comments and screenshots based on my review of the disc published by EuroArts. In the first picture, we see  Loy's simple staging. Loy has 8 operas out now in HDVD, and we have done full reviews of 3 of them. He often uses a plain stage with few props other than chairs, and he often dresses the chorus and many of the stars in modern black and white as you see here (with the pants rolled up to indicate that the men are students or cadets):

Loy even did a Lulu in black and white as seen in the next shot:

And here's a picture of Loy's basic box in Les vêpres siciliennes: 

But not all of Loy's staging is so drab. Here's a more colorful shot of a scene from Die Entführung aus dem Serail:

Most of the color in this Lucrezia Borgia is provided by the costumes for the leading lady, Edita Gruberova. Here she is portrayed in a surprising sympathetic light as a woman with a conscience:

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Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2

This Achúcarro title includes:

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 recorded in studio on May 26, 27, and 28, 2009 at the Jerwood Hall in London.

There is also a recital of about 36 minutes with the following shorter pieces recorded in Room 64 of the Prado Museum in Madrid at an unidentified time:

1. Brahms Intermezzo No. 2 (Three Intermezzi Op. 117)

2. Brahms Intermezzo No. 2 (Three Intermezzi Op. 117)

3. Brahms Intermezzo No. 3 (Three Intermezzi Op. 117)

4. Chopin Prelude No. 15

5. Chopin Prelude No. 16

6. Scriabin No. 1 Prelude  (Op. 9 for Left Hand)

7. Scriabin No. 2 Nocturne  (Op. 9 for Left Hand)

8. Albéniz Suite Iberia Op. 47 Book 1 No. 2 El Puerto 

Colin Davis conducts the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Achúcarro's debut with the LSO. Directed for TV by Robin Lough. Released 2010, disc has 5.1 PCM sound. Grade: C-

This is an update of a review I originally wrote in August 2011. What we have here are two studio recordings made by an artist who was in 2009 fast approaching 80. It's heart-warming to see him get through it. Most anyone would kill to be able to play as well as Achúcarro. But in my humble opinion, Achúcarro is not competitive in either portion of this disc with CD recordings from leading pianists such as Marc-André Hamelin  and Arcadi Volodos. But even now, in May 2015, this is still the only HDVD of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

I originally graded this title "D" because it smacks so pungently of being a trophy or vanity project. My friends say Opus Arte and Colin Davis would not taint their brands this way. But here are the things that still bother me: the lack of a live audience, the three days it took to shoot the Brahms Concerto No. 2 (how many takes?), the sponsorship of Fundación BBVA in promoting the home town boy, the glamour-puss cover photo, the "this-is-your-life" center spread in the keep box booklet, and the vacuous, self-serving, so-called "documentary" that gobbles up 43 minutes of the disc. I suggest there's nothing wrong with a vanity project---it's just that if the motivation is to honour someone (especially yourself) with a publication, aren't you supposed to give it away rather than try to sell it?

Now on the other hand,  a lot of people seem to like this title. Scott Cantrell praised it in the Dallas Morning News and International Record Review gave it an "IRR Outstanding" award. I will also praise Achúcarro for showing us how effective it can be to to do a studio recording under a dress code. Ordinarily, musicians at a studio recording session wear jeans, tee shirts, hair-rollers, filp-flops, etc. But for this recording, everyone wore a crisp black open-throat shirt and matching bottoms. The decommissioned, renovated church was startlingly pretty as lit for the sessions and no trash was or distracting gear was allowed. The result was warm, pleasing, respectful, and professional. I've never seen a recording session like this before: maybe Achúcarro is leading us in an auspicious direction with this concerto video.

Here are some screensdots of the studio recording session with the LSO. Note in the first two shots how neat and attractive everything is with stylish lighting designed to look great to the video audience. More importantly, cameras are placed to give excellent whole-orchestra views of the performance:

This video shooting  of a single concerto took place over three days! This had to be exhausting for the members of the LSO, who often look rather grim in the video. Colin Davis couldn't stand on his feet for all this time, and in the next shot you see him resorting to a chair:

And the star winds up looking drained:

Of course, in a concerto, the cameras will mostly be aimed at the soloist when he's playing. Here the camera crews have trouble keeping the keyboard looking rectangular:

Here's a beautiful shot of the orchestra in tutti while Achúcarro rests:


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Ballet 422

Ballet 422 documentary film directed 2012-13 by Jody Lee Lipes. Follow young choreographer Justin Peck, who has 2 months to create a new work for the New York City Ballet. The title comes from the fact that the project will lead to the 442nd new ballet piece created for that company.

Director Lipes, working in a manner somewhat similar to the style of Frederick Wiseman, just records what happens with a minimum of explanation or other metadata. It appears that the music used for the dance is not revealed until the credits run and that the title does not include a recording of the finished work as it appeared to the audience when performed. (I assume that you do see substantial parts of the new work in early and dress rehearsals.) This will likely be absorbing for folks who love ballet but have never experienced the dancing life themselves.

We were excited to see that this documentary is in wide-screen and has surround sound. Were only stereo sound provided, we would probably have excluded this title from our Journal. Otherwise we know little about this---not even if it's in color or black and white. Grade: Help!

We plan to pre-order this and hope to review it by, say, June 5, 2015.

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


Swan Lake

Swan Lake ballet. Music by Tchaikovsky. Book by V. P. Begitchev and Vasily Geltzer. Choreography by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Frederick Ashton, and David Bintley. Danced 2015 in the Anthony Dowell production at the Royal Opera House Ballet. Stars Natalie Osipova (Odette/Odile), Matthew Golding (Prince Siegfried), Gary Avis (Rothbart), Elizabeth McGorian (Queen), Alastair Marriott (Tutor), and Valeri Hristov (Benno). Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Vasko Vassilev). Designs by Yolanda Sonnabend; lighting by Mark Henderson; production research by Roland John Wiley; staging by Christopher Carr; film direction by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2015, disc has 5.0 (package says 4.1) dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

This Royal Opera House Anthony Dowell production of Swan Lake harks back to 1987. The 2009 version was published in 2010 by Opus Arte. We gave that HDVD a "D+" grade because of weak stars and obsolete "tourist trap" production values. It appears this latest iteration maybe has better lead stars. But we also fear it has the same old everything else, except, of course, 5 more years of functional obsolecence and wear and tear on sets, props, and costumes. We would be excited if this was an all-new production. But right now we suggest caution. We will get review this new version promptly.



Schubert Fierrabras opera to a libretto by Joseph Kupelwieser. Directed 2014 by Peter Stein at the Salzburg Festival. Stars Michael Schade (Fierrabras), Dorothea Röschmann (Florinda), Julia Kleiter (Emma), Benjamin Bernheim (Eginhard), Marcus Werba (Roland), Georg Zeppenfeld (König Karl), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Maragond), and Peter Kálmán (Boland). Ingo Metzmacher directs the Wiener Philharmoniker. Stage designs by Ferdinand Wögerbauer; contume designs by Annamaria Heinreich; lighting by Joachim Barth; directed for video by Peter Schönhofer. Released 2015, 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.

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