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 17. We just 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 like to group related reviews together to make it easier for you to get the whole story.

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 recently posted updated reviews of two HDVDs of the Jewels ballet: (1) the grade "B" report from the Paris Opera Ballet and (2) a stronger title from the Mariinsky Ballet we graded "A." We recently posted a new review of the Teatro Real Così fan tutte, which we graded "C-." We now have complete coverage of 4 HDVDs of Così.

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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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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Tuesday
Apr072015

Shakespeare Globe Box Set

Shakespeare Globe box set with 3 Globe Theatre productions. Below are the discs. Each of them has already been reported on this website, and you can get more details by using the links provided:

1. As You Like It. 2009. (Grade B)

2. Love's Labour's Lost. 2010. (Grade A)

3. Romeo and Juliet. 2009. (Grade B+)

Released 2015, each 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 more complete mini-review of this title.

Tuesday
Apr072015

Donizetti Classic Comedies

Donizetti Classic Comedies box set. This box set includes two previously released Glyndebourne productions of Donizetti operas. Below are the discs. See the individual titles for more information:

1. Don Pasquale. 2013. (Not Yet Graded)

2. L'elisir d'amore. 2009. (Grade A+)

Released 2015, both discs have 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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