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 28. We just posted a new review of the Teatro Real Così fan tutte, which we graded "C-." We now have complete coverage of 4 HDVDs of the this wonderful opera. 

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.

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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Saturday
Mar282015

Così fan tutte

Mozart Così fan tutte opera to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Directed 2013 by Michael Haneke at the Teatro Real de Madrid. Stars Anett Fritsch (Fiordiligi), Paola Gardina (Dorabella), Kerstin Avemo (Despina), Juan Francisco Gatell (Ferrando), Andreas Wolf (Guglielmo), and William Shimell (Don Alfonso). Sylvain Cambreling conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid (Chorus Master Andrés Maspero). Pianoforte by Eugène Michelangeli. Sets designed by Christoph Kanter; costumes by Moidele Bickel; lighting by Urs Schönebaum; video edited by Monika Willi; directed for TV by Hannes Rossacher. Released 2013, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C-

Michael Haneke, who declares himself to be a realist, directed the famous art-house movie Amour, a harrowing but touching tale of the horrors of growing old. Here are a few words about Haneke's realistic approach to Così fan tutte from Fred Cohn, writing in the May 2014 Opera News at page 66: "I did not enjoy this Così. There's no pleasure to be found in Haneke's Naples, no potential for sensuous delight. It is a place where sex can bring only pain. But the production vividly explores the work's disturbing, and often ignored, element of cruelty." Richard Lawrence was a bit more favorable in his April 2014 review in Gramophone at pages 115-116. Lawrence states,"Within the limits of Haneke's very particular view of the opera, the acting is perfect, and it's beautifully caught by Hannes Rossacher, the TV director."

I'll go even further than the print critics. Although Haneke appears (in the bonus extra to this production) to be a mild-mannered and affable gent, his approach here is that of a complete cynic. He turns the relationships of the two sisters and their men into a wife-swapping party even before the couples can get married. Don Alfonzo and Despina are in a sado-masochistic marriage (that they both relish and detest) but which will last as long as they can work together to contrive situations with voyeuristic opportunities. Like a vampire couple, they drain all humor out of the Così libretto until it lies bone-white on the floor. There is only one mild laugh heard from the audience during the entire show. Now to screenshots. Pay attention---at the end of the screenshots there is a pop quiz from Haneke himself (that you can find on the back cover of the keepcase.)

Here Così opens with Don Alphoso (William Shimell) and Despina (Kerstin Avemo) seen in the center greeting guests at a house-warming party at their newly-modernized old mansion. (Haneke states in the keepcase booklet that the Don and Despina are married and why they are having the party.) We are in modern times, but the hosts and some of the guests are dressed in 18th century costumes:

All the guests are seniors except for two young engaged couples (who are in for a special treat). Here we meet Guglielmo (Andreas Wolf) and Fiordiligi (Anett Fritsch), busy having a lovers' spat:

Next we meet Ferrando (Francisco Gatell) and Dorabella (Paola Gardina), who is also not happy. In the libretto, Fiordiligi is the strong, intellectual sister and Dorabella is the girl who can't say no. But Haneke flips this by presenting Fiordiligi as a sexpot and dressing Dorabella like a certified public accountant:

The girls are bored but they sense that they have been invited to spice things up. Below is the innocent scene in the libretto where the sisters sit together in private (no man around) and chat about the portraits they have of their handsome lovers. But here the girls provide quite a PDA (public display of affection) while their hosts, standing right behind them, gaze down on the action:

Don Alfonso bets that he can prove the girls to be unfaithful, and the men are game to cooperate:

 

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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.

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