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 27. We just posted a review with streenshots for 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 will not add new items to the Journal until after May 10. In the meantime, we suggest you explore the best thing about this website: our Alphalist. Here's why the Alphalist is a unique resource for fine-arts lovers:

  • First we get rid of the junk. With rare exceptions we only cover titles with HD video and surround sound. About a fifth of the Blu-ray titles of fine-arts subjects that have come out since 2007 are impostors. We put them on our Excluded Titles list.
  • So the Alphalist is the most efficient way on the planet to see what good titles are available. And we group them so you get the whole story fast. For example: if you are interested in Così fan tutte, the Alphalist will show you that we have 4 titles to consider. Look at the column where you see something like "O-13s." The "s" tells you that we have screenshots for that title. For Così, we have screenshots for all 4 titles. Follow the links and you can see fast what these titles are like and which one suits you best.
  • The Alphalist is long, but it's easy to navigate. Use the "find" tool thats part of your browser! Turn it on and keep it on. Then if you enter "tutte" you will instantly get to the right place.
  • Use the Alphalist to window shop, especially for titles that have high grades and screen shots.
  • The Alphalist is the most complete list of fine-art HDVDs anywhere. We do have many gaps for detailed reviews, screenshots, and grades. Right now this website is a part-time effort of one person with a little help from friends. The goal is to build a prototype, and we are making good progress on this. Later we can get the help we need to fill in the gaps.

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

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Monday
Apr272015

Experimentum Mundi

Giorgio Battistelli Experimentum Mundi opera (composed 1981). Staged and directed 2013 by the composer himself at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome. Percussion by Nicola Raffone; voce recitante (both spoken and sung narration) by Peppe Servillo. Star performers and "accidental musicians" include male craftsmen and female citizens of Albano Laziale, a suburb of Rome. Filmed by Giancarlo Matcovich. The aspect ratio of the video is given as 16:9. But the film (while recorded at 30fps) is in "letterbox" format similar to the Cinemascope picture ratio of 1:2.35 that was used in Written on Skin. The music was recorded for stereo and surround using 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. This is the only HDVD so far that has the score reprinted in the keepcase booklet (the front page of the score is also on the keepcase cover). But we know of no resource with the text of the libretto.    Grade: A

The Latin title of this unique work, Experimentum Mundi, translates into English as "Experience of the World." Battistelli isn't speaking of experiencing the whole globe. To the contrary, what we experience here is a tiny and disappearing part of the world. The word "opera" means "works." So the term "experimental opera" refers both to Battistelli's composition and to the real-world crafts that are celebrated in the piece. Enough of theory for now. Let's jump right into screenshots.

Of the forces on stage, two persons are traditional classical musicians, and each of them wears white tie. Below is Battistelli, the composer and conductor. He was born in 1953 in Albano Laziale and started work on Experimentum Mundi at about age 20. After much trial and error, he finished the piece in 1981 when he was 28. It was his first opera, and he's written about 20 others since. I'm confident this was performed at night in the open-air arena that's part of the Auditorium Parco della Musica. There's no light except from small spots turned on from time to time as the piece progresses. This turns out to be extremely dramatic, but was doubtless a tough project for film-maker Matcovich:

The other white tie is on percussionist Nicola Raffone. He provides, of course, leadership in the performance and some melody with his drums (no keyboard instruments). He's the principal in a most unusual and much augmented percussion section:

Another driving force is the "voce recitante" or narrator Peppe Servillo, a self-taught singer, actor, and composer. He's a kind of bridge between the classical musicians and the worker-percussionists. So he gets to wear an open shirt and doesn't have to shave. He has a beautiful singing voice which he uses in a few bars. But mostly he adds tremendous personality to a somewhat quirky and obscure libretto:

The world that Battistelli wants us to experience is the world he knew as a child in his small town (then rather distant from Rome) as he wandered about watching and listening to all the craftsmen working at their trades. All the members of the augmented percussion section are men. Battistelli had to figure out a way to get a feminine touch into the mix. He also loved the sights and sounds of the ladies praying in church. He recruited four ladies (originally five) to provide a feminine background sound.  The ladies repeat names, prayers, and other repetitive text in a kind of murmur. You can't understand anything they say and there are no subtitles. Battistelli doesn't call the ladies "worshipers." He calls them "witches" or "fortune-tellers." The murmuring sound provides filler and a softening buffer for the cacophony that is conjured up by the men. The ladies from rear to near are Paola Calcagni, Anna Rita Severini, Elvira Battistelli, and Tiziana Delle Chiaie:

The piece opens with the odd sound of eggs dropping into a pool in the batter that the pastry-maker (Marcello Di Palma) will turn into pasta. Whipping and mixing sounds open up a rhythmic "singing line" for the entire opera to come. Originally, the narrated text was in French. Now it's in Italian. The translation of "Open waffle iron" maybe should have been, "Flat uncovered grill."

The narrator directs our attention to the next craft to be in the spotlight and to add new sounds: the cobblers or shoemakers:

The cobblers are Giovanni Piersanti and Guido Salustri. They make whirring sounds sharpening their tools and pounding noises as they work the leather over their lasts. (I should point out that all the craft activities in this work are performed manually---there are no power tools around.):

 

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Saturday
Apr252015

Rinaldo

Handel Rinaldo opera to a libretto by Giacomo Rossi. Directed 2014 by Eugenio Monti Colla at the Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre. Stars Antonio Giovannini (Rinaldo), Gesche Geier (Armida), Marie Friederike Schöder (Almirena), Florian Götz (Argante), Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo), Owen Willetts (Eustazio), and Cornelius Uhle (Mago cristiano). Also features the marionette company Carlo Colla e Figli. Wolfgang Katschner conducts the Lautten Compagney Berlin. Released 2015, disc has 5.0 Dolby Digital sound. Grade: Help!

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

Saturday
Apr252015

Jenůfa

Janáček Jenůfa opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2014 by Christof Loy at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Stars Michaela Kaune (Jenůfa), Jennifer Larmore (Kostelnicka Buryjovka), Will Hartmann (Laca Klemeň), Ladislav Elgr (Števa Buryja), and Hanna Schwarz (Grandmother Buryjovka). Donald Runnicles conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Set designs by Dirk Becker; costumes by Judith Weihrauch. Released 2015. Grade: Help!

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

Saturday
Apr252015

Feuersnot

Richard Strauss Feuersnot opera to a libretto by Ernst von Wolzogen. Directed 2014 by Emma Dante at the Teatro Massimo Palermo. Stars Nicola Beller Carbone (Diemut), Dietrich Henschel (Kunrad), Alex Wawiloff (Schweiker von Gundelfingen), Rubén Amoretti (Ortolf Sentlinger), Christine Knorren (Elsbeth), Chiara Fracasso (Wigelis), Anna Maria Sarra (Margret), Michail Ryssov (Jörg Pöschel), Nicolò Ceriani (Hämmerlein), Paolo Battaglia (Kofel), Christiano Olivieri (Ortlieb Tulbeck), Irina Pererva (Ursula), Francesco Parrino (Ruger Aspeck), Valentina Vitti (Walpurg), and Francesca Martorana (Ein großes Mädchen). Gabrielle Ferro conducts the Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus of the Teatro Massimo (Chorus Master Piero Monti; Youth Chorus Master Salvatore Puntero). Set designs by Carmine Maringola; costumes by Vanessa Sannino; lighting by Christian Zucaro; choreography by Sandro Campagna; directed for video by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2015, disc has 5.1 dts-HD sound. Grade: Help!

Strauss considered this his second opera, but it's not even mentioned in my Groves Book of Operas. There are 3 CDs of the music, and subject title is, it seems, really the first Feuersnot video ever published! The name in German is one of those odd words that has simultaneous opposite meanings (like "cleave" in English can mean "to adhere to tightly" or to "chop apart"). The more common meaning of "Feuersnot" is "peril by fire" or "conflagration." But "Not" in German mean "lack of" so here "Feuersnot" means "lack of fire." According to Wikipedia, the theme of Feuersnot is "redemption through sex." This was controversial in 1901 when Strauss premiered it and there were problems with censors. All this will probably seem rather tame today. In any event, thanks to all you folks in Sicily for bringing this work to our attention.

Please help us with a comment or review of this title!

Sunday
Apr192015

Le Corsaire

Le Corsaire ballet. Story: Anna-Marie Holmes version of the libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Joseph Mazilier, based on The Corsair by Lord Byron. Choreography and staging: Anna-Marie Holmes after Marius Petipa and Konstantin Sergeyev. Original music composed by Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Léo Delibes, Riccardo Drigo, Prince Pyotr van Oldenburg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell, and Albert Zabel, all edited by Lars Payne and Gavin Sutherland. Recorded 2014 as performed by the English National Ballet. Stars Alina Cojocaru (Medora), Vadim Muntagirov (Conrad), Erina Takahashi (Gulnare), Dimitri Gruzdyev (Lankendem), Junor Souza (Ali), Yonah Acosta (Birbanto), Michael Coleman (Pasha), Juan Rodriguez (Pasha Assistant), and Nancy Osbaldeston (Lead Villager). Odalisques danced by Shiori Kase, Alison McWhinney, and Laurretta Summerscales. Lead Roses danced by Nancy Osbaldeston, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Adela Ramírez, and Laurretta Summerscales. Lead Flowers danced by Jem Ghoi, Senri Kou, Jenna Lee, and Jia Zhang. Numerous minor roles are danced by artists of the English National Ballet, students of the English National Ballet School, and pupils of the Tring Park School. Gavin Sutherland directs the Orchestra of English National Ballet. Sets and costumes by Bob Ringwood; lighting by Neil Austin; directed for the screen by Chris Blaine with his brother Ben Blain as Producer for Charlie Productions. Stereo recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and  5.1 dts recorded with 48kHz/16-bit sound sampling. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B

Tamara Rojo was one of the leading (and brainiest) ballerinas in the world when she retired early from the Royal Ballet in 2013 to become Artistic Director of the English National Ballet. This Le Corsaire is first HDVD to be released by the ENB under Rojo's leadership.

The ENB worked hard on this title. They were able to cast in-house dancers for all the named characters in the show. To beef up dancing forces, they included ENB School students and pupils from Tring Park, a grade school for children interested in fine-art careers. To insure the highest-quality content, they hired Anna-Marie Holmes, an independent choreographer with vast experience producing Le Corsaire all over the world. They recruited Bob Ringwood, an independent designer, to come up with gorgeous new sets and costumes. Neil Austin, an independent lighting expert, also came on board. Finally, to do the video, they hired the well-known film-makers, Chris and Ben Blaine.

The screenshots below leave no doubt that the show was a fabulous success for the live audience. But the video falls short with (1) serious resolution and PQ issues, especially in the long Act 1, and (2) a harsh sound tract.

Meet Conrad (the Corsaire or pirate chief) performed by Vadim Muntagirov (who was with the ENB at the time and is now a star with the Royal Ballet). Conrad has come to the capital to find his sweetheart Medora, who was taken away by a slave trader:

The Second Officer of the pirates is Birbanto (Yonah Acosta), who has already found a girlfriend among the local ladies:

Lankendem (Dimitri Gruzdyev) is the slave trader. Here he and his men are drumming up interest in an auction of a bunch of beautiful slave girls.  Lankendem has Medora, but he intends to keep her in his own harem:

Medora (Alina Cojocaru) peeks out of Lankendem's house:

Below the Pasha (Michael Coleman) arrives at the square to buy 3 more girls. Now there are two things you should note about the image below as well as those above: the picture resolution is soft and there is a distinct yellow cast to everything.

I can't image why there should be a problem with raw resolution in a video made in 2014. The videos we are getting these days generally have wonderful resolution and clarity of detail. But I noticed weak resolution in this title even in the very first images showing the orchestra (in the relatively dark pit) playing overture music. My initial reaction was to check the disc to see if maybe I'd been sent a DVD by mistake.

The yellow cast is earlier to grasp: it appears that Neil Austin saturated the stage in Act 1 with yellow flood lights augmented by white spot lights on the stars. The yellow light would be consistent with the colors in the Ringwood designs. Probably this all looked great live. But the yellow cast looks garish, unnatural, and unpleasant on my calibrated HT display.  It also seems to lead to pasty, washed-out skin tones for the dancers. I next played the disc on a new, uncalibrated, inexpensive Visio TV (used successfully for watching commercial TV). On the Visio the yellow cast image was even worse (with gold jewelry worn by the slave girls at the rear of the stage reflecting glare). This would suggest that subject title is not suitable to watch on a typical TV!

 

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Sunday
Apr192015

Le Corsaire

Le Corsaire ballet. Libretto (after Lord Byron's poem The Corsair), choreography, and stage direction by Kader Belarbi. Assistant Choreographer was Laure Muret. Performed 2013 at the Théâtre National du Capitole de Toulouse. Original music composed by Adolphe Adam, with additional music by Anton Arensky, David Coleman, Édouard Lalo, Jules Massenet, and and Jean Sibelius. Stars Maria Gutierrez (Slave-Girl), Davit Galstyan (Corsaire), Takafumi Watanabe (Sultan), Juliette Thélin (Sultan's Favorite Concubine), Demian Vargas (Corsair's Companion), Juliana Bastos and Julie Loria (Two Slaves), Henrik Victorin (Slave Trader), Cédric Pons (Guard) and Joël Sitbon (Guard). In addition, Ballet du Capitole Supernumeraries playing the roles of Concubines, Dervishes, Peris, Corsairs, City Folk, etc. include Nuria Arteaga, Virginie Baïet-Dartigalongue, Taisha Barton-Rowledge, Juliana Bastos, Isabelle Brusson, Olivia Hartzell, Lauren Kennedy, Ina Lesnakowski, Julia Loria, Maki Matsuoka, Solène Monnereau, Gwenaëlle Poline, Pascale Saurel, Vanessa Spiteri, Alexander Akulov, Matthew Astley, Petros Chrkhoyan, Kamill-Ariston Chudoba, Adrien Delépine, Pierre Devaux, Jean-Gabriel Evrard, Julian Ims, Shizen Kazama, Jérémy Leydier, Nicolas Rombout, Henrik Victorin, Yannick Valentian, and Stéphane Motard. David Coleman directs the Orchestre National du Capitole. Sets by Sylvie Olivé; costumes by Olivier Bériot; lighting by Marian Hewlett; Camille Ansquer assisted in designing sets; artistic advice by Martine Kahame; music advice by Elena Rassadkina Bonnay.   Directed for screen by Luc Riolon; produced by Fabienne Servan Schreiber and Laurence Miller. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

Le Corsaire, a pirate adventure story, is part of the Petipa canon, but it doesn't have a standard libretto. The many versions all appear to have the following elements: (1) a dashing pirate commander (the corsaire) and a beautiful slave-girl who are in love, (2) a sultan who buys the slave-girl, (3) a fight over the girl, and (4) a final storm scene where the corsaire and the girl die, or survive. Of course, the more extravagant the plot, the better. Well, the budget at the Théâtre National du Capitole didn't allow anything too wild.

So the result was a Corsaire-lite production, about which I'm now conflicted.  I love the bright lighting provided by Marian Hewlett. This allowed Luc Riolon to make beautiful video images throughout with special emphasis on full-stage and mid-range shots mostly showing all the dancers completely. (The video is spiced up with some appropriate near-range shots, but I don't recall a single close-up). The lighting and video of the storm scene was impressive. I liked the costumes and the sets made mostly of delicate fabrics stretched over big  wire frames that could be lowered from the fly. I also liked the way the music was put together, performed, and recorded.

But I was disappointed with the libretto and the dancing. I usually watch new titles at night after I've finished my pay job. But this Le Corsaire-lite made me nod off every time. Eventually I would wake up not knowing what I had missed. So to review this, I had to arrange to watch it mornings. The reason I could not stay awake is Kader Belarbi's libretto, which deals with the stupidest sultan who ever squandered a fortune and the most pitiful pirates who ever deserved to walk the plank.

Here we are at the slave market. Our Slave-girl (Maria Gutierrez) is on the viewer's left standing with 2 other girls for sale (none of the characters has a name). The Slave-trader (Henrik Victorin) is bowing to the Sultan (Takafumi Watanabe). At your far right in the long rose-colored gown is the sultan's Favorite Concubine (Juliette Thélin):

When the Slave-trader is distracted, the Corsaire (Davit Galstyan), wearing a red bandana, talks to our Slave-girl. The Corsaire's Companion (Demian Vargas), wearing a green bandana, talks to another of the girls:

The Sultan buys our Slave-girl.  This distresses the Favorite because the new girl is so pretty. The Favorite knows the corsaires. She gets the Companion to go to the Sultan's quarters disguised as the new Slave-girl. The Favorite wants the Corsaire and the Slave-girl to have a few minutes to meet and fall in love. Here we see the Favorite's scheme is working:

The Sultan realizes he's been tricked and fetches his new Slave-girl. Now we visit the concubine quarters in the seraglio:

 

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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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