Titles by Category

Here's news about high-definition video disc ("HDVD") recordings of opera, ballet, classical music, plays, fine-art documentaries, and paintings. In the journal below are independent (and hard-to-find critical) reports on hundreds of HDVDs. Pick the best titles for your excelsisphere.

Feb 24.  Finally we have some good grades with an A for the recent Met The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) and a B- for an earlier The Pearl Fishers from Naples. Also, we recently gave an A- for the new Don Quixote from the Vienna State Ballet

We just updated our manifesto about the best ballet and dance videos.

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Friday
Feb232018

Les pêcheurs de perles

Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) opera to libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. Directed 2016 by Penny Woolcock (based on a 2010 English National Opera production). Stars Diana Damrau (Leïla), Matthew Polenzani (Nadir), Mariusz Kwiecien (Zurga), and Nicolas Testé (Nourabad). Gianandrea Noseda conducts the The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master Donald Palumbo). Sets by Dick Bird with assistance of Scott Laule; costumes by Kevin Pollard; lighting by Jen Schriever; projection designs by 59 Productions; movement direction by Andrew Dawson; fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth; music production by Jay David Saks; directed for TV by Matthew Diamond. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio. Grade: A

Most people probably think of The Pearl Fishers, with its improbable and melodramatic plot, as a work preserved forever in amber. But Woolcock's new production is a masterclass in how to dust off a forgotten piece of furniture in the attic, refinish it, and make it the centerpiece of a gorgeous new room. Woolcock opens with a stagecraft tour de force of 3 real aerialists who, suspended from a state-of-the-art new apparatus installed by the Met for this show, appear to be diving for pearls during the overture. The divers and all others involved were rewarded with sustained applause from the audience before the opera even starts:

Pearl Fishers is usually set in Ceylon in an exotic past, but Woolcock puts it in a modern seaside slum, anywhere that an Indian Ocean tsunami might strike. The set is astonishingly evocative, brilliantly lit on the front but with darker openings to the rear where billowing cloth and video projections are used to realistic and startling effect:

The superb cast is dominated by the charismatic Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, a slick politician on the make who will nevertheless prove to have a heart:

Suddenly Matthew Polenzani appears as Nadir, an old friend of Zurga. Nadir left town long ago when both men fell in love with the same beautiful priestess. After singing the famous "Au fond du temple saint" duet, they agree to reconcile:

The pearl fishers hired a priestess to protect the village during the stormy season. Next below is a good shot of the Met's chorus, fabulous at both singing and acting. The Met last performed Pearl Fishers about 100 years earlier, so neither the chorus nor the orchestra was familiar with the score. In a bonus extra, conductor Noseda rapturously explains how the score seemed to him like a sea full of hidden pearls to be uncovered and displayed musically. This sense of excitement comes across in the music throughout the whole recording:

The mysterious priestess must promise chastity while protecting the people:

The is, of course, Leïla, played by Diana Damrau. And Leïla is, of course, the woman beloved by both Zurga and Nadir.  Leïla tells the High Priest how she once as a child saved a strange man, who was being pursued by a mob, by making good on:

 

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Friday
Feb232018

Les pêcheurs de perles

Bizet Les pêcheurs de perles opera to libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. Directed 2012 by Fabio Sparvoli at the Teatro di San Carlo. Stars Patrizia Ciofi (Léïla, a priestess), Dmitry Korchak (Nadir, a hunter), Dario Solari (Zurga, elected chief of the pearl fishers), and Roberto Tagliavini (Nourabad, the high priest). Gabriele Ferro conducts the Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet Corps of the Teatro di San Carlo (Chorus Master Salvatori Caputo). Sets by Giorgio Richelli; costume design by Alessandra Torella; lighting design by Vinicio Cheli; choreography by Annarita Pasculli with Ballet Director Alessandra Panzavolta. Directed for TV by Davide Mancini with high-definition editing by Tiziano Mancini and Mauro Santini. Produced by Thomas Hieber. Released 2014, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B-

There are two versions of Les pêcheurs de perles available now in HDVD: the "gritty" 2016 update directed by Penny Woolcock at the Met and this "pretty" version staged in 2012 at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. If you insist on a traditional version of Les pêcheurs, then the Naples show directed by Fabio Sparvoli is your only choice.

But if you try to compare the Met and the Naples productions in any other way, why, it's just not a fair fight.  The Met is the maybe the strongest opera house in the world---the Teatro di San Carlo (oldest opera operation in the world) is now part of the Italian opera backwater with this and only one other Blu-ray recording to its credit. The Met probably spent more money on those aerialists diving during their Les pêcheurs overture than Fabio Sparvoli in Naples had in his whole budget. In the opening scene below the entire set consists of a lumpy "beach" full of holes and cracks that is as unpleasant to see as it must have been for the singers and dancers to negotiate. Oh! There is one prop---a piece of driftwood says "Beach!"

Next below the villagers elect Zurga (Dario Solari) as King.  The cheap costumes don't look very exotic to me. They look like they have been washed 1000 times after 1000 other shows:

Thank Goodness, the lead singers are all able. Here we see Nadir, the hunter, (Dmitry Korchak):

To try to give this some visual interest, dancers are constantly about.  To me they appear to be community volunteers or semi-pro folk mostly doing this as a lark. This maybe could work, but they needed more (a lot more, really) rehearsal and detailed personal direction:

The Italian orchestra could not be favorably compared to the musicians at the Met, but you get what they are trying to do. Bizet's music here is so immediately and completely arresting and beautiful that one can still enjoy this production even with all the deficiencies noted:

A near-shot of dancers:

The mysterious priestess takes her oath of office:

 

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Thursday
Feb222018

Ingmar Bergman – Through the Choreographer's Eye

Ingmar Bergman – Through the Choreographer's Eye dance film made in 2016 by the Swedish Hammars Drama Productions. Features four dance pieces inspired by the films of Ingmar Bergman and filmed on the Swedish island of Fårö, Bergman's home. The four films are:

1. Thoughts on Berman and Dance. Choreography and dance by Alexander Ekman, script by Alexander Ekman and Ingmar Bergman, Jr.; music by Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne No. 2 in E flat major.

2. A Pre-Study. Choreography and dance by Pontus Lidberg; music by Stefan Levin; voice by Stina Ekblad; Groom played by Isabelle Lundberg; dramaturgy by Adrian Silver and Horse Svie.

3. Samband – Bande – Sarabande. Choreography by Pär Isberg; dancers are Nadja Sellrup and Oscar Salomonsson; music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suites; soloist is Torleif Thedeen.

4. Onapers. Choreography by Joakim Stephenson; dancers are Nathalie Nordquist and Jenny Nilson; music by Stefan Levin.

Released 2018, disc has 2.0 PCM stereo sound. Grade: Help!

Here is an official clip from BelAir:

Please help us with a review of this title!

Monday
Feb122018

Le Coq d’Or

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Le coq d’or opera to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky. Directed 2016 by Laurent Pelly at la Monnaie, Brussels. Stars Pavlo Hunka (Tzar Dodon), Alexey Dolgov (Tzarevich Guidon), Konstantin Shushakov (Tzarevich Afron), Alexander Vassiliev (General Polkan), Agnes Zwierko (Amelfa), Alexander Kravets (Astrologer), Venera Gimadieva (Tzaritza of Shemakha), and Sheva Tehoval (Little Golden Cockerel). Alain Altinoglu conducts La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and La Monnaie Chorus Academy led by Benoît Giaux (Chorus Master Martino Faggiani). Set design by Barbara de Limburg; costume design by Laurent Pelly; collaboration costumes by Jean-Jacques Delmotte; lighting by Joël Adam; choreography by Lionel Hoche. Released in 2018. Grade: Help!

Here is an official clip from La Monnaie:

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

Monday
Feb122018

Barenboim at the Proms

Barenboim at the Proms concert. Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2016. Features pianist Martha Argerich. Released 2018, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Here is the bill for the concert:

1. Jörg Widmann Con Brio
2. Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major
3. Franz Schubert Rondo in A major D951
4. Richard Wagner Overture to Tannhäuser
5. Richard Wagner "Dawn", "Siegfried’s Rhine Journey" and "Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung
6. Richard Wagner Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
7. Richard Wagner Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act III
8. Richard Wagner Prelude to Lohengrin, Act III

Here is an official clip from EuroArts:

Please help us with a review of this title!

Sunday
Feb112018

Don Quixote

Don Quixote ballet. Music by Ludwig Minkus arranged by John Lanchbery. Choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa. Staged 2016 by Manuel Legris at the Wiener Staatsballett. Stars Maria Yakovleva (Kitri/Dulcinea), Denys Cherevychko (Basilio), Ketevan Papava (A Street Dancer), Roman Lazik (Espada), Olga Esina (The Queen of the Dryads), Kiyoka Hashimoto (Amor), Kamil Pavelka (Don Quixtoe), Christoph Wenzel (Sancho Panza), Gabor Oberregger (Lorenzo), Andrey Kaydanovskiy (Gamache), Alice Firenze, Nina Tonoli (Kitri's friends), Igor Milos, Beata Wiedner (Two aged Gypsies), Mihail Sosnovschi, Rebecca Horner, Erika Kováčová (Gypsies), Gala Jovanovic, Oxana Kiyanenko, and Laura Nistor (Three Dryads), Natascha Mair (First Bridesmaid), plus Marat Bavletshin and Keata Wiedner (Caregivers).  Kevin Rhodes conducts the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper. Set and costume design by Nicholas Georgiadis; lighting design by Marc Anrochte; video directed by Michael Beyer. Released 2017, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

In January, 2018 Rob Maynard wrote an excellent review of this title for www.musicweb-international.com with detailed information about the Nureyev version of the Don Quixote ballet. He concludes that subject title Blu-ray is the best video available of the Nureyev show. We agree and go a step further by calling it the best of all the 4 Blu-rays we now have of DQ. So fear not, dear reader --- this review will be cheerful with only a few sour words at the end. 

Kamil Pavelka as Don Quixtoe and Christoph Wenzel as Sancho Panza manage to amuse without appearing too serious or too silly (a trick surprisingly difficult to pull off). You will recall that Don Quixtoe is inspired by the spirit of Dulcinea to go forth in the world saving maidens in distress:

Spunky Maria Yakovleva as Kitri:

And next below we see the personable Denys Cherevychko as Basilio with Alice Firenze and Nina Tonoli as Kitri's friends (they look here like twins but they aren't):

The original Don Q was imagined in the time of Shakespeare, but the ballet is usually updated by centuries. Designer Georgiadis states in the keepcase booklet that he set this DQ in Spain in the "happy" Goya era. Did you know that Goya was once happy? Well, one of the most glorious paintings in the Prada museum is the Quitasol (The Umbrella) painted by Goya when he was 31:

There wasn't enough light on the stage in Vienna to come up with anything as colorful as the Quitasol. Maybe the portrait below of Manuel Godoy, painted by Goya in 1801, is what Georgiadis had in mind:

Below see Roman Lazik as the toreador Espada:

And on the far right in black is Andrey Kaydanovskiy as Gamache, the wealthy but prissy landowner that Kitri refuses to marry:

We think Act 1 in the "standard" version of DQ runs too long and starts to get wearisome. Nureyev trims it so he can expand his Act 2. Finishing Act 1 is the Basilio/Kitri pas de deux below:

Nureyev's brilliant Act 2 opens with a delicious anti-pas de deux. The sweethearts have disobeyed Kitri's father and run away.  Now that they can do anything they want, what exactly, they ponder, are they supposed to do?

 

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Friday
Feb092018

Bruckner Symphony No. 3 

Bruckner Symphony No. 3 (the "Wagner Symphony"). Christian Thielemann conducts the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Philharmonie Munich in 2016. Video director was Elizabeth Malzer. Released 2017 disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: F+

Christian Hoskins in the August 2017 Gramophone (page 34) lauds this recording for grandeur with orchestra playing in a "class of its own."  He states this title is one of the best recordings of the Bruckner S3 "available in any medium." Later in the December 2017 Gramophone, page 36, Hoskins calls this his favorite recording for 2017!  With this kind applause from Hoskins, we can assume subject title is an excellent sound recording of a splendid performance. And as you can see from the screenshots below, the PQ is also satisfying with nice lighting, good color balance, and decent HD resolution.

Hoskins also mentions the video content stating that "Elizabeth Malzer's video direction is relatively unimaginative, which is not necessarily a bad thing." So we put this title on the buy list promptly in hopes that Malzer might be slowing down the pace and making big-scale shots in an effort to avoid the problem of DVDitis that is so prevalent in Blu-ray symphony recordings.

But it's so distressing:  we have to report that the video content in this Bruckner 3 is the worst we have seen ever from a major publisher with a video originally shot in 1080i or better (the absolute worst was the Avie Mahler 10 which must be regarded as probably student work). Having reached and breached this sad conclusion, we have to offer plenty of proof. Here goes.

The first solemn obligation of the videographer of a symphony concert is to give the home viewer whole-orchestra (WO) shots at the outset so that the viewer can see how the orchestra is organized and where the players are located. The viewer needs this info to understand what he's seeing in the smaller-scale clips he will encounter throughout the recording. And this is especially true when, as here, the layout of the orchestra is a bit unusual.

Well, next below is a screenshot of Malzer's opening clip as the title of the disc appears. But this is not a WO view, because the players on the stage are so tiny. You can see the tympani and a cluster of basses, which you can't reliably count. Otherwise you can't tell who is where. In a WO shot, the players must fill the entire field of vision horizontally across the film to show the viewer as much as possible about the musicians:

So Malzer has split her britches badly before the music begins. Instead of a WO shot, she gives us an "anthill." (There are times when the videographer might add value with this kind of shot to show us a magnificent concert hall, but that doesn't apply here when the lights are already down.) To make matters worse, Malzer seems to be positively enamoured of mounds Formicidae, which she sprinkles 30 times throughout the video. Next below we show 2 of her anthilliest views, which often pop up when Bruckner reaches one of his volcanic eruptions of fffff sound.

But the most irritating thing of all about this perverse mismatch of big sounds with tiny pictures is that Malzer had a splendid WO shot in her quiver that she could have used at will. That's the next shot below which appears exactly one time in the video, and that at 46:04, which is about 3/4s of the way through the symphony:

For most of the video, we were lost in space watching small-scale views of solos or small groups and constantly wondering where they were sitting on the stage. But at 46:04 we hit the freeze-frame button to finally study the lay of the land.  We learned there are some 16 1st violins, 14 2nd violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos in a ragged wedge, and probably 12 basses. It appears there are 4 trumpets, 3 bones, 4 horns, and 2 each of the rest of the standard winds, plus one set of tympani. The woodwinds appears to be seated quite far apart. The rest of the players are a bit crowded together. This information makes it so much easier to understand the rest of the remaining clips in the film. Watching a symphony video shouldn't have to be like solving Rubik's Cube!

Astonishingly, this WO shot (46:04), which is the best image in the entire disc, only appears one time in the video. And it lasts for less than 3 seconds! How is is possible to for Malzer to do everything so upside-down and backwards!

Next below we see one other WO shot, which occurs a single time at 51:04. It misses players on the left, but we are usually happy if the WO angle picks up 90%+ of the players. It's quite lop-sided. But the main problem with this WO shot is that the angle is too low. The players on the front and the music stands hamper our view of the interior of the orchestra:

 

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Friday
Feb092018

Mahler Symphonies 1-10

Mahler Symphonies 1-10. This is a box set of all 10 Mahler symphonies played by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra as conducted by Paavo Järvi. These titles were released earlier as follows:

1. Mahler Symphonies 1-2

2. Mahler Symphonies 3-4

3. Mahler Symphonies 5-6

4. Mahler Symphonies 7-8

5. Mahler Symphonies 9-10

Released 2015, all discs have 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade for the full box: F-

We only paid $60 for this box (new). But it is still the most colossal disappointment we have had in 10 years of buying fine-art Blu-ray videos, and it has earned the lowest grade we ever gave. Symphony No. 1 was shot in HD and has normal (rather nice actually) HDVD-level PQ. But all the other symphonies in this box (and in all the individual 2-symphony packages you can buy) were shot with SD cameras. Then the SD video images were "uprezed" to HD masters. The PQ for S2-S10 thus pimped out in Blu-ray is horribile, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, and horrible. That's horrible9!

We went back to see how we were lured into the trap of buying this. The "full details" from the vendors say "made from an HD master." Now we have full proof of the vacuousness of that claim made to us by C Major. And it's also proof of the worthlessness of anything the vendors say, as they are merely parroting what they are fed by the publishers. There was one customer review on Amazon we read which warned correctly that there are no menus on the discs to help you find what you want to see, but probably that person bought the DVD version and was not aware of the uprezing. José Luis Bermüdez wrote a nice review on www.classical.net. That review had pictures of Blu-ray packages, but it's obvious José watched this on DVD.  Alas, many old-line reviewers still haven't upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray. They tend to live in the past, and they are rumored to sometimes just listen to the music with the video turned off!

Well, the best way to increase your chances of getting accurate information about fine-arts Blu-rays is to come to this website. During the last 10 years, we have consigned about 20% of new Blu-ray titles to our "Excluded List" for lack of real HD video or surround  Hi-Fi sound. And we also give bad grades to titles that make the first cut but still disappoint.

We would have put this Mahler Box on the excluded list, but it does have one real HD video with surround sound. So we are going to grade each of the individual titles and the box as a whole.

The only other Mahler 1-10 Blu-ray box on the market is the one from RCO Live, which we graded D. If you go to our Alphalist, you well see we have to date (February 2018) unearthed only 2 Mahler recordings that correctly take advantage of current video technology: the Saito Kinen Mahler 1 and a recent Mahler 2 from the Concertgebouw with Gatti conducting.  Forget about the rest of the Mahler Blu-rays to date and enjoy your CDs and other audio products. We are just getting started with making proper symphony videos in the new HDVD era.

Friday
Feb022018

Bruckner Symphony No. 1

Bruckner Symphony No. 1. Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2017. Directed for TV by Andreas Morell. Released 2018, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Here's an official trailer:

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

Friday
Feb022018

Mozart Operas

Mozart Operas "box" with 3 titles, all performed at Glyndebourne. Below are the titles. Each of them has already been reported on this website, and you can get more details by using the links provided:

1. Le nozze di Figaro.  (Grade N/A)

2. Die Entführung aus dem Serail. (Grade N/A) 

3. Così fan tutte. (Grade A+)

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