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

October 15. We are getting again into symphony titles and the existential issue of DVDitis. I just posted a story on a Mahler 2 recording at the Gewandhaus that might be considered DOA from the dread plague.

I recently put up a story about the 3rd version (!) of the same Giselle production published by Opus Arte. I recently posted a story about the Ekman Midsummer Night's Dream ballet (which has nothing to do with Shakespeare). I also just posted two stories about Shakespeare's The Tempest. The first is a definitive stage play version by the RSC. The second is an updated review of The Tempest movie staring Helen Mirren as Prospera (the female version of Prospero). The movie is streamlined - try it first. Then move on to the RSC "real deal", which is probably the best The Tempest ever made for home viewing.



Ariadne auf Naxos

Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos opera to libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Directed 2006 by Claus Guth at Opernhaus Zürich. Stars Emily Magee (Ariadne/Primadonna), Elena Moçuc (Zerbinetta), Roberto Saccà (Tenor/Bacchus), Alexander Pereira (Haushofmeister), Michael Volle (Musiklehrer), Michelle Breedt (Komponist), Randall Ball (Offizier), Guy de Mey (Tanzmeister), Andrew Ashwin (Perückenmacher), Ruben Drole (Lakai), Gabriel Bermúdez (Harlekin), Martin Zysset (Scaramuccio), Reinhard Mayr (Truffaldin), Blagoj Nacoski (Brighella), Eva Liebau (Najade), Irène Friedli (Dryade), and Sandra Trattnigg (Echo). Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Orchestra der Oper Zürich. Set and costume designs by Christian Schmidt; dramaturgy by Ronny Dietrich; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; directed for TV by Thomas Grimm. Released 2009, this disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

This title was later re-released by Arthaus with different artwork.

When you're going to view an opera for the first time, I usually suggest you watch it cold. But if you are a Strauss newbie, that would be unwise for Ariadne auf Naxos, which is a complicated insiders' joke. Before you tackle Ariadne, do some research and get ready for a chaotic mashup of somber tragedy and frivolous comedy. But if you're in a hurry, here are some tips. Ariadne, in mythology a symbol of the ideal of female fidelity, sacrificed everything for her lover Theseus, who then abandoned her in a cave on the island of Naxos. Eventually her suffering is rewarded by the god Dionysus, who weds and exalts her. In this production, the cave becomes a commodious restaurant, where Ariane sits day after sorrowful day waiting to learn her fate. Also in the restaurant appear various characters including nymphs (waitresses), clowns (tipsy lounge lizzards), and sex symbol Zerbinetta, who try to cheer her up, most notably by extolling the benefits of serial and multiple sex partners. Emily Magee gets to sing profound arias about stuff like alienation, the futility of life, and the kingdom of death. Elena Moçuc cuts loose with "Noch glaub' ich dem einen ganz mich gehörend," her supremely spectacular and difficult aria of "pure nymphomanical coloratura" (Henry W. Simon in 100 Great Operas). And after Roberto Saccà appears as Dionysus (here Bacchus) to resolve matters, there is sublime ensemble music on the same level as the Strauss' famous "Four Last Songs." And so, dear Strauss newbie, if any of this appeals to you, work a bit on Ariadne, and you will be rewarded.

If you are a seasoned Strauss fan, everything about this disc ought to please you. The singing is fine, the orchestra brilliant, the acting convincing, the updated staging tasteful, and video and sound recording excellent. This was recorded, of course, in German. The disc has German subtitles, which can be a big help if you are a non-native speaker of that tricky language.

PS. Here's another insider's joke. Alexander Pereira plays the role of Haushofmeister, or general director of the manor where this opera is set. Pereira's real job at the time was general director of the Zurich Opera.



Verdi Aida opera to libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Directed 2009 by Graham Vick at the Bregenz Festival Seebühne "Lake Stage."  Singing stars are Kevin Short (The King), Iano Tamar (Amneris, the King's Daughter), Tatiana Serjan (Aida, An Ethiopian Slave), Tigran Martirossian (Ramfis, High Priest), Rubens Pelizzari (Radamès, Captain of the Guard)), Iain Paterson (Amonastro, Aida's Father, King of the Ethiopians), Ronald Samm (A Messenger), and Elizabeth Martorana (A Priestess). Dancers are Sarah Braschler, Tina Essl, Annett Göhre, Josefine Häggblad, Daniela Heissl, Flavie Hennion, Katharina Holzweber, Beatrice Kessi, Isabella Kraus, Wencke Kriemer, Nadja Musil, Silke Woschnjak, Amadeus Berauer, Hannes Diehl, Andrew Hill, Adrian Hochstrasser, Roberto Junior, Claus Kupreit, David Laera, Carlos Matos, Lebogang Elliot Mohlamme, Adriano Sanzo, Ruben Jonathan Wiethüchter, and Jason Ziegelmaier. Stunt performers are Matthias Schendel, Cornelia Dworak, Dori Horvath, Sandra Kier, Kristina Papadopoulou, Christian Gneißl, Bernhard Häfner, Falko Kleinert, and Sigi Polap. Carlo Rizzi conducts the Wiener Symphoniker, the Camerata Silesia (Chorus Master Anna Szostak), the Polish Radio Choir Kraków (Chorus Master Włodzimierz Siedlik), and the Bregenzer Festspielchor (Chorus Master Benjamin Lack). Stage music by the Vorarlberger Landeskonservatorium conducted by Herbert Walser-Breuss. Set and costume designs by Paul Brown; lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel; choreography by Ron Howell; video direction by Felix Breisach. Released 2010,  disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D

We noted elsewhere (see Tosca at Arena di Verona) how hard it is to get a good HDVD of a summer festival opera staged in an outdoor arena. (What looks good at 200 meters tends to looks bad at 2 meters.) This Bregenzer Festival Aida is an even more horrible example of this phenomenon. We start with the nastiest, scariest, and most dangerous entertainment venue created by man since the Romans stopped killing people for fun at the Coliseum. The Seebühne is literally in the waters of Lake Constance (the audience of 7000 sits on the shore). Some of the singers perform at times, with electric microphones, in water over their heads. Most of the action takes place, however, on various boats and industrial contraptions like a submersible stage, a floating stage, piers, and catwalks. To compensate for all the dangers at the surface, other scenes take place dangling 200 feet in the air (at night) from two giant construction cranes, one of which resides permanently right in the middle of the "stage." This is gross anatomy. Via HDVD, we get to see all the warts, scars, and stretch marks on the body---which show up in this arena as pumps, motors, ropes, cables, electrical conduits, safety rails, a mysterious periscope, jerry-rigged platforms, and the like.

Against this background, we should not be surprised by outlandish designs elements such as giant fragments of the New York Statute of Liberty littered about painted in cobalt blue, an elephant as big as the Sphinx floating on a barge, and huge flame-throwers firing from the waters. But I do object to the director's silly attempts at titillation such as the hooded slaves being lead about on dog leashes, the uncounted casual human sacrifices, the orgy of 25 blonde Barbie Dolls with their bound Chippendales, and --- my favorite-- Radèmes' torture test in which he survives a blind-folded plunge into the waters by holding his nose. Amid all this catastrophic ugliness, I must report that the microphones worked well and the singers managed to sound quite good. I felt sorry for all the singers, but especially for Iano Tamar singing Amneres in Chapters 30 thru 34. There she gets to wear a truely elegant white gown. But she spends the whole time spashing about (and at one time lying down in 8 inches of water on the (submerged) submersible stage) leaving her soaking wet.

The performers are also exposed to the upper elements. During this performance of Aida, it rained on both the performers and spectators, who, being denied the use of umbrellas, brought out plastic raincoats.

James Bond had to visit this. Check out Quantum of Solace and follow James on stage and see how the venue looks to the performers. Only the performers and the plebs get wet when it rains. The elites sit in a skyscraper of enclosed glass booths where they are substantially protected from the weather and having to listen to an opera.

I think few people will feel much pride of ownership from possessing this recording. As an HDVD, this title deserves an "F" for set, design, and direction. But in honour of the valiant singers,  I upgrade to "D" for "damp."



Verdi Aida opera to libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Directed 2006 by Franco Zeffirelli at the Teatro alla Scala. Stars Violeta Urmana (Aida), Roberto Alagna (Rabamès), Ildiko Komlosi (Amneris), Giorgio Giuseppini (Ramfis), Carlo Guelfi (Amonastro), Marco Spotti (The King), Antonello Ceron (Messenger), and Sae Kyung Rim (Priestes) in singing roles as well as Luciana Savignano, Roberto Bolle, and Myrna Kamara of the ballet. Riccardo Chailly directs the Orchestra e coro del Teatro alla Scala (Chorus Master Bruno Casoni). Sets by Franco Zeffirelli; costumes by Maurizio Millenotti; lighting by Gianni Mantovanini; choreography by Vladimir Vassiliev; directed for TV by Patrizia Carmine. Released 2008, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

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Adventures of Pinnochio

Jonathan Dove The Adventures of Pinocchio opera to libretto by Alasdair Middleton. Directed 2008 by Martin Duncan at Sadler's Wells Theater (James Bonas Assistant Director).  Stars Victoria Simmonds (Pinocchio), Jonathan Summers (Geppetto), Mary Plazas (The Blue Fairy), Rebecca Bottone (Cricket/Parrot), Graeme Broadbent (Puppeteer/Ape-Judge/Ringmaster/Big Green Fisherman), Allan Clayton (Lampwick), Mark Wilde (Cat), James Laing (Fox/Coachman), Carole Wilson (Pigeon/Snail), Paul Gibson (Barker), Ben Kerslake (Arlecchino), Gillene Herbert (Rosaura), Nicholas Butterfield (Pantalone), Jeremy Peaker (Owl Doctor/Bricklayer), Campbell Russell (Craw Doctor), Hazel Croft (Beetle Doctor), Edward Thornton (Coal-Merchant), and Anthony Cunningham (Drum Maker). Dancers are Ted Sikström, Stacy Abalogun, Marie Andersen, and James Roberts. David Parry conducts the Orchestra (Anthony Kraus Assistant Conductor) and Chorus (Bernhard Schneider Chorus Master) of Opera North. Set and costume design by Francis O'Connor; lighting by Davy Cunningham; movement direction by Nick Winston; directed for video by Thomas Grimm; sound production by James Whitbourn; produced by Ferenc van Damme and Hans Petri. Released 2009, disc has 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound. Grade: C

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Adriana Lecouvreur

Francesco Cilea Adriana Lecouvreur opera to libretto by Arturo Colautti. Directed 2009 by Lorenzo Mariani at the Teatro Regio Torino. Stars Micaela Carosi (Adriana Lecouvreur), Marcelo Álvarez (Maurizio), Marianne Cornetti (La Principessa di Bouillon), Alfonso Antoniozzi (Michonnet), Simone Del Savio (Il Principe di Bouillon), Luca Casalin (L'abate di Chazeuil), Antonella De Chiara (Madamigella Jouvenot), Patrizia Porzio (Madamigella Dangeville), Carlo Bosi (Poisson), Diego Matamoros (Quinault), Giuseppe Milano (Un Maggiordomo), and Carola Iannuzzi (Una Cameriera). Renato Palumbo conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino (Chorus Master: Claudio Fenoglio). Sets by Nicola Rubertelli; costumes by Luisa Spinatelli; choreography by Michele Merola; lighting by Claudio Schmid; TV direction by Matteo Ricchetti. Released in 2010, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio surround sound. Grade: B-

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Handel Admeto opera to libretto by Aurelia Aureli and Ortensio Mauro. Directed 2006 by Axel Köhler at the Halle Handel Festival (Händel-Festspiele). Stars Matthias Rexroth (Admeto), Romelia Lichtenstein (Alceste), Mechthild Bach (Antigona), Tim Mead (Trasimede), Raimund Nolte (Ercole), Melanie Hirsch (Orindo), Gerd Vogel (Moraspe), and Howard Arman/Alex Köhler (Voice of Apollo). Howard Arman conducted the Handel Festival Orchestra (playing historical instruments) at Opernhaus Halle. Stage design by Roland Aeschlimann; costumes by Marie-Thérèse Jossen; masks by Mario Ansinn; lighting by Matthias Hönig; directed for TV by Ute Feudel. Released in 2009, this disc features 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

This is from the Halle Handel Festival, which usually stages one Handel opera each summer. Over time, the festival has staged most if not all of Handle's many operas. But when a organization does only one opera a year, don't expect miracles. The only singer in this production who gets better with repeated viewing is Raimund Nolte, baritone, in the role of Hercules. Nolte has it all: a steady pleasant singing voice, great diction which allows you to hear clearly the words he sings, good looks, trim figure, and acting ability. Matthias Rexroth is an excellent counter-tenor, I think, but I still fatigue of men singing in that register. Tim Mead is striking as Thrasymedes, but also wearisome. The directing and design is mildly interesting, and the comic touch helps break the monotony of the slow-paced libretto. The Handel Festival Orchestra sounds great throughout the disc, and the recording is fine. Students of early opera and Handel lovers will probably find things here to like. For the rest of us who might be interested just in trying Handel, a better bet would be the Giulio Cesare or Orlando HDVDs.


Acis and Galatea

Handel Acis and Galatea opera to libretto by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes. Directed 2009 by Wayne McGregor (assistant Laïla Diallo) at the Royal Opera House. The singing stars are Danielle de Niese (Galatea, a Nymph), Charles Workman (Acis, a Shepherd), Paul Agnew (Damon, a Shepherd), Matthew Rose (Polyphemus), Ji-Min Park (Coridon, a Shepherd), Juliet Schiemann (Chorus Soprano Soloist), and Phillip Bell (Chorus Tenor Soloist). The dancing stars from the Royal Ballet are Lauren Cuthbertson (Galatea), Edward Watson (Acis), Steven McRae (Damon), Melissa Hamilton (Damon), Eric Underwood (Polyphemus), and Paul Kay (Coridon). Other dancers are Olivia Cowley, Cindy Jourdain, Kristen McNally, Iohna Loots, Samantha Raine, Brian Maloney, Liam Scarlett, Johannes Stepanek, and Dawid Trzensimiech. Christopher Hogwood conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (leader: Kati Debretzeni) and the The Royal Opera Extra Chorus (Chorus Master: Stephen Westrop). Continuo: harpsichord by Julian Perkins; theorbo by Jan Čižmář; cello by Andrew Skidmore. Chamber organ by Steven Moore. Designs by Hildegard Bechtler; lighting by Lucy Carter; film director was Jonathan Haswell. Released in 2010, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: D+

2009 was 250 years after the death of Handel, so in that year (and 2010) we got more of his works in HDVD than we maybe really wanted. Handel was very successful in his day, but his librettos and music can now seem tiresome. Still, true opera lovers and fans of early music adore Handel. And with enough effort, a Handel opera can be brought to life for all of us even today; the best proof of this is the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare (Opus Arte).

The Royal Opera House tried hard for impressive results in this  Acis and Galatea, but the bomb comes up a dud because its many moving parts don't fit together. Although this is presented as an opera, it was directed by Wayne McGregor, a famous choreographer. The result: I dig McGregor's choreography; but I don't like the designs he commissions or his directing.

The designs are a garbage dump of mismatched and ugly elements. The background for the first scene is an abstract but rather pleasing "pastoral" image of rocks, water, and green forestry. After the opening, the scenery becomes increasingly surreal and arbitrary. I think I understand the enormous blue-black circular blob that dominates much of Act II. It's an anti-sun and symbol for the evil giant Polyphemus (yes, our old Cyclops friend from the Odyssey, but here with two eyes and not yet blinded like McGregor's sun). The big blob looks dramatic for a few moments. But because it's impossible to ignore, it soon becomes an obnoxious distraction. The dancers all wear nude-colour tights appropriate for modern abstract choreography. But the singing stars are outfitted in inconsistent and ugly "rustic grunge" and the chorus wears yet a third look which I call "business casual." Another example of ugly visual incongruity are scenes littered with surreal, cold stones and twisted driftwood mixed in with realistic, warm, soft-textured stuffed animals.

Now let's move to directing. All the singing characters have a dancing double (the double for shepherd Damon is a male and female dancing team!). Additional forces from the Royal Ballet upstage the Royal Opera Chorus throughout. This might remind you of the Pina Bausch "dance opera" Orpheus und Eurydike. But with the Bausch work the opera folks are definitely supporting the dance. In McGregor's Acis and Galatea the singers and dancers attempt peaceful co-existence but it turns out to be an example of MAD, or mutually administered destruction.

Deeply-brunette Danielle de Niese is forced to appear as a blond in a revoltingly ugly wig with a long ratty braid. The wig makes her look like a trafficked woman street walking in the Hamburg red-light district using the stage name "Heidi." Charles Workman as shepherd Acis is dressed like a college student; Paul Agnew as the shepherd Damon looks like a hobo. But the worst directing disaster is Matthew Rose singing Polyphemus naked to the waist. Now Rose can sing the role, and he would look OK in a caveman suit. But why did McGregor force his audience to look at Rose's slovenly torso? Polyphemus is supposed to be terrifying or maybe funny, but Rose just looks pitiful. McGregor's disquieting abuse of Rose is exacerbated by matching him up with the lithe and statuesque dancing double Eric Underwood.

The upshot of all is a production that is, alas, irritating and tiresome to watch. We have so many wonderful HDVDs  out, I can't recommend this Acis and Galatea unless you have a special reason to want to see it.


Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould film. Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont direct this film depicting Glenn Gould's life. Released  2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

This is the second HDVD documentary produced about the life and art of Glenn Gould. The other, Glenn Gould: Hereafter, has already been reviewed and recommended on this site. For the Glenn Gould aficionado, both titles are probably already must-owns. But for the less fanatical of us, the idea of purchasing two documentaries about the same subject might be overkill. On the surface the two titles are similar: both use SD footage of interviews and performances by Gould plus new interviews and discussion with HD video. There is quite a bit of overlap of historical footage.

But the two films diverge in the scope and tone of the modern-day material. Hereafter is primarily concerned with the legacy of Gould and his still considerable influence (the interviews in Hereafter are not with anyone who knew Gould personally, but rather with fans who fell in love with Gould's playing after his death). Genius Within takes a more direct approach. The interviews are all of friends, colleagues, or former lovers of Gould, who attempt to portray the kind of man Gould was. Where Hereafter is reverential to the utmost degree, Genius Within attempts to show Gould in a more neutral, well rounded light. We learn of an extremely gifted and talented man aware of the power of his fame. And we also learn of his idiosyncrasies and flaws. 

Genius Within also does a better job than Hereafter in explaining why Gould became such a phenomenon. I didn't know much about Gould before watching the these two films. Genius Within gave me clearer understanding than Hereafter of Gould's unique way of playing classic works.

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