Titles by Category

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.

December 2. I just posted a review of the 2016 Royal Ballet Nutcracker. We have on our Alphalist a thorough rundown and grade on each of the 10 Nutcracker Blu-rays you could order for a Christmas present!

I just updated and added screenshots to the Priory title The Grand Organ of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Finally we have reported on all 5 of the Priory organ Blu-rays. These exemplary recordings include a Blu-ray video, a DVD video, and a CD! Each of these titles has a fine program of organ music played by virtuoso musicians. In addition, there are fabulous bonus extras with information about the cathedrals, the towns where they are located, the details of each organ instrument, and a discussion of each selection that is played in the recital. Never before was so much value in recordings conveyed for such a modest price.  To see information on all these Priory titles, just go to the left navigation bar and click on "Priory" under "Titles by Publisher." Then all 5 Priory stories will be instantly produced for your enjoyment! _______________________________________________________________________________

Thursday
Oct122017

The Tempest

Shakespeare The Tempest play. Directed 2017 by Gregory Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre. Stars (alphabetical order) Alison Arnopp (Spirit), Simon Russell Beale (Prospero), Laura Cairns (Spirit), Elly Condron (Iris/Spirit), Joe Dixon (Caliban), Daniel Easton (Ferdinand), Caleb Frederick (Mariner/Spirit), Samantha Hay (Ceres), Sarah Kameela Impey (Spirit), Tony Jayawardena (Stephano), Matthew McPherson (Francisco), Joseph Mydell (Gonzalo), Oscar Pearce (Antonio), Mark Quartley (Ariel), Jenny Rainsford (Miranda), Darren Raymond (Boatswain), Joe Shire (Master of the Ship), Oliver Towse (Adrian), Simon Trinder (Trinculo), James Tucker (Alonso), Tom Turner (Sebastian), and Jennifer Witton (Juno). Also features musicians Samantha Hay and Jennifer Witton (sopranos), Max Gittings (flutes/whistles), Nick Lee (guitar), James Jones (percussion), and Bruce O'Neil and Gareth Ellis (keyboards). Production design by Stephen Brimson Lewis; digital character creation by The Imaginarium Studios; video by Finn Ross; lighting by Simon Spencer; music by Paul Englishby; sound by Jeremy Dunn and Andrew Franks; movement by Lucy Cullingford; screen direction by Dewi Humphreys; screen production by John Wyver. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

This is a huge and elaborate production coming to us from the best resource for Shakespeare plays that has existed since the death of the Bard. On the whole it is quite excellent. The performances are engaging, the play is funny and affecting in equal measure, and the disc itself presents high quality audio and visuals. Of course the biggest talking point will be the elaborate use of visual projection and lighting to really make this production stand out. This includes not just projections on backdrops of different sizes and shapes, but also a real-time motion capture projection of Ariel. As the actor Mark Quartley moves around the stage, his suit sends information to computers behind the scene that then create the animated avatar (using 27 separate projectors). So when Mark moves, the spirit apparition moves along with him. This technology took two years to perfect, and the final product reflects the care taken by all involved. As elaborate as the visual side of this production is, at its core this is still a stage play done with the care that one would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company; the visuals add extra verve without distracting from the play or the performance.

The stage itself is static - there are no changes in scenery. Instead the production relies on various lighting cues and projections to clue the audience as to changes in setting. The stage is a flat area painted to look like dirt, flanked on both sides by wooden scaffolding that doubles at various points as the wrecked ship, the walls of Prospero and Miranda's dwelling, and wooded areas. The scaffolding also provides a second level for side actors to perform.

Here below we see the royalty on the main stage and the boatsmen on the upper levels:

Prospero explains to Miranda how they arrived on the island. Here we see the basic scenery - dirt and wood, with no elaborate lighting trickery:

Prospero speaks to Ariel, here presented as a dancing spirit projected on the backdrop. This uses the live motion capture technology developed for this performance. (NB: The screenshots here are darker than the picture as it appears in the home theater. While the show is dark, it is not distractingly so. In fact, the visual effects shine all the more given the dark nature of the video.)

A more elaborate meshing of lighting and projection, here representing Ariel's unfortunate time stuck in a tree. Here Mark Quartley plays Ariel twice, once physically in his suit, and again as the motion capture avatar projected on the center screen:

During calmer scenes, the lighting and projections take a break to allow the actors more attention, as shown below:

Stephano comes across the Caliban/Trinculo hybrid beast:

 

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Wednesday
Oct112017

The Tempest

Shakespeare The Tempest motion picture. Juli Taymor wrote the screen play, produced, and directed this film seen in theaters in 2010. Stars Helen Mirren (Prospera), Russell Brand (Trinculo), Reeve Carney (Ferdinand), Tom Conti (Gonzalo), Chris Cooper (Antonio), Alan Cumming (Sebastian), Djimon Hounsou (Caliban), Felicity Jones (Miranda), Alfred Molina (Stephano), David Strathairn (Alonso), and Ben Whishaw (Ariel). Music by Elliot Goldenthal; costumes by Sandy Powell; cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh; editing by Françoise Bonnot. As is often the case with movie discs, this title includes interesting extras about the making of the film. Released 2011, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.  Grade: B+

William Shakespeare and Harry Potter spent a night in a tavern drinking mead. They decided to change the Prospero in The Tempest to Prospera. To help modern viewers with shrink-wrapped imaginations, they added lots of computer-generated special effects. The result is a beautiful film with excellent acting and impressive productions values shot in a striking Hawaiian landscape. The sex-change operation isn't as significant as you might think. In addition to the changes, about 20% of Shakespeare's text is cut to get rid of obscure passages and tighten up the movie. People who don't know the play can probably follow this version quite well and find it entertaining. True, the result shows how hard it is even with clever, modern resources to render in high-definition images the power of suggestion of poetry. But on the other hand, we have no confirmed intelligence that any viewer (snob or not) has been harmed by this movie.

In my 3000-page complete Shakespeare Plays, annotator A.L. Rowse states in his critical introduction to The Tempest, "To do [many scenes in the play] justice---perhaps to realize the play as a whole---one needs the resources of film." The introduction of Prospera shows just what cinema can do compared to a stage play:

Wild angle shots aren't all cinema can do though; close ups are used as well:

Below is an example of visual effects used in the film with Ariel attacking the ship:

And next below is we see Alonso and his cohort emerge from the water---hard to put an ocean on a stage:

More visual trickery as Prospera interacts with an ethereal Ariel:

Prospera and Miranda above, Caliban below:

Next are two shots of the comedy trio of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban:

Rich warm brown tones and lush greens show the variety of scenery the film uses:

 

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Monday
Oct092017

The Golden Age

The Golden Age ballet. Music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich to libretto by Isaak Glikman and Yuri Grigorovich. Staged 2016 at the Bolshoi Ballet. Stars Nina Kaptsova (Rita, a young girl), Ruslan Skvortsov (Boris, a young fisherman), Mikhail Lobukhin (Yashka, gang leader), Ekaterina Krysanova (Lyuska, Yashka’s accomplice), and Vyachslav Lopatin (night club compere). Pavel Klinichev conducts the Corps de Ballet and Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia. Lighting design by Mikhail Sokolov; sets and costumes by Simon Virsaladze; choreography assistants Regina Nikiforova and Andrey Melanin. Produced by François Duplat; filmed by Vincent Bataillon. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Has any great people suffered more bad luck than the Russians? Have they ever had a Golden Age? Well, the Golden Age depicted in this ballet was part of the Russian Revolution and lasted 5 years between the end of the Russian Civil War (1923) and the beginning of Stalin's Cultural Revolution (1928), which in turn led to the Great Terror of 1934-1939. 5 years is a short time span for an era.

Before the Russian Revolution, the most important art movement in Russia was that of the Wanderers, mostly romantic and impressionist artists who traveled about the vastness of Russian putting on exhibitions to enlighten people. A nice example of the art of the Wanderers is the Girl with Peaches (1887) by Valentin Serov shown next below:

Painting in Russia after the Wanderers was probably headed toward the natural realism of, say, Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967). She was an aristocrat who became a wanderer in foreign countries after 1917 and died a French citizen. Below we see her famous Self-Portrait at Toilet (1909) and her also famous Bathhouse (1913):

But then along came the Communists. The devastation of the Civil War forced Lenin in 1922 to allow limited free enterprise under the New Economic Policy (NEP).  This is now viewed as a golden time when "Russian Futurism" flourished. One popular futurist style was "rayism":

And Communist propaganda sprang up as "Agitprop" art. Below is a banner for the New Economic Policy and a poster urging punishment for lazy workers:

Now let's get back to our Golden Age ballet video. The first screenshot below is the final curtain call. I chose this to open with because it gives a clear view of the main set, which is a futurist-style stage in a seaport town where the local Komsomol (Young Communist League) performs. It's 1923. The sign on the back wall reads "АГИТ БРИГАДА" which are cognates for "Agit Brigades" or Propaganda Forces:

Next below we see a scene from a show put on by the Fishermen Agit Brigade. The girls must belong to the local Fish Cleaning and Packing Agit Brigade. The hero of the fishermen is Boris (Ruslan Skvortsov):
 

Now consider below a 1923 painting, Black and Violet, by the Russian futurist artist Kandinsky:

Kandinsky's figures remind me of the Priest, General, and Tycoon who get lampooned in the Boris's Agitprop play:

The People are victorious over the forces of Reaction. Boris is dancing with Rita (Nina Kaptsova), a mysterious new girl who actually isn't a member of the Fish Cleaning and Packing unit:
 

Boris and Rita in love:
 

Rita isn't a member of the Fish Cleaning and Packing unit because she has a double life. She performs with the Agit groups, but she also works as as show girl at the new night club near the City Hall shown below. On the back wall is the name of the club, ЗОЛОТОЙ ВЕК, or, in English, "The Golden Age":

 

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Wednesday
Oct042017

Tosca

Puccini Tosca opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed 2001 as a 35mm celluloid film opera movie by Benoît Jacquot at a movie studio in Germany. Stars Angela Gheorghiu [when she was young] (Floria Tosca), Roberta Alagno [then he was hot] (Mario Cavaradossi), Ruggero Raimondi [when he still looked scary] (Baron Scarpia), Maurizio Muraro (Cesare Angelotti), Enrico Fissore (Sacristan), David Cangelosi (Spoletta), and Sorin Coliban (Sciarrone). Antonio Pappano [when he was just getting started with the Royal Opera] conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra, the Royal Opera Chorus (Chorus Director Terry Edwards), and The Tiffin Boys Choir (Chorus Master Simon Toyne). Set designs by Sylvain Chauvelot; costume designs by Christian Gasc. Released 2017, package includes 2 discs: a 2K (old fashioned) Blu-ray and a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. It's important to note, however, that this title does not have the High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature or any of the advanced sound technology available with the new 4K films. As  best I can tell, the only difference between the two discs in the package is the higher 4K resolution. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

Jacquot is a movie director who also loves opera. He did the mildly controversial Werther HDVD which we graded A+. Subject Tosca is the only movie shot on 35 mm film that has remained good enough to benefit from Blu-ray presentation and has qualified to be covered on this website.  (At first we covered the impressive Joseph Losey Don Giovanni, which was one of the best opera movies. But we eventually excluded it because of thin sound and a print that showed its age and didn't benefit from Blu-ray standards.)

The music and singing for Jacquot's Tosca opera movie was recorded first. Then the singers acted out their ports singing as the movie cameras rolled. This lip syncing is, for mysterious technical reasons, off in several places in the movie. Sometimes this defect is not noticeable because you get the impression that you are hearing the characters sing thoughts in their minds. Other times you assume the defect was intended because, as you will soon see, Jacquot has his own agenda in making movies and is not much concerned with the idea of maintaining a suspension of disbelief!

The movie was made in a studio---there is no stage and no natural location. The few set pieces and props are sumptuously conceived but surrounded by an utterly black and empty universe in the background. Act 1 is in a church as seen (in part) below:

Act 2 plays out in the palace of Scarpia, the police chief:

And in Act 3 we see here Tosca at the prison:

There are natural locations (interior and exterior) shown throughout the film, but always in an absurdly ugly and grainy mode shot from a hand-held camera:

And the director shifts many times to primitive B&W images---this is an art movie, not an opera production: 

The film is further full of motion-picture tricks like, as seen next below, extreme manipulation of depth-of-field-of-focus:

 

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Monday
Oct022017

Le nozze di Figaro

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro opera to libretto by Lorenza da Ponte. New production directed 2016 by Frederic Wake-Walker at the Teatro alla Scala. Stars Carlos Álvarez (Il Conte d'Almaviva), Diana Damrau (La Contessa d'Almaviva), Golda Schultz (Susanna), Markus Werba (Figaro), Marianne Crebassa (Cherubino), Anna Maria Chiuri (Marcellina), Andrea Concetti (Bartolo / Antonio), Kresimir Spicer (Basilio / Don Curzio), Theresa Zisser (Barbarina), Francesca Manzo (Prima contadina), and Kristín Sveinsdóttir (Seconda Contadina). Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala (Chorus Master Bruno Casoni). Basso continuo: James Vaughan (piano) and Simone Groppo (cello). Stage and costume design by Antony McDonald; lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli. Directed for video by Patrizia Carmine. Released 2017, has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Here's the official trailer for the production (may vary a bit from the video recording):

 

Monday
Oct022017

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet ballet. Music by Sergei Prokofiev. Libretto by Leonid Lavrovsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Staged 2017 at the Teatro alla Scala with choreography by Kenneth MacMillan revived by Julie Lincoln. Stars Roberto Bolle (Romeo); Misty Copeland (Juliet); Antonino Sutera (Mercutio); Mick Zeni (Tybalt); Marco Agostino (Benvolio); Riccardo Massimi (Paris); Alessandro Grillo (Lord Capulet); Emanuela Montanari (Lady Capulet); Luigi Saruggia (The Duke); Chiara Borgia (Rosaline); Monica Vaglietti (Nurse); Matthew Endicott (Friar Lawrence); Christian Fagetti (Mandolin solo); Virna Toppi, Denise Gazzo, and Beatrice Carbone (Three Gypsies); Giuseppe Conte (Lord Montague); Francesca Podini (Lady Montague); Vittoria Valerio, Agnese di Clemente, Marta Gerani, Danieal Cavalleri, Chiara Fiandra, and Alessandrea Vassallo (Six Friends of Juliet); and dancers from the Ballet Company of Teatro alla Scala. Patrick Fournillier conducts the Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala. Set design by Mauro Carosi; costume design by Odette Nicoletti; lighting design by Marco Filibeck. Video direction by Lorena Sardi. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

There are lots of bootleg items on YouTube, but here's the official C Major clip:

 

Friday
Sep292017

Les Indes galantes

Jean-Philippe Rameau Les Indes galantes opera-ballet to a libretto by Louis Fuzelier. Directed and choreographed 2016 by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui at the Prinzregentheater in Munich as part of the Munich Opera Festival. Stars Lisette Oropesa (Hébé/Zima), Goran Juric (Bellone), Ana Quintans (L'Amour/Zaïre), Tareq Nazmi (Osman), Elsa Benoit (Emilie), Cyril Auvity (Valère/Tacmas), François Lis (Huascar/Don Alvaro), Anna Prohaska (Phani/Fatime), Mathias Vidal (Don Carlos/Damon), and John Moore (Adario). Also features the Dancers of Eastman. Ivor Bolton conducts Munchner Festspielorchester and Balthasar-Neumann-Chor (Chorus Master Detlef Bratschke). Set design by Anna Viebrock; costume design by Greta Goiris; lighting design by Michael Bauer; dramaturgy by Antonio Cuenca Ruiz and Miron Hakenbeck. Directed for TV by Andy Sommer; produced by François Duplat. Released 2017, the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: Help!

This recording comes from the summer festival of the Bavarian State Opera, well known for challenging contemporary work. Here are two excellent clips (the 1st short and the 2nd longer) that give you a good idea what Cherkaoui is up to in this production. With clips this good, why bother with a review in text?

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Friday
Sep292017

Pelléas et Mélisande 

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande opera to libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck. Directed 2016 by Benjamin Lazar at the Malmö Opera. Stars Marc Mauillon (Pelléas), Jenny Daviet (Mélisande), Laurent Alvaro (Golaud), Stephen Bronk (Arkel), Emma Lyrén (Geneviève), Julie Mathevet (Yniold), and Stefano Olcese (Doctor / Shepherd). Maxime Pascal conducts the Malmö Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master André Kellinghaus). Stage design by Adeline Caron; costume design by Alain Blanchot; make-up by Mathilde Benmoussa; lighting by Mael Iger; stage direction assistance by Elizabeth Calleo and Katrina Sörensen Palm; directed for video by Corentin Leconte; produced by Xavier Dubois. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Heres a short YouTube clip:

 

Friday
Sep292017

I Puritani

Bellini I Puritani opera to libretto by Carlo Pepoli. Directed 2016 by Emilio Sagi. Stars Miklós Sebestyén (Lord Gualtiero Valton), Nicolas Testé (Sir Giorgio), Javier Camarena (Lord Arturo Talbo), Ludovic Tézier (Sir Riccardo Forth), Antonio Lozano (Sir Bruno Roberton), Annalisa Stroppa (Enrichetta di Francia), and Diana Damrau (Lady Elvira Valton). Evelino Pidò conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real de Madrid (Chorus Master Andrés Máspero). Stage design by Daniel Bianco; costume design by Peppispoo; lighting design by Eduardo Bravo; filmed and edited by Jérémie Cuvillier; produced by Xavier Dubois; executive produced by François Duplat. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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Friday
Sep292017

Die Walküre

Wagner Die Walküre. Directed 2017 by Vera Nemirova at Großes Festpielhaus in Salzburg. Stars Peter Seiffert (Sigmund), Georg Zeppenfeld (Hunding), Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Anja Harteros (Sieglinde), Anja Kampe (Brünnhilde), Christa Mayer (Fricka), Johanna Winkel (Gerhilde), Brit-tone Müllertz (Ortlinde), Christa Bock (Waltraude), Katharina Magiera (Schwertleite), Alexandra Petersamer (Helmwige), Stepanka Pucalkova (Siegrune), Katrin Wundsam (Grimgerde), and Simone Schróder (Roßweiße). Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden. Set design by Günter Schneider-Siemssen; costume design by Jens Kilian; lighting design by Olaf Freese; video by rocafilm; video direction by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2017, disc has and 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: Help!

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