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! _______________________________________________________________________________

Entries in Kultur (9)

Wednesday
Nov202013

Swan Lake

Swan Lake ballet, or rather, Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake. Music by Tchaikovsky. Traditional story reinterpreted. choreographed, and directed by Matthew Bourne. The original show was premiered at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1995; the recording presented here was apparently shot, for the first time in high-definition, at Sadler's Wells in 2011.  Stars Richard Winsor, Dominic North, Nina Goldman, Madelaine Brennan, Steve Kirkham, and Joseph Vaughan. David Lloyd-Jones conducts the New London Orchestra. Set and costume design by Lez Brotherston; lighting by Rick Fisher; screen direction by Ross MacGibbon; sound post production by Mike Hatch; executive production by Robert Noble, Fiona Morris, and Todd Austin. Unlike some Kultur titles, this disc plays in all regions.  Released 2012, it has 5.1 Dolby sound. Grade: B

This is the famous "gay version" of the Swan Lake story with the male swan corps. It was very popular in DVD; this Blu-ray version is an update with current technology and new stars. Picture quality and video content is fine. The sound, while not up to audiophile standards, is good for a recent recording presented in 5.1 Dolby surround sound. Although I have rarely provided links on this website to the outside world, I make an exception here: you can find on Wikipedia a good synopsis and discussion of this work (up to about 2007). If you already have this in DVD or think you would be interested in seeing this show, I think you will be pleased by the quality of Bourne's clever libretto and the substantial production values invested in this title.

But what about those of you who are not sure? Well, for you, we dig deeper. But first, some screenshots may help.

Our first images show the Prince (Joseph Vaughan) as a child. He just had a nightmare about swans:

The Queen (Nina Goldman), is aloof and cold to her son, but she is excessively attracted to other young men:

The Prince is learning royal PR by going with the Queen to an art exhibition. His homosexuality is sternly repressed, so the living nude statute doesn't cause much reaction:

The Prince doesn't have friends. But he gets some cover by taking as Girlfriend (Madelaine Brennan) the dumbest blond you could image. Here the Royals are at a ballet in the opera house. The Girlfriend is giving her roommate a telephone report about the ballet she sees on the stage. The man behind the Girlfriend is The Private Secretary (Steve Kirkham):

 

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Wednesday
Sep182013

Giselle

Giselle ballet. Music by Adolphe Adam to libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges & Théophile Gautier. Choreography by Marius Pepita. Staging and additional choreography 2009 by Rachel Beaujean and Ricardo Bustamante at the Amsterdam Muziektheater. This is the first prodution of Giselle by the Dutch National Ballet. Stars Anna Tsygankova, Jozef Varga, Igone de Jongh, Jan Zerer, Michele Jimenez, Maia Makhateli, Mathieu Gremillet, Arthur Shesterikov, Anu Viheriäranta, Emanouela Merdjanova, Natasja Lucassen, Jeanette Vondersaar, Francis Sinceretti, Dario Mealli, and artists of Het Nationale Ballet. Boris Gruzin conducts the Holland Sinfonia. Sets and costumes by Toer van Schayk; lighting by James F. Ingalls; television direction and production by Jeff Tudor & Adrienne Liron. Released  2010, disc has 5.1 Dolby sound. Our disc purchased from Amazon in the U.S. is restricted to region A. Caution:  You should avoid this disc outside the Pacific Rim countries unless you are sure you have a Blu-ray player that will play Region A discs. Grade: B+

In February 2010 had 3 Giselle HDVDs. First to be published was the Opus Arte 2009 Cojocaru/Kobborg/Nuñez version by the Royal Opera House ("ROH"). Next we got the TDK 2009 Pujol/Le Riche/Gillot version from the Paris Opera Ballet ("POB"). And finally we got this  Kultur 2010 Tsygankova/Varga/de Jongh take with the Dutch National Ballet ("DNB"). This review which I attach to all 3 versions, will present a brief shootout of the three titles.

In Act 1, we meet the tender, innocent peasant girl Giselle who is in love with the handsome Albrecht. Albrecht pretends to be a peasant youth, but he's really a nobleman who is engaged to a girl of his own class. Giselle's mother Berthe warns Giselle of the dangers of romance and tells Giselle about the Wilis, the ghosts of jilted girls who died before their weddings and who haunt the nearby forest. Hilarion, a peasant hunter who loves Giselle, is suspicious of Albrecht. When Hilarion reveals Albrecht's identity and his duplicity, Giselle goes mad and dies. Everyone is distraught, including Albrecht, who, we begin to understand, truly preferred Giselle to the noble lady with whom he has been matched.

In Act 2, Giselle has been buried in the forest. 26 Wilis and their Queen, Myrtha, prepare to receive Giselle as their latest initiate. Giselle will then help them accomplish their mission: to trap young men (whether guilty or innocent) and force them to dance until they die from exhaustion. Hilarion visits Giselle's grave and meets his doom. Albrecht also visits Giselle's grave and is captured by the Wilis. But Giselle rebels and protects her sweetheart just long enough for the dawn to arrive and disperse the Wilis. Albrecht escapes, but he must live out his life knowing that he will never see his true love again.

In Act 1, the ROH has the best mise-en-scène with updated sets, warm lighting, beautiful costumes, great acting, and coherent direction. Everybody in the cast, selected for acting ability or sex appeal as well as dancing prowess, seems 2 to 10 years younger than their French counterparts in the POB. Picture quality is excellent with vivid and skillful editing. The sound is adequate. Cojocaru is cute and charming. Her mad scene is deeply pathetic. She stabs herself and then dies hard, which means that she will be buried in the forest, and not in the churchyard, where those who commit suicide are not allowed. Sandra Conley is touching as Giselle's mother, Martin Harvey as Hilarion is appealing, and Johan Kobborg as Albrecht seems worthy of sympathy, especially after we meet his fianceé played haughtily by Genesia Rosato, who appears to be 5 to 10 years older than he. In contrast, the approach of the POB to Act 1 is cooler and more formal. It features larger dancing formations---executed with impressive skill---that need full-stage photography. I get the impression that the sets and costumes have been packed and unpacked a great many times. Pujol is maybe a bit too old and mature to be the Giselle the girl, but she makes up for this with her assured dancing skills. For example, there is a scene where Giselle hops repeatedly on pointe on her left foot. Cojocaru does 24 small hops which are hardly noticable among all that is going on. But Pujol makes an almost unbelievable display of this with 34 big, bold hops that take her half across the stage while she laughs and flirts with all the spectators standing around gawking. The other stars are only OK. Picture quality is a bit disappointing, but the POB has the better sound with 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio. The Kultur video was made from the first ever production of Giselle by the DNB. For the Dutch folks to compete with the ROH and the POB in this might be a bit like Lichtenstein getting into a soccer tournament with England and Brazil. The DNB forces obviously had a lesser budget than the others and their small forces looked rather thin on the big stage. On the other hand, Varga seemed to me to be the best Albrecht in this group. Kultur is entering the market at a lower price point than Opus Arte or TDK. This means Kultur has to cut corners---picture quality is only adequate and the "5.1 Dolby" sound is feeble when compared to the TDK disc.

Act 2 is a ghost story in ballet blanc. Now the tables are turned in favor of the formal approach of the POB. Marie-Agnès Gillot is commanding as Queen of the Wilis, a task that is too much to ask of the younger and shorter Nuñez. Pujol is prettier as as ghost than she was as a girl. The cool lighting of the POB is perfect now, with a mottled blue-white pattern that allows you to see well enough while preserving a sense of mystery. The blue light washes out the pink skin hues to the point that the dancers look as well as dance like spirits. At Myrtha's command, the veils of all the jilted girls instantaneously fly offstage as if by magic. The cameras in Paris are positioned in the balconies where they look down on the stage and reveal the exact location, rank and file, of each dancer at every moment throughout all their formations. This gives us rolling proof of the discipline, control, and perfection for which the Paris female corps is famous. (If their formations were any more orderly, it would start to look like a computer simulation.) In contrast, the cameramen in London shoot Act 2 from positions level with the stage. This they do, I think, in an (only partly successful) attempt to obscure irregularities and raggedness in the ROB ballet-blanc formations. This leaves the female corps of the POB in charge. But let's don't forget about the Dutch! Igone de Jongh is gorgeous and terrifying as Myrtha. Varga bests his competition in portraying Albrecht's grief. And the Dutch corps worked hard on their white formations, which are better than those of the ROH and almost as impressive as the work of the POB.

So here's how I sum up the 3 Giselles. Act 1 is a the story of a girl who died. Act 2 is a ghost story. The ROH focuses on the girl and has the best Act 1. The POB focuses on the ghosts and has the best Act 2. The DNB has only a fair Act 1, but they surpass the ROH and are competitive with the POB in Act 2. The prettiest scene in all three versions belongs to the DNB when the corps circles Myrtha in the smoke at the beginning of Act 2. For young children and ballet newbies, the ROH disc will probably be more fun. For all others, the POB disc must be preferred because of it's admirable white scenes and superior sound. The DNB disc also would be an option, especially if you have a Region A Blu-ray player, have an entry-level home theater, and are on a tight budget.

Here are some screenshots from the Dutch National Ballet Giselle. We start with Giselle (Anna Tsygankova) and Count Albrecht (Jozef Varga), who, in love with Giselle, is pretending to be a commoner:

Village life:

 

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Wednesday
Aug212013

Cinderella

Cinderella ballet. Music by Sergei Prokofiev. The Birmingham Royal Ballet is directed and choreographed in 2010 by David Bintley in a new production. Stars Elisha Willis, Iain Mackay, Gaylene Cummerfield, Carol-Anne Millar, Marion Tait, Victoria Marr, Momoko Hirata, Lei Zhao, Angela Paul, Delia Mathews, Jamie Bond, Joseph Caley, Alexander Campbell, and Mathias Dingman. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is conducted by Koen Kessels. Set and costume design by John F. Macfarlane; lighting by David A. Finn; video direction by Ross MacGibbon.  Released 2011, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Grade: B+

This disc proves once again that a ballet company with moderate resources can do wonderful work that can be turned into a fine HDVD to be sold all over the world. It's August 2013, and subject title now has competition from a Cinderella mounted recently by the Dutch National Ballet. But subject title remains the better choice for a mixed audience of adults and children or for an audience of just kids. It's a straight-forward recital of the familiar fairy tale with its simple but deep lessons---no updating, adult themes, or other overlay to make it "relevant." I'll demonstrate this with screenshots.

Why does Cinderella (Elisha Willis) look so frightened?

Faced with this, you would be too! In this production, Cinderella is apparently an orphan (no father in sight) and completely at the mercy of her stepmother (Marion Tait):

The step-sisters. Center is Skinny (Gaylene Cummerfield) and on the left is Dumpy (I call her Dumpling) played by Carol-Anne Millar in a clever fat suit. The sisters are screaming, "We're going to the party for the Prince and you are not!":

 

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Tuesday
Dec252012

The Nutcracker

Nutcracker ballet. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (died 1893) to libretto by Marius Petipa (died 1910). Choreography by Vasily Vainonen (died 1964); production design by Simon Virsaladze (died 1989). Performed 2011 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Peterburg. Stars Alina Somova (Masha the Princess), Vladimir Shklyarov (Nutcracker Prince), Alexandra Korshunova (Masha), Vladimir Ponomaryov (Stahlbaum), Alexandra Gronskaya (Madam Stahlbaum), Alena Mashintseva (Luisa), Pavel Miheyev (Franz), Fyodor Lopukhov (Drosselmeyer), Lira Khuslamova (Grandma), Stanislav Burov (Grandpa), and Valeria Karpina (The Nanny). Valery Gergiev conducts the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; directed by Andreas Morell; photography directed by Axel Rothenburg. No credits seem available for living persons who worked on the sets, costumes, or lighting. Producers were Jan Bremme and Isabel Iturriagagoitia Bueno; Executive Producers were Bernd Hellthaler and Torsten Boenoff. Released 2012, stereo music was recorded a 48kHz/24-bit and surround sound at  48kHz; disc has 5.1 dts sound output. Grade: D+

This traditional-style show is a revival of an old production. I think the sets and costumes were maybe newly made; but the boring color scheme (Act 1, rose and mustard; Act 2, blue and gray; Act 3 pink and pink) dates the show.

The three star dancers here, Somova, Shklyarov, and Korshunova, are impeccable and charming. This was probably a delightful show for the older set at the Mariinsky. I liked the 18th century charm, the magnificently creepy Mouse King, the battle scene, the Prince's huge lift of the Princess in Chapter 10, and the Pas de trois for three talented students (who got enthusiastic applause from the audience). I didn't like the snowflakes with those "cotton balls" (which I've never seen except in Russian productions), the mysterious bats at the beginning of Act III, the bland "national" dances in Chapter 14 (other than the students), and the fact that the Prince has to share the Princess with 4 other guys in the Chapter 20 Pas de deux (not very romantic).

Above, a beautiful performance by the beautiful Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov

This lift lasts 17 seconds as Shklyarov crosses the stage in a slow full turn

The orchestra played well. The recording of the music is detailed and intimate. There are, of course, too many shots of Gergiev. (This video appears to have been cobbled together from shots made at a number of performances. Gergiev's beard seems to be different almost every time the camera points at him. For sure, he appears clean-shaved at the beginning and end of the video. But about 4 minutes before the end, you see that horrible full-but-straggly beard that he has in a number of recent HDVDs.)

Video content is OK with an interesting mix of long, medium, and close-up shots. But, alas, making this into a top-notch HDVD was several bridges too far for the cameramen and the non-credited lighting director. Acts 1 (rose) and 3 (pink) suffer throughout from low, fuzzy resolution and a bleached-out, hazy look. Shockingly bad lighting leads to many "hot spots" or wiped out images in all 3 Acts. Too many cuts show video noise and motion artefacts. And a scrim shows up repeatedly, something that should never happen. All this probably explains why Kultur wound up publishing this for Regions A, B, and C. The video isn't good enough for any of the publishers who are trying to create a quality brand.

Above, note hazy low-res look with detail in the white dresses (foreground)  bleached out by hot lights

More haze! Pink enough for you?

An Act 2 scene where the camera could not handle a simple spotlight

The lights on the front of the stage seem consistently too bright (here Act 2)

Now the "hot spot" has moved to center stage (Act 3)

And here we have that pesky scrim

Based on content only, I would probably give this title a "B". But if you want to sell a Blu-ray video of a ballet, your lighting and video folks have to work together to eliminate the kind of errors noted above. If this was our only Nutcracker HDVD, I would probably give this a "C." But we currently other Nutcracker HDVDs that out-class this Mariinsky title. So you would not want to buy this except for some special reason, which leads me to the grade of "D+."

Sunday
May272012

Lulu

Alan Berg Lulu opera to libretto by the composer (3-act version completed by Friedrich Cerha). Directed 2010 by Vera Nemirova at the Salzburg Festival (Haus für Mozart). Stars Patricia Petibon, Michael Volle, Thomas Piffka, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Cora Burggraaf, Pavol Breslik, Franz Grundheber, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Heinz Zednik, Andreas Conrad, Martin Tzonev, Emilie Pictet, and Cornelia Wulkopf. Marc Albrecht conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.  Sets by Daniel Richter; costumes by Klaus Noack; video direction by Brian Large. Sung in German; subtitles in English only because this title is limited to Region A. No keepcase booklet. Released 2012, has Dolby 5.0 sound. Grade: B

A EuroArts version of this title also came out in 2012. It was for discs that can be played on Region B and C players, althought some folks have been able to play it in Region A also. The EuroArts version has a nice keepcase booklet, better sound, and more subtitles, including a track in German. See the EuroArts version for a  review and screenshots of this production.

Later update: Matthew Gurewitsch praised Nemirova's production and the entire cast of the Salzburg Lulu and gave it his "Critic's Choice" award in the June 2012 issue of Opera News (page 58). He especially liked the costumes and acting stating that "individually and as an ensemble, the players are riveting. Among them, the drama crackles." He praised the Vienna Philharmonic and Marc Albrecht as conductor. The Gurewitsch review is a good example how inadequate magazine reviews of HDVDs are. Gurewitsch didn't know about the better version available from EuroArts. He doesn't mention the lack of a keepcase booklet, the lack of German subtitles, or the cheaper sound specification. In fact, you can't tell if Gurewitsch watched the DVD or the Blu-ray version from Kultur. But on a website such as this one that can be updated, you have a shot at  getting all the information you deserve.

Thursday
Mar082012

Tosca

Puccini Tosca opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed 2010 by Renzo Giacchieri at the Teatro Carlo Felice di Genoa in Italy. Stars Daniela Dessì, Fabio Armiliato, Claudio Sgura, Nikolay Bikov, Paolo Maria Orecchia, Max De Angelis, Angelo Nardinocchi, Roberto Conti, and Luca Arrigo. Marco Boemi conducts the Orchestra, Chorus (Chorus Master Franco Sebastiani) and Boys' Chorus (Chorus Master Gino Tanasini) of the Teatro Carlos Felice. Set design by Adolf Hohenstein as recreated by Ettore Rondelli; also sets by the Fondazione Teatro dell'Opera di Roma; lighting design by Renzo Giacchieri; directed for TV by Andrea Dorigo. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

This Tosca has an excellent orchestra performance. Conducted with zest by Marco Boemi, the music sounds clear, detailed, vivid, and gorgeous from the first to the last bar. Equally important, the balance between the pit and the singers is perfect. Picture quality is fine with decent resolution for the available lighting and good color balance considering the low level of the lighting throughout the production.

Highly-admired Daniela Dessi is fine as Tosca except she's starting to age out a bit.  Fabio Armiliato (her partner in some real-life capacity I hear) is even better as Cavaradossi. Claudio Sgura is a pretty and nasty Scarpia, except that he has two sets of eyebrows (more below). All the leads display excellent acting skills and are well-directed.

The traditional set (following the original Hohenstein design) is comfy and satisfying even if you might notice air waves in the (hung fabric) castle walls when a player walks by. The costumes are pleasing without being ostentatious or expensive looking. The props are fine for the theater, even if they look slightly flimsy in HDVD close up. The main culprit is the makeup, which doubtless looked great in the theater but was not done with high-definition cameras in mind. And so Scarpia has (1) his real eyebrows, which we see clearly when the audience does not and (2) his swooping, wicked makeup eyebrows higher on his forehead. It's a tribute to Claudio Sgura that you soon get used to the scary brows and forget about the real ones.

The show is presented as a recording of an opera performance, not as a opera recording which happened to be made at a live venue. The TV director gives us several important views of the whole theater and the pit during performance and nice whole stage shots. These shots tell us that we are in Genoa at the Teatro Carlo Felice. In addition, the TV director provides a wide range of mid-distance, short-distance, close up, and extreme close up shots. So we get the see the show better than the audience.

After watching this I began to get a feel for Italian opera is like. With one exception, everybody with a major credit appears to be Italian, and everything about the production seems to exude a home-grown passion.

While watching this I felt Italian passion too. Maybe this because the audience is involved and enthusiastic. Both Dessi and Armiliato give repeat arias. The camera  crews were alert, and they catch the communication between the director and the singers as they "decide" to give the repeat. Both singers perform their encores differently from the first time and in both cases the encores seem better than the first performance. I've never seen this before live or on the screen; when I see it now, I start feeling swept up. So this HDVD has something special about it, at least to a novice like me.

Summary: At last we have a fine Tosca in HDVD. This is maybe not the colossal production with hot, world-famous singers that we deserve. But I think Puccini would be happy with this performance if it was the last recording of Tosca ever made. I would give this a B+ based on the usual factors. But now while I'm still feeling Italian passion, I'll have to advance the grade a notch to "A."

Even though the Arthaus Musik publication of this title is region free, it may not be always be available directly in Region 1. A Region 1 release has been published by Kultur with the ASIN of B008VNI9IS. Sometimes it's available in Europe as an "import." If both are available from your vendor, I would suggest going with Arthaus:

Wednesday
Feb152012

Rusalka

[Special note: the art work below is the same as the artwork on the C Major version of this title except for the "Kultur" logo on both the front in back.]

 

Antonín Dvořák Rusalka opera to libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil. Directed 2010 by Martin Kušej at the Nationaltheater, Munich. Stars Kristīne Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Günther Groissböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß, Tara Erraught, John Chest, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Angela Brower, and Okka von der Damerau. Tomáš Hanus conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester with the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper (Chorus Master Sören Eckhoff) and the Statisterie und Kinderstatisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Set design by Martin Zehetgruber; costume design by Heidi Hackl; lighting design by Reinhard Traub; dramatic advisory by Olaf A. Schmitt; TV direction by Thomas Grimm. Released 2012, disc has has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. C Major sells this disc on a regular basis in Regions B and C. This Kultur disc is, by contract, sold regularly in Region A and may not work on players that are not set for Region A. The Kultur version appears to be identical to the C Major product except for logos in the artwork and the like. Grade: A+

Kušej's Rusalka story has three levels of meaning:
1.  The base level is the traditional fairy tale of a water nymph whose infatuation with a human Prince leads both to disaster.
2.  Kušej adds a true-crime (or "thriller") level by presenting the nymphs as girls locked in a watery dungeon to be raped at the pleasure of  their water goblin "father" (with help from his wife, the witch).
3.  Finally, Kušej asserts that many of the old fairy tales were admonitions about human trafficking. Well, the fairy tales are almost forgotten, but the trafficking continues.

In addition to rape in the dungeon, Kušej also changes the kitchen boy to a girl who is groped and later nearly murdered by her lecherous uncle. I asked myself, "Is all this going too far?" Well, the very next morning, I read an article in the Dallas Morning News about Yolanda Méndez, who at age 11 was sold by her parents in Mexico to her uncle. The uncle took Yolanda to Dallas and kept her locked up as his "mistress" for years until she escaped. (The uncle is now in prison.)

Yolanda's story silenced any criticism I had of Kušej's topical and allegorical overlays. After reading a bit about Joseph Fritzl (Austria), Natastha Kampush (Austria), and Jaycee Dugard (California), it finally dawned on me what real-world cases most closely relate to the Kušej's dungeon. Both involved religious figures in Texas: the David Koresh (Branch Davidian) catastrophe and the recent Warren Jeffs case, where a polygamist was convicted of the rape of many extremely young "wives," usually with the active approval of the mothers of the girls. Both these cases involved systematic persuasion of everyone involved by father figures who had rationalised their crimes in their own minds.

I previously gave Kušej the stingy grade of "C+" for his HDVDs of Genoveva, Elektra, and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I thought his attempts to shock us in those productions were either too obscure or silly to take seriously. But subject Rusalka is a winner for Martin in every way.

As is explained in the informative bonus feature, a Kušej project requires actors who can sing, not singers who try to act. Well, in this production everybody can do both. They say Opolais (who stared in The Gambler HDVD), turned down a Met debut (as Musetta) to work with Kušej. This decision took guts and smarts, and it appears to have paid off for her with accelerated fame in Europe. Vogt, perfect as the wan and ethereal Prince, has proved already his acting and singing prowess to HDVD fans in Lohengrin, Lulu, and Meistersinger as well as his solo singing ability in the Bruckner Te Deum. (Trivia question: both Ulrich Reß and John Chest appear in what other HDVD? Answer: the Bayerische Staatsoper Dialogue des Camélites.)

Tomáš Hanus successfully coordinates Dvořák's romantic music to the wild action on stage. Any time you think the plot is about to spin out of control, Hanus is there with some reassuring Dvořák melody and harmony to calm things down. So with that are you ready for some screen shots?

The nymphs in the basement hear the Water Goblin coming:

Father wants to get married. This time it might be me:

A good guess:

Rusalka:

Now that Father's in a good mood, it's time to have a talk. Rusalka has fallen in love with a human Prince who swims in the lake:

Rusalka sings the celebrated Song to the Moon:

Father allows Rusalka to leave her watery home, and he sends her to the witch. The witch explains what the price will be if Rusalka joins the Prince and he is ever unfaithful to her:

Rusalka meets the Prince on dry land. He falls madly in love with Rusalka and announces he will marry her:

Rusalka loves the Prince more than ever, but she is horrified by the hot world of humans with their incessant survival instincts for blood:

And for sex. Puzzled by Rusalka's coldness, the Prince gets seduced by the aggressive foreign Princess:

It's time for Rusalka's  wedding feast. A normal human dinner looks as barbaric to Rusalka as the feast shown below looks to us:

What table manners!

Kušej likes to symbolise isolation and alienation by building small stages inside the big stage (see, for example, the tunnel-like courtyard in Elektra). In Rusalka, Kušej has, of course, his dungeon for a lake. But the stroke of genius comes with what is probably the smallest stage he has built: the Rusalka aquarium. Poor Rusalka finds relief by jumping into the family aquarium. The image is both logical and unforgettable---it may well become an icon symbolizing contemporary 21st century opera (no goldfish were harmed in the making of this opera):

Rusalka flees the castle and seeks out the witch for advice. There is only one way for Rusalka to escape damnation: the Prince must die by Rusalka's hand:

But before Rusalka can return to the Prince, the Water Goblin is busted by the vice squad. The girls are taken to a clinic for rehab. The girls are only interested in their water bottles, which they use to stay wet:

The Prince, distraught with remorse for his sin with the foreign Princess, finds Rusalka:

The Prince knows the law, but he begs for one more kiss. With this kiss, the Prince stabs himself with the witch's knife:

 

And so we have a happy ending, at least for the Prince:

But what about  Rusalka? Where will she go now?

All the action is photographed and recorded with startling clarity. Under Thomas Grimm, the show is presented almost as a motion picture. The producers wanted and got it all: sold out live performances and an HDVD that sets new standards for quality in presentation for the home theater audience. It was less than two years ago that Rusalka was the talk of all Munich and the European opera world---now I can see for myself in my home theater what all the commotion was about. Earlier I gave this an "A" grade, rather than an "A+," because I thought the wedding party scene was too garish for many people. But on reviewing this again, I'm moving my grade up to "A+."

This story is about the Kultur version or Rusalka, which has the Amazon ASIN of B006WN5Y14. The idea was to sell this only in the U.S. and Canada. But sometimes it's also available in Europe as an import even thought you are supposed to buy the C Major version there. If you could use either version, the C Major would be suggested:

Thursday
Jul212011

La Bohème (Moore)

Puccini La Bohème opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. English libretto by Amanda Holden based on the Italian version. Directed 2009 by Jonathan Miller at the English National Opera. Stars Roland Wood, Alfie Boe, Pauls Putinš, David Stout, Simon Butteriss, Melody Moore, Philip Daggett, Hanan Alattar, Richard Angas, Christoper Ross, and Andrew Tinkler. Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts the chorus & orchestra of the English National Opera. Set designs by Isabella Bywater; lighting by Jean Kalman; directed for TV by Robin Lough.  Released 2010, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Grade: C+

This new Jonathan Miller English language production of La Bohème was first staged in 2009 at the English National Opera Coliseum. It competes in HDVD with the Del Monaco production at the Teatro Real, the Dornhelm motion picture, and the now arthritic John Copley version at the Royal Opera House.

I love Amanda Holden's fresh new English transliteration. To make the words easy to follow (and sing, I think) she comes up with tons of new thoughts and images that sound natural to contemporary English speakers while remaining faithful to the spirit of Giacosa and Illica. If you are a native English speaker and just getting into opera, you might prefer the ENO version for this reason alone. Kultur kindly provided English language subtitles. With the subtitles on, I (native English speaker) could follow almost all the singing perfectly. With the subtitles off, I still could not follow about half the libretto on my third viewing. Since I will probably keep the subtitles on anyway, I don't think I'll give up my long-range project of learning the Italian libretto.

The Coliseum is a large hall. The ability to sing loud is essential---the appearance of the singers is not so important with the long sight-lines. All the singers in this production sang well enough, I think, to give the live audience good value.

I also liked the clever sets and decision to updated to 1930. But the design is too unrelentingly drab. Puccini expressed little social consciousness, and one should not try with this opera to make a statement in the vein of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) or Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). The Bohemians had a culture of abject poverty, but their lives and the women who loved them glinted of glamour and the promise of greatness---that's why people find them interesting. This opera is about two of those beautiful women: one who dies young and another who will probably get rich outliving several husbands. So the director has to at least give them some beautiful clothes and decent wigs. After all, Mimi is a seamstress who can make her own clothes, and a girl like Musette always dresses well. Similar to John Copley at the Royal Opera, Miller does a good job of directing the fast-moving scenes of high jinks among the 4 roommates and the feast at Cafe Momus. But his love scenes between Rodolfo and Mimi and the death scene are not convincing. Contrast this to Del Monaco's directing of Inva Mula and Aquiles Machado (Teatro Real) where the lovers seem to actually care for each other.

Well, this thumbnail is about the Kultur video of this performance, so now we get to the sad part: the appearance of the female leads in HDVD. In high-definition video, Melody Moore is too tall and heavy to pair with Alfie Boe. Dressed in frumpy costumes and a hideous bathing-cap style wig, Melody often looks like she might be his mom rather than his girl friend. With a taller swain and some pretty clothes, she might be able to pull it off, especially if the director would let her die in the dark where she wouldn't look like such a healthy corn-feed farm girl. Also, it would be nice if they could find somewhere to put her recording mike other than sticking out from her wig right in the top-middle of her forehead. Hanan Alattar as Musetta is a more extreme case. Alattar isn't a dirigible---yet; but even a blimp can't do Musetta in HDVD. Musseta sings a song about how the men salivate when they meet her on the street. Well for this Musetta, before drooling, a prudent man would first gangway by stepping off into the gutter. To make Alattar look a bit exotic in the Coliseum, the makeup folks slathered her, and maybe this worked live. But in HDVD poor Alattar looks like a female professional wrestler. Finally, the costume folks put Alattar in the ugliest dress conceivable: a tight nasty-cream-colored solid overlaid with a geometric grid pattern that demonstrates (with mathematical precision) the dimensions of every bulge threatening to burst every seam.

In summary, the Del Monaco Teatro Real La Bohème is the first pick. Still, you might go for this ENO version if you want to try an English libretto. Otherwise, for the drab design and weakness in the female leads, I give this title the grade of C+.

Thursday
Jul212011

La Bohème (Netrebko)

Giacomo Puccini La Bohème opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. This is a motion picture version of the opera directed by Robert Dornhelm. Stars Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, Nicole Cabell, George von Bergen (voice by Boaz Daniel), Adrian Eröd (voice by Stéphane Degout), and Vitaly Kovalyou. Bertrand de Billy conducts the Baravian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Chorus of the Bayerischer Rundfunk, and the Children's Chorus of the Staatstheatre am Gärtnerplatz, Munich. Released in 2009, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. This title is being sold all over the world. But as best we can tell, it is restricted to Blu-ray Region A, which is certain Asian nations and the Americas (Pacific rim nations). So this is a safe purchase only for those who have players set for Region A. (If you are in Europe, buy the region-free Axiom version of this title described below. Released 2008, disc has Dolby 5.1 sound.  Grade: B+

Here we have Kultur's release of Dornhelm's movie.  Earlier this year Axiom released their own version, region free but not sold in the U.S. For general information about the movie, please read our our mini-review of the Axion disc. Here I compare the disc authorship of the Kultur and the Axions products.

While Kultur has not released a bad product, the Axiom disc is better in nearly every aspect. Neither the video nor sound on the Kultur release are up to the standard of the Axiom version. The resolution is sub par for the Kultur disc, as the picture is less detailed, more washed out, more faded. For the average movie watcher, this difference might be minute. But we played the Kultur disc in a typical home theater and in a reference-level theater at John Fort Audio-Video. On the better playback equipment, the weakness in the Kultur picture becomes much more obvious. So for those interested in the best quality, Kultur doesn't deliver.

As to sound, I say again that the Kultur disc isn't a bad product. But it lacks the same degree of clarity and resonance of sound I hear on the Axiom disc. The difference is the most pronounced when multiple singers converge; on the Kultur disc, the vocals tend to get more muddled than they should. This difference probably lies in the fact that Kultur uses older Dolby Digital 5.1 technology. Axiom springs for lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1.

Other, less important differences also play against the Kultur release. Both Axiom and Kultur use the same English only subtitle track, but Kultur presents theirs with a chunkier subtitle font reminiscent of poor DVD subtitling. Axiom's subtitles are much cleaner and visually appealing. In addition Kultur places their subtitles higher up than Axiom's. Letterboxed on widescreen television, this higher placement has Kultur's subtitles consistently on the picture, instead of on the lower black bar as Axiom's does. Axiom provides a nice keep box booklet; Kultur gives you only a single sheet with a list of chapters.

The one benefit that the Kultur disc has over Axiom's is that it has more chapter breaks, allowing for quicker access to your favorite scenes.

Your choice is clear - the Axiom disc is superior. However, the Kultur disc is cheaper and is the only one that readily available in the US.  If you want the best, I think the Axiom is worth the extra money. But if the cheaper price attracts you, the Kultur disc is a decent option for those who can play it.