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 Mariinsky (9)

Sunday
Sep112016

Semyon Kotko

Prokofiev Semyon Kotko opera to a libretto by Prokofiev and Valentin Katayev. Directed 2013 by Yuri Alexandrov at Mariinsky II in Saint Petersburg. Stars Viktor Lutsyuk (Semyon Kotko), Lyubov Sokolova (Semyon's mother), Varvara Solovyova (Frosya), Evgeny Nikitin (Remeniuk), Gennady Bezzubenkov (Tkachenko), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Sofya), Nadezhda Vassilieva (Khivrya), Roman Burdenko (Tsaryov), Olga Sergeeva (Lyubka), Grigory Karasev (Ivasenko), Stanislav Leontyev (Mikola), and Anbri Popov (Klembovsky). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. Sets by Semyon Pastukh; costumes by Galina Solovieva; lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky. Directed for TV by Anna Matison. Package has both (1) a DVD disc and (2) a Blu-ray disc with 48kHz/24-bit sound presented in 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

According to Operabase, Russia has the third largest opera market in the world (after Germany and the USA). In a recent year, Moscow had the most operas of any city anywhere and Saint Petersburg was #4. There are many worthly Russian operas that Westerners know little or nothing about. Semyon Kotko is a rare item because it's a Stalin-era propaganda opera that maybe is good enough to have a life of its own (one of several operas Prokofiev wrote before being allowed to leave Russia). I don't usually do this, but here's a synopsis quoted from Wikipedia:

The newly established Bolshevik government has reached peace with the Germans, but some of their forces still occupy the territory. The advancing Red Army is hampered by Ukrainian nationalists and the remaining Germans. Semyon, a demobilized soldier and prominent young man in his village, is hoping to marry Sofya, daughter of the wealthy Tkachenko. The latter hopes to restore the old order and plots with loyalist elements and Germans to undermine the revolution and to thwart Semyon's marital intentions. In the end, Semyon, after Tkachenko's intrigues have cost the lives of two friends, is reunited with Sofya, and Tkachenko is arrested and executed leaving behind the merry chorus of the Red Army.

The videographer Anna Matison is a new-comer to us (also did The Left-Hander). She's a young polymath who happens to be a knock-out. I know this is unprofessional, but I couldn't resist showing you a picture of Matison:

Fine-arts videos coming out of Russia tend to be expensive and vary a lot in quality. Let's hope these latest offerings on the Mariinsky label are ready to meet their market. If you have seen this or The Left-Hander, we would surely like to get an opinion from you.

Thursday
Jun232016

The Left-Hander

Rodion Shchedrin The Left-Hander opera to libretto by the composer. Directed 2013 by Alexei Stepanyuk at the Mariinsky. Stars Andrei Popov (The Left-Hander), Edward Tsanga (Ataman Platov), Vladimir Moroz (Alexander I & Nicholas I), Kristina Alieva (The Flea), Maria Maksakova (Princess Charlotte), and Andrei Spekhov (English Under-Skipper). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra & Chorus. Set design by Alexander Orlov; costume design by Irina Cherednikova; lighting design by Alexander Sivaev; video direction by Anna Matison. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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

Friday
Nov062015

Cinderella

Cinderella ballet. Music by Sergei Prokofiev. Choreographed originally by Alexei Ratmansky in 2002 at the Mariinsky Theatre. This performance was filmed at the Mariinsky in 2013. Stars Diana Vishneva (Cinderella), Vladimir Shklyarov (The Prince), Ekaterina Kondaurova (Stepmother), Margarita Frolova (Stepsister Khudishka), Ekaterina Ivannikova (Stepsister Kubishka), Elena Bazhenova (Fairy/Tramp), Ilya Petrov (Spring), Anton Pimonov (Summer), Maxim Zyuzin (Autumn), and Andrei Solovyov (Winter). Valery Gergiev the conducts Mariinsky Ballet Orchestra. Sets by Ilya Utkin and Yeveny Monakhov; costumes by Elena Markovskaya. Package has both a DVD and a Blu-ray disc. Released 2015, disc has stereo sound only.  Grade: Help!

Preliminary information needs confirmation. I have learned that stereo sound only on a dance title is a good marker for inferior quality overall. So when a dance title comes along with no surround sound, Kerberos attacks and the title goes on the excluded list. Also, I formed the impression in the past that quality control at the Mariinsky is weak and that one can't trust their brand. For example, the Mariinksy Romeo and Juliet, also starring Vishneva and Shklyarov, is a dismal mess that I graded "C-." Still, this Cinderella production live has gotten good reviews around the world. So I gave Kerberos a fresh bone and decided to include subject Cinderella on the website.  This package has been priced quite high. So now I'm shopping around for a discount or a used copy. In the meantime, if you could help us by writing a comment on this, that would be a big help.

Thursday
Apr022015

Jewels

Jewels ballet. Choreography by George Balanchine. Music by Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Performed 2006 by the Mariinsky Ballet Company.  Solo stars in the Emeralds part are Zhanna Ayupova, Denis Firsov, Daria Sukhorukova, Dmitry Semionov, Yana Selina, Xenia Ostreikovskaya, and Anton Korsakov; in Rubies, Irina Golub, Andrian Fadeyev, and Sofia Gumerova are the soloists; the soloists in Diamonds are Ulyana Lopatkina and Igor Zelensky. Tugan Sokhiev directs the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra. Rubies piano solo by Lyudmila Sveshnikova. Staging by Karin von Aroldingen, Sarah LeLand, Elyse Borne, and Sean Lavery; scenery by Peter Harvey, costumes by Karinska with recreation of costumes supervised by Holly Hines; original lighting by Roland Bates is executed by Perry Silvey; directed for TV by Brian Large.  Released  2011, has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound Grade: A

This is an abstract ballet in which Balanchine pays homage to various influences in his artistic life. The dancers are dressed first in green for the "Emeralds" number, then in red for "Rubies," and last in white for "Diamonds." Per Balanchine himself, the dances, without plot or props, have "no literary content at all."  My impression is that Balanchine might have been unconsciously inspired to honor in "Emeralds" the French origins of ballet, to salute the United States in "Rubies" for giving Balanchine a safe place to work, and to celebrate in "Diamonds" the Russian (Petipa) school of ballet where Balanchine got his start.

Jewels is considered to be a masterpiece of modern neoclassical dance. There is a legal entity called the George Balanchine Trust that arranges for production of Jewels in accordance with the "Balanchine Style."  This suggests that performances of this work will probably have a lot in common and few differences. At this date (April 2015) there have maybe been more than 150 productions of Jewels around the world (since its premiere in 1967). In other words, although this has been a successful and popular work, only a pitifully few people have been lucky enough to see it.

Before the release of subject title, there was only one complete video of Jewels. This was the performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in late 2005 released by Opus Arte in 2008 in Blu-ray. (There was also a DVD of this POB show from Opus Arte.)

Scenery is allowed for each part of Jewels. In the POB version the minimal scenery used was so cold as to be counter-productive. It would have been better leave the stage completely bare and rely on lighting for augmenting the mood of each ballet. At the Mariinsky, Peter Harvey did a much better job. He added side curtains that reduced the size of the stage. He also added interesting and luxurious jewel-like hangings that tend to "lower the ceiling." This together with clever painted backdrops and lighting transformed the stage into a thing of beauty itself and provided a cozy (rather than sterile and  forbidding) environment for the dancing. 

The Mariinsky dancers seem to me to be completely competitive with their French counterparts. In addition, the Mariinsky stars managed on occasion to sneak in some actual emotion into their dancing. These dashes of salt and pepper season the steak.

The Mariinsky video was made in 2006, which is long ago in the world of HDVD. The TV director was Brian Large, probably the most experienced videographer in the world at the time.

Here are several screenshots from "Emeralds", a dreamy segment. (I should point out now that the Mariinsky folks cut about 7 minutes of the Fauré music.)  We start with Large's opening shot of the whole stage and the beautiful set. The vast majority of the video shows whole-body views of the dancers:

And here's Large's closing shot from further away:

Below is one of a few near shots. In a story ballet, the TV director uses many more near and close-up angles (showing the acting skills of the dancers) than Large does here. The costumes in St Petersburg are very nice, but not quite as glamorous as the costumes Christian Croix designed in Paris. Here we see the pas de deux couple (whom I can't identify for sure):

After the dream state of "Emeralds", we are thrown into the raucous world of "Rubies". The lead goes to Sofia Gumerova, who is featured in the next three views:

 

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Tuesday
Sep302014

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet ballet. Music by Prokofiev. Libretto by Leonid Lavrovsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky as staged 2013 at the Mariinsky Theatre under the direction of Yuri Fateyev. Stars Diana Vishneva (Juliet), Vladimir Shklyarov (Romeo), Ilya Kuznetsov (Tybalt), Alexander Sergeyev (Mercutio), Islom Baimuradov (Benvolio) , Yuri Smekalov (Paris), Valeria Karpina (Juliet's Nurse), Vladimir Ponomarev (Capulet), Elena Bazhenova (Lady Capulet), Pyotr Stasyunas (Montague and Friar Lawrence), Nikolai Naumov (Duke of Verona), Grigory Popov (Jester), Elena Firsova (Paris' Page), Yekaterina Osmolkina (Juliet's Companion), Maxim Zyuzin (Troubadour), Elena Chmil and Daria Lomako (Beggers), Yekaterina Devichinskaya, Yekaterina Mikhailovtseva, and  Olga Balinskaya (Courtesans), Maria Adzhamova, Maria Lebedeva, and Nadezhda Batoeva (Tavern Girls), Mikhail Berdichevsky, Denis Zainetdinov, and Nikita Lyashchenko (Servants to Capulet), Ivan Sitnikov and Soslan Kulaev (Servants to Montague), Xenia Dubrovina, Olga Belik, Boris Zhurilov, and Anatoly Marchenko (Folk Dancers). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra. Set and costume design by Pyotr Williams; directed for TV by Olivier Simonnet. This title includes a Blu-ray disc and a separate DVD disc in a "double play" package. Released 2014, music was recorded using 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling, but the Blu-ray disc only has PCM stereo output. Grade: C-

I understand this production is essentially the same as when it received its world premiere in Russia in 1940. The Great Terror was winding down. WW II had not yet reached the country. The Communist Party had total control over all aspects of life. All the arts had to support the "Stalinist line." Below is the opening set for Romeo and Juliet. This is a soft example of the "social realism" favored by the Reds in ballet (not to be confused with "socialist  realism", which you get by adding workers, soldiers, and politicians to the picture). Strangely, this monumental but plain and nostalgic-romantic look was also favored by Hitler in Germany and could be seen in at the time in Post Offices and other public buildings all over the United States. This look has been out-of-style for a long time:

Here's a close-up of the set with Romeo (Vladimir Shklyarov) out for a early-morning walk. The HD video is quite soft. Note also how flimsy and shabby the wood steps are. I have a hunch these are the exact same steps that Joseph Stalin saw when he attended this Romeo and Juliet 74 years ago:

Here are the tavern girls (Maria Adzhamova, Maria Lebedeva, and Nadezhda Batoeva). The Mariinsky Ballet commands an impressive number of beautiful girls and handsome men. But it looks like each girl has to make her own costume. Maybe this was appropriate in 1940---but today, the tavern girls should have costumes that look more authentic:

Even the beggar children (Elena Chmil and Daria Lomako) have costumes that don't look real (too clean):

Here's Tybalt (Ilya Kuznetsov) fighting Montague men in the square. His costume and wig are designed to make it easy for anyone in even the cheapest seats to identify the bad guy. As bad as the costume is, the expressions on his face are worse. They are the most extreme examples of overacting that I can recall outside the early silent movies. I think even Sergei Eisenstein would wince at this:

 

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Tuesday
Oct082013

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten opera to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Directed 2011 by Jonathan Kent at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg. Stars Avgust Amonov (Emperor), Mlada Khudoley (Empress), Edem Umerov (Barak), Olga Sergeeva (Barak's Wife), Olga Savova (Nurse), Evgeny Ulanov (Messenger of the Spirits), Liudmila Dudinova (Guard of the Entrance of the Temple), Alexander Timchenko (Vision of a Boy), Tatiana Kravtsova (Voice of the Falcon), and Lydia Bobokhina (Heavenly Voice). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra. Production designs by Paul Brown; lighting by Tim Mitchell; video and projection designs by Sven Ortel and Nina Dunn; choreography by Denni Sayers: directed for TV by Henning Kasten. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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

Friday
May032013

The Gambler

Prokofiev The Gambler opera to libretto by the composer. Directed 2010 by Temur Chkheidze at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.  Stars Sergei Aleksashkin, Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Vladimir Galuzin, Larisa Dyadkova, Nikolai Gassiev, Alexander Gergalov, Nadezhda Serdyuk, Andrei Popov, Oleg Sychev, and Andrei Spekhov. Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. Set designs by Zinovy Margolin; costumes by Tatiana Noginova; lighting by Gleb Fishtinsky; directed for TV by Laurent Gentot.  Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

Richard Fairman, writing in the Awards 2013 issue of Gramophone at page 108, curses this Mariinsky disc with faint praise and urges his readers to get the 2008 Barenboim production of the Gambler at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden with Kristine Opolais. But David Shengold is more generous in the October 2013 Opera News (page 60), where the Mariinsky performance is picked as the month's Critic's Choice of new opera videos.

Please help us with a mini-review of this title!

Saturday
Apr062013

Attila

Verdi Atilla opera to a libretto by Temistocle Solera. Directed 2010 by Arturo Gama at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Stars Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila), Vladislav Sulimsky (Ezio), Anna Markarova (Odabella), Sergei Skorokhodov (Foresto), Mikhail Makarov (Uldino), and Timur Abdikeyev (Leone). Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra. Production designs by Frank Phillip Schlössmann; costumes by Frank Phillip Schlössmann and Hanne Loosen; lighting by Evgeny Ganzburg; video direction by Matthias Leutzendorff. Released 2013, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: Help!

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

Sunday
Mar182012

Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos. 4-6

Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos. 4-6.  Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in 2010 at Salle Pleyel in Paris.  Three separate performances were directed for TV by Andy Sommer. It appears nobody else asked to receive credit in connection with this video. Released  2011, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. For all three tites: Grade: F

The musical performances at Salle Pleyel were probably quite enjoyable to the audience.  The SQ is decent, but not as good as that heard in two other HDVDs we have of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 published by NHK and Euroarts.

It's the video that tanks all three performances on this disc. I'll first describe in some detail the video recording of S4. The videos for S5 and S6 are similar with some differences I'll mention.

Tchaikovsky S4

The PQ of this Tchaikovsky S4 is almost astonishingly bad considering the fact that it was recorded in 2010. My theory is that the light at Salle Pleyel presented challenges the technicians could not overcome. Resolution is soft. Most frames are over-exposed, and the color balance is weirdly off with rose and yellow tones dominating. There is glare everywhere from the metal parts of instruments, the sheet music, and the white shirts. A white fog rises from the bottom of the picture from time to time. Many of the shots of the conductor have irritating motion artifacts. Many shots are plagued with focus and depth-of-focus issues.

Picture content is even worse than PQ because this video suffers from DVDitis with a wicked twist.

DVDitis is an illness that occurs when an HDVD is shot by folks who are used to making DVDs but  don't know how to use high-definition TV cameras to make an HDVD.   The main symptoms of DVDitis are lots of conductor shots used as a "hub" with many (easy-to-make) "spoke" shots of solo players, small groups of players, and instrument-only views, often in extreme close ups. In contrast to this, an HDVD with its high-definition pictures can present enjoyable views of large sections and especially the whole orchestra.  (See our special article on standards for making a good HDVD of a symphony orchestra.)

The wicked twist here is that the Salle Pleyel supports a "spy cam" or mobile camera (probably on a wire) that looks down on the orchestra. This might sound like a useful capability. But as explained below, the spy cam just interferes with our enjoyment of the symphony.

The individual shots in this video are almost all very short. By the time the viewer gets oriented and is ready to enjoy a frame, a cut interferes and forces the viewer to focus on the next segment. There are no fewer that 73 conductor shots as the "hub" in this title. Then comes 53 instrument-only shots. There are 261 shots in the whole video. So already 48% of the video is accounted for without showing a player. Most of the rest of the video consists of shots of solos and small groups that can be done with close ups that look good on DVD. There are only 15 shots of whole sections and 15 shots of major parts of the orchestra.

That leaves us with about 20 whole orchestra shots. Of these, only 6 are traditional front-view, longer-range frames. The other 14 were made with the spy cam. When you see the whole orchestra from a seat in a theater, the group appears to be close together. When you see this from above with a spy cam, you realize that the orchestra a quite spread out. You are probably not used to this. The result is mental confusion and the need for time to get the images firmly in mind so you can observe and understand what you are seeing.  But hold the phone! Already the spy cam is moving about or zooming in or out, which further interferes with your efforts to grasp what is happening.

The result of all this is that I found it wearisome to have to watch this Tchaikovsky S4. Still, to be fair, I did note some good shots. See 7:05 for a nice view of the bass violins and the 1st violins. I also liked a shot of the trombones and tuba at 9:28 and two traditional shots of the entire horn section at 18:24 and !8:39. There were two good spy cam shots of the cellos and winds at 9:25 and 9:36. But on the other hand, see the totally inane spy cam shot at 9:02 looking straight down on the tops of heads of a group of strings.

Tchaikovsky S5

For this title, the color balance was grayed down to a "sepia" look, possibly in a (substantially unsuccessful) effort to get rid of glare. I get the impression management was fiddling with the lights, and that the result was even more "hot spots" than before.

Tchaikovsky S6

Yet another change in  color balance provides a "blue light" on the orchestra. Most other color is drained out. This may reduce glare a bit and resolution appears to be improved. But the musicians now all look quite grim---like characters in a horror movie where the "undead" play a symphony for an audience of seated frozen corpses. (See 1:51:47 for the corpses.) At 2:09:57 there is something new---a freeze frame of Gergiev's face. See 2:22:01 to 2:22:04 for a short segment where nothing is in focus. Finally, for maybe the worst shot ever published on an HDVD, see between 2:13:32 and 2:13:33. A camera was left on for a split-second while it was turned to the next subject in the shooting plan. You see 22 smeared shots (22 of 30 frames in a second) before the camera stops. This is a "blooper" rather than a weak shot. It should have been caught by the editor or later by whoever is in charge of quality control at Mariinsky.

Now for a grade: for bad picture content,  we drop video titles from "A" to "C."  In addition, horrible PQ puts these titles into "D" territory.  Finally, the poorly deployed spy cam and lack of quality control by Mariinsky suggests to me that these titles should have been scrapped rather than published. That results in the grade of "F."