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 TDK (8)

Sunday
Sep182011

Pelléas et Mélisande 

Claude Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande opera to libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck. Directed 2004 by Sven-Eric Bechtolf at Opernhaus Zürich. Stars Rodney Gilfry, Isabel Rey, Michael Volle, Lásló Polgár, Cornelia Kallisch, Eva Liebau, and Guido Götzen. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House and the Chorus of the Zurich Opera House (Chorusmaster Ernst Raffelsberger). Sets by Rolf Glittenberg; costumes by Marianne Glittenburg; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; directed for TV by Felix Breisach. Released 2010, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C

NB: This title has been rereleased by Arthaus Musik with different artwork.

 Pelléas et Mélisande is a made-up-from-scratch Medieval-age fairy tale first presented as a play by the symbolist author Maurice Maeterlinck in 1893. Symbolism was an art movement represented by writers like Poe, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé as well as plastic artists like Leighton, Schwabe, Klimt, Redon, and Munch. As described by Jean Moréas, in symbolism things that happen in the world ". . . will not be described for their own sake . . . they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals." This statement also describes the music of Claude Debussy. So Pelléas et Mélisande became the perfect vehicle for Debussy's landmark modern opera first staged in 1902. Although the Debussy opera was concerned with hidden truths, the style of most productions throughout the 20th century was exquisitely elegant, refined, warm, and romantic.

Now fast forward to our Bechtolf/Möst production of 2004 (102 years after the Debussy break-through). The libretto and music are of course the same. But in the design department, the old world of tender, limpid, cozy symbolism has been jettisoned in favor of a brutal new ice age full of harsh surrealistic phenomena. So with this production, you will have to deal with both its symbolist origins and the surrealistic vocabulary of its design. This will likely be too much to sort out on the fly. For example, the libretto is full of references to forests, lime trees, roses and other flowers, parks, birds, sunshine, and warm weather---all of which is utterly inconsistent with the sterile snow-bound sets. So you probably will want to do some homework before you tackle this production.

The singers and the orchestra in this show are fine. The 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound recording is excellent, and the video work is good. But because of the abrasive design, I give this disc the grade of "C." If Debussy's style of music appeals to you and you will you chew on this recording a bit, you may well consider it a C+ or B grade disc.

Tuesday
Sep132011

Giselle

Giselle ballet. Music by Adolphe Adam to libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges & Théophile Gautier. Choreographed  by Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov based on Petipa tradition and performed 2006 at the Opéra National de Paris,  Palais Garnier. Stars Laëtitia Pujol, Nicolas Le Riche, Marie-Agnès Gillot, Wilfried Romoli, Richard Wilk, Natacha Quernet, Danielle Doussard, Stéphane Elizabé, Myriam Ould-Braham, Emmanuel Thibault, Emilie Cozette, and Laura Hecquet. Paul Connelly directs the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris. Sets by Alexandre Benois realized by Silvano Mattei; costumes by Benois realized by Claudie Gastine; lighting realized by Marc Anrochte; directed for TV by François Roussillon. Released  2009, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

NB: This title has been rereleased by Arthaus Musik with different artwork. There is still a market for the TDK version at very high prices. For our review with screenshots, see the Arthaus version.

Tuesday
Sep132011

La forza del destino

Guiseppe Verdi La forza del destino opera to libretto by Francesco Piave. Directed 2007 by Nicolas Joël at Maggio Musicale in Florence. Stars Violeta Urmana, Carlo Guelfi, Marcello Giordani, Duccio Dal Monte, Julia Gertseva, Roberto Scandiuzzi,  Bruno De Simone, Antonella Trevisan, Filippo Polinelli, Carlo Bosi, and Alessandro Luongo. MaggioDanza choreographed  by Sabine Mouscardès. Zubin Mehta conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Chorus Master Piero Monti). Restaged by Timo Schlüssel; set designs by Ezio Frigerio; costumes by Franca Squarciapino; lighting by Jürgen Hoffman; directed for TV by Andrea Bevilacqua.  Released 2009,  disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C

NB: This title has been re-released by Arthaus Musik with different artwork.

People who don't like opera often cite the improbable plots as one of their reasons. Well, Verdi's Force of Destiny is full of improbabilities! It's almost as if putting "Destiny" in the title gives the librettist carte blanc to do just about anything, no matter how ludicrous! Here's just one example: in Act 3 Scene 2 when, after being seriously wounded in battle, Don Alvaro  believes he is on the verge of death. He gives his greatest friend, Don Carlo, a valise containing a bundle of letters which Don Carlo is to destroy as soon as Don Alvaro dies. Don Carlo has sworn not to look at the contents of the letters, but becomes suspicious of his friend. He opens the valise, finds Don Carlo's sister's picture, and realizes that Don Alvaro must be Don Carlo's sister's fiancee who "accidentally" shot Don Carlo's father to death and then disappeared (while the sister ran away and became a hermit). Ever since that day Don Carlo has vowed to find both his sister and her lover and kill them. He curses the fact that Don Alvoro is now about to die of his wounds, depriving him of revenge. At which moment, Destiny plays its card yet again, and in comes a surgeon to announce that, cheer up, Don Alvaro will make a perfect recovery. (This gets a snickering laugh from the audience in the Florentine Opera House!). Don Alvaro reappears about five minutes later, sufficiently fit to fight a duel with his enemy turned friend and now enemy again.

Nicolas Joël's production does nothing to temper this or other jaw-dropping "twists of fate" in the story. The hammy plot is presented in a very traditional and at times overly static manner. All this crowds out the excellent music (it is Verdi after all) and the overall high level of performance. In particular, Violeta Urmana, the heroine Leonora, has an amazingly powerful voice and does more than justice to her role. (She also manages to retain her generous proportions after living as a hermit in a grotto for 10 years on just one loaf of rancid bread a week.)

Maybe it's time someone updated "The Force of Destiny" to the First World War or something. In any case, for me, this production deserves no more than a grudging grade of "C." Gordon Smith of OperaDou.

When I first watched La forza del destino months ago, I didn't enjoy it and gave it  a "C" grade without knowing why. Gordon Smith's comments in his mini-review above inspired me to view again. Two aspects of the opera are still valid. First is Verdi's contast between the mad arrogance of the aristocrats and the pitiful condition of the people who are exploited by their leaders. Second is Verdi's condemnation of the Calatrava curse, which brings total destruction to his family while sparing Alvaro. (In the original version, Alvaro also died.)

But there are also two big problems. First, as Gordon so neatly points out, we are too cynical now to accept wholesale plot goofiness for melodramatic effect. Second, there is an obnoxious war mongering theme which peaks at the end of Act 3 with the "Rataplan" military chorus. This was part of European culture in Verdi's time, but it disappeared during the Great European War that took place in two phases between 1914 and 1945.

With all this in mind, I was able on re-viewing to enjoy the great arias, duets, chorus work, and orchestration in this work.  But I think we should stick with the "C" grade. Maybe some other director will be able to update the problematical plot.

Tuesday
Sep132011

La finta giardiniera

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart La finta giardiniera opera (composed at age 18) to a libretto possibly from Giuseppe Petrosellini. Directed by Tobias Moretti at Opernhaus Zürich in 2006. Stars Eva Mei (Sandrina), Christoph Strehl (Il Contino Belfiore), Rudolf Schasching (Il Podestà Don Anchise), Isabel Rey (Arminda), Liliana Nikiteanu (Il Cavalier Ramiro), Julia Kleiter (Serpetta), and Gabriel Bermúdez (Nardo). Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Orchestra "La Scintilla" of the Zurich Opera. Set design by Rolf Glittenberg; costumes by Renate Martin and Andreas Donhauser; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; directed for TV by Felix Breisach. Released 2009, disc has 7.1 dts-HD sound. Grade: A

NB: This title has been rereleased by Arthaus Musik with different artwork. We have included screenshots in our review of the Arthaus Musik version.

This is the Italian language version of La finta giardiniera. It was performed maybe three times during Mozart's life and then lost for about 175 years until a manuscript was discovered in the 1970s. Although it's considered "early" rather than "mature" Mozart, it's a complete three-hour-long work with an intriguing opera buffo libretto to keep you on your toes, interesting characters, lots of laughs, and a steady parade of arias suffused with that limpid tenderness that distinguishes Mozart from all others. Everything about this production is good to great. But the super-hero is Felix Breisach, who directed a superb video. I still can hardly believe I have something this rare, this precious, and this well-done to watch in my home theater any time I wish. And TDK provided Italian subtitles along the the other languages. There's a lot of repetition in the arias---I watch in English first and then switch over to Italian for a mini language lesson.

Monday
Sep122011

Tosca 

Puccini Tosca opera to libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed 2006 by Hugo de Ana at the Arena di Verona. Stars Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Alvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Fabio Previati, Enrico Facini, Giuliano Pelizon, Angelo Nardinocchi, and Ottavia Dorrucci. Daniel Oren conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Arena di Verona (Chorus Master Marco Faelli) and the A.Li.Ve. Chorus (Conductor Paolo Facincani). Set, costumes, and lighting design by Hugo de Ana; stage design by Giuseppe De Filippi Venezia; lighting by Paolo Mazzon; costumes by Tirelli Costumi; directed for TV by Loreena Kaufman. Released  2009,  disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. This is the same production of Tosca that was later released by Arthaus.  There was only one substantial change between the two versions: the Arthaus Musik disc has Japanese subtitles whereas this TDK version does not. Grade: D

It's an article of faith with fans of HDVDs that everything benefits from high-resolution video. But there is a glaring exception: HDVD recordings usually should not be made of outdoor productions designed to be seen in large amphitheaters. Subject Tosca in the Arena di Verona is prosecutor's "Exhibit 1." The setting probably looked OK from 200 meters up the hillside in the dark. But up close in high-definition the stage looks like a brodingnagian scrap yard in front of a burned-out industrial plant. Humongous crude props litter the place. The costumes and make up were designed to look rich at long distance by weak light---to the HDVD camera they look garish and cartoonish. The stage blood wouldn't scare a 3-year old. All this misery-en-scène magnifies the physical ugliness of the singers: aging Fiorenza Cedolins has turned into a frump, pudgy Marcelo Alvarez needs to check himself in at the fat clinic, and Ruggero Raimondi looks like a doorman at a Las Vegas wedding palace. The audience looks uncomfortable fanning themselves in the heat; only the swarming insects are having fun. So what's left to say about the orchestra and the singing amidst the junkyard? Well, not too bad actually. But why would anyone waste his time with this when he can watch (in the Decca DVD) Domingo, Kabaivanska, and Milnes do Tosca in the actual church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant'Angelo mentioned by Puccini score?

Sunday
Sep112011

Il trittico 

Puccini Il trittico with three one-act operas directed 2007 by Christina Pezzoli at the Teatro Comunale di Modena. They are:

1. Il tabarro to libretto by Giuseppe Adami. Stars Alberto Mastromarino, Amarilli Nizza, Rubens Pelizzari, Alessandro Cosentino, Alessandro Spina, Annamaria Chiuri, Roberto Carli, Chiara Moschini, and Allessandra Cantin.

2. Suor Angelica to libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. Stars Amarilli Nizza, Annamaria Chiuri, Elisa Fortunati, Paola Leveroni, Katarina Nikolič, Paola Santucci, Alice Molinari, Camilla Laschi, Alessandra Caruccio, Alessandra Cantin, Paola Leggeri, Margherita Pistoni, Tiziana Tramonti, Beatrice Sarti, Dan-I Kuo, and Chiara Moschini.

3. Gianni Schicchi to libretto by Giovacchino Forzano. Stars Alberto Mastromarino, Amarilli Nizza, Annamaria Chiuri, Andrea Giovannini, Alessandro Cosentino, Tiziana Tramonti, Grigorij Filippo Calcagno, Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Alessandro Spina, Mirko Quarello, Katarina Nikolič, Gian Luca Ricci, Alessandro Busi, Romano Franci, and Antonio Manosperti.

Julian Reynolds directs the Orchestra della Fondazione Arturo Toscanini, the Coro Lirico Amadeus---Teatro Comunale di Modena (Chorus Master Stefano Colò) and the Coro di Voci Bianche del Teatro Comunale di Modena (Chorus Master Melitta Lintner). Sets by Giacomo Andrico; costumes by Gianluca Falaschi; lighting by Cesare Accetta; directed for TV by Loreena Kaufmann. Released  2009, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A

Puccini's Il trittico or Triptych has three one-act operas with two obvious things in common. First, each has a corpse; second, each work is completely different from the others. Il tabarro is opera verismo laden with social criticism; Suor Angelica a work of inspiration with a supernatural miracle; Gianni Schicchi is a boisterous comedy with no redeeming feature except that it's a great way to trick children into watching an opera. This was my first experience with Il trittico, and I'm glad I watched it cold. I was expecting to be bored with the two relatively unknown works leading up to the famous Gianni Schicchi. So I was surprised to find both Il tabarro and Suor Angelica to be completely absorbing. Now I understand why Puccini insisted that all three of these operas should be presented only together on the same program.

I'm also ashamed to admit that before I saw this HDVD, I had never heard of Modena, its opera house, of Cristina Pezzoli, or of Amarilli Nizza. Well, now I have learned there are opera houses all over Italy with rich production traditions. Such a house in a town of 200,000 Italian souls can produce, using 100% Italian signers, a show that can compete with the work of the most famous and best-financed opera companies in the world. This is exactly what Pezzoli pulled off. Every aspect of the music, direction, acting, settings, costumes, and lighting is exemplary. And don't think this was a small task because each opera in this work is short. There are 43 credited roles in this disc, and only three singers appear in all three operas. The three sets have nothing in common. Back stage at Il trittico is going to be a busy place!

These operas here have another thing in common that is not so obvious: Amarilla Nizza sings lead soprano in all three. Il tabarro demands plenty of the female lead, especially in the acting department. Suor Angelica is totally draining in all departments. In Gianni Schicchi the lead lady gets a little rest---all she has to do is nail one of the most famous of all arias ("O mio babbino caro"). Most productions of Il trittico are cast with two or three sopranos. But Nizza handles all the different roles, and she does it so well that I didn't realize until I studied the keep case booklet that I had seen the same soprano three times!

The video, sound, and production work on this disc are excellent. The keep case are fine, and TDK elected not to waste our time with inane extras. It appears that most if not all the singers on on this disc are native speakers of Italian. And guess what---TDK gives us Italian subtitles. Now this is a nice bonus--- a chance to learn some more opera Italian.  

Wednesday
Sep072011

Elektra

Richard Strauss Elektra opera to libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Directed 2005 by Martin Kušej at Opernhaus Zürich. Stars Eva Johansson, Marjana Lipovšek, Melanie Diener, Rudolf Schasching, Aldred Muff, Reinhard Mayr, Cassandra McConnell, Christine Zoller, Andreas Winkler, Morgan Moody, Margaret Chalker, Kismara Pessatti, Katharina Peetz, Irène Friedli, Liuba Chuchrova, Sen Guo, Martina Weingärtner, Thomas Bäuml, Gerhard Hänfling, and Baila Brasil Show. Christoph von Dohnányi conducts the Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, the Chorus of the Zurich Opera House (Chorus Master: Ernst Raffelsberger), and the Zurich Opera House Extras Association. Sets by Rolf Glittenberg; costumes by Heidi Hackl; lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann; dramaturgy by Regula Rapp and Ronny Dietrich; directed for TV by Feliz Breisach.  Released 2009, disc has 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound.  Grade: C+

NB: This title has been rereleased by Arthaus Musik with different artwork.

This is a Martin Kušej psycho/whacko version of Elektra.  Kušej stars off by building a stage within the stage, expressing, I think, the psychological repressions and constrictions explored in the Orestes myth. The decadence that has fallen on the House of Agamemnon is expressed in a goofy lumpy floor (which was a serious obstacle course for everyone onstage), numerous actors (especially girls) running around in various stages of undress, and props like handcuffs and whips.  The constant frantic actions and distractions interfere with the drama and singing. Something causes the recording of the singers to be strangely muffled (maybe echoes caused by the stage within the stage); and the voices are too often drowned out by the orchestra.

Poor Eva Johansson as Electra appears as a bleached blond in with dark hair roots showing. She's directed to ceaselessly move about overacting. At one point she almost falls down on the wicked terrain. No wonder her diction starts to collapse about half way through this this baptism of fire. She makes silly faces; and when she curses Chrysothemis ("Sei verflucht!" ) she is forced to stare cross-eyed into the camera. She bravely soldiers on. Finally, her aria "Orest" (Track 20) proves how movingly she can sing when allowed to do so. The other cast members are pretty much  overshadowed by the chaos of the production.

Kušej's last surprise is his happy ending. He follows the libretto by including a dance of celebration. Of course, the dancers are not ancient Greeks, but Vegas-style exhibitionists in full show-girl plumage. Alas, they have no idea what they are doing, at least not on that floor,  and Strauss did not know how to write samba. Once the dancers stumble off stage, you wait for Elektra's death. But Kušej keeps her alive. This contradicts the libretto, but is probably closer  to the Greek myth than the death Hofmannsthal writes for Elektra. At curtain call, Christoph von Dohnányi seems embarrassed to come on stage, but tries to be a good sport. Well, I'm sure there are folks who prefer the Kušej approach; but to be fair to all our readers, I give  this show the grade of "C+." 

Thursday
Mar242011

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.