2012 New Year's Concert

2012 New Year's Concert with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatro La Fenice, conducted by Diego Matheuz (Chorus Master Claudio Marino Moretti). Directed by Makhar Vaziew on January 1, 2012, at the Gran Teatro La Fenice. Features soloists Jessica Pratt, soprano; Walter Fraccaro, tenor; and Alex Esposito, bass. Also features the Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala with principal dancer Giuseppe Picone and dancer Laura Pigozzo and chorography by Mvula Sungani. Directed for television by Carlo Tagliabue; photography directed by Fabio Brera. Here is the program:

1. Introduction --- Italian National Anthem Inno di Mameli

2-5. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor

6. Verdi Un giorno de regno ("Sinfonia")

7. Verdi Il trovatore ("Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie")

8. Puccini Tosca ("E lucevan le stelle")

9. Bellini La sonnambula ("Ah! Non credea mirarti")

10. Rota Il gattopardo ("Valzer del commiato")

11. Mozart Don Giovanni ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo")

12. Mascagni Cavalleria rusticana ("Viva il vino spumeggiante")

13. Donizetti Linda di Chamounix ("O luce di quest'anima")

14. Ponchielli La Gioconda (Can-can dalal Danza delle ore)

15. Verdi Nabucco ("Va' pensiero sull'ali dorate")

16. Verdi La traviata ("Libiam ne' lieti calici")

Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C-

In the past, the Weiner and Berliner Philharmoniker have enjoyed a lock on the market for videos of New Year's symphony concerts. Now we have something a bit different to compete with these elite big-city operations:  a New Year's Concert from Teatro la Fenice, an Italian Opera House.  When it comes to symphony music, Teatro la Fenice doesn't have the prestige or resources of the folks in Vienna or Berlin. But they do have a beautiful and intimate opera house, a fine chorus, access to singing stars, and a decent orchestra with a vibrant young conductor. So how will this newcomer to the market do? Well they are off to a fairly good start, but there's plenty of room for improvement. 

Even though this Fenice 2012 New Year's Concert has dts-HD Master Audio output, the sound quality of the music is more like a DVD than a typical HDVD.  You can hardly hear many of the instruments in the final mix, and the sound is too often cramped rather than brilliant.  The picture quality is not much better with soft resolution throughout. This is partly offset by good color balance and an absence of picture artifacts; still,   the picture looks like something between an upscaled DVD and a high-definition video.

But the real technical disappointment in this title is its almost amateurish video content. Let's look in detail at the recording of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 that opens the main program. Before getting to specifics, please read our special article on recording standards for symphony recordings. There we explain the difference between a good DVD and a good HDVD of a symphony recording. Briefly, the low resolution of DVD means that the cameramen must get as many close-up shots as possible and avoid long-distance shots that will look fuzzy in DVD. But with high-definition cameras, the cameramen can make whole orchestra shots and other long-range shots that will allow the TV viewer to see things in a manner similar to watching a show live. It's impossible to make a large symphony video that will look good on both DVD and HDVD. When a DVD-type show is foisted off on Blu-ray, the result is bad video content, even if the resolution is sharp! I call this illness "DVDitis."

The chief symptom of DVDitis is a large number of rapid video cuts mostly showing the conductor and other small parts of the orchestra. Subject Tchaikovsky Symphony lasts for about 49 minutes and has about 440 cuts. This works out to about 6.7 seconds per view. An elegant HDVD will have about 10 to 15 seconds for the typical cut. Subject title therefore runs about twice as fast as it should (I admit it's not as bad as some titles I've seen that run as hot as 3.5 seconds per cut).

Tagliabue and Brera here give us about 63 cuts of the front of the conductor. They also provide 35 shots of the conductor made over the backs of the orchestra members (i.e. shots from the rear of the band). This excessive number of conductor shots is serious misdemeanor that I see in most bad HDVDs. But an intentional felony of the first degree is the 110 instrument-only shots that Tagliabue and  Brera inflict on the recording! I've never seen anything remotely like this in any other video. Why bother to shoot in the venue at all? Why not just take the recording and then show a long series of stock pictures of musical instruments? True, there will be good reasons to use a few instrument-only shots for variety and emphasis in a good video. But here we have more instrument-only shots than any other type of angle. And when you add the conductor shots and the instrument-only shots together, 47% of the total cuts don't clearly show the face of any musician (in the shots over the backs of musicians you may see faces of players on the other side of the stage).

Alas, it gets worse. Tagliabue and Brera invent a new crime that up to now was not in the books. The orchestra seats in the Teatro la Fenice are divided by a center aisle. There are also two interior aisles that run parallel to the stage, one about 7 rows back and another about 17 rows back from the stage.  For much of this program, cameramen move around these aisles shooting the audience, the building, the decorations, and (oh, yes) the orchestra. The problems with shooting the orchestra this way are that the cameras are too low to see many of the players and the orchestra at best can fill about 50% of the frame. At this distance, even with high-def cameras you can't identify individual players with confidence. So these orchestra shots are worthless---what you really get from these roving cameramen are mostly audience and architectural views.

But the cameramen keep at it like kids showing off in a playground. During the symphony alone a cameraman 4 times walks down the center aisle shooting video from the rear of the orchestra seating right up to the conductor heels. The next worst stunt are two shots where the cameraman starts with his camera pointed up at the calves of the conductor and then proceeds to shoot while walking backwards up the center aisle to the rear orchestra seats !! The worst stunt is when the cameraman moves down the center aisle at jogging speed. This is done by having the cameraman wear a kind of full-body steadcam that hangs out in front of him (at one point in the video you briefly see the the photographer).

This is a crime because these shots are worthless to viewers of the video in their HTs. And making them must have been deeply irritating to the audience members whose enjoyment of the show was so often interrupted.  All of them were patrons who paid serious money to buy a ticket. I'm surprised there wasn't a riot.

I have to say a bit more also about the "building and decoration" shots. One shot repeated many times starts off looking at the top of a decorated chandelier that blocks the view of the orchestra players below. The camera then moves below the chandelier, but rather than stay aimed at the band, the view often wanders around.   And then there is a "corkscrew" shot out among the orchestra seats that starts aimed at the (beautiful) ceiling. The cameras next rotates on its axis to show all points on the ceiling and then, still turning, swings down to the audience and finally the stage. This maybe can make viewers get seasick!

So far I have shown that about half the angles in this symphony video don't show the orchestra players doing anything significant. What about the rest of the shots? A hallmark of a good HDVD symphony is the inclusion of lots of whole orchestra shots. Subject title has exactly 8 of these, most of which last about 3 to 5 seconds and only one of which lasts as long as 9 seconds. There are also 20 or so part orchestra shots, but most of these are blotched by excessive zooming in and out and panning around by the cameramen in their sandbox. I counted only 3 large section shots. This means the rest of the clips show solos, small sections, small groups of soloists, and multiple small sections shots---all pings to the many conductor pongs. So there you have it: a DVD masquerading as an HDVD in Blu-ray dress.

Next I will make a few comments about artistic content. Conductor Diego Matheuz appears to do an earnest job. (He is a graduate of the Venezuelan "El Sistema" program which all of us fine-art HDVD lovers admire from our own title El Sistema.) I also loved the Chorus of the Teatro la Fenice. They went to the trouble to memorize their music, and this helped them to look and sound tremendously competent. The dance sequences and all the dancers were quite pleasant. Bass Alex Esposito (we know him from his HDVD work in Don GiovanniGazza Ladra, and Die Zauberflöte) and tenor Walter Fraccaro gamely got through their arias, all of which everyone in the audience had heard a zillion times. Jessica Pratt used to be thin, but now is fat. She looked a bit of a mess with her eye makeup (reminds me of a female professor we called "Racoon") and her copper hair clashing with red lipstick and red skirt. I thought her singing was unsteady, but I admit that my reaction may have been affected by her odd appearance.

One final criticism is that Arthaus did not make the investment to provide subtitles for the words sung by the chorus or the soloists.

So what kind of grade should I give?  The lack of 96kHz/24bit sound, weak SQ, weak PQ, goofy video content, and the lack of subtitles would normally throw this title into a "D" or even "F" grade. On the other hand, it is refreshing to have something other than waltzes and polkas to start a new year.  So for this reason and out of respect for the beautiful venue, the chorus, and the young conductor, I'll increase the grade to "C-." The management at La Fenice could make a success of future concerts in HDVD. But to do so they must invest in better sound technology (96kHz/24bit would advance them to the front of the class), better video gear, and send their TV director to school on how to make a Blu-ray video (instead of a DVD). I like the idea of an all-Italian New Year's show. Why not invite all the wonderful small opera houses in Italy to contribute something? And why not have the event about January 7 or so when the hangovers are gone and  star singers have empty spots on their calendars?