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: NA

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.


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: NA

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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: NA

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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

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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-

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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: NA

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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: NA

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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: NA

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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.   But the SQ of the recording is poor compared to the two other HDVDs we have of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 published by NHK and Euroarts. Still, 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 weak sound, we go from an A+ to B. For bad PQ and video content,  we drop from B to D.  Finally, the poorly deployed spy cam  and lack of quality control by Mariinsky leaves us with an F --- this disc should have been abandoned and not sold to the public.

Below is  a high-quality YT clip that clearly shows the DVD-like video content of this disc. However, the clip does not reveal the PQ issues I raise. But I have seen this title on 3 different high quality HT displays displays.  Somehow the publisher managed to clean up the video on the YouTube segment, which I consider to be something like false advertisement. I wish the Blu-ray recording had been made with the same degree of care as this official clip: