DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
DVD-Video Reviews, Part 1 of 3
Published on February 1, 2004
BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (complete opera)
The Metropolitan Opera and Chorus conducted by James Levine.
Starring Karita Mattila, Ben Heppner, Falk Struckmann, Rene Pape
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Picture gallery, Trailer.
Length: 123 minutes
When I first saw this performance on PBS two years ago, I wasn’t impressed with the sound quality. It seemed lack-lustre, unimpressive. With this new DVD, all that has changed. What a difference from the broadcast version! The ensemble singing in Act 1 is superb, reverberating throughout the stage. And while the Met still allows such traditional intrusions as applause at the ends of arias, it seems less intrusive. I also heard very little noise beyond the stage, such as coughs and program rustling. This production has creative directing effects: when Fidelio’s “fiance’s” father snaps a picture of the two of them together, Fidelio seizes the opportunity to destroy the film when father is not watching. Karita Mattila in drag is a believable and formidable Fidelio who sings her dramatic aria ” Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” with tenderness and longing.
In the first part of act two, Beethoven’s adagio movement in this opera, Heppner’s Florestan sings his cantabile aria with fear and regret, even though he slows the pace down with his awkward acting. When Fidelio and Rocco enter, the pace picks up a bit, particularly in the trio that ensues. This is a good Fidelio but not an extraordinary one. (Furtwangler’s definitive rendition is, unfortunately on an out-of-date Seraphim vinyl disc.). Mattila is its brightest star although Heppner is impressive at times, particularly when we first encounter him in the dungeon. I know of only one other DVD recording of Fidelio, an Image Entertainment release of a 1991 performance that received lukewarm reviews. If you love Beethoven, you’re better off with this one.
VIVALDI: Orlando Furioso (complete opera)
Libretto by Grazio Braccioli
Orchestra and Chrous of the San Francisco Opera
Chorus director: Ian Robertson
Conductor: Randall Behr
Orlando: Marilyn Horne
Alcina: Kathleen Kuhlmann
Angelica: Susan Walker
Ruggiero: Jeffrey Gall
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 color
Sound: Stereo PCM, Italian with English subtitles
Length: 146 mins.
This static and stately production of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso has a pleasing lassitude punctuated by periods of active emoting. At first the role of Orlando seems too taxing for Marilyn Horne, a veteran singer of the Met, but in Act 2 she improves, eventually reaching top form. Horne’s expression of fury at Angelica’s betrayal is impressive, and her grief in the aria “O weeping springs” (Act 3) sounds utterly convincing. Her jump from a high note to a low one happens in the blink of an eye.
Jeffrey Gall as Ruggiero is astoundingly capable, his well-modulated notes reaching the soprano range with great ease. His control is superb, so that he can sing for long periods without taking a breath. Gall may be the best living countertenor I have heard. Kathleen Kuhlmann as Alcina, in a purple dress and orange cape, has a powerful stage presence and good technique. Susan Walker’s narcissistic Angelica is expressive, with a lovely coloratura. At times, though, her voice has a stuffed-up quality.
The sets are in an attractive Romanesque style; the conducting is spirited, with good sound; and the costumes are outstanding. The human statues are a marvel to watch and extremely convincing. When the statue actors finally move, it is hard to believe that there are living, breathing people under all the makeup.
Hans Knappertsbusch conducts = BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58/WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Love-Death
Wilhelm Backhaus, piano ; Birgit Nilsson, soprano
Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra:
Studio: TDK DVD DVUS-CLHK62
Video: 4:3 full screen, Black&White
Audio: Mono sound
Length: 81 mins.
Taped May 31, 1962 at the historic Theater an der Wien, this concert celebrates Vienna’s special fondness for conductor Hans Knappertsbusch (1888-1965) as he performs music by Beethoven and Wagner. For the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, he has the collaboration of Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), the esteemed veteran, himself 78 at the time of this silken performance. The camerawork, directed by Herman Lanske, is just as smooth, very much in the “Karajan” mode of close scrutiny of the score, with the camera’s anticipating each voice entry, with plenty of medium cuts to embrace the soloists, the conductor, and concertmaster Willy Boskovsky.
The concert begins with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3, in a grand, leisure rendition that lasts over 18 minutes, almost twice the playing time of the 1946 performance by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic I just auditioned on Arbiter. Some loving dialogues between oboe, bassoon, flute and horn, lingering caresses until the inevitable climax of the music drama. That Knappertsbusch could subdue his natural grandeur and adapt to his soloist is testifed to by the singing lines of the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven’s “aeolian harp” treatment of many of the same impulses that dictate his Fifth Symphony. For the finale, Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson joins Knappertsbusch in a role which she had mastered for the 1957 Bayreuth Festival. Curiously, in this same 1962 season, she appeard in Verdi soprano roles in Philadelphia (along with George London) for an historic convergence of that orchestra with Leopold Stokowski. Nilsson’s voice simply soars above the orchestra; and while some find her tone sometimes “metallic,” she can sustain her high notes with energy to spare. The Theater an der Wien had been closed prior to the Vienna Festival Weeks concerts Knappertsbusch helped inaugurate; and seeing this great theater, the same which housed premieres by Mozart and Beethoven, filled with grateful admirers of this evening’s artists, is real musical restoration.
Josef Krips – A MOZART FESTIVAL = Don Giovanni: Overture and “Il mio tesoro”; Le Nozze di Figaro: “Deh vieni, non tardar”; The Abduction from the Seraglio: Weich ein Geschick; Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K. 415; Cosi Fan Tutti: “Fra gli ampiessi”; Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 550 “Jupiter”
Pierette Alarie, soprano; Leopold Simoneau, tenor; Malcolm Frager, piano; Josef Krips conducts Orchestre de Radio-Canada
Studio: VAI DVD 4256
Video: Black &White 4:3
Audio: Mono sound
Subtitles: English subtitles for all vocal selections
Length: 87 minutes
We have the telecast of 14 October 1962, with conductor Josef Krips (1902-1974) in a no-nonsense temper, leading a spirited and eminently transparent series of Mozart performances with some stellar talent. This tape, I think, only solidifies Krips’s reputation as a Mozart interpreter of taste and varied sensibilities. The camera work, in black and white, sometimes with filters on to blur the instrumentalists away from the vocalists, is relatively conservative, although an occasional shot from the strings’ music stands shows the flick and basic pulse of Krips’s baton. It is not until the third movement of the Jupiter Symphony that Krips elicits a tender smile, appreciative of the responsive playing of his Canadian ensemble.
Actually seeing the gifted tenor Leopold Simoneau perform is a rare pleasure. A lovely lyric voice, a soft and resonant tone, he can sustain high notes and handle tortuous melismas with no effort. No wonder his sweet voice inspired confidence in the most formidable conductors, as in Mitropoulos’ Berlioz Requiem in Vienna in memoriam Wilhem Furtwaengler. There are moments in “Il mio tesoro” that remind me of the light, seamless vocalism of John McCormack. Pierette Alarie is no less suited to Mozart, her sweet lyric voice reminiscent of Lisa Della Casa and Roberta Peters.
The then-young Malcolm Frager (1935-1991) makes a cheerful impression in the C Major Concerto, finessing easy transitions from brilliant fioritura to the seamless melos that is mature Mozart. But the real miracle is Krips: the old, wily veteran, urging big and nuanced sounds alternately and simultaneously, with the barest of gestures, a la Monteux. The wit and flexibility of Mozart’s last movement fugue has all the Viennese lilt he can muster from a basically Gallic orchestra, a triumph of music over regional matter.
KHACHATURIAN: Spartacus (complete ballet)
Vladimir Vasiliev, Spartacus
Natalia Bessertnova, Phrygia
Maris Liepa, Crassus
Nina Timofeyeva, Aegina
The Bolshoi Ballet
Studio: VAI DVD 4262
Video: Letterbox format
Audio: Mono PCM
Length: 92 minutes
Rating: *** 1/2
Originally produced by Corinth Films and directed by Vadim Derbenev, this 1977 staging of Khachaturian’s Spartacus is choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, who created the title role for principal Vladimir Vasiliev (b. 1940). A muscular, power-dancer, Vasiliev is Russia’s answer to Edward Villela, his bulk and stature a blend of Clint Walker and Rudolf Nureyev. The story-line, well familiar from Howard Fast’s book and Kubrick’s movie, tells how th slave and gladiator led an unsuccessful revolt against Rome. Khachaturian condenses the Roman war machine into the figure of Crassus, the ambitious general who uses a courtesan, Aegina, to undermine Spartacus’ troops. As played by the immensely gifted Maris Liepa (1936-1989), a lithe and brilliant dancer who resembles the British actor Stanley Baker, Crassus commands a goose-stepping army eager to maintain its hegemony on slaves and orgies. Vasilev’s real-life wife, Natalia Bessmertnova, captures the faithful and tragic love of Spartacus’ campaigns, the lovely Phrygia; and in their ever-famous Adagio, Vasilev and Bessmertnova intertwine in geometrical embraces that rival the Cirque du Soleil for grace and athleticism.
As film, there a few touches worth mentioning, like the slow-motion effects of Vasiliev’s heroic efforts for freedom, with a sky-blue backdrop. Director Derbenev uses double exposure to multiply the various, competing armies and to create frieze-like tableaux reminiscentof antique urns. The countless jetes and martial jumps of the dancers are astonishing, Vasiliev’s having to do most of his work with two swords. Evincing both courage and exquisite tenderness, Vasiliev commands the stage the wat Boris Christoff commands our ears in Boris Gudonov or the actor Cherkassov in Alexander Nevsky–in each of these allegories, a common man of the people rises to heroic dimensions. Nina Tikofeyeva’s Aegina has a cunning sensuality that might make her the balletic counterpart to Judith Anderson.
There is one encore, a five-minute segment, the final scene of the fairy-tale ofThe Little Humpbacked Horse, with Vasiliev and Maya Plisetskaya, a costume romance that features an exquisitely demure Vasiliev, who contrasts dramaticaly with the monumental presence we see in Spartacus.
Spanish Night (2001)
Placido Domingo conducts the Berlin Philharmonic with Sarah Chang, violin & Ana Maria Martinez, soprano
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: GB, D, F Sp, It
Length: 102 minutes
I wasn’t looking forward to covering this video because I recalled another I reviewed some time ago conducted by Domingo which had both very poor video and sound. This production, made in cooperation with NHK, is entirely different. While the program of a dozen selections is a pops concert – not at the top of my music video list – it is one of the best performed, recorded and especially videographed of any classical program I have viewed on DVD. It was probably shot on hi-def video and transferred down to NTSC – image detail and depth is exceptional. Of course it’s the Berlin Philharmonic, that explains the musical performance. The venue is The Waldbühne outdoor ampitheater in Berlin during a special summer concert. This is a gorgeous space, with a very enthusiastic audience and a lovely stage setting. The sun is just setting as the concert begins and most of it takes place in the evening. Soloists Chang and Martinez look lovely and the applause for them – especially in the encores – includes some wolf whistles and yah vohls. This seems like an American audience! Domingo is great as a pop conductor, the program is well-chosen to fit the Spanish theme, and there’s a gemutlicht mood about the whole enterprise.
Program: VIVES: Fandango from Dona Francisquita, SARASATE: Gypsy Airs, CHABRIER: Espana, J. STRAUSS: Spanish March, TORROBA: La Petenera, RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Capriccio Espagnol, SERRANO: Romanza, SARASATE: Carmen Fantasy, MONCAYO: Huapango, LUNA: Cancion Espanola, MASSENET: Meditation from Thais, PINCKE: Berliner Luft.
- John Sunier
Stéphane Grappelli – A Life in the Jazz Century (2002)
A Music on Earth Special Edition
Including all known footage of Django Reinhardt
Video: 4:3 screen
Audio: DD stereo
Extras on Disc 2: 11 bonus chapters, 7 rare music archive clips, Multiphone selection (audio-only selections from old 78s), A Storyteller’s chronicle, Promo, Alternative commentary, Research notes, Bibliography/Discography, Key websites, Time “Jazz Comes to Europe,” Rare stills photo montage, Stephane’s Map of Montmartre
Length: 128 minutes for documentary, 60 minutes for bonus chapters + more for other extras
This magnificent and comprehensive documentary production was created for BBC-TV. Why hasn’t it been seen on PBS as yet? The producers let Grappelli tell his own story for much of the film, plus guest shots from many of the people in music he performed with over his amazing 77-year career: Yehudi Menuhin, Kennedy, Martin Taylor, Lew Grade and others. Reinhardt fans will go nuts over the seven-minute film short by the Hot Club Quintet of France – the only known film footage of Django performing and never before available. One can see his horribly deformed two little fingers on the left hand (from a fire in his gypsy caravan) as he zips up and down the strings doing more with two fingers than any guitarist had done with four! There are sizeable excerpts from various performance films and videos of Grappelli in many different musical settings, plus clips of other famous performers he either played with or knew – Bing Crosby, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, guitarist Diz Disley, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, George Shearing, Art Tatum. There’s even an hilarious short film of Gregor and his Gregoriens – a band in which Grappelli was the center violinist of a trio. Gregor appears to have been a French imitation of Cab Calloway.
This is just one of the bonus items on the second DVD. The “Multiphone” selections are displayed with the image of an early jukebox using a little ferris wheel of cylinder records. The actual sources are 78s of early Grappelli and Reinhardt records as well as later track with Diz Disley, Martin Taylor and others. The only problem is that you have to go thru several steps to individually play each track – there is no “play all” option. The 11 bonus chapters are all interested, but it is soon obvious why most were edited out of the final documentary. For one thing, there are some negative comments made by Grappelli about Reinhardt (he was always insulting their bass players, causing them to quit) and then some grousing about Grappelli by Disley (he was often forgetful; would play the intro to one tune and then suddenly switch to another leaving the rest of the band confused). This is one of the best films on a personality in music I’ve every enjoyed and I highly recommend it.
- John Sunier
Pat Metheny Group – Speaking of Now Live (2003)
Pat Metheny, acoustic, electric & synth guitars; Lyle Mays, acoustic piano, keyboards, guitar; Steve Redby, acoustic * electric bass; Richard Bona, vocals, percussion, guitar, electric bass; Cuong Vu, trumpet, vocals, percussion, guitar; Antonio Sanchez, drums
Studio: Eagle Eye Media
Video: 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo, 4.1 Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1
Length: 135 minutes
Taped at a live performance of the five-time Grammy Winner’s sextet, this is a skillfully videoed concert whose focus is clearly the atmospheric fusion jazz created by Metheny and his cohorts. The picture quality is excellent and the sound is DTS 5.1 – as good as you can get on a music video. There is a variety of instrumentations and styles during the lengthy concert and the time goes by rapidly. The use of the surrounds is more involving with this often electrically-enhanced music than it would be with, say, a standard jazz trio or quartet. I reviewed a DVD-A by Metheny some time ago, and while that is also a very pleasurable sonic experience, accompanied by some very appropriate still images for each track, I enjoyed seeing the group perform much more than just listening to the their music. And with DTS there really isn’t that much lost sonically in this sort of music. Selections are: Last Train Home, Go Get It, As It Is, Proof, How Insensitive, The Gathering Sky, You, A Place in the World, Scrap Metal, Another Life, On Her Way, Are You Going With Me?, The Roots of Coincidence, A Map of the World – in Her Family, Song for Bilbao.
- John Henry
[Continue on to DVD Reviews Part 2]