DVD Reviews - July-August 2001, Pt. 1 of 2

[Click on each DVD to go directly to its review]

Richard Wagner's Lohengrin
Opera in Three Acts

Wagner wrote Lohengrin in 1845 in a frenzy of activity while he supposedly was taking the cure in Marienbad at his doctor's orders. One day, restless and with a fevered imagination, he jumped up from his bath (albeit fully clothed!) and ran home to compose this lyrical and often dreamy opera. After several days of this routine, he had a complete sketch.

Lohengrin is often peopled by two-dimensional characters and presented in a static manner. This production, however, takes a huge leap forward by infusing the opera with great passion and depth. This Lohengrin is not for the faint-hearted. From the first, powerful notes of Tichy's herald to the final, dramatic collapse of Studer's Elsa, we are in the presence of great seriousness and intensity. Some viewers might bemoan the loss of lyricism, but where this production sacrifices in spirituality and ethereality (which, by the way, are provided by the chorus) it gains in power and drama.

Domingo throws himself into the role with great abandon. Although he is firmly entrenched in the Wagnerian repertoire, when this performance was recorded eleven years ago, he was in the early stages of his foray into German opera. His singing is intense, and despite his Italianate enunciation and occasional bel canto intonation, his technique is faultless and his timbre beautiful. Domingo's Lohengrin is mature, earthy, and ardent. He looks taut with the tension of vocalizing, which makes for a gripping performance. Here is an unexpected Lohengrin indeed.

When he first appears in Act 1, after being called three times, Domingo is a shining and otherworldly apparition in a white tunic and silver armor, and he is backed by a gigantic, Gothic-looking shiny swan. He is met by the joyful Elsa, sung by Cheryl Studer with nuance and wonderful pianissimo. Studer is a technically accomplished singer, and her graceful movements greatly enhance Elsa's innocence and simplicity.

In the tender duet in Act 3, "Das süsse Lied verhalt," they both seem a bit forced and effortful, but the emotional impact of their singing is undeniable. In "In fernem Land" Domingo is more collected, as though he has saved himself for this heartrending scene. When he returns the ring to Elsa, he is utterly moving. Here is powerful acting and singing, and the scenery is visually stunning.

Robert Lloyd has always been a terrific singer, and his King Henry is no exception. In "Mein Herr und Gott" his stage presence is gripping, and his every gesture and expression exudes nobility. He has a beautiful, resonant bass voice, and for a nonnative speaker his German accent is unsurpassed.

Welker's Telramund is dramatic and convincing in his arrogance and pride. As a warrior dominated by his manipulative wife, he is all too human and believable, and his voice has just the right amount of harshness for a villain.

Perhaps the weakest singer in this admirable performance is Vejzovic, who as Ortrud is visibly bracing herself to produce an acceptably voluminous sound and to look menacing. By and large she succeeds in this endeavor, but her stiffness and terrifying intensity are hard to watch. This is a true witch hell-bent on destroying Elsa so she can wrest from her the power to rule tenth-century Brabant. We never see a human side to her.

Abbado maintains a steady level of concentration. His conducting is solid and his dedication is never in doubt, but he is somewhat unimaginative. The surround sound is terrific, and when the final credits roll against the magnificent interior of the Vienna State Opera, the spell cast by this Lohengrin remains unbroken.

- Dalia Geffen

A Strauss Gershwin Gala

PBS has been airing a regular New Year's Eve in Vienna concert for many years, and this is sort of a non-New Year's version of the grand festivities in the Gold Hall of Vienna's Musikverein. The lavish production puts together some excellent vocal soloists plus violin and clarinet soloists, plus the unexpected combination of the Vienna and the Harlem Boys Choirs ("a world premiere" according to the notes), plus Gregory Peck. All concerned seem to be having a great time of it. And it's all presented with very high image quality and excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The DTS surround turned out to be front channels only for some reason, and while I understand this historic hall has great reverb characteristics, isolating just the surround channels on the DD 5.1 sounded as though some artificial reverb had been added. Also some of the vocal soloists and clarinetist Henry Cuesta (heard in a swinging Gershwin medley) were often frustratingly off-mike.

The pairing of Johann Strauss and George Gershwin may seem as odd as that of the two boys choirs. The wide popularity of both composers is part of it, and the glue holding them together seems to center on the Gershwin song "By Strauss" which is on the program. It is really a parody of Vienna waltz/schmaltz - but the Austrian audience doesn't seem to grok that, and neither do they smile when the Harlem Boys Choir in the balcony do their Motown-type choreography to some of the Gershwin tunes. An older Austrian conductor leads the Strauss material that makes up the first half of this very long concert and a young American conductor handles the Gershwin section. Then there's Gregory Peck. His presence also revolves around one particular selection - the familiar Lincoln Portrait of Aaron Copland. He has appeared with symphony orchestras worldwide as the narrator of this work, and that's how both Peck and Copland got into this Viennese mix. He only does the finale from the work, but in addition he reads at the podium (seldom looking up) a very great deal of fairly interesting background on the music and composers. But it goes on w-a-y too long on an already-oversized program.

The Strauss portion of the program is heavy on popular operetta excerpts from The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus and others. Tenor Herbert Lippert is a standout; he was Faust in the recent DVD production of The Damnation of..." which I reviewed here recently. Annoying for the non-Viennese cognicenti is the fact that no English subtitles for the German lyrics are provided. On balance Gershwin actually gets short shrift on this program: his portion includes only the overture to Of Thee I sing, Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So and a short vocal medley in addition to the aforementioned one for clarinet and orchestra. (At least those of use who are outsiders understand the lyrics.) As the top of this review indicates, if you're a Vienneseophile, more power to you. Frankly, I'm going to go have my cafe mit schlag and listen to some Scriabin or perhaps Scarlatti to get over this.

- John Sunier

Kurt Weill's Street Scene

This musical which moves the form well into the operatic arena was Weill's masterpiece of his Broadway period. The libretto was by Elmer Rice and Langson Hughes wrote the lyrics. Much like Porgy & Bess, it draws on blues, jazz, Negro spirituals and Tin Pan Alley song, but still manages to sound like echt Weill. The 30 different singer-actors play working-class folks on a street of decrepit brownstones. The main plot element revolves around the obvious unfaithfulness of one of the women tenants and the relationship between her daughter and the law-studying boy next door.

Among Weill's great tunes heard entirely in context here: Lonely House, Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow, What Good Would the Moon Be?, and Moon-Faced Starry-Eyed. The boy-girl relationship and some of their songs such as We'll Go Away Together may bring to mind Bernstein's West Side Story. The Houston Grand Opera participated in the staging, which is excellent, all the singers are American, and the transfer to video is well done with revealing closeups at important points. With a decidedly foreign orchestra and chorus one might expect some strange gaffs in bringing across this very American theater piece, but actually the only subtle flub I noticed was the one line uttered (not sung) by the stretcher-bearer when he is carrying out the girl's mother. The producers probably thought they could use any handy English-speaking German "super" for this single short line. The problem is he sounds exactly like Arnold Schwartzenegger...

Though the singers' enunciation and projection all were fine, there was some problem with intelligibility of lyrics, especially in the 5.1 version. They clearly used mikes out of the picture area rather than body-mounted wireless mikes as used in most Broadway musicals. Therefore the singers are somewhat off-mike to start with. I solved this dilemma by switching to headphones, and then I heard every word clearly. I was wondering if there had been an option for uncompressed PCM stereo audio if intelligibility would have then been improved. Subtitles in English would not be a bad idea for such stage works either.

- John Sunier

Shelly Manne and His Men
Shorty Rogers and His Giants
on Jazz Scene USA (1962)

Vocalist-composer Oscar Brown Jr. was the oh-so-hip host of this series, preserved in very high-quality black and white kinescopes of the half-hour shows. Jazz critic Phil Elwood called them the first time jazz musicians were given the freedom to sound like themselves on television. Drummer Manne had made a big splash with his Hollywood jazz club Shelly's Manne Hole, as well as with this line of sidemen including Conte Condoli on trumpet, Russ Freeman on piano and Richie Kamuca on tenor sax. Among their on-camera tunes are Speak Low, The King Swings, Fantan and The Isolated Pawn.

Another West Coast jazz light at this time was flugelhornist Shorty Rogers, who had played with Red Norvo, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. He scored the film music to both The Wild One and Goldsmith's The Man With the Golden Arm. With Gary Lefebvre on sax and flute and Lou Levy at the piano, Shorty lights into jumping versions of his original Martians Go Home, plus Time Was, The Outsider, and a lyrical flute-centered version of Greensleeves.

- John Henry

Cast Away (2000)

Chuck Noland is a FedEx systems engineer living a fast-paced life where he doesn't even have time to spend the holidays with his soon-to-be fiancé. She's an intelligent and attractive woman who's working towards a doctorate degree. When Noland is pulled away from Christmas dinner to handle a work-related crisis, he vows to be back soon. But, little does he know that he will soon be "cast away" from society and deserted on an island. The only things that keep him alive during his time on the island are collecting packages that float back to the island, the picture he holds of his beloved, and a few of the items inside those packages. After years of isolation, he comes up with a plan and he hits to the surf in a last-ditch attempt to get back to civilization. When he finally returns home, the movie begins again with the story of his reacclimatization back to the real world. Many things have changed and it is up to him to decide if his new-found values will dictate a slightly different course to follow for the rest of his life.

From the moment this movie started I had problems. The first was that, as the movie progressed, it seemed like it was a FedEx advertisement. I understand that merchandising is a big part in the movie world of today, but it was FedEx over and over. Noland's character could have been a lawyer or doctor or ad exec to show how fast-paced his life was. He didn't have to be connected in any way to a real company. I felt that the fact that he was so strongly connected to one particular company detracted from the point the movie was trying to make. The second thing that bothered me about his movie has to do with the gratuitous use of the camera and/ or length of certain elements of the film. We didn't have to follow a box around with the camera right on the box to associate that Noland's life involved traveling from here to there. And I objected to an obvious pan across pictures (in a den?) showing him sailing or alongside other nautical apparatus to indicate that he was knowledgeable in this area. It did not matter and it bothered me. In addition, after only a few minutes with other characters, there is a lengthy fall to the ocean in a plane, leaving just Tom Hanks. After over an hour on the island with only his character to watch, I could say that the point is made. We understand he is stuck there and going through a personal upheaval and is isolated. It just stretched out the inevitable return for the viewer and boredom set in. Then there was the way certain objects and people are connected which is made clear at the end (and which I won't detail because it may be a spoiler), but let's just say they were a bit corny. This movie could have been an interesting portrayal of a man and his own personal discovery of the things that really matter in life (similar to The Thin Red Line,) but instead, it was like one big commercial and/ or one-man show. There is some good stuff in this movie, but you will have to wade through or ignore other extraneous material to find it.

The DTS soundtrack appeared louder than the DD so comparisons were hard to make. Dialogue was hard to hear on certain scenes, but otherwise sound was very good. Picture didn't leave much to be desired, but wasn't of the caliber of certain transfers even though it is THX certified. The plane crash sequence is loud and should give your surround system a workout.

- Brian Bloom

Quills (2000)

Quills is a sardonic look at the life and times of the Marquis de Sade during his stay in an insane asylum in France. Due to his extremely provocative sexual writings, the Marquis was put away in order to prevent his influence on the rest of the population. While confined to a cell, the only thing he can do to ease his mind is write. The laundry maid takes his work, unbeknownst to the head of the asylum, and gives it to a man who takes it to a publisher and disseminates the finished stories to the general public. When Napoleon finds out that the people are reading this "filth," he appoints a well-known physician (whose methods of rehabilitation are questionable) to oversee the asylum. As the tools of his methods of expression-namely the quills with which he writes-are taken away, the Marquis becomes more inventive not only with the tools he uses to convey his method of expression, but with the content as well. This causes more trouble for those at the asylum and for himself. When those around him begin to exhibit a true craziness of person, we see the evil he has supposedly passed on.

If you believe that superior acting alone can make a good film then you might enjoy this movie quite a bit. However, I felt that the material of the real marquis himself could have been shocking enough without the enactment of some of his writings by the main characters. I thought that was, at best, clearly over-the-top self-indulgence practiced by the filmmakers. You may disagree, and if you do, then you will enjoy this film much more than I did. It isn't the fact that there are unhappy parts or even that the outcome is not necessarily cheery. The several twists and unexpected occurrences in the film did help make the film more interesting, but, in the end, the development of too many characters hindered the bond that should have been stronger between the marquis and the rest. The content is quite sexual and deprecatory, so be warned. The video also seemed to suffer from a somewhat greenish cast that may have been intentional. Otherwise the picture was very good.

- Brian Bloom

That Thing You Do! (1996)

A small-time band is about to play a talent contest with a group of other school bands and other acts. Due to some out of control horseplay, their drummer hurts his arm and can't play. Another kid, who is working hard in his father's appliance store, holds a secret love of jazz and plays the drums. As a favor, he plays with the band and changes what was written as a ballad into an up-beat dance number. The crowd loves it, and the band gets a gig at a local restaurant. They have the idea of cutting a record and selling it at the restaurant. This attracts the attention of a local manager who gets them some airplay. Things begin to blossom for the band and they are signed to a label. They are scooped up on a big tour and travel the country while their single keeps getting higher and higher on the chart. Eventually they hit it big and go to Los Angeles. After a few appearances, however, the band begins to have creative difficulties. The singer/ songwriter's girlfriend has come to dislike him and the band may not be able to stay together.

The plot of this film seems very much by the numbers, but the enthusiastic portrayals of the young kids as they grow into stardom makes this one really worth watching. Liv Tyler is adorable in her role as the tag-along girlfriend, and when the band gets to Los Angeles, it seems that we enter a world where things aren't what they seem and we can taste the disillusionment of the people involved. The movie is paced very well and although the ending isn't perhaps what is expected, it smacks of reality. That is what elevates this from a cute and forgettable movie to a film, in my mind. The video transfer appears to be very good but not outstanding. In some parts it was definitely better than others. The sound was very good and enjoyable throughout. A little romance, a little hardship, a little comedy, and a lot of fun make this one worth getting.

- Brian Bloom

Woman On Top (2000)

Due to serious case of motion sickness the main character, Isabella, is forced to be in a certain position during sex or else she will become ill--thus the title. Along with her husband she is the owner of an amazing restaurant South of the Border where she toils in the kitchen concocting wonderful dishes. As she works away in the kitchen he entertains their guests and runs a fishing boat. When he makes the mistake of getting involved with another woman, Isabella decides she's had enough and goes off to live with an old friend in San Francisco. Her efforts to find employment as a chef in the States are disappointing. Also, the separation from her husband does terrible things to her heart. Luckily she gets a break and starts to teach cooking. She is still distraught about what happens and decides to put a curse on her estranged husband. Soon there are no fish in the nets, the restaurant is suffering, and her husband is beginning to realize what a mistake he has made.

Things start to go well for her and the combination of her exotic look, her beauty, and her cooking ability lead one of her students (who is a producer) to propose she start a cooking show. By this time her husband is in town and on lookout for her. Her show gets more and more popular and eventually there is a chance to enter prime time on one of the networks. Will it be compatible with her lifestyle and what she really wants? Will she take back her husband or fall in love with the producer? Will she get the magic back? Check it out and find out for yourself. A wonderful picture ripe with color and imagery coupled with a fantastic Latin soundtrack make this a funny romance that will warm your heart.

- Brian Bloom 


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