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DVD Video Reviews for MAY 2002, Pt. 1

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We start this month with two operas on DVD...

HANDEL: Alcina (complete opera) (2000)

One of Handel's most sensuous and rarely performed operas nearly  gets the production it deserves in this DVD. As Alcina, the island temptress and sorceresses, Catherine Naglestad moves like a cat onstage and sings tenderly, powerfully, and edgily. When seducing the youth Ruggiero, her voice is cloying and childlike. When affronted by Ruggiero's inconstancy, she wins him back riding Handel's dazzling scalar ascents. Later, when she realizes she has lost him, she sings the justly famous and poignant aria "Ah! Mio cor!" She dissembles so well that when her breast escapes from her gown, she doesn't care. As Ruggiero, Alice Coote is believable as an impetuous young man enchanted by the older woman. As Bradamante, his fiancé who has returned in disguise to win him back, Helene Schneiderman sings a stirring aria when she reveals herself to him, one filled with breath-stealing Handelian melismas. Mercifully, the production was recorded without a live audience so there is no distracting applause at the conclusions of spectacular pieces. Unfortunately, there are times in which the mise en scène is so ridiculous that you may close your eyes and just listen. At one point, Alcina forces Bradamante to eat a bowl of cherries while her assistant Morgana sings to her about Ruggiero loving another. Minor characters on which the action is not focused don't have a clue what to do. They disrobe (partially), pace vacuously about the stage, strike each other. The set is a mix of Victorian wallpaper and a center frame with a pointless rotating platform. Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito play tug-of-war between a traditional and an avant-garde presentation. However, the singers are good and most of them know how to act, even when poorly directed. Undoubtedly, this is the only Alcina we'll see on DVD for a long while, so it's probably worth getting if you can ignore its sporadic descents into head-scratching silliness.

--Peter Bates

GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice (1991)

Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is justly famous for being the first opera without recitativo secco (spoken text with continuo accompaniment). It is neither his best nor his most complex opera. Apart from Orfeo and Euridice's near fatal disagreement near the end and Orfeo's confrontation with the shades, it is remarkably undramatic. But its many lovely arias comprise its charm. This current production is based on Gluck's first cut, the 1762 Vienna version, less than ninety minutes long and without that celebrated ballet he added for the Paris version. As Orfeo, countertenor Jochen Kowalski (aided by a bearish "Orfeo double," Jean Pierre Blanchard) creates a nervy character who frets and paces the stage in anguish over Euridice's death. Conductor Hartmut Haenchen orchestrates well the Act II confrontation with the shades, which begins with the chorus singing "Chi mai dell'Erebo.' Kowalski sings with despair mixed with a dollop of terror. The infuriated "No!" that the chorus hurls at him is a fortissimo bolt from a crossbow.

For a live performance, the production is surprisingly well-miked, particularly during the choral scenes. Director Harry Kupfer shows initiative in making Orfeo a modern (and labile) folksinger with guitar (which he never fakes playing). He even experiments with the notion of Orfeo suffering a breakdown at Euridice's death and straps him to an institutional bed, even straight-jacketing him. What a wonderful concept! As the opera played, I imagined it taking shape: Orfeo descending into the hell of managed care mental illness, crass guards as Furies, Euridice a fevered hallucination, etc. Unfortunately, Kupfer lacked the imagination to carry this concept to its post-modern conclusion and ends the opera in the traditional way. As Amor, Jeremy Budd is one of the better boy sopranos I've heard, never squeaking through his high notes and singing some passages with an affecting compassion. Unfortunately, they've placed him in the chorus reading his part, relying on a cloyingly cute towhead as a double. In her great scene with Orfeo, soprano Gillian Webster presents an imposing Eurydice (without a double) who displays anger and bitterness rather than those standard weepy plaints of rejection.

Note that the subtitles are in English only, so you cannot use this opera to practice your Japanese.

--Peter Bates

Two instrumental music DVDs are next...

Once Upon a Time (Il était une fois...) (2002)

Going way beyond the usual VHS video promoting a musical act, this DVD assembles material from Canadian TV appearances by the 12-women ensemble plus generous excerpts from their several music CDs. The main feature here is a highly produced video of a live show titled Infernal Violins. The program content consists of arrangements especially for the ensemble of devilishly-themed violin pieces such as the Mephisto Waltz, Dance Macabre and the Devil's Trill Sonata. The "host" of the concert is an actor portraying the devil, striding around a little set making various devilish pronouncements and introductions. The visuals make use of a great deal of circling and swooping camera, mist, dramatic lighting, superimpositions of the moon and clouds, and so on. A repeated image was light streaming thru an ornate grill onto glamorous soloist Dubeau and her violin; finally it dawned on me that the grill was that found in a confessional booth.

The orchestra's violinists all stand during performance except for the two cellists and the pianist. They make for a very striking appearance and the special arrangements for the ensemble are extremely effective. Everything has been done here to make a normally dull video of a string ensemble exciting to the average unhip viewer - for the more musically sophisticated viewer, perhaps too much. The idea of including so many extras as strictly audio selections from their CDs is one I haven't seen/heard before on a DVD. These are also exciting performances with lots of spark. I did found it surprising that although the video portions came with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, the music-only selections were just straight stereo. In spite of my mild gripes this DVD is really crammed with music and images and well worth watching.

- John Sunier

Sounds Magnificent: The Story of the Symphony -
SHOSTAKOVITCH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor (1984)

This is the closing program in a BBC-TV series in which Previn presented some of the most popular works in the concert repertory. In fact he refers several times to this being the final program. In the introduction, Previn talks about the sophisticated language of modern symphonic works and plays excerpts from works of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and others before moving into a discussion of the state of Soviet music and politics in l937 when Shostakovich departed from a more avant garde style and turned a new leaf in this confessional symphony he called "A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Replay to Just Criticism." Ouch. Previn isn't as compelling a music educator in this role as was Leonard Bernstein, but he does get across some important points that would be understandable to a wide range of viewers.

The complete performance of the symphony is exciting and well presented visually. The work skirts the edge of bombast in many spots but Previn reins in the worst of it. I did wish since the soundtrack was only stereo that it had been PCM rather than Dolby Digital; I believe the slight compression and opaque quality in some of the big climaxes would have been ameliorated without data compression.

- John Sunier

An American Rhapsody (2001)

This film is based on the true story of the life of a teenager struggling to come to grips with her past life in Hungary and her current life in America. Times are tough in the homeland due to Russian occupation, and it is necessary for upper class citizens to go into hiding or be reduced to jail, relocation, and/or many hours of hard labor. One such family has arranged to escape to America, but their youngest daughter, who is only a baby, is to be smuggled out separately. Due to certain circumstances, she ends up with a surrogate family for a couple of years until the time she is finally able to be taken back to her real family who now reside in America. This is a hard adjustment, and she struggles with the relationship with her birth mother, all the while longing for her life back where she was born. Finally, she has the chance to go back and discover her roots, and learn the truths of the family history.

The young actress who plays the daughter at an early age is as cute as a button. Other acting is not as strong, but it is the emotion of the story that really helps carry the film along. The experience and struggle of growing up is something to which everyone can relate, and this film plays it up in a big way. The picture and sound are very good, and the music helps connect you to the various cultures and highlight the differences between the old life and the new. Any time you start to take your family for granted, a quick viewing of this film to see the love and determination in this girl will help pull you out of it.

- Brian Bloom

Madadayo (1992)

This film tells the story of a much-revered professor who is about to embark on his retirement. The time is the 1940s, the place is Japan, and the man looks forward to his chance to work on his writings. He moves into a nice house with his wife, and they have frequent guests-his students of the past-who make life very pleasant. A bombing raid leaves their home in rooms, and times are tough for everyone. They move on to a small shack were life is no so great, but the innate humor in the "professor" helps the couple to manage. The students get together and buy a new plot of land for the professor, and finally he is settled. He has a small garden and pond that he has dreamed about, and he can again start the task of his writing. They adopt a small cat that the professor loves like a child. When the cat disappears, the entire neighborhood is off looking for him. The professor lives an interesting life, and all those who come in contact with him are affected.

The title of the film is an answer to the question: "Are you ready?" While the professor is honored at a club started in his honor, every year the people chorus the question, and "Madadayo" (not yet) is the answer. Kurosawa does an excellent job in presenting the humor, the struggle, and even the common things we all encounter in our daily lives. It is clear in the strong, loving relationship between the characters and the professor, and he not only has earned that, but also deserves it because of his ability to cope, and the genuine goodness he possesses and passes on to others. This attachment to the main character helps the viewer get through what would otherwise be a fairly long film. In some ways this film is as powerful and hopeful as Ikiru, but is also much lighter and not as dark. Audio is not amazing, but acceptable, and video is fine. All in all, a good film.

- Brian Bloom


Peter Pan (1953)

Star of one of the many delightful Disney stories of the past, Peter Pan is one of the lost boys who refuse to grow up and lives in Neverland. Wendy, John, and Michael are three children living in London-Wendy being the expert on Peter Pan adventures. One night when their parents go out to a party, Peter Pan comes looking for his lost shadow, but decides to lure them off to Neverland where Wendy is told she will be a "mother" to the lost boys and tell them story after story. With a little help from the fairy Tinkerbell, they fly off to their new home. The evil Captain Hook has been after Peter for a very long time, and he himself, is pursued by a large Crocodile that has swallowed an alarm clock that goes "tick, tock, tick tock" every time he is close. Indians and pirates and mermaids and other fun creatures flourish in Neverland. Tinkerbell has her own plans about Wendy, and after some disagreement, they all become friends in the end.

Pleasant music, and wonderful animation (for its day), make this a story for kids and adults alike. In fact, it is interesting to see how many elements of humor and commentary in the story are geared towards adults. It isn't exactly politically correct in its pictorials of women and Native Americans, but given its age, it is understandable. There are many extra features to watch, and they are quite revealing and enjoyable as they relate to the origins of Peter Pan. They delve deep with information about the production, and many of the decisions made that led to the final product. The treasure hunt game, sing along, and storybook will be great for kids.

- Brian Bloom

Groundhog Day (1993)

Phil Connors, a weatherman, is off to visit the town of Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. It is a job he despises, and hopes that he will soon be in a far better job position to escape this day. But escape is more literal than he realizes, when he finds that every morning at 6:00 a.m. he wakes up in the same bed, in the same bed and breakfast, on the same day of the year-Groundhog Day. At first he is completely confused about his situation, and tries to deal with it as anyone would. Then, he realizes what sorts of opportunities are available to him: he can't die and he can do anything he wants without regard to the consequences. After a time he realizes that he really would like to sleep with his producer whom he doesn't really know all that well up to this point. He tries every trick in the book to get her, but fails. Soon, he tries all sorts of crazy stunts to bring an end to the day-a day that he has come to hate. When he realizes that maybe this is a chance to really do good and better himself and the world, he may actually have a chance to continue on with the rest of his life.

This film contains one funny sequence after another. The sheer activity of reliving the same scenes, but with the foreknowledge of what will happen and how he will try to put a spin on the situation, is a delightful twist of humor. Murray is truly funny in this film and it seems he doesn't even have to work hard at it. Andy MacDowell is a perfect choice as his opposite-someone who is sweet, sincere, caring, unselfish, and has a sense of goodness. Some people may find it irritating to keep going back to certain scenes over and over, but that is what is essential to create the humorous situations, so be forewarned. If that doesn't bother you, then you are sure to love this movie. Picture and sound are fine, but the film is mostly dialogue driven to great effect.

- Brian Bloom

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