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DVD Video Reviews Part 1, January 2002

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* ALL MUSIC DVDs *

We start with video presentations of two great operas...

PUCCINI: Madam Butterfly (1974)

With its rakish ugly American, anti-colonial subtext, and pitiful heroine, Madam Butterfly has to be one of the 20th century's saddest operas. Like Mimi in La Boheme and the eponymous Tosca, Chu Chu San is guilty of loving too much and loses all by defying society's notions of a comfortably conformist life. Puccini's lavish waterfalls of portamenti and crescendi, infused by well-placed dying falls, charge up Madam Butterfly's characters so well that we don't think of posing the questions we do of melodramas: Why did he do that? Why didn't she reject that notion? Sung by Mirella Freni, Butterfly's delusional but stunning aria "Un bel di vedremo" ("One fine day") explains it all.

This production even conveys Puccini's humor, like in the scene when Butterfly's relatives arrive to meet her fiancé, accompanied by jaunty bassoons and giggling strings. Director Ponnelle enhances the bustling effect with rapid 360-degree and high-perspective tracking shots.

As Pinkerton, Domingo is so convincingly cocky you want to slap him for being such a rogue. His muscular tenor voice seduces and self-flagellates with equal aplomb. His poignant farewell to the place of his liaison redeems him musically, if not morally. Freni sings with a simmering emotion that boils over in key scenes like "Che tua madre," which she begins pianissimo and ends in a wail of anguish. While her understated style handicaps her later in Otello (1987), it serves her well as the passive Chu Chu San. As her loyal servant Sukuki, Christa Ludwig acts as well as she sings, adding her seasoned voice to the trio "Io so che alle sue pene."

Ponnelle's cinematic choices sometimes pay off, as when he uses the Act III prelude to illustrate Butterfly's fantasies of her future life with Pinkerton (complete with slow motion running scenes!) On the other hand, his post-dubbing decisions seem arbitrary, like when he has Butterfly "think" some lines in an aria but not others. The transfer to DVD is puzzling. The occasional flecks early in the film seem to indicate it was transferred directly from film stock rather than a well-preserved negative. It's also not clear whether he intended the muted pastels during filming or whether they've developed because of unstable 70's color dyes. Probably a bit of both.

To summarize, this DVD has average sound and video quality and a few better-than-average singers.

- Peter Bates

VERDI: Falstaff (2000)

From the eponymous character's apotheosis to his belly in the first scene to the dazzling choral fugue at the conclusion, this production of Verdi's last opera (his second comic one) is a bucket of belly laughs. Like Orson Wells' film Chimes at Midnight, it is an Falstaffian amalgam of Shakespeare's Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor; but unlike that work, Verdi's comic creation is one of the most memorable comedies of all time. Its farrago of farce, flirtation, and foibles rarely flags, producing a work of lighthearted entertainment and deep-rooted humanism. Does this production do it justice?

Bryn Terfel reprises a role that has won him so much acclaim. Was he born to play Falstaff or what? Cocooned in latex padding and ludicrous codpiece, he is the braggadocio Falstaff, flaunting his rotund baritone voice in every scene he inhabits. His aria discoursing on the hollowness of honor should inspire you to replay the track for fellow aficionados. His scene with Robert Frontali's Ford is not just a masterpiece of ruse and ulterior motives, it assumes dazzling layers of complexity. Ford's jealousy wars with his desire for comic revenge. Verdi demonstrates this musically by first giving Ford's wily plaints the same bold lyricism that Don Carlos uses describing his amour Elizabeth. Soon the duet with Falstaff about love's fickleness resounds with trills, falsetto outbursts, and comic orchestral echoes. The only scenes that lack liveliness are Nanetta's Queen of the Fairies aria, "Sul fil d'un soffio stesio" and her lover Fenton's aria "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola." Both are delicate renditions by non-extraordinary singers, but neither piece is memorable. The fault is partly Verdi's: he must have felt he needed "romantic relief." (The Marx brothers made the same mistake in their early comedies.)

Graham Vick's stage direction assaults the eyes with bolts of color and outrageous contraptions, like Falstaff's wine-stained dining table, which more closely resembles a playground device. Vick's interview sensibly explains his loony but effective designs. Terfel's interview could have probed his ideas about Falstaff's character more, but he's charming to listen to. For a live stage production, this Falstaff grabs you by the collar and coaxes you frolic along with it. Most of the time, you can't resist.

- Peter Bates

Great Stars of Opera

Telecasts from the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1966)

Some purists may object to opera as entertainment, but this DVD provides a welcome opportunity to see (rather than just hear) some of the great operatic stars of a bygone era. Where else, for instance, could we see George London singing Boris Godunov (albeit in English) so excellently and with such transcendent melodrama? In similar fashion, watching Régine Crespin, in all her statuesque splendor, sing "Vissi d'arte" (from Tosca) is quite a different aesthetic experience from a mere auditory one.

Although many of these excerpts suffer from a surfeit of cinematic spectacle-garish sets, harsh lighting, and cloying overacting--the singing is uniformly superb. And in some arias good taste does prevail, as in Renata Tebaldi's "Un bel di" (from Madama Butterfly), which alone is worth the price of this DVD. Poised like a delicate Oriental bloom, the incomparable Tebaldi enhances the aria with dainty movements and furtive little facial expressions, without once detracting from her exquisite musicianship.

Another excerpt scaling the Olympian heights is Birgit Nilsson's "In questa reggia" (from her signature role as Turandot). For viewers who are too young to have seen Nilsson live (a wonder to behold, according to the cognoscenti), here is an opportunity to watch her sing her piercing high notes with perfect poise.

Equally outstanding is Eileen Farrell's completely natural and heartfelt "Mild und Leise" (from Tristan und Isolde). Farrell is full-voiced, tender, expressive, and artful. She is so engaged with the music that by the end of the aria she looks utterly transfigured.

Although this DVD is in mono, the sound quality is passable.

- Dalia Geffen

Three different views of J.S. Bach via the next three music DVDs...

J. S BACH: The Musical Offering in C Minor (2000)

Here is a fine example of the sort of concert music programming frequently seen on European telecasts in prime time - material which wouldn't get even a few minutes on air in the U.S. - even on public TV stations. (In fact an entire new UK satellite channel is now devoted to such continuous programming.)

The setting is the historic Old Town Hall in Leipzig and the acclaimed Baroque music trio of the brothers Kuijken are joined by harpsichordist Kohnen in both the important Bach suite of canons and ricercars plus the five-movement Sonata Sopr' Soggetto for flute, violin and continuo. Performances, image and sound are all in a very high par and of course the music is masterful. It is so pleasing to have the widescreen image as well as surround sound instead of being confined to 4:3 TV screen format and stereo PCM sound as with most classical and jazz DVDs until recently. I didn't notice any serious compromising of the sonics and they did impart an added envelopment that placed the listener in the Town Hall with the performers and appreciative audience. More of the same in music videos could draw more home theater fans into visual music programs since it would be less of a departure from the 16:9 5.1 movie-watching that was the original stimulus for their investment in a home theater system.

- John Sunier

BACH & VIVALDI: Il Giardino Armonico/Katia & Marielle Labeque, (2000)

Another superb EuroArts telecast which pulls out all the stops to make an already excellent music program and performances a completely involving audiovisual experience. The sparkling Labeque sisters have made many recordings of works for two pianos as well as partnering with other performers and appearing in an award winning dramatic music video (The Loves of Emma Bardac laserdisc some years ago). Their partners here are first of all the dynamic Milanese chamber ensemble Il Giardino Armonico, who came to many listeners' attention with their no-holds-barred completely fresh interpretation of Vivaldi's warhorse The Four Seasons. Secondly, the Labeques are joined by two more keyboardists, Ottavio Dantone and Luca Guglielmi for the concluding Bach Concerto in A Minor for four keyboards.

Adding an unexpected interest to the three keyboard concertos on this program is the sisters Labeque playing on two fortepianos rather than either the standard pianos or harpsichord normally used. Then for the stirring four-harpsichord concerto the pair of fortepianos are joined by a pair of harpsichords. This creates some delicious timbre contracts, well pointed up by the 5.1 surround sound. The harpsichords stand out much more strongly-etched against the strings, while the fortepianos blend in more with the chamber orchestra. This is probably the most exciting version of this exciting Bachx4 masterpiece that I've every heard.

The other Bach keyboard works on the program are the solo keyboard concerto in C Major and the two-keyboard concerto in D Minor. Two strictly orchestral works round out the lovely program; a Vivaldi concerto also in D Minor, and the Symphony in G Major by CPE Bach. Among the tricks used to enhance the visual interest of the video are small video cameras mounted at one end of the keyboards of the instruments, catching the flying fingers of the Lebeques without a cameraman being visible in longer shots. And just looking at the sisters performing, the obvious intensity of the string players of Il Giardino, and especially all four keyboardists lined up on the stage, provides a great deal more visual excitement than most orchestral music videos.

- John Sunier

Swinging Bach (2000)

This video preserves a nite-time open air mega-concert which took place in Leipzig's Market Square and honored the music of Bach as interpreted by a dizzying array of performers from around the world. The idea was to show how well the master's music stood up no matter how many unexpected musical about-faces were imposed on it. The young couple serving as emcees spoke half in German and half in English, but not translating one another. The whole concept is a kick and the huge audience (perhaps this was a free concert?) really appreciated all the performers - whether famous or unknown. Among the highlights for me were the two movements from Bach's Two-Violin Concerto in D Minor featuring Gil Shaham and his wife Adele, the hilarious Deconstructing Johann offering from The King's Singers, and the amazing audience-participation vocal improvisations of McFerrin. The Turtle Island Quartet really tears things up with their two Bach-influenced numbers as well (actually the second tunes' influence was Vivaldi, not Bach). This is a magnificent concert video with extremely wide audience appeal; it should please almost any viewer whether classically savy or not, while providing a viable alternate program in widescreen and 5.1 to the usual action movie spectacular.

- John Sunier

Ray Charles In Concert (1999)

This benefit concert opens with a little black and white pre-show tuning and set up. We get to see the crew hard at work getting ready for the big musical spectacular, as well as Ray playing a little piano. Ray is in excellent form and really swings and gets the crowd into the action from the very beginning of the show. Dianne Schuur joins him for a couple of tunes in the middle of the concert and that is quite a performance too. The concert is well lit with a definite video look. A little jazz, a little blues, and a lot of serious music add up to one good concert. The songs are:

I Got A Woman

A Song For You

It Hurts To Be In Love

Georgia On My Mind

The Good Life

Your Cheatin' Heart

They Can't Take That Away From Me

It Had To Be You (with Dianne Schuur)

You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To (with Dianne Schuur)

Till There Was You

Say No More

Blues For Big Scotia

If You Go Away

All I Ever Need Is You

Love In Three Quarter Time

America, The Beautiful

 

- Brian Bloom

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