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DVD-Video Reviews - February 2003, Pt. 1 of 3

CHRISTOPH W. GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice -
complete opera

Orphée: Magdalena Kozená
Eurydice: Madeline Bender
Amour: Patricia Petibon

Théâtre musical de Paris – Châtelet
Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique
Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Choreographer: Giuseppe Frigeni
Stage director: Robert Wilson

Studio: Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DD 5.1 surround sound, French with English subtitles
Extras: None
Length: 99 mins.
Rating: ***1/2

This visually stunning production of the well-known Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has much to recommend it. The evocative choreography, gorgeous lighting, and color scheme of muted shades of blue beautifully complement Gluck’s sweet, tender melodies.

This Paris performance of the French version of Gluck’s opera (he also wrote an Italian one) opens with a ghostly chorus whose hands and faces are eerily lit by a green light while they stand against an indigo sky. Kozená as Orphée, although hesitant at first, creates highly stylized movements and pantomimic gestures, almost like a dancer. During her descent into the underworld in search of Eurydice, her Gothic makeup and costume are silhouetted against a pale blue light, with highly dramatic results. Musically, Kozená has a wide range, but her voice sounds too light for the role.

Petibon as Amor (Cupid) prances about like a ballerina wearing a lavender, off-the-shoulder minidress. Her sweet, light soprano prefigures Mozart’s Zerlina. Bender as Eurydice is beautiful and queenly, but somewhat inexperienced. The conducting is brisk, and the music flows from beginning to end.

-Dalia Geffen

Great Pianists on The Bell Telephone Hour

Claudio Arrau/Byron Janis/Robert, Gaby and Jean Casadesus, John Browning/Lorin Hollander/Van Cliburn/Jorge Bolet/Philippe Entremont/Jose Iturbi/Grant Johannesen

Donald Vorhees and Paul Whiteman (in Gershwin) conduct Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra
Studio: VAI DVD 4216
Video: 4:3 Color and b&w
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: None
Length: 129 mins.
Rating: ****

Culled from various TV appearances 1959-1964, this assemblage of Great pianists makes fascinating viewing, a visual and auditory delight that bring back cherished memories of keyboard idols and giants in repertory in which they flourish. They video mixes solo and collaborative performances by the artists. Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau (1902-1991) opens with the last movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in solid, Prussian style, befitting Arrau's German pedagogy. Jorge Bolet changes the mood considerably, rending up a suave interpretation of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue under one of the composer's acolytes, Paul Whiteman.
Back to thunder and lightning, with the last movement of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, exploiting the granite approach of John Browning (1963) in exemplary style, despite a few cuts in the orchestral part, a somewhat common phenomenon on these broadcasts, trying to streamline the classics for popular consumption. Jose Iturbi (1895 1980), too, plays an abridged version of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy, just after rendering (1960) his signature Ritual Fire Dance of Falla. Van Cliburn (1960) was still the hot item, the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition much in everyone's mind, and he plays a stunning Widmung of Schumann (arr. Liszt) then the second movement in D Minor from the Brahms B-flat Concerto. Veteran Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) wears several hats, playing the last movement of Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata; then he appears en famille with Gaby and Jean in the last movement of Bach's Triple Concerto in D Minor. The final piece by Casadesus appears to derive from a 1967 Carnegie Hall recital that included the last movement (Bell seems to favor big finales) of Chopin's B Minor Sonata.

The most beguiling moment comes when actor Burgess Meredith introduces the fifteen-year-old Lorin Hollander (b. 1944) to play Chopin's popular waltz in C-sharp Minor, then the piece that had got the New York critics agog, the last movement from Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" Concerto. More Saint-Saens from Philippe Entremont (b. 1934) in the familiar C Minor Concerto, the finale, with its durable cross between folk tune and church hymn. The last two American pianists, Byron Janis (b. 1928) and Grant Johannesen (b. 1921), each get two concertos: Johannesen has the last movement of the Gershwin Concerto in F and a silky opening movement from the ultimate charmer, the Grieg Concerto in A Minor. Janis plays the last movement of the Rachmaninov Third Concerto, and the most "risky" piece in this conservative environment, the finale from the Prokofiev Third Concerto, Op. 26.

Exquisitely tailored and handsomely lighted, the BTH manages to capture the glamor and allure of high art without sacrificing too many of its purely musical values. For old timers, this is a sophisticated stroll down Memory Lane. For those introducing young people to keyboard legends, this video makes a lasting impression.

--Gary Lemco

RICHARD WAGNER: Siegfried - complete opera

Siegfried: Manfred Jung
Mime: Heinz Zednik
Der Wanderer: Donald McIntyre
Alberich: Hermann Becht
Fafner: Fritz Hübner
Brünnhilde: Gwyneth Jones

Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
Conductor: Pierre Boulez
Production: Patrice Chéreau
Video aspect ratio: 4:3
Duration: 226 mins.
Subtitles: English, French
Soundtrack format: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Rating: **1/2

This production of Siegfried, the Ring cycle’s third installment, is more drama than opera. As with the first two operas of the tetralogy (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), musicality is sacrificed at the altar of theater, with mixed results. On the plus side, this theatrical approach illuminates the plot. Every vocal expression is accompanied by a variety of gestures (many of them comical) and frenetic movements—a far cry from the traditionally static mise-en-scène.

The most intriguing portrayal is by Heinz Zednik, whose performance alone is almost worth the price of this DVD. Zednik is in constant motion, his every gesture and facial expression vividly bringing to life Wagner’s libretto, thus illuminating the composer’s intentions for the novice viewer. Zednik also has the rare gift of combining farce with pathos.

Jung as the titular hero somersaults with the puppylike movements of a teenager, although he is not in the prime of youth. His voice, however, is sadly lacking in the heroism required for the role of this impetuous lad. While singing the famous “Nothung,” one of the highlights of this opera, he sounds flat and matter-of-fact when he is supposed to be exuberant. In addition, instead of hammering his sword, he merely stands there, presumably because this role is too taxing for him. By Act 3, he is visibly faltering. Perhaps a more static rendering of the opera would have kept him in good form throughout.

McIntyre’s Wanderer is dull and uninspiring, except for his scene with Erda in Act 3, where some enthusiasm creeps into his portrayal. Jones’s Brünnhilde suffers from inaccurate intonation. Thus her “Heil dir, Sonne,” the best part of this rather unwieldy opera, is disappointing. Later on her voice finds its groove, but her acting remains overwrought throughout.

-Dalia Geffen

Billy Cobham’s Glass Menagerie (1981)

Studio: TDK
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 5.1, DTS 5.1, PCM Stereo
Extras: Biography
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: ****

This concert was recorded live at Riazzino, Switzerland, in March 1981 and features the talents of Billy Cobham (drums), Michal Urbaniak (violin/sax), Mike Stern (guitar), Gil Goldstein (piano), and Tim Landers (bass). The music is a blend of older style fusion with more straight-ahead jazz of the ’70s. It is fairly upbeat and moving, with a nice groove, with Cobham delivering an impressive performance. The sound of the DTS track is excellent and provides a nice full surround without excessive use of the rear speakers. The picture is good though not outstanding. Time is taken with each artist as they play solos and with the rest of group. When cuts are made they are done well, so that you don’t get dizzy like with some other live concerts. Both the concert and the crowd are high energy, so there is a nice vibe throughout. Some of the tracks are mellow, with a pleasant easygoing ’70s feel. The electric guitar helps to contribute to this sound, while the fiddle work is interesting on the pieces that make use of it. The concert is well lit and has a vibrant colorful look to it. All and all I think most people will be impressed with not only the sound, but the music on this disc as well. Songs include: Moon Germs, A.L.D.L., Flight Time, Vanessa, Crosswind, All Hallows Eve, Total Eclipse, Mendocino, Wrapped in a Cloud, Brooze.

- Brian Bloom

The Last Waltz (1978)

Dir. By Martin Scorsese
Performances by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Emmylous Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Hawkins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson)
Studio: UA/MGM
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DD 5.1 surround & original remastered stereo track
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Two audio commentaries with Scorsese and musicians, Rare footage, Behind-the-scenes featurette, 8 page booklet written by Robbie Robertson
Length: 1 hour 57 min.
Rating: ****

Probably the best film or video of live rock performances ever made, The Last Waltz began as simply a filmic record of the historic 1976 farewell concert by the rock group The Band at Winterland in San Francisco. In an expansion similar to that of the Monterey Pop Festival a decade earlier, an unparalleled lineup of rock performers signed up to celebrate The Band and rock in general. Scorsese arranged to borrow the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata as the stage setting for the event, and added the chandeliers from MGM’s Gone With the Wind. Several different 35mm cameramen had cranes and all the trimmings plus plenty of film (well, not quite - see below) so their was plenty of visual material to work with in the very creative postproduction editing. The sound pickup was thoroughly professional. Scorcese commissioned a very Viennese sounding waltz theme to be composed and played to frame the beginning and ending of the film - with couples spinning around romantically.

The interviews with Scorsese are quite unlike the rock interviews you may have read or seen on video, because he is not a rock writer or expert and asks the sort of questions many of us would ask. He visits the Band’s members in their clubhouse and recording studio and gets them to speak about both the joys and sorrows of being on the road and why they’ve had enough of it. The other extras are all very worth exploring. There is a long jam session that followed the concert - an all-instrumental sort of blues groove that goes on so long that after about 20 minutes the cameras all ran out of film, because that’s all they can hold at one time. There are 34 separate chapters on the disc and almost that many separate tunes - some are cues to interview sections between the tunes. A few of the tunes - such as the Staples’ The Weight - were staged separate from the live concert to add some variety of image and sound. Attempting to play individual chapters using my remote on the “scene selection” icons on the screen failed to work; the player went into pause every time and stayed there.

Most of the guests do just one number with the Band onstage, but that one is usually a winner. Dr. John is a delight in Such a Night, Neil Young in Helpless, Van Morrison in Caravan, Paul Butterfield in Mystery Train, and especially Muddy Waters in Mannish Boy. The hits from Music From Big Pink are some of the Band’s highlights: Ophelia, Up on Cripple Creek, I Shall Be Released, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down bring the over-filled house down. Not quite the sort of musical we expect from MGM, but with plenty of appeal to the generation that probably doesn't venerate Singin' in the Rain or American in Paris.

- John Sunier

Inspired By Bach Series (1997)
Falling Down Stairs (Cello Suite No. 3 in C)
Sarabande (Cello Suite No. 4 in E Flat)

Yo-Yo Ma, solo cello
Dir. By Barbara Willis Sweete (Falling)
Dir. By Atom Egoyan (Sarabande)
Studio: Rhombus Media/Sony Classical
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: German, French
Extras: Trailer, Director interviews, Photo gallery, DVD ROM features include interactive music scores, production notes, discography, weblinks
Length: 111 min. Total
Rating: ****

This project, which was presented on PBS, presented cellist Ma in extraordinary collaborations with six different filmmakers and other artist/performers - including in the first film above, choreographer Mark Morris. One of the six Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello is the starting point for each of the six films. Since the suites are only 20 minutes or so length and the films all close to an hour, each suite is interspersed with other material or portions are repeated. In no case are any of them simply a filming of Ma playing thru the entire work onstage. Each one is an entirely different approach to the music and the message for the viewer is that somehow the particular collaboration plays a part in the particular interpretation of the Bach Suite that Ma then performs.

For example, modern dancer Morris knew the music well but had never thought to choreograph a dance to the Third Suite. Through the collaboration with both Ma and filmmaker Sweete a film emerges that has many more aspects than the usual dance film and at the end we get to see the complete final performance with Ma providing the music. Atom Egoyan is superb at exploring intimate relationships among people, and makes that the glue that holds together his story of Ma’s arrival from a city’s airport, his long limo trip to the concert hall (during which he plays for the driver), and the stories of three of the people attending the concert. The “non-diva” generosity of Ma’s personality (as accurately pegged by dancer Morris) makes his on-screen persona a constant delight. He has a wonderfully humane and enthusiastic way of probing those he interacts with in the films. I don’t think even a musician as extroverted as Leonard Bernstein could have fit so naturally into a film as does Ma. A colleague felt these two films were the least successful of the otherwise superb series, so I’m looking forward to reviewing the other four next time.

The PCM stereo is excellent - surround is not really required for solo cello - and the standard screen display is also of high quality with no noticeable artifacts. As with other dance films (and Hollywood musicals) you might want to hold off on expanding the image to fit your 16:9 screen because that means you will be cropping off a bit of the foreground, and that’s where the dancers’ feet often are!

- John Sunier

1 Giant Leap (2001)

With Neneh Cherry, Ram Dass, Brian Eno, Dennis Hopper, Baaba Maal, Tom Robbins, Gabrielle Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and others.
Dir. By Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto
Studio: Palm Pictures
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: DD 5.1 surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Two music videos, Jukebox mode, Explore mode with footage of the making of each portion around the world, Separate standard CD with just the music in stereo. Lavish color booklet with photos and notes
Length: 155 min.
Rating: ****

I first listened to some of the world music on the separate CD and found it not to my taste, so I put the DVD aside for a couple months. When I began to view the DVD I was floored. This is an amazing and very worthwhile achievement - a new sort of visual motion album that fuses surround sound, multi-images on the screen, and the spoken word. The two young filmmakers traveled the world with their digital video cameras, Mac Powerbook, and a portable 32-track recorder with basic sketches already laid down for the native musicians to interact with. In this context, the single thing that disturbed me about this film were the bulky Sony stereo headphones that even the most primitive-appearing singers and musicians had to wear during their performances; it just seemed a jarring visual element.

Catto and Bridgeman regarded their project as a “music-based time capsule of planet earth now - including the most tuned-in artists, thinkers and images of the moment.” They regarded it as 12 short films fusing the musical collaborations with the spoken word and other footage they shot around the world. Some of the 25 stops on their route included Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Bombay, Bangalore, New Delhi, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco, LA, New York and London. You can go thru the production by geographic area, or you can select various subjects on a list: Time, Masks and Roles, Money, Confrontation, God:Faith, God:Blasphemy, God:Unity, Inspiration, Sex, Death, Happy. The general slant of both the music and the quotations from the onscreen “thinkers” could be summarized as “the unity in diversity.” In some ways this is similar to the narration-less poetic films such as Nagoyaqatsi, Powaqatsi, Baraka and so on. Altogether a unique and amazing visual/auditory trip. Highly recommended!

- John Sunier

Iron Maiden – Rock In Rio (2002)
Studio: Columbia
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1
Extras: Tour photos (56), Day In The Life, Interviews on hobbies/days off (6)
Length: 125 minutes
Rating: ***+

This 2001 concert showcases the British band Iron Maiden’s final date on the Brave New World Tour in Rio to a crowd of 250,000 fans. The first disc contains footage from the live concert while disc 2 contains some enjoyable extra features. There was a huge production including 14 cameras (including 2 cranes) and a helicopter. The resulting 60 hours of footage was edited specially by Bassist Steve Harris to provide a two-hour onslaught of music and intensity. The audio was mixed down so when the DTS track is selected the viewer feels as if he or she is sitting in the front row with the crowd behind. From the hard, raucous sounds to the clothing, it appears that heavy metal is not dead. The video consists of many jump cuts and edits that are done at a frenetic pace to match the rhythm of the music. With enough exposure it would be hard not to start moving your head back and forth.

In addition to a little keyboard, the main band consists three guitarists, a bass player, a drummer, and the lead vocalist. I didn’t realize that there were bands still making this type of music—in some ways it is the kind of band that is portrayed in the film Spinal Tap. It could best be characterized as a blend of hard rock, heavy metal, with a little goth styling mixed in. The entire two hours is filled with running, jumping, high-energy musicianship and wicked guitar work. I wasn’t sure whether I was watching a concert or a music video as far the production goes—and that was obviously well thought out and not cheap. The extras will be very worthwhile to diehard fans and even people not so familiar with the band. There is interesting background on how the band members got started in music, some of their influences, their hobbies outside of playing music, and is filled with other details that helps the viewer to realize that these guys are real people. There is an Easter egg with hand puppets in the band section underneath the names to the left that I discovered.

If this type of music is your bag, then you will enjoy the music contained is this DVD quite a lot. As far as wide reaching appeal goes, I can’t really recommend this DVD to everyone, but the people who will like it—you know who you are. Tracks included: The Wicker Man, Ghost Of The Navigator, Brave New World, Wrathchild, 2 Minutes To Midnight, Blood Brothers, Sign Of The Cross, The Mercenary, The Trooper, Dream Of Mirrors, The Clansman, The Evil That Men Do, Fear Of The Dark, Iron Maiden, The Number Of The Beast, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Sanctuary, Run To The Hills.

- Brian Bloom

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