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DVD-Video Reviews - May 2003, Pt. 1 of 2

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All Music

RICHARD STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier (1984)

Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl
The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Salzburg Festival
The Marschallin: Anna Tomowa-Sintow
Baron Ochs of Lerchenau: Kurt Moll
Octavian: Agnes Baltsa
Herr von Faninal: Gottfried Hornik
Sophie: Janet Perry

Studio: Distributed by Sony Music
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: PCM and Dolby Digital stereo
Subtitles: English, German, and French
Total time: 198:58
Rating: ***

A popular comic opera set in the frothy Vienna of Empress Maria Theresa, Der Rosenkavalier demands first-rate performers to render its quasi fairy tale plot sufficiently plausible. Unfortunately, this production can boast of only a partial success in this regard. In Acts 1 and 3, Tomowa-Sintow looks too careworn to radiate serenity and warmth, as the role requires. In her rendition, the Marschallin’s bittersweet peroration on the passage of time veers sharply toward the bitter, with not much sweetness to balance it. Also, in the first act Baltsa looks too feminine and past the first flush of youth to play the breeches role of a seventeen-year-old boy in love with the older Marschallin. Tomowa-Sintow and Baltsa seem uncomfortable to be in such close proximity. However, when Baltsa slips into the role of the maid Mariandel, she is wholly believable.

In Act 2, Baltsa seems more at ease with her masculine role, and when she delivers the silver rose to Sophie, both her deportment and her singing are splendid. Perry’s Sophie is angelic in her innocence. Her duet with Baltsa’s Octavian is a little ragged at first, but toward the end their voices meld beautifully. In Act 3, we discover Baltsa’s comic talents as she royally dupes the insufferably arrogant Baron Ochs.

Kurt Moll as the buffoonish Ochs is fluent with every gesture, and his musicianship is non-pareil. Karajan’s conducting tends to be choppy. The sets and costumes are sumptuous, and the camera angles are creative. Purchase Here

--Dalia Geffen

Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (1992) & Michael Nyman Songbook

With Jeff Cohen, piano; Michael Nyman Band
Directed by Jean-Pierre Barizien; Volker Schlondorff
Studio: Decca Records 440 074 165-9
Video: 4:3 screen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 or PCM stereo
Length: 100 min. + 54 min.
Rating: ***

Lemper is quite a dramatic performer who takes the cabaret-style theater-song vocal to a wider audience base in her stage performances. She imbues almost every note with drama, aided by her superbly expressive large mouth and eyes. She reminds me of a sort of a blonde German version of Lisa Minelli or perhaps Barbra Streisand, but classier than either one. Her voice ranges from subtle whispered phrases to Wagnerian bellowing when appropriate. Simultaneously released with this DVD is a more recently-recorded CD But One Day, in which Lemper adds to the Weill songs those of Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzolla and Weill’s successor partner to Brecht - Hanns Eisler.

The first half of this concert is a fairly straightforward live recital of Weill songs from his German, Paris and Broadway periods. The venue is an old theater in Paris. In it she is accompanied only by piano but has a few stage props and some creative lighting techniques. The 5.1 sound is superb, with a palable feeling of being in the midst of the theater audience. From Weill’s Paris period, selections from Marie Galante and the Firebrand of Florence are heard. The Barbara-Song and of course Mack the Knife are from The Three-Penny Opera, and Surabaya-Johnny and the Bilbao-Song from Happy End. Other songs are performed from Mahagonny, One Touch of Venus, Lady in the Dark, The Berliner Requiem, Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday (September Song).

The Michael Nyman section is designed to be a modern counterpart to the Weill songs. It is separately programmed in the disc menu and has two live performances. It was taped at a music hall in Hamburg by the director of The Tin Drum and other features. Opening with an instrumental selection from Nyman’s score to Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, this section has Lemper in a Nyman song using as lyrics a letter from Mozart to his father announcing that he is to get married. A short song cycle to poetry of Rimbaud is next and the section ends with the Six Celan Songs, the meaning of whose dark and disconsolate words seem unclear until Schlondorff begins to insert film clips connected with the Holocaust.

The songs are in German, English and French; being in a Parisian theater for the first section, Lemper’s between-songs commentary to the audience is also all in French. And herein lie my major gripes with this otherwise terrific music video: There is not only no on screen option for subtitles to the French and German songs, but no translations at all of her extensive comments between them! The song lyrics are printed in the 52-page booklet accompanying the disc, but nothing on the comments. All operas on video have an option for English subtitles - so why not this program of songs in other languages? This ommission downgrades an otherwise superb concert video. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Operavox: An Unforgettable Journey into Opera and Animation

Program content: The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Das Rheingold, Carmen, Rigoletto, and Turandot
Studio: BBC Enterprises and BBC Bristol in association with the Welsh National Opera/Distributed by Image Entertainment
Sung in English, with no subtitles
Length: 184 mins.
Rating: ***

Ranging from the whimsical to the macabre, this agglomeration of six imaginatively animated operas assumes previous knowledge of the plots on the viewers’ part. Compressed into half-hour episodic segments, the operas are so pared down to their bare essentials that the action is a bit difficult to follow. The addition of synopses would have remedied this situation, and the inclusion of subtitles would have resolved the difficulty of trying to understand the words (all in English). Another drawback is the quality of the singing. Despite some internationally acclaimed stars (Jane Eaglen as Turandot, for example), for the most part the vocalists are merely adequate.

The animation, however, is superb. Using a variety of techniques, this BBC production spared no details when it came to sets and costumes. In The Barber of Seville, for example, puppets animated with stop-motion photography move with fluid fingers and roving eyes. In Rigoletto, Gilda’s lower lip quavers as she sings and her chest rises at the precise moment when a real-life soprano would breathe in. In Carmen, rotoscoping is used to great effect, heightening the natural movements of the characters. Das Rheingold begins with a scrolling text as in Star Wars and proceeds in comic-book fashion, with the giants looking like green aliens. The animation here is crude but effective. The simplest animation is reserved for The Magic Flute. With its whimsical, childlike shapes, this rendition is a fairy tale strongly reminiscent of Yellow Submarine.

Although some of these segments are suitable for children (particularly The Magic Flute), Carmen and Rigoletto may be too frightening for those younger than eight.
Purchase Here

--Dalia Geffen

Horowitz in Moscow (1986/2000)

Complete concert plus highlights of his return to The Soviet Union
Studio: Columbia Artists/Pioneer Classics
Video: 4:3
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 or stereo PCM
Length: 104 min.
Rating: ****

The most widely reported musical recital of the 20th century was the return of the 81-year-old Vladimir Horowitz to the Soviet Union over 60 years since he had left. The documentary portions highlight his emotional meeting with his remaining relatives that he had not seen for all that time, and his warm reception by the Russian audiences. Horowitz discusses his playing for Alexander Scriabin a year before his death in 1912 (“He was crazy you know”) and his meeting with Rachmaninoff, who became his closest friend in the world of music.

The demanding program of 17 selections opens with three Scarlatti sonatas. While I advocate performance of these works on the harpsichord, if anybody can do justice to them on piano it is Horowitz. A Mozart sonata is next, two Rachmaninoff Preludes, two Scriabin Etudes, two Schubert works, a short Liszt sonata, two Chopin Mazurkas and the Military Polonaise, and the program concludes with Schumann’s Traumerei and Moszkowski’s Etincelles. The camera catches the pianist’s flying hands in extreme closeup, alternated with closeups of rapt audience members, some of whom are crying. The applause for most of the selections is deafening and continuous. The live performances are not as note-perfect as Horowitz' studio recordings, but what would you expect?

I recall seeing this concert first on public TV in the late 80s, then owning the laserdisc of it. The DVD is, as expected, a vast improvement. The piano has a clattery, resonant element to its sound - subtle but noticeable in some of the big climaxes. It is almost like a comb-and-tissue sort of sound, and for some reason with the Dolby 5.1 track that sound is extremely prominent at the right surround speaker. The PCM gives a cleaner sonic and works well with ProLogic II for a surround effect, but the subtle clattering is still there. I guess Steinway couldn’t ship a Horowitz-selected Hamburg instrument to Moscow for the concert. This still remains a gem of a concert video that should be in the collection of every lover of piano music. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

We have next a Battle of the Firebirds!...

STRAVINSKY: The Firebird & Les Noces (2001)

The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/John Carewe
Studio: BBC Opus Arte (Distr. By Naxos)
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: "Nijinska’s World" - David Drew remembers; Rehearsals of the Stravinsky Double Bill; Illustrated booklet
Length: 108 min.
Rating: ****

This complete Firebird revives Mikhail Fokine’s original choreography and Les Noces (The Wedding) reproduces Nijinsky’s original choreography. (The video interview with David Drew paints a hilarious picture of what it was like working on Les Noces as a young dancer under the iron hand of Nijinsky’s sister.) I had never seen a ballet performance of the Firebird, and my big discovery was what I pictured for that audiophile demo moment known as the Infernal Dance of the Sorcerer Kotschei. When you see the grotesque old man in skeleton costume with humped back you realize he’s not the one who is going to dance the infernal dance; the fact is he forces everyone else to do the dance while he stands and watches! Leanne Benjamin, dancing the Firebird, is superb with her turns, jumps and leg motions in giving a bird-like impression, and her partnering with Jonathan Cope is smooth and effortless. The 12 princesses in their long gowns playing with the golden apples are attractive to watch, the battle with Kotschei and his henchmen is fun, and the finale with the wedding of the prince and princess is suitably ceremonial, though no more real dancing is done in this portion - putting attention strongly on Stravinsky’s big Rimsky Korsakovian climax.

Les Noces is a very different Stravinsky ballet. The music is mainly choral, four pianos and percussion, and there is no translation of the words. It is really a ballet-canata. The costumes are simple Russian peasant outfits and the choreography mostly moves the entire ensemble together doing exactly the same steps, except for the bride and groom. The sections are: Consecration of the bride, Consecration of the bridegroom, Departure of the bride, The wedding feast. The approach of both the music and movement is very modern, dry and spare - a great contrast to The Firebird. The videography here is even more varied and interesting than in the first ballet, which somewhat alleviates the spareness of the work.

There is one extra omitted from this DVD that is included in the PAL version issued in the UK. (It’s similar to those Beatles LPs which when issued in the U.S. Omitted some tracks that were included in the UK originals.) And this extra sounds especially fascinating: a 1965 video of Stravinsky himself conducting his Firebird Suite at age 83! Possibly the BBC was unable to get that portion licensed for sale in the U.S. Image quality is excellent thruout and the orchestra mix for 5.1 sounds almost as good as many DVD-A orchestral discs. But see the next review for a competing approach in both image and sound. Purchase Here

Return of the Firebird (2002)
Also: Petrushka; Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov)

Film recreations of the original Ballets Russes productions
Directed by & starring: Andris Liepa
Studio: Mosfilm/Universal/Decca
Video: 4:3 full screen
Audio: DTS 5.1 & DD 5.1
Extras: 17 min. of footage from rehearsals for all 3 ballets; Demo reel of computer video advertising from a Russian graphics firm
Length: 120 min.
Rating: ****

These three ballets, first staged in Paris a century ago, were filmed in 35mm in Moscow with a leading Russian ballet star and an all star cast. While the Covent Garden ballets above would be the choice for true ballet fans, these productions de-emphasize the ballet aspects in favor of movie-like pizazz and spectacle. In fact, in Firebird the primary dancing that is seen is just the Firebird herself - in much more eleaborate costume and makeup than in the other production. She is first seen as a tiny figure flying thru the air surrounded by magical rays. There are many closeups of facial expressions and details such as the prince pulling out the magical feather the Firebird gave him. The feather itself glows with special effect rays whenever it is seen. The costumes of Kotschei’s warriors remind one of dastardly villians in one of those Harryhausen Sinbad movies. And Kotschei himself was obviously inspired by Max Shreck in Murnau’s original Nosferatu; he’s much more monstrous than the sorcerer in the other production. Although the cinematography shows very little of the dancers’ feet, some elements of the scenario are made much clearer - for example, the paralyzed princes and other victims of the sorcerer slowly emerge from their spiderweb confines, whereas in the straight ballet they just suddenly appear without explanation when we hadn’t seen them before.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka stars a wonderfully-costumed Leipa as the protagonist - with an askew slanted mouth that seems to symbolize his plight. I’d also never seen this in a ballet production. Actually, balletophiles would probably say I still haven’t, but I greatly enjoyed seeing the story in action and will be thinking of it whenever I hear the Stravinsky score again. The same goes for the magical - if rather Hollywoodish - treatment of Scheherazade. Speaking of Hollywood, since nearly everything in these productions is so lavish and show-biz colorful, it cries out for the widescreen treatment - yet it’s all shot standard 4:3 screen and if you expand it with an option such as my Pioneer’s “Natural Wide” to fit the 16:9 screen you will crop off even more of the little footwork there is. That’s my only serious beef with this DVD. The DTS surround, however, does a fine job with the performances by the Bolshoi Orchestra. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Norah Jones – Live in New Orleans (2002)

Studio: Blue Note Records Video
Video: 16:9 widescreen enhanced
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo
Special Features: Encore song and a music video.
Time: 67 minutes
Rating ****

This is a DVD of Nora Jones August 24, 2002 concert at the House of Blues in New Orleans. Nora is the daughter of famous Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. She performs nine songs from her five-Grammy award winning album Come Away With Me. This album truly deserved these awards. She managed to produce a real album that you put on to listen to the whole album, not just a couple of cuts. Good songs which are well done are always a good formula. On the DVD she also adds five other songs, a video of Come Away With Me and an encore song Tennessee Waltz. Nora shows her song writing ability by using three of her own songs, and the others are well-chosen. The video quality is very good; on close-ups of her, you can see every bead of sweet on her beautiful face. Only very occasionally does strong side lighting interfere with the picture quality. The sound quality is among the best I have heard on a DVD concert, but it is not audiophile. This is probably due to compression in Dolby 5.1. There are a couple of cuts slightly too heavy on the bass. The sound on her CD is quiet a bit heavier in the bass. The instruments on the CD have a tendency to be too large at times. The DVD sound has the backup instruments’ size much better represented. If the sound on the DVD were a little crisper and had a little more presence, this would be a perfect disc. The video is not very creative but it is very pleasing. Her encore song is well-interpreted. Good music, well played, good picture quality and fairly good sound make this a recommendable DVD. Purchase Here
- Clay Swartz

The Everly Brothers – Reunion Concert

Guest Artists: Guitars – Albert Lee, Martin Jenner;
Keyboard – Pete Wingfield
Bassist – Mark Griffiths
Drummer – Graham Jarvis
Studio: Delilah Films Inc. /Image Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 full screen
Audio: DD 5.1 and DD stereo
Extras: None
Length: 65 minutes
Rating: Music **** Video ** Audio **

This is the DVD of the Everly Brothers 1983 reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The DVD shows the age of the recording and state of concert recordings of its time. The video is soft and shows image smear at times because of the lighting. The sound quality is that of a very mediocre CD. The sound is soft and lacks detail and dynamics. Luckily their music does not depend on intensity very much. I find the video and sound marginally acceptable, but the reason to own this DVD is the music. It contains the greatest hits of one of the best groups in Rock and Roll history. There are 18 full songs plus a medley of three other songs. All their hits are there, including Claudette, Walk Right Back, Crying in the Rain, Cathy’s Clown, When Will I Be Loved, Bird Dog, Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie, ‘Til I Kissed You, and All I Have To Do Is Dream. I have heard that Audio Fidelity is going to release a SACD of their greatest hits, which I look forward to with great anticipation. I feel this DVD is very worth owning because of the music and the video is a bonus. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is highly preferable to the DD stereo, which is dull-sounding. Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Directed by Jacques Demy; Music by Michel Legrand
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac, Gene Kelly, George Chakiris
Studio: Miramax
Video: 2.35:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Dolby Digital
Extras: None
Length: 125 min.
Rating: ****

This delightfully entertaining musical followed Demy’s famous Umbrellas of Cherbourg, also with a Michel Legrand score, but is a bigger production and with jazzier music. Deneuve’s actual sister Francoise plays her sister in the film. (She was tragically killed in an auto accident returning to Paris after shooting of the film in the coastal town of Rochefort.) The two sisters - one teaching dance and the other piano - are waiting and pining for their true loves to arrive someday, while dreaming of leaving boring Rochefort for exciting big-city life in Paris. It turns out true love is just around the corner. One of the lucky guys is Gene Kelly, who plays a visiting concert pianist and the other is a sailor named Maxence who has been a character in earlier Demy musicals searching the world for his perfect woman. Chakiris does a fine job of both the dancing and the French, though one wonders if both his voice and Kelly’s might have been dubbed in. The musical and filmic interweaving of the various character’s stories is clever and affecting, in one case involving quick dissolves from one to the other as each sings his or her special song about their situation, and all the songs dovetail together in Legrand’s arrangement. There are also some sections singing about mundane everyday things that reminded me of a Menotti opera, plus another matter-of-factly reporting on a story in the paper regarding a killer who neatly hacked up his victim. Demy’s widow, filmmaker Agnes Varda, supervised this beautiful restoration of the film that is abounds in fantasy color-coordination as well as colorful Legrand melodies. Purchase Here

- John Sunier

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