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

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All Music

Renée & Brynn • Under The Stars (2003)

Starring: Renée Fleming, Mezzo-Soprano; Bryn Terfel, Baritone; with the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera conducted by Paul Gemignani and Gareth Jones
Directed by: Emyr Afan
Studio: Decca
Video: 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 2.0, PCM 2.0
Extras: Making of Featurette, Discographies, Biographies, Picture Gallery
Length: 106 minutes
Rating: *****

This exceptionally entertaining DVD combines two of musical theater’s brightest stars, Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel, in a pair of evening concerts at Bryn Terfel’s Faenol Festival in North Wales from August 2002. The first concert focused on a selection of opera arias, both for each performer solo, and for soprano and baritone; the second evening offered a selection of Broadway showtunes following the same format. Each set offers a simply stunning showcase for both Fleming and Terfel, with superb accompaniment from the Welsh National Opera Orchestra. Gareth Jones conducts “A Night at the Opera,” and Paul Gemignani takes over for “An Evening on Broadway,” and both elicit superb performances throughout from the players. This DVD serves as a companion piece to the CD of the same name, which chose to focus only on the Broadway aspect of the project.

Every aspect of the presentation is just visually and sonically stunning – the 16:9 anamorphic widescreen video is brilliantly detailed with gorgeous color rendition and virtually no visible artifacts; the audio gives you either 5.1 DTS or Dolby and PCM stereo to choose from. All audio options provided sterling sound; I did most of my listening to the DTS soundtrack, which provided a very focused soundstage up front, with ambience and applause mostly filling the surrounds. There’s not a whole lot of surround action here, but the performers are firmly placed on the stage, and the ambience gave the presentation much more of a “you are there” feeling.

Aesthetically, the video chooses to focus mostly on the performers, with an occasional pan to the gorgeous Welsh countryside, or with the players occasionally silhouetted against the same, all to good effect.

The highlights here are just too numerous to slather over – it’s obvious that both performers are not only great singers, but also great actors as well with a deep understanding musically and theatrically of each presentation. I was particularly impressed with Fleming’s Dvorák from Rusalka, and with the pair’s offerings from Lehar’s Merry Widow. The three numbers from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess were offered in exceptionally idiomatic performances – I just kept hitting the replay button repeatedly for each song! And Terfel’s offering of Seventy-six Trombones from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man just stopped the show! I could go on forever.

The making of featurette was a really interesting addition to the special features – it makes you wonder how these two very busy performers ever got together in the first place. Most of the conversations here and footage seems to deal with the sessions for the CD release – the video sessions seem almost like an afterthought, but what an afterthought! Anyway I give this disc five stars, and if you’re a fan of either performer, or of just lyric theater in general, this one is a must-have! [I wasn't as impressed with Fleming - lots of sliding into notes and too much crooning for my ears. I think opera singers should stick to opera and B'dway vocalists stick to B'dway...Ed.] Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs

Sir Thomas Beecham in Montreal

HANDEL: Amaryllis Suite/MOZART: 2 Concert Arias: "Vorrei spiegarvi, Oh Dio," K. 418; "Voi avete un cor fedele," K. 217; Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 "Prague"

Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Montreal Symphony Orchestra
Maria Stader, soprano

Studio: VAI DVD 4230
Video: 4:3 Black and White
Length: 58 minutes
Rating: ****

The opportunity to see as well as hear Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) in concert comes too rarely, since Sir Thomas made only one video appearance in his native Britain. This concert, from March 22, 1956, marks his earleist appearance in the medium. The one hour broadcast features his two favorite composers, Handel and Mozart, the former represented by a suite Sir Thomas culled from various Handel operas. The Mozart concert arias represent significant additions to the Beecham legacy, while the Prague Symphony has long been a Beecham staple.

The camera work is fairly straight-on for the entire broadcast, the 1956 kinescope quality's being less than pristine. Beecham is in demure, economical form; he seems pleased but not exultant about the proceedings. He does appear to savor the collaboration with Maria Stader, the durable, even explosive soprano who worked so well with Fricsay, in the concert arias: the first, meant as an insertion into Anfossi's Indiscreet Bystander, is an amorous lament whose brilliant coloratura passagework is contemporary with the virtuoso writing of the C Minor Mass. The aria for Galuppi's Le Nozze is by the sixteen-year-old composer of the violin concertos. The final work, Mozart's Prague Symphony, has the buoyancy and pep we expect from a Beecham rendition. It is not "authentic" Mozart, but it is spirited and elegantly poised. The use of a mid-size orchestra and the selective camera work help to play up some clean, individual lines whose tenderness we had already enjoyed in Amaryllis. Purchase here

--Gary Lemco

ROSSINI: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

Cecilia Bartoli, David Kuebler, Gino Quilico, Carlos Feller and Robert Lloyd, with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart conducted by Gabriele Ferro
Studio: Arthaus Musik/Naxos
Video: 4:3
Audio: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Italian, English, French, Spanish, Japanese
Extras: Arthaus Musik trailer 8 min.
Length: 157 mins.
Rating: ****

This thoroughly charming production of Rossini's most famous opera,filmed for television in 1988 at the Schwetzingen Festival (off the beaten path between Mannheim and Heidelberg) shows that the future of recorded opera must be video, video, videoThe singing, aside from Bartoli's stunning work, is good but onlyoccasionally outstanding. Gabriele Ferro's conducting is sensitive but hardly memorable. The sound is fine but nothing audiophile (toolight in the bass, for a start). And Michael Hampe's stage directionis, on the surface at least, conventional. However, the whole is so effectively incorporated into a wonderful operatic experience by television director Claude Viller that it captures the invention and power of Rossini's invention with rarely equaled impact.

Bartoli, of course, is the star of the evening, her creamy mezzo effortlessly negotiating the runs, roulades, trills and thrills of her role with such obvious enjoyment and complete control that one must hear her every note. The rest of the cast are certainly good-ish, though without the sheer beauty of tone Bartoli flaunts so adorably, and they act as brilliantly, too. David Kuebler's Count is a marvel of ardor and romance, and Gino Quilico's Figaro is a perfect blend of reality and fun. The secondary roles are well done: Carlos Feller's grumpy Bartolo makes the perfect foil for Figaro's hijinks, and Robert Lloyd's towering Basilio nearly steals the show when he thunders his La calunnia aria.

In the pit, the Stuttgart orchestra plays beautifully, and Ferro conducts them with a marvelous emotional and dynamic range. Michael Hampe's direction is deeply and authentically human-note the way Bartolo locks up not only his liquor cabinet but the piano keyboard as well, or how the Count looks reflectively as Rosina. Most important, all of this marvelous stuff is captured perfectly by Claude Viller's cameras, as if the singers were totally unaware that the performance was being filmed, as if the opera were coming alive before our very eyes. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

The Intimate Duke Ellington (1967, 2002)

Studio: Danish Broadcasting Corp./Image Entertainment
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM mono, English
Extras: None
Length: 57 min.
Rating: ****

Nothing like this ever was seen on U.S. television, more’s the pity. The first of these two half-hour programs for Danish TV begins with some solo piano selections and then Ellington is joined by his bassist and drummer to round out the show in trio form. The second program is an octet session, with Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney among other Ellington regulars. There are no corny introductions or chat with a program host and no special production - just Ellington at the piano and his sidemen against a light background. The PCM sound is excellent except a few places where the first note of a tune is briefly up at too high a level and distorts. Also, it suffers from something of an inbalance between Ellington’s voice introducing the numbers and the actual performances. Like many classical FM stations where the announcer’s voice is too loud in relation to the music.

But this is a small complaint in the face of these terrific performances by America’s greatest composer ever, lovingly preserved for posterity. There are many extreme closeups of Ellington’s face which are fascinating. One doesn’t miss color or stereo; these programs stand beautifully on their own. One priceless image is that of Harry Carney using his circular breathing technique to hold the last note of Sophisticated Lady for 90 seconds. One of the other saxists is sitting down on the left staring off into space and completely ignoring Carney during his long note. Until the note ends and the other player suddenly comes to life and jumps up with his sax to play.

Solo Trio Program: Le Sucrier Velours, Lotus Blossom, The Second Portrait of the Lion, Meditation, On the Fringe of the Jungle, Mood Indigo, Take the A Train. Octet Program: Take the A Train, Passion Flower, The Jeep is Jumpin,’ Sophisticated Lady, Tippin’ and Whisperin,’ Happy Reunion, Satin Doll, Jam with Sam, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.
Purchase here

- John Henry

Alison Krauss + Union Station – Live

Studio: Rounder DVD 11661-0515-9
Video: 1.78 ratio shot originally in High Definition
Audio: DTS & DD 5.1 and PCM Stereo
Extra: Interviews, behind the scenes and on the road footage, photos and home videos, Discography, Video of New Favorite, and Tribute to Frank Edmonson.
Length: Disc 1 - one hour sixteen minutes; Disc 2 – over one hour
Rating: ****

I reviewed the SACD of the concert very favorably last issue. Needless to say this is a really great concert. The question arises, which is the best way to experience it? My feeling is that it is useful to have both. If I were to choose one, it would probably be this DVD. The video, which is high quality, definitely adds interest to the concert. The concert does not have a lot of stage theatrics or flashy dancing but the high video quality of the close up shots is very alluring. Seeing the instruments being played also adds interest. Alison Krauss is also pretty pleasant to look at. There is the advantage of having all 25 songs on one disc. The sound quality of the DTS track is fairly close to the SACD sound. The SACD does sound a little better, which is to be expected - having more focus, detail and dynamics. Without direct comparison between the two, most listeners would feel the DTS sound is not lacking at all.

The DD and PCM layers are definitely a step below the DTS. They sound somewhat muted and dull, robbing the music of life. This being said, the DD and PCM layers are still above average for DVD. The DVD does leave off one song - that being There is a Reason - that is found on the SACD. They also use Down by the River to Pray over the credits at the end. This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and I wish they had played the concert footage of it and then used it again to play over the credits. The use of surround sound on the disc is well done, being mainly ambience and crowd noises.

The photos and videos on disc two are mildly interesting. I am not too much into such extras, but some might be. The video of New Favorite is a worthwhile extra. I now have more feeling for the words after seeing it. In the tribute to Frank Edmonson, I wish they had said more about what happened to him and who he was. I gather from the pictures and videos he must have been their stage manager. The soundtrack is an Alison Krauss song. At the end of the tribute they showed that he died last year in his early fifties. Strictly audio-oriented people or people without DTS decoding will probably prefer the SACD. Others will probably go for the visual attractions of the DVD. Purchase Here

- Clay Swartz

Paul Is Live • in Concert on the New World Tour (2003)

Starring: Paul McCartney (with band)
Directed by: Aubrey Powell
Studio: Liberty International/Rounder
Video: Pan and Scan
Audio: DD 5.1, Dolby Headphone, PCM 2.0
Extras: Biography, Photo Gallery
Length: 85 minutes
Rating: ***

I have to be brutally honest here – Paul McCartney broke up the Beatles. A lot of people seem to think that Yoko or maybe even Linda (Eastman McCartney) should bear the brunt of responsibility – but there’s no doubt about it – it was mostly Paul. And I’ve had a tough time forgiving him and his somewhat standoffish attitude towards the other Beatles in the years since. George and Ringo were more forgiving, but I don’t think John ever did make any sort of reconciliation with Paul. And one thing that has troubled me somewhat in the years that have passed since John Lennon’s death is Paul’s resurgence of popularity, especially among young, influential teenagers (including my daughter), totally infatuated with the “cute Beatle.” It’s been really hard for me not to go off on some kind of unrestrained rant (not unlike this one) around my daughter and her friends who probably see me as just another crabby, crazy old ex-hippie.

This video performance covers the 1993 “New World Tour,” which probably was Linda McCartney’s last tour prior to her untimely death. There was a big media circus about this same time, with endless radio replayings of a concert recording of an out-of-tune Linda singing away during Hey Jude, but thankfully (and perhaps out of respect) we’re spared any of that here. [We’re also spared her doing anything - Paul just has her stand there banging her tambourine throughout...Ed.] What we’re not spared is Director Aubrey Powell’s flower-power vision of a concert video – the entire thing is one continuous series of sequences that alternate between really grainy concert footage, mezzo-tinted shots of really grainy concert footage, and color-posterized shots of really grainy concert footage. This is all interspersed with the same treatments given to shots of the audience, and other footage of various subjects that really puzzles me as to what the intent was here. Yellow Submarine, this ain’t! And I’m really trying to be objective here – this is just what I’m watching on the screen, trying to make heads or tails of. Wouldn’t a video that focuses on the performers have been sufficiently entertaining to watch here? Do people buying this disc want to see an art-house film, or a McCartney performance video?

The sound quality is really good, fortunately, whether your choice is the PCM stereo track or the 5.1 Dolby Digital. It had been pointed out to me that there might be a problem with McCartney’s vocal levels on the 5.1 DD soundtrack, but I had no problem whatsoever switching between the PCM and DD tracks. I was able to replicate the suggested problem by switching between audio settings with my DVD player’s remote, and not changing the settings at the receiver level, which left the 2.0 PCM input attempting to be decoded as 5.1 by my receiver, and totally hollowed the quality of the vocals.

This disc gives you very little in terms of extras, and sour grapes aside, unless you’re an impressionable teenager or a die-hard fan I’d rent this one first before buying. Purchase Here

- Tom Gibbs

Count Basie at Carnegie Hall (1981)

With Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, George Benson & Joe Williams
Studio: CBS Cable/Kultur
Video: 4:3 full screen, color
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Extras: none
Length: 120 min.
Rating: ****

One of the last televised appearances by the great Basie and his band, this was a lavish live show at Carnegie Hall celebrating the bandleader’s 50th anniversary in music. The show opens with a fairly lengthy documentary tribute to Basie which is well worth watching. Then we get right into the greatest swinging band ever, with the leader’s sparse perfectly-chosen few piano notes to spur the aggregation on to new heights. There are 21 musical selections in all. Tony Bennett is tops as always, and the duet on Moody’s Mood for Love between Vaughan and George Benson is a kick and a half. Most of the big Basie hits are here: April in Paris, One O’Clock Jump, Shiny Stockings, In a Mellow Tone. Williams is a delight in Every Day I Have the Blues and Goin’ to Chicago. The video camerawork is appropriate and the sound - while lacking the impact of his best recordings - is actually quite good. This is a keeper for any jazz and home theater fan. And by the way - Jeez - why was this only on cable and not on a major network? So little jazz or classical on TV (in the U.S., anyway) the last couple decades - bummer, man. Purchase here

- John Henry

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