Over the past 20 years I’ve developed a tradition of watching a performance of the Johann operetta Die Fledermaus on New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t seen this production since it came out an Image Entertainment DVD, many years ago. Arthhaus Musik has it now and has released it in the Blu-ray format. The performance was recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1990 and is sung in English. About 65 percent of it can be understood so it might have been nice to have English subtitles as did the DVD, but alas, no go – just German, French, and Japanese. Since this is an operetta it mixes spoken dialog and singing. The former is easily understood in English, the latter less so. The cast of youngish singers is first-rate. Judith Howarth sparkles as Adele and Nancy Gustafson is a radiant Rosalinde. Louis Oley is a dashing Eisenstein and Anthony Michaels-Moore a devilish Falke. Prince Orlovsky is usually a trousers role for a mezzo-soprano, but is here is sung by a countertenor (Jochen Kowalski). The whole mash is like a 19th century romcom. Eistenstein must go to jail, which leaves Rosalinde free to the amorous, and operatic advances of tenor Alfredo (Bonaventura Bottone) whose ardor is cut short when he is mistaken for Eistenstein and trucked off to the pokey. In the meantime, Prince Orlovsky is giving a ball and the main characters all arrive there in disguise. Flirtations ensue and in Act III the whole thing is sorted out.
Since the second act takes place at the Prince’s ball, it’s a good time to insert entertainment for his guests, and for the audience. In less lavish productions this might merely be a ballet sequence, but over the years the Act II entertainment of various companies has reached for the stars. Here, Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Marilyn Horne hold the stage, singing arias and duets as a tribute to Sutherland, who was retiring after 22 years with the Royal Opera company. It was really a splendid idea and thankfully, state of the art equipment was on hand to record it. The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, proving that blasts from the past need not look awful and dated, as do a rash of recently re-issued operas on Bluy-ray curiously enough also from Arthaus Music. Also included are some Sutherland aria performances from Opera Australia productions. Outstanding among these, the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which finds Sutherland not only singing immaculately, but turning in an award caliber acting performance as a crazy lady who has just killed her newly wed husband. The overall Blu-ray is highly entertaining and simply lots of fun, a great way to usher in the New Year, with or without the bubbly.
Regular readers will know that I absolutely hate it when producers too cheap to buy good sets or directors with too much imagination on their hands have go at opera. The latest travesty is a production of Puccini’s Turandot from Bergenzer Festpiel. In this horror, we suddenly see Puccini as a character on a small set with a bed and piano, adjacent to the enormous set for the opera. Puccini jumps over and becomes the opera’s hero, Calaf. Totally wrongheaded and tenor Riccardo Massi doesn’t do well singing or acting the roles.
How comforting, then, to come across Unitel’s Blu-ray disc of a Dresden production of Weber’s ghostly opera “Der Freischuetz.” It is set solidly in the early 19th century, the huntsmen even carrying guns that look correct for the period. And we know right from the
overture (which is performed by the orchestra in the pit, no uncalled for visuals on the stage) that conductor Christian Theilemann has the dramatic score in his blood. The singers are all good but it is two secondary roles that steal the show, Christina Landshamer as Annchen and Georg Zeppenfeld as Kaspar, the cursed huntsman who has sold his soul to the devil and wishes to pass the curse on to the hero, Max (Michael Koenig). The famous Act II Wolf’s Glen scene, in which Max and Kaspar cast magic bullets with the devil’s help, is really dark and spooky. In the ensuing Act III Kaspar gets the tables turned on him when Max fires the devil’s bullet (number 7) at his love Agathe (Sara Jakubiak), thinking she is a dove. Instead of Agathe, Kaspar falls mortally wounded.
The Dresden Staatskapple orchestra is brilliant throughout with special praise due to the splendid horn section. The sets are dark and forbidding and the costumes subdued as they should be for such a dark and mysterious work. The staging is flawless and the video filming is close to perfect. The camera shots are always right on the mark to keep the story clear and logically flowing. The DTS-HD 24bit/48kHz sound had excellent presence and clarity. This is video opera done right!
After my rant earlier in the week, it was wonderful to discover a beautiful opera production that I can share with you. This is the new Opus Arte Blu-ray of Donizetti’s La Favorite from the Orchestre et Choeur du Capitole de Toulouse. It’s done in French and works very well that way. The opera was preimiered in 1840 and is the epitome of a romantic work. Fernand (Yijie Shi) falls in love with Leonor (Kate Aldrich), not knowing that she is the mistress of Alphonse XI, King of Castille (Ludovic Terzier). As Fernand and Leonor are about to be married, the truth comes out. Fernand believes his honor taken and joins a monastery. A dying Leonor finds him there and the two briefly reunite before she expires.
The production is very beautiful. Using minimal sets, Vincent Lamaire bathes the stage in color and uses mirrors to great effect. The Overture is not staged, nor is the interlude leading to last act, where we get a good change to see maestro Antonello Allemandi at work. The music comes first and it’s lovely to hear. American mezzo Kate Aldrich has a fine spinto voice and manages all the tortuous twists and turns of her part with ease. Yijie Shi is new to me, a Shanghai born lyric tenor able to spin a phrase beautifully but also possessing great power when it’s called for. The rest of the cast is magnificent, including the chorus, which stands still most of the time while making beautiful music. The HD picture is color rich and has excellent contrast, and the recorded sound is quite good, whether you choose 2.0 or 5.1. Except in a very few instances, the voices are clearly heard yet the orchestra sounds rich and full. I believe this is the only video version of the French 4-act version of the opera. It is so good, it will be a long time before it is challenged.
Yesterday I posted information on Audio Fidelity’s surge to bring back quad recordings of pop music as they were originally recorded, sometimes tweaked. Today I am looking at classical music and the Pentatone label. Pentatone was founded in 2001 by former Philips engineers and has established itself in 14 years as a major source for classical music. It has been pro multichannel surround from the beginning. Almost all of the label’s new recordings have been multichannel. Only a few radio broadcasts to commemorate conductor Hans Vonk have been regular stereo. Pentatone has also been releasing Philips recordings form the quad era, presenting them in the original four channels without giving in to the temptation to remix them to 5.1. The rear channels on all of Pentatone’s issues so far have been used for hall ambiance and reverberation, making the front images sound more three-dimensional. Now, the label has started releasing DG quad recordings and we discover that DG had an entirely different take on surround sound, at least with opera.
Two of the initial Pentatone-DG releases are operas and both use the rear channels as much for dramatic effect as for ambiance. Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable version of Bizet’s Carmen features a world class Carmen in Marilyn Horne and a great supporting cast including James McCracken (Don Jose) and Tom Krause (Escamillo). The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra plays like the best orchestra in the world for Bernstein. The recording was always good but surround makes it better, if controversial. The overall sound is much more open and transparent, allowing one to catch more details in the scoring. But dramatic action uses the surrounds in ways that will delight some listeners (myself included) and alienate others. The offstage effects make sense. In Act II, Don Jose enters form the rear and the offstage trumpets are heard from behind, too. The children’s chorus in Act I comes in from the back, goes to the front stage, then out again. But in Act III, Scene 2, the bullring is placed in the rear so that the full chorus is heard there, which might be extreme for some listeners. I love it. In the other opera release, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, the chorus seems rooted in the back channels as well as a few of the “Americana” instruments, such as banjo. Both of these sets, by the way, are are presented as handsome hard cover books, containing the full libretto and historic photographs. The discs slip into sleeves inside of the back and front covers. I found both wonderful and imginative improvements over the original stereo sets.
Giuseppe Verdi wrote Don Carlos as a five-act opera to be premiered in France but it was quickly translated into Italian and sheared its first act so as to be more manageable. Even at that, it comes in close to over three hours and a half. This length would be untenable were it not that the opera contains some of Verdi’s best music. This Teatro Regio Torino production uses the four-act version and is released on the Opus Arte label. The story is that of King Philip of Spain (Ildar Abdrazakov), whose son Don Carlo (Ramon Vargas) adores Elisabeth of Valois (Svetlana Kasyan) who is married to Philip for political reasons. The four-act version starts after Carlo first sees Elisabeth and after she is married to Philip so becomes more about the friendship of Carlo and Rodrigo (Loudovic Tezier) than about romance. Carlo can’t keep his mind of his new step-mother, is found out, and Philip sentences him to prison. The opera shrewdly displays how much power the church had over the state in the mid 1500’s. The Grand Inquisitor (Marco Spotti) is feared by all.
The singers are all quite good and the friendship between Carlo and Rodrigo is especially strong in this production, almost to the point of bromance. for indeed they are brothers. Tezier’s Rodrigo is sonorous and warm, Vargas seems a little small-voiced at times, but is always on pitch and phrasing beautifully. The ladies are both quit successful in their individual arias and in ensembles, but it is Abdrazakov as Philip II that seems really at the top of his game. As good as all the singers are, it is really the production that wins the day. A revival of a highly successful 2006 production, it features massive sets (check out the size of the statue compared to he singers on the cover photo), and opulent costumes that exhibit magnificent color and detail. Sets and costumes are caught in sharply focused HD video. Gianandrea Noseda leads a solid performance, though I expected more fire from hearing his outstanding recordings of Liszt and Rachmaninoff with the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos downloads, via Linn Records. The recorded sound here is offered in two flavors, PCM stereo and dts-HD Master Audio 5.1. Both are excellent with good detail and appealing warmth.