Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

About DVDs - reflections from the Editor of Seen&Heard (PGW)

See also Arthaus Musik DVD - An Overview  by Gary Dalkin

These responses are those of a music lover who rarely watches television and is engaged on a daily basis in live music making and reviewing musical events for S&H. Having dipped my toe in very tentatively, Seen and Heard a few Arthaus DVDs on friends' machines (and even reviewed the Arthaus Tristan & Isolde with Jon West, the same Tristan as currently at Covent Garden ) without being totally convinced that they would change my life, I have finally taken the plunge and purchased one. I now offer a few first reactions - not the full reviews that some of these DVDs (but not all) merit.

DVD players take a little getting used to, but they do provide excellent picture clarity and good sound - I haven't explored some of their more recondite features, nor yet got into the mysteries of surround-sound! Some DVDs are transfers from TV programmes, with close camera work aimed at people who need to know what a singer's glottis or a piccolo looks like in close up; others are determined to keep the pictures on the move so as to retain attention. More recent ones are likely to be far more sophisticated and the best of them offer remarkable experiences.

Presentation varies and is not as good as we have come to expect (but do not always receive) from CDs. Translated texts are sometimes rather crude.

Opera singers can make uncomfortable companions large as life in the living room! Conventional gestures in close up do not always convey the intended emotion. It is surprisingly hard to concentrate on the music and its performance per se - the visuals always seem to take the centre stage of attention, more so than may be so in the opera house.

This limited survey suggests that small may be better than large, but with notable exceptions. I got little pleasure from two well-praised releases, Fidelio from Covent Garden & Aida from Milan. It was impossible to empathise with Pavarotti awaiting suffocation or starvation to death, but in the theatre the turbulent conflicting emotions of that last scene can work and engage emotions.

The Marinsky Theatre production of La Forza del Destino (100 078) is, not unexpectedly, very traditional, which some undoubtedly will welcome, and it would seem that the stage director, no less than Elija Moshinsky (see recent review of his astonishing Turn of the Screw) must have been constrained by the situation in St Petersburg. The orchestral playing and sound is splendid, but I was surprised how Gergiev's baton quivered in the prelude - was he emoting for camera? Some of the singing, led by Galina Gorchakova, is excellent, but much of the acting and chorus work is wooden and adds nothing over a CD.

Turandot at San Francisco (100 003) starts with a huge advantage - colourful, indeed gaudy, set designs by David Hockney, which provide something to look at always. But that pleasure is short-lived; the picture is prettified, as are the costumes, but in no way does the overall production relate to contemporary concerns - not so impossible as might be supposed. The sets for each act earn immediate applause at curtain-up, and in the 'three riddles' scene there are spectacular acrobatics before the serious action. Yet the central drama develops in a conventional manner, and never engages the mind as well as the senses. Michael Sylvester sings magnificently as Calaf (a lovely, unexaggerated Nessun dorma) but Eva Marton, shrieking in close up, her voice seeming to me to be in tatters, destroys all illusion, and as presented on screen turns the famous confrontation into just another win-or-lose-all TV quiz show; she remains less than alluring in the love-scene capitulation! The contrast, for example, with the wonderfully original WNO production, which S&H covered at Oxford, and that left us pondering and discussing for days, speaks volumes.

A Kronos Quartet DVD, In Accord (100 050), was the first to be sampled, and I was underwhelmed. It is more of film than concert, and was accordingly reviewed by Colin Still, as well as by Gary S. Dalkin, who has also published a valuable over-view of the first DVDs released, with technical assessments . He can number me amongst the many who 'will simply find it too gimmicky, and the music too negligible to warrant serious attention'. I preferred the Kronos before they hit the big time and became wedded to profitable minimalism - reviewing once at the Royal Academy of Music, playing Sallinen to a student audience of about a dozen, is a treasured memory (another was Evelyn Glennie, performing before a tiny handful of people in Sydenham!).

So to my favourite DVDs to date, the main point of this little report and intended for consideration when compiling your Christmas lists.

For opera, pleasurable surprise came from an unexpected quarter; Falstaff (100 022) not Verdi's masterpiece, but by the much maligned and little known Salieri. This I recommended warmly on finding it "a piece which, whilst falling short of masterpiece status, demands to be Seen as well as Heard - - - this production at the little rococo theatre in Schwetzingen Palace ideal for home viewing - - a joy to watch - - the understatement of the stage picture benefits from the high quality of DVD screen viewing. - - - an opera which looks good on screen and is far more enjoyable with vision than would be possible on CD - - -". (An equivalent pleasure is to be had currently at ENO, La Bohème by Leoncavallo, not Puccini's.)

The most sensational is a semi-opera, normally given in concert performance, sometimes staged with variable success. The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz (100 003) from the Salzburg Festival last year, is about the most sensational musical/visual experience I have ever had from a TV screen, and it deserves the accolades heaped upon it (there are dissenters too, however - so perhaps my enthusiasm reflects how rarely we watch TV!). The performance is engrossing musically and I found impressive the filming and recording of the grandiose spectacle mounted in the Felsenreitschule, which is carved out of a cliff-face (as I recall from about 50 years ago, when I watched Furtwangler conduct a dress rehearsal of The Magic Flute in which four singers were still competing for the three parts as Ladies of the Queen of the Night!). This is the one to go for, and I hope to return to consider it in more detail.

Finally to Jiri Kylian's Black & White 'ballets' and Nederlands Dans Theater (100 084). This is the one DVD of them all which I shall hope to See & Hear again and again, anticipating undimmed satisfaction. The music is by Bach, Mozart, Reich and Webern, given in classic recorded performances by top musicians (including Kremer, Uchida, Quartetto Italiano & the BPO/Karajan) and sounds magnificent here. It is placed in unusual juxtapositions & contexts, both aural & visual (Bach's Sarabande from Suite no.2 is combined with an electronic sound tape by Dick Heuff). Far from conventional ballet, Kylian's abstract dance creations are endlessly inventive, sometimes menacing, often funny, always catching the breath with their rich vocabulary of innovative movement and the interactions between the personable dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater. The introduction tells us that Kylian uses classical models for his free and imaginative modern style, and that his novel figures and sequences never fail to astonish. I cannot put it better. He has a highly developed feeling for music and the two interact closely in these six contrasting works, played on an empty stage but lit with astonishing virtuosity by Joop Caboort and directed superbly for the small screen by Hans Hulscher. This, and the Berlioz, are my 'five-star' recommendations.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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