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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 31 May 2005

Cecilia Bartoli: A Portrait
Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano
György Fischer, piano

DVD Decca 0710141-9

For those who enjoy Cecilia Bartoli, and I am one, the DVD under review gives us the first documentary about her from 1991 and also a recital given the same year at the Savoy Hotel in London. Both documentary and recital allow us to see how much the singer enjoys what she is doing, her expressiveness, and her ability to communicate with an audience. The documentary has been broadcast several times already and offers us few new insights into a  singer now in her full maturity who has been giving interviews for more than ten years. The recital portion for the most part contains items that we have already encountered on other Bartoli CDs, the exceptions being—to the best of my knowledge—one of Despina’s arias and a Vivaldi aria, but all rendered with the freshness characteristic of Bartoli at her best.

Kathleen Ferrier: An Ordinary Diva

DVD Decca 074 3067

Kathleen Ferrier’s memory lives on thanks to a large number of recordings that are still maintained in the catalogues for performances of such depth that they continue to speak to us today. The BBC was slightly hampered in putting together this documentary as there is very little of Ferrier on film, but the interviewees succeed in conveying the extraordinary power that the contralto possessed, not only as an interpreter but as a person possessing great warmth but also courage as she battled against the disease that ultimately took her life. A bonus included with the DVD is a 77-minute sampler CD that covers the singer’s career, Bach, Handel, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and English folk song. A must.

Great Opera Singers
Gundula Janowitz, Rita Streich, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, plus Elisabeth Grümmer, Isabel Strauss, Ernest Blanc, Wolfgang Windgassen and Gottlob Frick; various orchestras and conductors

DVD EMI DVB 5996879

Once again, thanks to the archives of the BBC and the French television (INA – Institut National de l’audiovisuel) we are allowed a glimpse of singers from the recent past, some of them simply names to younger audiences who know their work only from audio recordings. Gundula Janowitz and Elisabeth Grümmer shared much of the same repertoire, but with two very different voices. Janowitz used an instrumental approach, but these extracts from early in her career show her involvement in the texts of arias from Freischütz and Tannhaüser , while Grümmer’s mellower approach, textually aware, can be enjoyed in a lengthy extract from Lohengrin where she is joined by Isabel Strauss and Ernest Blanc. Rita Streich’s fabled charm is devastating in her four arias, from the pure coloratura ecstasy of Linda di Chamonix to the cajolery of Susanna or Lauretta to the wonderment of Russalka. Tito Gobbi and Boris Christoff benefit from the BBC’s policy of  presenting singers in costumes and sets so that we get an idea of what they were like in the context of a staged performance, Christoff as Boris of course, while Gobbi offers Falstaff, Iago, Gianni Schicchi (with closing words to the audience in English) and Scarpia, though the chorus for the latter is on the skimpy side. Conductors include Peter Maag and Alan Lombard for Janowitz, Charles Mackerras for Gobbi and Georges Sébastian for Parsifal. Not to be missed.

Bizet – Les pêcheurs de perles
Annick Massis (Léïla); Yasu Nakajima (Nadir); Luca Grassi (Zurga), Luigi De Donata (Nourabad)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Marcello Viotti, conductor

DVD Dynamic 33459

Bizet’s Pearl Fishers have been recorded on several occasions, but this is their first appearance on DVD. Rather than giving us yet another performance of the long prevalent version with adaptations by people other than the composer, a large audience can experience the composer’s first thoughts on the subject. An earlier recording on EMI with Georges Prêtre, Ileana Cotrubas and Alain Vanzo (now available in a bargain format) had already allowed us to become acquainted so that the famous tenor-baritone duet, "Au fond du temple saint", shorn of its customary conclusion, no longer sounds quite so strange to our ears while nonetheless remaining less effective than the familiar version. Other revisions deprived the text of any coherence to which it might have pretended, while making a mess of the ending of the opera. Annick Massis is near perfect as Léïla, the role suited to her talents, while her charm and exceptional vocal qualities are allowed to shine. Luca Grassi’s Zurga shows a man tormented, but able to deliver vocally all the notes of a difficult role. Yasu Nakajima’s Nadir alternates wonderful singing, whether the dreamy "Je crois entendre encore" or ringing high notes, with a too occasional throaty emission. Pier Luigi Pizzi’s decorative approach to sets, costumes and staging may not be to the taste of those wishing for a more modern approach, but those who love the opera should find this to their taste. The late Marcello Viotti displays yet another facet of his expertise, making us regret even more his sudden death a few months ago.


Tosca’s Kiss: A Film by Daniel Schmid

DVD EMI 7243 5 99784 9 9

Tosca’s Kiss is an enthralling yet at the same time sad and pathetic film: a documentary made at the Casa Ricordi in Milan. The film is at the same time an homage to the great composer who left the royalties for his works to the home for retired musicians that bears his name. A significant role is played by Sara Scuderi, a well-known soprano of the inter-war years, who we hear in song, reliving her triumphs particularly in the role of Tosca, and it is a joy to watch her with one of the other denizens enacting the final scene from Act 2 of Tosca. It is at the same time sad to watch these people who live so much in the past, however much they still engage in musical performances at the Home, whether as a group or simply in duet, but they are not easy listening. The personalities are generally engaging, and I think that since the film was made in 1984 additional forms of funding have been tapped and the Casa is also open to students, which should provide the tonic needed by the older residents. There are supposedly three audio tracks of Sara Scuderi that I could not locate, nor did the DVD-ROM function to provide me with the promised notes and biographies.

Thomas: Hamlet
Natalie Dessay (Ophélie) ; Béatrice Uria-Monzon (Gertrude) ; Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet) ; Daniil Shtoda (Laërte); Alain Vernhes (Claudius); Markus Hollop (The Ghost); Gustavo Peña (Marcellus); Lluis Sintes (Horatio); Celestino Varela (Polonius); Joan Martin-Royo (First Gravedigger); Francesc Garrigosa (Second Gravedigger)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu
Bertrand de Billy, conductor

DVD EMI 7243 5 99447 9 1 (2 DVDs)

Say what you will about Ambroise Thomas and his operas, Hamlet —when given a chance – proves to be an enormous crowd-pleaser, while offering the interpreters of the two leading roles sterling moments. In this DVD from the Liceu in Barcelona, Natalie Dessay and Simon Keenlyside are incendiary, although the effect is slightly diminished from what one experiences live, as I was able to witness when these same two artists performed the work in the same production in Geneva a few years ago. Bertrand de Billy keeps a firm hand on the performers, while the fact that three are francophone and one an Englishman whose French is near-perfect means that there are almost none of the wrenching sounds that sometimes issue from other performers, in this case Daniil Shtoda whose grasp of the language is faltering. Alain Vernhes as the King and Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Gertrude, the latter despite a particularly unflattering wig, strengthened the backbone of the performance. The Leiser-Caurier production is functional, though for the most part far too dark for home-viewing. Dark may be atmospheric, but sometimes dark is simply dark. Here we are too often deprived of the opportunity to see the principals’ faces, and more’s the pity as they are so expressive. What Dessay does with the Scène de la Folie has to be seen to be believed, while Keenlyside, as his partner, lives every moment with every fibre of his body.

Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer
Yvonne Howard (Marilyn Klinghoffer); Sanford Sylvan (Leon Klinghoffer); Christopher Maltman (Captain); Tom Randle (Molqi); Kamel Boutros (Mamoud); Leigh Melrose (Rambo); Emil Marwa (Omar; sung by Susan Bickley); Dean Robinson (First Officer); Vivian Tierney (Swiss Grandmother); Kirsten Blasé (British Dancing Girl); Nuala Willis (Austrian Woman)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
John Adams, conductor

DVD Decca 074 189-9

Either one likes the music of John Adams or one does not. In either case, this film is fascinating, shot on location, with a number of cuts made with the composer’s approval (he is the conductor) and with a cast of amazing singer-actors. We now all are familiar with the opera fashioned after a factual event, the killing of a wheelchair-bound passenger on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean by a group of Arab terrorists who were on their way to another target. The work was recorded in the studio, but almost all of what we see was sung while being filmed to the pre-recorded orchestral track. Penny Woolcock ha s taken the abstruse original and given it a cinematic twist by featuring additional non-singing participants who become recognizable throughout, though some of their gestures were meaningless until I heard Woolcock’s commentary. The DVD is also interesting because it contains not only the opera and a 47-minute documentary about the making of the film, but you can replay the opera with an overlay commenting on directorial choices and singers’ reactions. It is impossible to single out individual performances as everyone is part of the whole, each giving his all with the utmost belief in their work.

Wagner: Tannhäuser
Solveig Kringelborn (Elisabeth); Isabelle Kabatu (Venus); Martina Jankova (Shepherd); Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser); Jonas Kaufmann (Walter); Roman Trekel (Wolfram); Rolf Hauntstein (Biterolf); Martin Zysset (Heinrich); Guido Götzen (Reinmar); Alfred Muff (Hermann)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zürich Opera
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor)

DVD EMI 7243 5 99733 9 5 (2 DVDs)

Tannhäuser remains a problem opera, the title role difficult to cast, the choice of versions (Dresden, Paris or a composite) a thorny issue, and the stasis an obstacle for those directors who feel the need for constant movement. Chloé Perlemutter, the film director, is clearly of the latter school. There are lots of overhead shots of orchestra in the middle of verbal exchanges, backstage shots of the singers’ preparations during instrumental preludes, cross shots to orchestral soloists in the middle of sung passages, amorous photography of the conductor to distract us from the central issue – the music. After several years heading the Zürich Opera, Franz Welser-Möst has overcome his early reputation as a golden boy, leading a solid performance. Peter Seiffert is a more lyrical Tannhäuser than other exponents of the role, but he survives the close-ups detailing his suffering, beads of perspiration running down his face. Solveig Kringelborn’s excellent Elisabeth has to maintain the purity of line in her prayer while removing her clothing, carefully folding it before disappearing down an illuminated pit. Roman Trekel’s Wolfram touches us with his devotion to Elisabeth. Hermann and the other knights are solidly sung (it is difficult to be imaginative as Hermann) and Isabelle Kabatu makes the most of Venus, an almost minor role in the Dresden version.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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