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Donald Feldman
American Record Guide, May 2011

Joyce DiNato stands out for clarity of voice and purity of line. Stephanie Novachek...has more acting spirit and style as befits her position as the leading singer-actress and change agent.

Adamo’s music is a blend of atonal and romantic that several reviewers felt detracted from a smooth integration. I found it stimulating. I agree with John Rockwell, who, in The New York Times after the March 2003 New York City Opera premiere, called Little Women a masterpiece.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.



Jeremy Marchant
Fanfare, May 2011

I confess my heart didn’t exactly leap when I opened the package from the editor and discovered this DVD. Little Women is not on the “must read” list of English men and, on playing the disc, things didn’t start well as the work opens in a rather understated way. However, let me say straight away that well before the midpoint, I was completely won over, all my reservations disappeared, and I found myself engrossed in this opera. For those more familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s novel than I, I should say that my research tells me the opera is based on the portion of the book dealing with the marriages (or not) of the four March sisters. It was premiered in 1998 at Houston in the production recorded here, and the recording is making a belated debut on disc, having been taped in 2000.

Apparently this is Adamo’s first opera (he was born in 1962), to a libretto by the composer; the underlying strength of the work is Adamo’s assured sense of structure, creating an impressive and moving narrative arc building to a real climax in act II and finishing convincingly. I cannot say how faithful he is to the book, or whether it matters if he isn’t, but, as presented, the story and the fates for the four women are gripping enough. It is essentially an ensemble piece, and Adamo successful characterizes each person as an individual. If some of them appear somewhat fleetingly, as if their literary parallel lives were rather more rounded, one can see how and why Adamo prunes in the interest of the trajectory of the music. In any case, I guess it was inevitable that the opera should end up as a metaphorical dance for the female quartet, drawing in the other players as and when needed to move the story on.

Adamo produces a rich orchestral texture, as varied as it is illustrative of the emotions of the characters, out of four woodwinds, horn, percussion, harp, two keyboards, and a matchingly small body of strings. It is as if the scale of the orchestra matches the essential domesticity of the plot (although I imagine commercial concerns could and should have played a part, too). Yet I wasn’t aware of the size of the band until I checked after viewing the whole opera.

A great strength of this production is the depth of quality in the cast list. No doubt the singers were well into the parts by the time of the recording and used to playing as an ensemble. All four March women are expertly sung, though I must single out Stephanie Novacek as Jo, prima inter pares, who is compellingly watchable and emotionally convincing. It’s hard to comment on the singers’ performances without mentioning the video production, since that is the means by which one is aware of much of the performances. This, too, is right on the ball: It conveys the sense of the original stage production (I guess—what I mean is that it obviously is a stage production) but the mixing in of many close-up and medium-range shots allows the viewer to relate to the characters emotionally by being able to see facial expressions and non-verbal communication clearly. Brian Large brings his vast experience in this field to directing the video production with consummate self-effacement; the camerawork never draws attention to itself, and it is always where you want it at any moment of the drama. So it is thanks to this sensitive direction that one can appreciate the acting and singing performances so much. As for the original theatrical production, it seems serviceable enough; it certainly provides a fairly neutral resource with which to produce this excellent recording. I must add that the orchestra and Patrick Summers’ conducting clearly contribute to the overall success of the show.

This is the same production, and possibly the same recording, that appeared on Ondine in sound only in 2001 and was less than rapturously received by John Story…Story’s beefs, as I understand them, are that it isn’t a faithful realization of the book, that by deconstructing Jo’s passage through the story psychologically it misses the whole thrust of the 19th-century original, and that the plot-driven parts of the opera are intentionally written in a 12-tone style at odds with the lyrical passages. I’m sure that’s all true. I’m tempted to say that I find the opera a success not just despite these reservations but actually, in part, because of them. Maybe it helps to see it—even if, as for me, the sound is not as good because I don’t have my television hooked up to my best hi-fi…this is a remarkably successful opera given an excellent performance and production.



Dr. Melvyn H. Schreiber
The Galveston County Daily News, April 2011

Louisa May Alcott’s story (1868–69) of four sisters is the basis for young Mark Adamo’s opera, and it mostly is faithful to the story. Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg, the March sisters, are the principals, each with a tender and touching story.

Meg finally assents to marry John Brooke after a passionate protestation of his love, and despite Jo’s objection that he’s 28 years old and has one foot in the grave. Laurie (a man, despite his name), once in love with Jo, is now enamored of Amy, and Jo, really the star of the show, laments the changing events in her family’s life, saying: “We were perfect as we were.”

Poor, fragile Beth sickens and dies in one of the loveliest, saddest moments in the opera. She calls Jo to her side to say to her: “You’re tomorrow’s child, not I.”

The March parents, Alma and Gideon, are loving, caring people but with none of the panache of their daughters. Aunt Cecilia March, very rich and opinionated, offers to leave all of her estate to Jo, who seems the most sensible of the girls, not succumbing to the entreaties of men, but Jo demurs and begins to be attentive to Mr. Bhear, who is interested in her.

Jo retires to the attic, scene of many happy hours with her sisters in the past. There, they are brought together in a ghostly and moving reunion, perfect as they were again, “four sisters, one soul.” But the music and the words remind Jo that “things change” and “things end.”

Mark Adamo wrote the music and the libretto, much of the latter in rhyming couplets, not so obvious in listening to the singing as in seeing the words in the subtitles. The opera is sung in English, but the words are sometimes hard to distinguish because of the demands of the music, making subtitles helpful.

The music is not melodious Mozart but is powerful and moving, more in recitative form, with fewer arias. The combination of a very thoughtful libretto, excellent acting, marvelous staging and splendid if modern music produces a memorable and effective production, the first of HGO’s world premieres to receive a revival.

Stephanie Novacek, as Jo, is outstanding, bringing to the operatic stage better acting than one is accustomed to. She and Margaret Lloyd (Amy), Stacey Tappan (Beth) and Joyce DiDonato (Meg) are a memorable and marvelous foursome, thoroughly convincing.

All of the supporting cast members are strong, but what one takes away from this striking performance is the intelligence and ingenuity of the composer and librettist. Mark Adamo is a phenomenon, from whom, I think, we can expect better and better things.



Laurence Vittes
Gramophone, March 2011

Mark Adamo’s setting of Louisa May Alcott’s novel boasts an impressive cast

I reviewed this March 2000 taping when it was released on public television in 2011 and found Little Women to be “neither a Currier & Ives lithograph nor a searing psychological portrait”. Mark Adamo’s opera about an American woman coming of age during the dawning of feminist struggles, I said, was more likely to tug on the heart-strings than to arouse the body politic. The story is told in flashbacks from the March family attic, which enables Adamo to create multiple perspectives on central moments in the story such as Beth’s death, where Jo and her memories seem to have physical insubstantiality of ghosts.

Adamo’s deeply personal brand of music theatre envelops Alcott’s beloved sisters, family and friends in a simple but intense stream of appealing tunes and  uncomplicated harmonies ranging from 20th century psychological anguish to Broadway melodies. The composer’s libretto captures much of the grace and fluency of Alcott’s writing, and generously keeps the large cast busy with a series of arias and ensemble pieces. Director Brian Large captures the bittersweet melodrama of the action without distracting from the flow of the music. What was an outstanding cast 200 is still astounding today, led by Stephanie Novacek, who patiently creates for Jo a spectrum of intimate depth and then explores it with a sure dramatic touch and a voice of power and beauty. She is equaled in emotional range and outdone in virtuosity by Joyce DiDonato’s explosive, radiant Meg. Silver-voiced Chen-Ye Yuan as Friedrich Bhaer is brilliant. The DVD has demonstration-quality sound both on the stage and in the pit, where the orchestra play with precision and style. As a calling-card for Mark Adamo, who is currently working on a commission from San Francisco Opera for the 2013 season, this release is also a convincing demonstration that Little Women could be an audience-pleaser wherever it plays.



Mark Mandel
Opera News, February 2011

ADAMO, M.: Little Women (Houston Grand Opera, 2000) (NTSC) 2.110613
ADAMO, M.: Little Women (Houston Grand Opera, 2000) (Blu-ray, HD) NBD0007

The DVD notes claim “more than seventy national and international engagements” for Mark Adamo’s first opera, an extraordinary record. This season alone has seen the work at Pensacola Opera in January, with performances at Utah Opera and University of Michigan planned for March. With a libretto by the composer after the Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Women was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, performed by the HGO Studio in March 1998 and presented as part of the HGO regular season in March 2000, when it was filmed for PBS at the Wortham Center’s 1,100-seat Cullen Theater.

Above all, Little Women is well crafted and superbly balanced. Adamo’s lyrical, tonal “character music” gets more time than does his crisp, twelve-tone “narrative music,” but neither feels dominant; changing from one to the other often has a striking dramatic effect but sometimes feels nearly seamless. The balance of sentiment and irony is close to ideal. For me, sentiment spills over into sentimentality just once, when Jo speaks to Laurie for thirty-five seconds in the last scene. Unity is achieved through recurring verbal and musical motifs and by strict adherence to the theme—Jo’s learning to accept that “things change.”

One might ask why intelligent Jo struggles so hard to learn that, or note how homely the theme seems for a work created between John Adams operas on terrorism and the atomic bomb. But surely Little Women’s very domesticity is vital to its performability and its appeal. Adamo’s skill at setting everyday language suggests (without equaling) the Britten of Albert Herring; like that libretto, this one can be quite sophisticated, as in Jo and Bhaer’s repartee in the Act II nocturne.

Little Women has much memorable music: Laurie’s and later Amy’s soaring expressions of love; Jo’s “Perfect as we are,” shuttling between warm cantilena and spiky recitation of one of her lurid tales; Meg’s “Things change, Jo,” with phrases of contrasting length and pianissimo held notes; the letter ensemble, with eight characters tossing back and forth the “write soon” refrain; Bhaer’s long-lined, romantic Goethe reading; Beth’s death scene, with undulating strings and changing harmonies; Jo and the sisters’ poignantly harmonized last aria and quartet. What is most disappointing is the going-nowhere hymn, as Alma and Gideon March recall their wedding vows: Adamo seems to waste his Act I finale to show that Beth as a composer is ineffectual.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek is a magnificent Jo, making her likeable even at her most intrusive and stubborn, persuasive in sentiment and irony, dominant vocally and visually. As Jo’s sisters, mezzo Joyce DiDonato brings strength of voice and character to the one Adamo calls “elegant Meg,” soprano Stacey Tappan brings lovely, transparent tone to “ethereal Beth,” and soprano Margaret Lloyd brings point and personality to “peppery Amy.” As the girls’ male friends, tenor Chad Shelton sings Laurie with ardency and squillo, baritone Daniel Belcher sings Brooke smoothly, and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan, who looks young for Bhaer, sings with exemplary legato. As the girls’ parents, baritone James Maddalena is a gentle, understated Gideon, and mezzo Gwendolyn Jones ranges from gentle to commanding as Alma. Mezzo Katherine Ciesinski is scorching as Cecilia March, the no-nonsense, anti-romantic aunt. Bass-baritone Derrick Parker’s solid Mr Dashwood completes a cast without weakness.

Adamo and conductor Patrick Summers draw plenty of color from a twenty-musician orchestra. Peter Webster’s stage direction on Christopher McCollum’s five-level set and Brian Large’s video direction are lively and apt. The DVD sound is excellent, the picture superb.



Kirk McElhearn
MusicWeb International, January 2011

Based on the hugely popular novel by Louisa May Alcott, this opera tells the story of four sisters during the American Civil War. Adamo shifts this to the post-war period. Growing up in Concord, Alcott was strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a close friend of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa May spent much time in Emerson’s study/library reading his books. She saw the struggles for women’s rights that many Transcendentalists espoused. While familiar to Americans—this book is often read as a children’s book—it may be less familiar to those in other countries. Composer Mark Adamo says that “Jo’s journey called to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will present itself over and over again, in slightly different guise, until at last the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point.” Alcott would tell the continuing story of the four sisters as they try to have their own lives in several sequels.

One can see from the very first shots that this is not a film of an opera, but rather an opera performed and directed especially for television. Shots are narrow and tight, the stage is small, and the characters seem restricted in their movements because of the small stage. This makes the performance look less like an opera than a Broadway musical. In the first scene of Act I, the stage, intended to be the attic of the March sisters’ house, is very small, but in the second scene, the stage is much larger, and the space gives the characters more room to move around, and some of the shots are wider. However, only the one set used in the second scene, and one later scene, are truly airy; all the others are small and seem constricted.

The approach of the filming remains that of television, where tight shots are the norm, and there are few chances to appreciate the stage and set design. This divorces the characters from their surroundings, and minimizes any feeling one might have of the characters in a broader landscape.

Musically, I guess you have to like this kind of thing to appreciate it. To my ears, it has that tic of modern opera of having too many non-melodic and monodic phrases, often dissonant. There’s something about this type of music that ranges from monody to leaping atonal phrases and caterwauling that grates on my ears, yet this seems to be a very popular opera. Nevertheless, there are sections of poignant lyricism, which contrast sharply with the work’s mostly atonal stance. Would that Adamo had focused more on the lyrical aspects and less on the almost serialist body of the opera.

While I’m not the best judge of the music, therefore, it is fair to say that the performers are all top-notch, especially Stephanie Novacek and Joyce DiDonato. I question the choice of Derrick Parker as Mr Dashwood, however; not that he’s not a fine singer, but given the context, a black newspaper editor seems unlikely. Remember, the novel takes place during the Civil War; in addition, Alcott does not say that Dashwood is black, which she certainly would have. Alcott was a staunch abolitionist, and if it were possible that such a character be black, it is likely that she would have chosen to do so. That said, the poetic license of opera allows such things, and so be it.

In the end, my main criticism of the production is that it tries to be something other than an opera; too many tight shots and close-ups put the characters in a spotlight that seems a bit odd. It could be, of course, that one is used to operas filmed as operas, and that this approach, which is unusual, will shock by its intimacy. The camera work is not very interesting, because of the decision to focus too intensely on individual characters at the expense of their relationships to others. One exception is the scene where Beth is on her death-bed; the constrained camera stance intensifies the anxiety of the characters gathered around her in her last hours. The close ups of Beth and Jo are quite emotional.

In a way, it’s surprising that it took so long for this work to be released on DVD. Filmed in 2000, and broadcast on American television in 2001, it took nearly ten years for it to become available on disc. Given its relative popularity—it is frequently performed in the United States—it is likely to be a good seller for a contemporary opera.




Robert Levine
ClassicsToday.com, December 2010

Mark Adamo’s Little Women, now 12 years old, has been seen in more than 60 venues in its short life, from New York to Toronto to Chicago to Adelaide to Tokyo. Watch this fine performance and you’ll see what it is that makes it so popular.

Adamo doesn’t spoon-feed “new” music in this opera, but save for the recitatives, which are 12-tone, the work is tonal and contains set-pieces: arias, duets, ensembles. Of course the work is notoriously sentimental, but Adamo keeps the story going smoothly forward, and the truly sentimental moments are so beautifully handled that we feel moved rather than manipulated. An aria such as “Things change”, sung by Meg as she explains that she’s fallen in love with John Brooke, is one of those frozen moments of deep feeling that make opera great: its sentimentality is a by-product of its sincerity.

Vocal lines can be either direct or melismatic. When the March sisters sing together they can sound like a Renaissance quartet, but in conversation the music is set simply and naturally. Adamo uses only 18 instrumentalists, but they can make a ruckus when called for; interestingly, in moments of high drama (Beth’s death scene, for example), he holds them back.

The performances from this Houston Grand Opera 2000 revival of the original 1998 production are glorious—natural, well-rehearsed, just stylized enough. Stephanie Novacek’s Jo and Joyce DiDonato’s Meg are the show’s center; Jo’s inflexibility stands in contrast with Meg’s ability to accept things as they are. Both mezzos sing handsomely and clearly. Sopranos Stacey Tappan and Margaret Lloyd, as Beth and Amy, get more attention as the opera progresses, and though their characters are not as finely drawn, their places in the ensembles are crucial and appreciated.

Of the men, Chad Shelton’s impetuous Laurie is bright-toned and bright-eyed, and Chen-Ye Yuan’s Friedrich is suitably serious. And just when you think there may be too many high spirits, along comes Katherine Ciesinski as the girls’ sour aunt Cecilia.

The sets (by Christopher McCollum) and stagecraft (Peter Webster is the director) have a summer theater way about them, but too much sophistication would kill the story. Patrick Summers conducts with love and understanding. The opera is sung in English and there are English subtitles. Sound and picture are first rate. This is lovely.



BroadwayWorld.com, November 2010

Houston Grand Opera (HGO) is pleased to announce the commercial DVD release of its 23rd world premiere, Little Women, by the American composer Mark Adamo on the Naxos label. Little Women, recorded for this release at its HGO revival in 2000, had its premiere in 1998 in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston. Mr. Adamo’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel was the first of HGO’s forty-one world premieres to receive a revival.

Little Women was the first opera for which Adamo composed both music and libretto. It has since been nationally telecast on the PBS series “Great Performances,” released on CD by Ondine Records, and heard in over 70 national and international engagements including New York, Mexico City, Minneapolis, Adelaide, Tel Aviv, Calgary and Tokyo.

Following the 1998 premiere, William Albright of Opera News described Little Women as “a musically and emotionally satisfying work” with “characters sympathetically and crisply drawn.” Wayne Gay of The Fort Worth Telegram wrote, “Musical motifs that stick in your head, characters that come to life both dramatically and musically, [and] superbly managed orchestra resources…make this opera look and sound like a winner.” Of the revival performance, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini called it “visually stimulating” and Barrymore Scherer of the Wall Street Journal heralded it as a “major miracle of success.” Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe called the PBS “Great Performances” broadcast “a grand success.”

Singing the roles of the four March sisters are American mezzo-sopranos and HGO Studio Alumnae Stephanie Novacek and Joyce DiDonato as Jo and Meg, and American sopranos Stacey Tappan and Margaret Lloyd, making their HGO debuts, as Beth and Amy. Former HGO Studio artists baritone Daniel Belcher and tenor Chad Shelton sing the roles of John Brooke and Laurie.

Houston Grand Opera Music Director Patrick Summers leads the HGO orchestra. The production is directed by Peter Webster with sets by Christopher McCollum, costumes by Melissa Graff and lighting by David Plevan. It is directed for video by Brian Large.



Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, November 2010

Mark Adamo’s operatic version of Little Women is a very welcome change of pace, treating the material as more than anti-feminist fluff as Hollywood has been doing so for too many years now.  Split into two acts, it seems to bring out an honest discourse of Miss Austen’s classic [Little Women was written by Luisa May Alcott, not Jane Austen - Ed] long missing and forgotten by the recent wave of lame, tired, homogenized, flat, dull film versions.  Patrick Summers conducts the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Peter Webster did the stage directing, Brian Large directed the HD shots and the cast out acts big name Hollywood stars as well as being exceptionally gifted singers.  Bravo everyone!



Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, November 2010

I had long despaired of ever finding a “modern” opera that I actually enjoyed. A welcome exception is Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” that premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2000 and was telecast on Public Television. It was somewhat prematurely hailed as a “masterpiece” by some critics. The video has now been restored on a Naxos DVD, for which I am most grateful.

For starters, I actually felt involved with the characters, thanks mostly to the fine acting of the cast. It begins with Jo (Stephanie Novacek) reminiscing about the past and learning from her brother-in-law Laurie (Chad Shelton) how his marriage to Amy (Margaret Lloyd) has not lessened his desire to remain “good friends” with Jo. He uses the word “perfect” and this forces her to think of what she considers perfect: things always remaining as they are.

The rest of the opera, starting two years earlier, shows Jo to be obsessed with keeping her sisters united and bitterly opposing Amy’s marriage to Laurie and also that of Meg (Joyce DiDonato) to the poor teacher John Brooke (Daniel Belcher). Any viewer familiar with Alcott’s novel can see that Adamo’s libretto has taken certain central incidents from the book and recast them around the theme of Jo’s obsession with perfect changelessness.

For those who shed a tear when Mimi sings her last words, it would be best to have plenty of tissues for the scene in which Beth (Stacey Tappan), whose illness has never promised her any future at all, bids farewell to Jo.

Another challenge Jo must face is Friedrich Bhaer (Chen-Ye Yuan). He attracts her, but as usual she fights her own feelings. It is only when her spinster Aunt Alma (Gwendolyn Jones) offers Jo a future as sterile as her own that she realizes how wrong she has been and refuses the inheritance.

While Adamo’s music is seldom memorably melodic, there are moments of great beauty, especially in those tonal passages that the composer reserves for character study. Music that supports plot development relies on 12-tone and dry recitative. On an audio recording, the latter would be boring. But in this fine production, the sets and the acting offer an excitement not provided by the score.

There is one scene in which most of the cast are paired off on different parts of the stage. One phrase sung by one character in one context is picked up by another character in a completely different context. It is clever and effective. The epilogue in the attic, in which the four sisters are somehow reunited, is marvelous; and I leave it to the viewer to enjoy it without any further explanation.

For me, the vocal highlight of this work is Bhaer’s singing, first in German and then in English, Goethe’s poem “Kennst du das land?” Yuan has a powerful baritone that makes this a memorable moment in recent musical drama.

I must mention the fine work done by the rest of the supporting cast: Katherine Clesinski (Mrs. March), James Maddalena (Mr. March), and Derrick Parker (the publisher, Mr Dashwood).

The running time is 115 minutes, the picture is in letterbox format, and there are English subtitles. And I am thinking what a fine seasonal present this DVD would make.



Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, November 2010

When he was a composer-in-residence for the New York City Opera, Mark Adamo commented that “even writing a small opera is like sculpting a David.” He could have been referring to Little Women, which was Adamo’s first opera for which he wrote both the music and the libretto (in the case of this disc, he also wrote the program notes). When it was first proposed to Adamo in 1996, he found the idea of composing around the plot’s relatively conflict-free episodic stream so uninteresting that the commission initially fell through. Adamo had written a proposal for the work, however, and after David Gockley of the Houston Grand Opera got hold of it, the company produced a scaled-down version in 1998. The full production that appears on this disc, staged in 2000, was later broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances series. This is a chance to own a staged recording of an opera that is performed with greater frequency every year. In the role of Jo, Stephanie Novacek is strong if a bit stoic, and Joyce DiDonato’s performance of Meg leaves no doubt as to why she was recently named Gramophone’s “Artist of the Year.”



David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

I came to know Mark Adamo this time last year with a Naxos release that included the orchestral score, Alcott Music, a musical picture of four characters in the book, Little Woman. Now, in a splendidly crafted production from the Houston Grand Opera in March 2000, we have the opera, Little Women, composed in direct lineage of. Samuel Barber’s opera, Venessa. I have never read  the novel by Louisa May Alcott, which forms the basis of Adamo’s libretto, so I am approaching it in purely operatic terms. In this interpretation it looks at the original story from the standpoint of one of the four sisters, Jo, and the philosophical thought that those we love will, in all innocence, wound and abandon us as they select a destiny that is not ours to regulate. Jo’s journey through life is surrounded by Meg, Beth and Amy, whose actions, at times, she can hardly understand. Produced by Peter Webster with his designer, Christopher McCollum, the Houston set is on three levels, depicting the various points of action, and is cleverly thought out. I suppose looking back in a decade or two we will conclude that it had the most ideal cast imaginable, with the outstanding mezzo, Stephanie Novacek, being visual and vocally ideal as Jo. Back in 2000 the glittering career of Joyce DiDonato was just beginning, her beautifully focused soprano making a charming Meg, Stacey Tappan and Margaret Lloyd complete the four sisters. Chad Shelton’s Laurie and Daniel Belcher make highly plausible young lovers. There are two minor male roles: Derreck Parker as Dashwood, and Chen-Ye Yuan as Jo’s eventual lover, Friedrich, their singing right out of the top drawer. The chamber orchestra of Houston Opera is admirable under the conductor, Patrick Summers, and the television director, Brian Large, again scores a triumph. It also comes on Blu-ray NBD0007. Hugely recommended.






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