, November 2010
Classical music lovers are not exactly known for embracing new ideas or technologies. Many opera, ballet and symphony lovers cling to recordings, both aural and video, of their favorite performances which came out years, sometimes decades, ago, on a variety of now obsolete media. That makes it perhaps all the more surprising that classical music lovers have embraced the high definition Blu-ray experience with a rather fair amount of gusto, propelling several titles into best selling status, at least within the rarified confines of this particular genre. Naxos distributes many (some would argue most) of the labels who specialize in these types of releases, and one of their main labels is Opus Arte, a British label which has consistently released the cream of the crop both in terms of repertory pieces like Swan Lake or Don Giovanni, but also a wealth of more adventurous titles like Ercole Amante and Ondine. Opus Arte has also recently branched out from music related titles, delivering a series of fine Shakespeare releases taped live at the Globe Theater. If you’ve been pondering jumping into this line of programming, but have perhaps been either unsure or concerned about quality, this second compilation release from Opus Arte, entitled The Blu-ray Experience II Opera Ballet & Theatre should provide an adequate sampling of the various sorts of titles you can expect from Opus Arte. This release contains 14 brief snippets from a variety of, as you may have surmised from the title, operas, ballets and theatre pieces. Aside from Opus Arte’s odd decision not to include subtitles on this release, these excerpts are all identical to the label’s initial unexpurgated releases of these individual titles.
Handel: Giulio Cesare. Coro: “Viva, viva il nostro Alcide!”; Aria: “Presti omai l’Egizia terra.” This interesting production combines a sort of 19th century British Empire look with some impressive stage machinery that harkens back a century or two further. Highlighted by a virtuoso star turn by Sarah Connolly and some gorgeous playing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of William Christie, this is a brisk opening for this disc.
Delibes: Sylvia. “Pizzicati.” One of the enduring classics of ballet repertoire gets a solemnly faithful staging here by the Royal Ballet, ably recreating Frederick Ashton’s iconic choreography. This production was a little too staid for my personal tastes, but ballet lovers are sure to enjoy this segment, set to one of Delibes’ better known melodies.
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte. “Di scrivermi.” We’ve had several Blu-rays of this often misunderstood Mozart piece, but this is one of the best, with brilliant lead performances by Topi Lehtipuu, Luca Pisaroni, Nicolas Rivenq, Miah Persson, Anke Vondung and Ainhoa Garmendia. The beautiful costumes alone are worth the price of admission, and the singing is phenomenal.
Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. “If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine.” This interesting production of Shakespeare’s eternal romance features an interracial Romeo and Juliet, both of whom are rather young and without a wealth of theatrical experience. While that shows especially in Ellie Kendrick’s Juliet, this is still a wonderfully organic, and often surprisingly funny, production.
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas. “To the hills and the vales”; “The Triumphing Dance”. This really interesting interpretation of Purcell’s piece combines singing with dancing, with members of the Royal Ballet augmenting several top flight opera stars (including Sarah Connolly again). With Chrisopher Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, this is a sometimes odd, but peculiarly fascinating, production of this piece.
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro. “Signore! Cos’è quel stupore?” David McVicar is seen as either the enfant terrible or the savior of current opera stagings, but he hews a sort of middle ground in this Figaro, moving it up in time to the mid-19th century. This is a luminously sung production with Anthony Pappano conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra.
Hérold: La fille mal gardée. “The Fanny Elssler pas de deux”. This staple from the Frederick Ashton oeuvre is a visual treat and often rather funny. John Lanchbery’s wonderful adaptation of Hérold’s original score is a highlight, well conducted by Anthony Twiner.
Puccini: La bohème. “Questa è Mimi”; “Ch’io beva del tossico”. We’ve had a glut of Blu-ray Bohèmes, and they all have their individual merits. This is a sumptuous production that in my opinion plays a little bit too much like a museum piece, missing some of the overarching emotion that is inherent in the tragic love story. But it’s glorious to see and listen to.
Cavalli: Ercole amanti. “Fifth entrance: Concert of Guitars”. Are you one of those people who insists opera is boring, staid and “same old, same old”? I’d highly recommend you start your sampling adventure with this track, then, if only to relish in the insanely bright purple wallpaper backdrop and the rather odd vision of a giant, rubberized baby robot-doll crawling onto stage. Yes, you did read that correctly.
Purcell: The Fairy Queen. “Night: See even Night herself is here”. This absolutely visionary production is one of the best releases in the entire Opus Arte canon and is a treasure from start to finish. Amazing to both watch and listen to, this may not be a Fairy Queen for completists (some judicious pruning has been done), but it is a theatrical tour de force.
Mozart: Don Giovanni. Aria: “Metà di voi qua vadano”. Like some of the other titles discussed above, lovers of opera have had their pick of Giovannis on Blu-ray, but for pure hedonistic lugubriousness, nothing can top Simon Keenlyside’s interpretation in this version.
Henze: Ondine. “Rocking Dance”. Ondine is probably one of the lesser known titles included on this sampler, and that’s too bad. Henze’s music is bracingly original, even as it recalls both the Impressionists (especially in his evocation of water sounds) and more forward thinking composers like Varèse. This is a neat little segment set aboard a ship.
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel. “Pantomime”. This sort of operatic Grimm’s Fairy Tale is a dark and disturbing journey and I’ve always found it completely odd that this piece has become a Christmas staple. This particular production is very colorful and well sung, and features expert conducting from Colin Davis.
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake. “Act IV Pas de trois.” We finish our excursion through the Fine Arts with a nicely lyrical performance of this Tchaikovsky evergreen. There’s nothing remotely innovative about this interpretation, but classical ballet lovers will love this slightly tweaked version of Petipa and Ivanov’s original conception.
Opus Arte typically does very good work on their Blu-rays, and these AVC encoded excerpts, in 1080i and 1.78:1, show the brilliant color and sharpness that is available in high definition. While many of these excerpts provide excellent detail, a lot of them are fairly monochromatic, and so don’t immediately pop to an astounding degree. That is certainly not the case with the outrageously bright Ercole amante, which virtually erupts off the screen in a riot of color. But there’s a lot of really subtle stuff to enjoy here, from the brilliant red martial uniforms of the opening Handel piece, to the gorgeously saturated teals of Ondine. Black levels and contrast are on the whole excellent over the course of this program, though they occasionally vary from piece to piece. Some of these snippets do suffer from poor choices in stage lighting, which the Blu-ray transfer can’t overcome. But all in all this is a nicely sharp looking variety of images which more than adequately shows what’s available on Blu-ray from Opus Arte.
There’s rarely anything major to complain about on any Opus Arte Blu-ray in terms of audio, and that holds true here, with their typical two lossless audio options, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. Stick with the 5.1 mix if you have the setup for it. Opus Arte always does a fantastic job in recording these performances, and while surround activity may not completely overwhelm you, discrete separation of orchestral sections is always magnificently handled, and the clarity and nuance of the performances is virtually always spot on. There are some very occasional balance issues to report on the operatic excerpts, which I attribute squarely to microphone issues, but otherwise the mixes here sound absolutely gorgeous. Fidelity is clear as a bell through all frequencies, and you are exposed to a wealth of different orchestral idioms here, everything from period instruments and diatonicism, to the bracing modernism of Ondine. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix shines through it all.
Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this budget priced disc.
Overall Score and Recommendation
The Blu-ray Experience II is a great way to get acquainted with the many fine releases offered by Opus Arte. I of course would argue that anyone really interested in this genre would do better to actually get one or two complete titles, but for those who want to dip their feet in the water before jumping in whole hog (so to speak), this is certainly a viable alternative. I find the exclusion of subtitles really odd, but otherwise this release is Recommended.