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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Superconductor Gift Guide Part IV: Opera on DVD

Johannes Brahms on a day off
from the North Pole.
Hah! Thought we were done, did you? No, gentle reader, we're going on with the Gift Guide, presenting you with the some more things that we think should be under your tree this year.

Next up, our look at excellent opera DVDs to enhance your viewing pleasure. Some of these are available on Blu-Ray.

Der Ring des Nibelungen
There are a lot of versions of the Ring on DVD, enough to write a whole series of columns about. There's the Ring as family psychodrama. Future shock. Cyberpunk. And the famous Chereau staging where Wotan is played as Wagner himself.

But being that I've written about most of those in the past, I'm going to recommend a classic. This is the famous Metropolitan Opera production of the Ring: realistic costumes, magic fire, and an honest-to-goodness dragon in Siegfried that is some strange blend of mechanics, hydraulics, and stagehands hiding in a cave. James Morris, Siegfried Jerusalem, and Hildegard Behrens lead a stellar cast. This is old-fashioned Wagnerian entertainment, right down to the winged helmets.

The Fairy Queen:
I raved about this production when Les Arts Florissants brought Purcell's drama to BAM last spring, and I'm so pleased to see this wonderful staging finally available on DVD. William Christie leads a note-perfect production of this massive work, which has its roots in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Henry Purcell's "semi-opera" is an unusual creation: a hybrid of drama and opera dating from 1692. Shakespeare's story of nobles and mechanicals caught in the snares of woodland fairy folk is preserved, but the dialogue is completely different. Under William Christie's sure leadership, Les Arts Florissants deliver an utterly satisfying musical and dramatic experience.

The real reason to see Fairy Queen is the entertaining series of masques at the end of each act, which feature spectacular singing and staging that will make you think twice about haystacks. (Baron Ochs would have loved this.)

Ariadne Auf Naxos:
Speaking of Richard Strauss, I'd like to recommend two different versions of one of my favorite operas: Ariadne auf Naxos. The first comes from Vienna, and is a 1978 Deutsche Grammophon film, starring Gundula Janowitz in the title role. The stellar supporting cast includes Rene Kollo (in half-decent voice for once) as Bacchus and Edita Gruberova, who sparkles in the role of Zerbinetta.

The second is a long-buried chestnut from the Metropolitan Opera vault, released this year as the only individual disc from the company's massive set of DVDs celebrating James Levine's 40th anniversary on the podium at the big house on W. 64th Street. I was in the house for at least one of these 2003 performances, which feature the all-star cast of Deborah Voigt, (Ariadne) Natalie Dessay, (Zerbinetta) and Suzanne Mentzer as the Composer.

The Complete Mozart Operas
Contrary to the beliefs held by most record company executives, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 22 operas. Most of them are represented in this exhaustive series of DVDs. In addition to the hits (Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte) the viewer can trace the development of Mozart as a composer from boy genius to fully mature musician while seeing some really obscure operas that almost never get staged anywhere.

The set even includes the very early cantata Die Schuldigkeit der Ersten Gebots along with L'Oca del Cairo, a strange comedy that Mozart rejected because its libretto involved a large mechanical goose. This is a reissue of a 2006 set (at a much lower price) preserving the "Mozart 22", an ambitious program to stage all 22 Mozart operas in the 2006 season at the Salzburg Festival. But conservatives be warned: these Salzburg productions may not be for the faint of heart or those who think Mozart stage design stops with Amadeus.
Which brings us to....

Amadeus (Director's Cut)
OK. I know it's not an opera. But I wanted to take this space to mention how much I like the director's cut of Milos Forman's Oscar-winning film. It's about 20 minutes longer, with more sex, more sub-plots, and of course, more music.

For those of you who've never seen it, Amadeus is an adaptation of Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, exploring fictional aspects of the tumultous relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his rival, composer Antonio Salieri. The film features a stellar cast, gorgeous period costumes, and the snow-swept streets of Prague doubling for Vienna.

Amadeus was finally released on Blu-Ray last year. It's a pity that with all that extra room for data storage, and even a second bonus disc, that this release doesn't include Neville Marriner's splendid adaptations of Mozart's music that form the work's award-winning score.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.