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New York City
September 2002

DVD: The Technology of the Future:
Has DVD Made the Opera House Obsolete?
By Irving Spitz

The advent of DVD (digital video discs), a medium that combines an outstanding digital video image with superb surround sound, has revolutionized the presentation of music in general and opera in particular. The leaders in this new technology are Universal Classics, representing the Decca, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon labels, and Naxos, who distribute the Arthaus Musik, BBC/Opus Arte and TDK series. When I first came across DVD recordings, I was somewhat skeptical. How could the drama and excitement of the opera house possibly be transferred to the living room? But it didn’t take too long before I was completely won over.

Decca has recently released two Puccini favorites, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, which were recycled from laser discs, that short-lived technology, which, like the ill-fated betamax, never really caught on. Both of these performances are true cinematic versions. Tosca, whose story encompasses the intrigues of love, jealousy, politics and murder, is particularly well suited to the film medium. Directed by Gianfranco de Bosio, it was filmed in its precise settings in Rome; Act 1 in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act 2 in the Farnese Palace, while the finale is played out in the Castel Sant’Angelo. The triad of murders–Tosca’s stabbing of the evil Scarpia with a knife, Cavaradossi’s execution by the firing squad and Tosca’s subsequent suicide–are vividly portrayed. In Butterfly, director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle brings his genius into play most effectively in the successive scenes which reveal Madame Butterfly’s initial shock, then hope, when she fantasizes of returning to the U.S. as Pinkerton’s wife, and her ultimate desperation and suicide. Ponnelle effectively utilizes close-up images and subtle changes of shading and lighting to highlight her emotions. What is particularly impressive is that these films do not sacrifice the integrity of the staged opera. In fact they enhance it.

Tosca (recorded in 1976) features Raina Kabaivanska in the title role, with Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi and Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia. The New Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Bruno Bartoletti. Madame Butterfly (first issued in 1974) has the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Mirella Freni as the hapless Cio-Cio San. Placido Domingo is featured again, this time as the American naval officer Pinkerton, and Christa Ludwig is Suszuki, Butterfly’s servant. As expected from this roster of singers, the vocal performances are impeccable. The young Domingo is in the prime of his voice in these two dramatic roles. Mirella Freni’s is simply stunning. These DVDs should be regarded as treasured items and will long be considered gold standards by which future performances will be judged.

Arthaus Musik (distributed by Naxos) has released two of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni from the
legendary Zurich Opera house productions directed by Jurgen Flimm and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Filmed staged performances can never be as visually compelling as the cinematic equivalent, but nevertheless, director Brian Large does certainly succeed
in making the drama come alive. In Cosi particularly, the intrigue and duplicity are ever present. Both of Arthaus’ DVDs have vocally and dramatically brilliant performances by Cecilia Bartoli as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Fiordiligi in Cosi. This consummate artist, with her impeccable stage presence and vocal mastery, certainly succeeds in capturing the moods and of both roles. In Cosi, Bartoli is well supported by the Dorabella of Liliana Nikiteanu and the Despina of Agnes Baltsa. Roberto Sacca and Oliver Widmer as the two confused loves and Carlos Chausson as Don Alfonso complete the casting. All complement each other, making this DVD a really most desirable item.

Sacca, Nikiteanu and Widmer also feature successfully in Don Giovanni as Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto respectively. Laszlo Polgar, Rodney Gilfry and Matti Salminen sing the roles of Leporello, Don Giovanni and the Commendatore and Isabel Rey that of Donna Anna. But in this Don Giovanni, it is Bartoli who dominates the drama. Indeed, her towering presence alone makes the purchase of these DVDs well worthwhile.

The cost of a single DVD opera disc runs about $30. The two Puccini operas each fit onto a single disc, while each Mozart opera is on 2 discs, making DVDs competitive with CD boxed operas. The visual format adds immensely to the overall enjoyment. Indeed, Universal will probably stop producing operas in the CD version, concentrating exclusively in presenting opera in the DVD format, which, in view of the quality of the product, is a wise and prudent decision. With this new technology, the multi-language libretti of the boxed CDs are no longer required. Instead, there is the possibility of selecting subtitles in multiple languages. The DVD package also comes with informative discussions of the opera as well as the artists, and an easy guide enabling the listener to identify and replay specific arias.

Nothing, of course, can replace the magic of a live performance in the opera house. Only the privileged few, though, can afford the hefty prices of the best seats and fully enjoy facial expressions in the live performance. These are images which are easily seen in a DVD. In addition, this new format has the ability to capture legendary singers in their prime and is available to the music lover as a permanent record.

Yes, music for the masses at affordable prices with perfect visibility and sound has arrived. With the advent of DVD, the opera house has been successfully transplanted to the living room.#


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
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All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.