The Technology of the Future:
Has DVD Made the Opera House Obsolete?
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.
(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
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.#
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