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Doug Urquhart (Southport, CT USA)

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Carmina Burana: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Ozawa) [VHS]
Carmina Burana: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Ozawa) [VHS]

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A travesty, 20 Feb 2009
I saw this many years ago, on TV. However good the orchestra and soloists might have been, they were overwhelmed by the appalling chorus, singing phonetically words that they did not understand.

The 1975 Ponelle production, with the divine Lucia Popp, is streets ahead of this train wreck. Unfortunately it isn't available on DVD in the US at the moment.

Wagner's Meistersinger: Performance, History, Representation
Wagner's Meistersinger: Performance, History, Representation
by Nicholas Vazsonyi
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.06

5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining set of essays, 8 Feb 2009
For a Wagnerite who had to miss Bayreuth this season, this was an entertaining set of essays, to read on the beach while the grandchildren built Valhalla in the sand. To continue the seaside metaphor, I think this book is best looked-at like one of those fascinating rock-pools - full of diverse creatures, some interesting, some mundane, some frankly grotesque, and a few surprises.

There are a "critic's dozen" essays (like a "baker's dozen" but slightly less than expected, rather than more). The book is organized into three sections - Performing, History and Representation.

The first section, including essays by Peter Schneider, Harry Kupfer, Fischer-Dieskau and Lydia Goehr, gives fascinating insights into the challenges of performing Wagner: Schneider's description of practicalities (such as reigning-in the Meisters, to avoid drowning out Walter at the end of Act 1), Kupfer's very clear understanding of the characters, and the dynamics linking them, and then back to practicalities, where Fischer-Dieskau describes the physical difficulties presented by the role of Sachs.

The History section is much more of a mixed bag.
The first essay is rather, er, academic in nature. If you find it amusing to read essays plagued by three-fold structure (here it comes, here it is, there it goes) , rampant neologisms, malicious use of nouns as verbs, strangely irrelevant illustrations and gratuitous use of the word 'paradigm', then you'll have a field day. If you can suppress the desire to strangle the author, so much the better.
The second essay in this section is the outcome of an in-depth study of how Nazi propaganda used Wagner's works; the author had to plough through several hundred extremely unsavoury publications. The result may be surprising (and, I suspect, disappointing) to some - lashings of nationalism but not a trace of anti-semitism.
The final essay in the section, presented as a modern interview with der Meister, is only partially successful. The old chap comes across as far too Politically Correct in my book.

Three of the four essays in the final section resurrect the relatively modern 'controversy' that Wagner's works are steeped in antisemitism. The general impression from this section was that many Wagner experts follow the tried and trusted rule, as followed by drug squads all over the world : always bring your own evidence, in case you can't find any at the scene of the crime.

The final essay in the book, by Eva Rieger, was a refreshing look at Meistersinger from a feminist point of view. I was particularly amused by the idea that Sachs renounced his claim on Eva as soon as he realized that she had chosen another man (much less damaging to the male ego). Right on target, Fraulein Rieger.

Let's be very clear. This isn't Dieter Borchmeyer, but it's an entertaining read. Nicholas Vazonyi is an erudite and entertaining speaker, a splendid editor and an excellent translator, as the book shows. (Any thoughts about translating some of Wagner's essays, Herr Vazonyi? It's about time someone replaced those awful Ellis things.)

Recommended Summer reading for Wagnerites. See you at Liebesverbot, in August. (review written in 2008)

Our Hitler [DVD] [1977] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Our Hitler [DVD] [1977] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Harry Baer
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: 33.80

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Syberberg's Masterpiece - at last on DVD, 7 Feb 2009
This is a very rare film, unavailable in the U.S. for several years.

In 1977, Syberberg made a statement during an interview: "I think in five to ten years, the filmmaking business will shift from the way of the movie theater to the house. People will watch films like they listen to records - on cassettes on a big wall". The timescale and medium may be wrong, but he was right about the trend.

At more than seven hours, 'Our Hitler' is an ideal example of a film which is virtually unwatchable in a theater setting, but perfect for the home environment, where the action can be paused and restarted at will, and spread over several evenings, if necessary.

Syberberg's style is unmistakeable, combining front-projected images, stage props, tableaux and puppets, overlaid with Wagner's music and long monologues. Daunting? Not at all. The key to appreciating this wonderful film is to pace your viewing. Think more in terms of atmosphere rather than action, content rather than plot. A knowledge of German history and culture is useful, but not essential. Just sit back and allow the film to to enter your mind.

The twin DVD set includes the four parts of the film, plus fragments of a documentary produced when the film was first shown in New York. The documentary is derived from a badly-deteriorated VHS copy, and is riddled with sound dropouts and tracking errors, but is still fascinating. The package also includes a fifty-page guide to the film (which is handy for those of us who can't recognize Thomas Mann when we see him). The booklet includes reviews by Susan Sontag and Anton Kaes.

The film itself is available in the English or German versions. The chosen language determines the language of the subtitles and some of the voiceovers.

I saw this film many years ago, on British television. I've been looking for it ever since. It's marvellous that it should be available on DVD at last. The other two films in this trilogy ('Ludwig - Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König' and 'Karl May') have just been released on DVD in Germany. I hope these titles will soon be available in the U.S.

Wagner - Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg [Levine, Heppner] [DVD] [2004] [NTSC]
Wagner - Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg [Levine, Heppner] [DVD] [2004] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Price: 19.60

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent performance. Excellent sound. Buy it., 31 Jan 2009
Let's start with the technicalities. The picture and sound quality of this disk are superb!The picture is anamorphic wide screen (even though the box describes it as 4:3) and gives crystal-clear reproduction of Gil Wechsler's 'Old Master' lighting effects. The DTS 5.1 sound faithfully reproduces the ambience of the Met (even including the guy with the cough, a few rows down on my left), and is outstanding for a live performance.

The performance? It's the Met - what do you expect? Levine and the Met Orchestra were in top form, extracting every bit of humor and pathos from some of Wagner's most beautiful music.

I must confess that I was worried that James Wotan Morris could handle the essential humanity of Sachs, but I needn't have bothered - he was perfect. It was strange to see him singing with both eyes open, though.

Thomas Allen's Beckmesser was a tour de force, reminding me of Hermann Prey. Not only does Allen sing well, but he is an excellent physical comedian. The scene in Sach's workshop was hilarious. He also managed to convey Beckmesser's malice - essential if he is not to be perceived as a pathetic victim.

Ben Heppner's Walter was outstanding. It is said that nobody plays Walter well. Mr Heppner did. He's the first good Walter I've ever seen.

Rene Pape's Pogner was beautifully sung and acted, but I can't help feeling that he looks a bit young for the part. Well, that's my fault for not suspending disbelief properly - his performance was impeccable.

And now Karita Matilla. I'm probably going to be lynched by one of her rabid followers, but I don't think she makes a particularly good Eva. Her voice was superb, and all that, but there has to be a chemistry between Eva and Sachs, and it just wasn't there. I don't think it was the fault of Morris, either.

My favorite video production of Die Meistersinger is the 1984 Bayreuth production with Weikl as Sachs. At the time I bought the Met version, the Bayreuth production wasn't available on DVD. Until it was, the Met Meistersinger ably took its place.

Wagner - the Making of Der Ring Des Nibelungen [DVD] [2005] [Region 1] [NTSC]
Wagner - the Making of Der Ring Des Nibelungen [DVD] [2005] [Region 1] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Boulez
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: 9.66

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth buying, but only if you have the earlier release of the Boulez Ring, 31 Jan 2009
The documentary on this DVD is included as one of the extras on the new Deutsche Grammophon release of the Boulez Ring. If you already have this version of the Ring, don't bother to buy "The making of...".
I have the earlier release from Philips, which doesn't include the documentary, so I felt it might be worth buying this DVD, if only for completeness. It was worth the money, but...
If you're expecting a documentary of the same calibre as 'The Golden Ring', you will be disappointed. Quite frankly, it's a bit of a pot-boiler; there isn't much about the actual performance - most of the film is a potted history of Bayreuth, including the near-obligatory scenes of Winifred and the Nazis, overlaid with an appalling oompa-band arrangement of Siegfried. If you're a keen Wagnerian, you'll know this stuff already; if you are not, you won't be interested in this DVD.
On the other hand, there are sound bytes from the performers, shots of Boulez and Chereau, some stock footage of Wieland and Wolfgang that I've never seen before (and the price is less than a reasonable bottle of Riesling), so.... why not.

Titanic [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Titanic [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Sybille Schmitz
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: 10.96

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important DVD for Rivet Counters, 31 Jan 2009
I must confess that I am a devout 'Rivet Counter', aka Titanic buff. I found this DVD, particularly the 'extras', to be a valuable addition to my library.

The DVD includes an advertising film from White Star, showing the amenities aboard the Olympic, one of Titanic's sister ships. It gives an excellent idea of the atmosphere aboard a great Edwardian liner.

Also included is the notorious newsreel, cobbled together in 1912, purporting to show Captain Smith on board Titanic before leaving Southampton. The scenes were actually shot on Olympic, in New York harbor, but the producers of the film cleverly disguised this by painting out any incriminating evidence, such as the words 'New York' on the sterns of the tugboats.

Now for the film itself. It's actually quite impressive, given the time and place where it was produced, and of course, provided you take it all with a healthy pinch of salt.

The plot takes various liberties with the truth, largely for propaganda reasons. Titanic was the fastest ship in the world, and Captain Smith was pressured by the evil Bruce Ismay (who had brought his mistress on board with him) into taking the dangerous Northern route, to save time. Winning the Blue Riband would improve the value of White Star stock, much to the dismay of Astor, who was plotting against them. Meanwhile, the only sane man aboard was First Officer Petersen (who happened to be German) who spends his time helping the passengers while his English officers and their Capitalist bosses plot their own downfall......

Lies, all lies....

However, just put all that to one side and enjoy the film. It really isn't bad, and the special effects are excellent for their day. I understand that some scenes were used in 'A Night to Remember'. It's also amusing to spot the plot elements that Cameron lifted for his Titanic epic.

As far as I could work out, Petersen replaced the real character Chief Officer Wilde (not Second Officer Lightoller, as others have suggested, since at one point he actually talks to Lightoller). The subtitles have some strange anomalies - First Officer Murdoch's name is translated throughout as 'Morlock' - when the captain asks for a CQD message to be sent, this is translated as 'SOS' (which is right, in spirit, but not in letter). But these are just quibbles from a 'Rivet Counter'

Definitely worth adding to your collection.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde [DVD] [1998] [2000]
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde [DVD] [1998] [2000]
Dvd ~ Mehta
Price: 29.95

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't get hung up on the sofa, 31 Jan 2009
Putting aside its flashes of eccentricity (such as the aforementioned sofa, and the shaving soap), this is actually a pretty decent production. Not one of the best I've seen, but streets ahead of the Met DVD.
Waltraud Meier, as always, was superb; not only does she have a wonderful voice, but she can act (unlike Eaglen, in the Met production). She looked damned good in red hair as well.
Jon Fredric West was a competent Tristan, though a little lacking in fire, I think. (He wasn't straining, as another reviewer suggested - he always looks like that).
Kurt Moll brought presence and dignity to what can be a very uninspiring role. His Marke was believable and sympathetic; he commanded the stage in every scene he appeared in.
To return to the production itself - it wasn't all bad. The abrupt transition from night to day, where the stage and house lights were turned on, was particularly effective. I also liked the stage-within-a-stage convention at the end of act three, where the lovers moved into a world of their own, visible to us but out of reach of the other players. I wouldn't categorize this as a 'happy ending', though - just a different way of showing death.
On the technical side, I felt the sound balance was a little strange, with the orchestra occasionally sounding very muted. This was particularly evident in the Liebestod. I wouldn't say that it spoiled my enjoyment of the opera, but it was noticeable.
To sum up, I don't regret buying this DVD, but there are a couple of better productions.

Wagner - Tristan Und Isolde (Bohm, Nilsson, Vickers, Hesse) [DVD]
Wagner - Tristan Und Isolde (Bohm, Nilsson, Vickers, Hesse) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Birgit Nilsson
Price: 29.21

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars You can't ignore the awful quality, 31 Jan 2009
Other reviewers have commented on the low audio and video quality of this recording, but maintained that the performance is worth it. I envy their tolerance. This is quite frankly the worst video recording of an opera that I've ever seen.

Where to start?

I'm prepared to accept the shortcomings of early sound recordings, or tolerate grainy videos, for a chance to hear and see the 'greats', secure in the knowledge that whoever made the recordings did so to the best of his abilities, within the limitations of the media. I'm also very appreciative of the efforts of the geniuses who can clean up an early recording, but still preserve its inherent quality.

The problem with this recording was not limitations of the media; the technology in 1973 was perfectly capable of reproducing operatic performances, as many others have demonstrated. The problem lies in the complete ineptitude of those who produced the recording, and the fact that Kultur seem to have made no attempt to improve matters.

Here are the sort of things which finally made me give up:

Severe clipping of audio frequencies in the higher register, accompanied by blurring on the louder notes - an effect similar to the onset of deafness.
Camera quality reminiscent of a bootleg copy - hand-held, shaky telephoto shots, taken from much too far away, and usually pointing in the wrong direction.
No adjustment for the speed of sound, so everyone was out of synch. This is pretty basic stuff, guys....
A very poor video transfer, with vertical lines marring most of the shots, occasional flashes of light and abrupt changes in color cast.
Occasional jump-cuts in the sound.
I'm not convinced that some of the shots of the conductor actually matched the soundtrack.
Oh yes, and the titles were crooked.

How on earth did Kultur allow this train-wreck to be released?

Given my love for Wagner's operas, and respect for the magnificent Ms Nilsson, I'm ashamed to admit that, having managed to put up with the first thirty minutes, in the hope that I'd be able to immerse myself in the performance, I eventually resorted to fast-forwarding to the major arias. This is a dreadful admission! In my defence, I can only suggest that you rent the recording and see for yourself, before passing judgement.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 28, 2009 7:10 PM BST

Monteverdi: L'Orfeo [DVD] [2007] [NTSC]
Monteverdi: L'Orfeo [DVD] [2007] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Monteverdi
Price: 16.85

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At last available on DVD. Well worth the wait., 31 Jan 2009
Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was first performed in 1607, which makes it one of the first operas ever written.
Staging such an antique work is a challenge, since the social environment in which it was first performed has long vanished, and our knowledge of it is imperfect, at best.
There are many temptations for a director of such a piece, including 'modern dress', high camp, or worst of all, he could treat it as a contemporary opera.
Fortunately, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has fallen into none of these traps - he stages, in front of a modern audience, a formal masque-like performance, and transforms the chorus into the 17th century audience - a very clever trick which allows them to perform in the opera but also to react to its contents.
Singing styles are unorthodox, but I suspect authentic for the period.
And here's the strange thing - the music is remarkably modern, with none of the stilted rhythms of some later composers.
This is a superb production. Up until now, only available if you could find a second-hand VHS recording.
Now it's available on DVD, at least in the US.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg [DVD] [1970] [2007]
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg [DVD] [1970] [2007]
Dvd ~ Joachim Hess
Price: 24.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Meistersinger - Made for TV, 31 Jan 2009
Let me start by saying that this is by no means the best Meistersinger on DVD: I'd rate the Bayreuth, Met and Deutsch Oper Berlin performances well above it.

Some aspects of this Made-for-TV, studio performance are good - the singing is impeccable: Tozzi's Sachs, Cassily's Walter and Blankenheim's Beckmesser are particularly worth of mention. But then, in a studio environment, where an aria can be repeated until it's perfect, where the performers can rest between scenes, where bad performances can be overdubbed, it's hard to see how this could be otherwise.

So why only three stars?

Let's start with the running time. I should have smelled a rat when I saw that the whole opera runs for exactly 240 minutes (the norm is around 270). This running time has been achieved by a combination of a break-neck tempo, and some radical and inexcusable cuts.

Fortunately, the tempo sorts itself out by Act 3, but the pace through the overture and the first two acts is outrageously fast. The effect of all this scurrying about is to gloss over much of the emotional nuances of the score. Add to this the awkward mugging in the closeups, particularly in Act 1, and the effect comes closer to Punch and Judy than Richard Wagner.

As for the cuts, there are at least two:
As a reviewer in the US has remarked, David's instruction scene has been completely removed. This is a very funny scene, and a key plot element, since it amusingly illustrates the Meistersingers' anal-retentive approach to music.
In act 3, the Girls from Furth fail to make an appearance; presumably their boat is still floating down the Pegnitz. Some splendid dance music goes away as a result.

If this unseemly haste had been for artistic reasons, it might have been forgivable, but I suspect that the opera was rushed and shortened to fit neatly into a four-hour TV time-slot.

The sets are minimalist and drab; odd for a studio production. I was amused by the spherical elder tree in Act 2, clearly 'inspired' by Wieland's 1956 production. Wieland's concept, like it or not, was original. In this production, it just looked as if someone was trying to save money.

The sound is mono, and adequate. It provokes the usual mental blurring caused by lack of positional information - overpowering the singers once in a while, but it's not a distraction.

The production values are definitely a bit rough around the edges. The transitions between sessions are noticeable in a few cases; tempi change abruptly, and in one case a whole bar seemed to be missing. The hand-held camera work in the crowd scenes, particularly in act 3, is distracting at best. It didn't help that the lighting was at operating-theatre level throughout. This may be a technology limitation, though - early colour cameras didn't work too well in low lighting conditions.

If you already have the three good productions of Meistersinger, this recording might be an amusing addition to your collection. If you can afford only one, go for the Bayreuth or Met stage productions - not this 'TV Special'.

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