Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 14 News List

Classical DVD Reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Armed Man

A Mass for Peace
Karl Jenkins
EMI 3 32346 9

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is an anti-war choral work combining sections of the Catholic mass with cross-cultural items such as a post-Hiroshima poem and an Islamic call to prayer. The composer is Karl Jenkins, and here he conducts the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and assorted singers in a performance given in Cardiff, UK, in January 2004.

This work is already proving popular on radio request programs, especially its lyrical Agnus Dei and Benedictus sections. The whole structure is woven round a 15th century anti-war song warning of the dangers of armed men in general.

As someone who believes war is the worst thing human beings can do to each other apart from render land radioactive for the next 3,000 years, I can only wish this piece of "soft classical" music well. At the same time it's necessary to understand that doe-eyed soloists lamenting killing in front of projected images of crowds cheering the men who march away isn't going to stop mankind's oldest pastime. Angry anti-war pop concerts are likely to achieve more in the long run, but all contributions to fuel anti-war sentiments are welcome, this one included.

Russia's Kirov Opera and Ballet is known for traditionalist and sometimes flat-footed productions. But this production of Sergei Prokofiev's infrequently performed 1940 comic opera Betrothal in a Monastery marks a considerable improvement.

It dates from 1998 but was only released on DVD last year. Nominally an opera, it nonetheless contains a lot of dancers. The story is based on a play The Duenna by the 18th century Irish playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan. A "duenna" was an Iberian chaperone and this complex story features such a figure. The woman changes places with the young girl in her charge in order to outwit the girl's father who, as in many such tales, wants to marry her off to an aged but rich friend.

For anyone who enjoys Prokofiev's spiky and jarring musical style (predictably interspersed with passages of misty lyricism) this DVD will prove an enjoyable experience. It's colorful and full of high-spirits.

The cast is billed as being led by the charismatic young soprano Anna Netrebko (as the daughter, Louisa). But in reality the Duenna, sung with great comic panache by Larissa Diadkova, is the major female part. Perhaps the demands of the marketing department had a say here. The main men's roles are ably sung by Nikolai Gassiev, Sergei Aleksashkin, Aleksander Gergalov, and Yevgeny Akimov.

There's great competition in the catalogues for DVDs of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. Universal Music are in the unusual position of offering two different versions with the same conductor, Carlos Kleiber. When I reviewed the more recent of the two [Taipei Times, March 17 2005] I found it star-studded but inexplicably unsatisfactory, preferring the version discussed the following month [April 14, 2005] from the Zurich Opera, with less famous singers. Here, however, is what turns out to be the best of the three.

It was filmed in 1979 and, like the more recent Kleiber version, uses a stage production by Otto Schenk. Both casts were equally stellar, but this earlier version has a magic that its later reincarnation can't match. In the role of the Marschallin is Gwyneth Jones, at her finest, with Brigitte Fassbaender as Octavian -- effortlessly mannish at times in a way that Anne Sofie Von Otter in the later version never was. Sophie is the late Lucia Popp, visually less than ideal, but possessed of the magic by which art alone succeeds. Manfred Jungwirth is Baron Ochs, a role that is always difficult because the character is intended to be so despicable. Suffice it to say that the buffoonery is less over-the-top this time, though the silly Cockney English captions for the Eliza Doolittle moments when Octavian is disguised as a female servant remain the same in both versions.

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