Domingo, Lloyd, Studer etc.
Director: Wolfgang Weber
Well Go USA WD164
Lohengrin is the most beautiful of Wagner's early operas, and the 1990 production with Placido Domingo, released on DVD this year by Well Go USA, does it ample justice. Its greatest strength is that it evokes a northern medieval world so credibly. The action takes place in 10th-century Brabant (today partly in Belgium, partly in Holland), and this clouded world with its proud chieftains holding their emblazoned shields strikes you from the very first moment. This is no shivering modern populace clutching its gaudy holiday brochures and cursing the unreliable summers, but proud patriots who love their native turf — its fruits, its flowers, its dialects, and even its weather.
The music, too, is enormously nostalgic. It's the old German Romanticism, so dreamy, so gilded, with its harps and trombones, its sweeping arpeggios and lovingly extended melodies. The story of Grail-legend romance should ideally be experienced in an ancient theater with faded upholstery, mottled mirrors and gas lights. But this new DVD isn't a bad substitute. The Vienna State Opera, where it was filmed, isn't over-large as opera houses go, and Claudio Abbado conducts with great refinement. Cheryl Studer sings Elsa — the doomed maiden who falls in love with a mysterious knight whose name she must never ask and who arrives on a boat drawn by a swan — with appropriately puzzled resolve. Placido Domingo is a forceful Lohengrin and Robert Lloyd is in magnificent voice as King Henry the Fowler. An especially strong Ortrud, the scheming temptress in contact with the old pre-Christian gods, comes from Dinja Vejzovic. On two DVDs, and currently selling in Taiwan at some NT$365, this is astonishingly good value.
Gallardo-Domas, Hong, Alvarez etc.
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Franco Zeffirelli's decades-old production of La Boheme has been much praised, and now we see it resurrected once again in a staging at Milan's Teatro degli Archimboldi in 2003. A Bonus shows the veteran director giving his views on opera production, likening great works to paintings that you might have inherited. Your duty is to preserve them, hang them in the right sort of light, and not let anyone interfere with them unduly.
What this means for operas is that experimental productions are out, and that once you've hit on a creditable staging nothing needs to be done over the years to change it. The problem with this view is that, for reasons that are in essence mysterious, productions date. This is the basic explanation for the unsatisfactoriness of the new DVD from Taiwan's otherwise admirable distribution company, Jingo (www.jingo.com.tw). The cast of relatively young singers appears to find the old scenery and costumes unchallenging, and it's impossible not to note that the greatest international soloists are no longer performing in these antique sets. The world, for better or worse, has to move on. Thus it is that Marcelo Alvarez (Rodolfo), Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Mimi), Hei-kyung Hong (Musetta) and the rest by and large fail to move. This might be a perfectly acceptable version of Boheme for people who've never seen another — and Act Three, the best act, is especially striking visually. Musically, however, this is not a top-ranking performance, and one has a sneaking suspicion that this is something to do with the lack of challenge presented by the old production.