The best classical DVDs dating from this year to come my way were Kenneth Branagh’s World War I version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Lien Yin), Massenet’s opera Manon with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, with Daniel Barenboim conducting (Deutsche Grammophon), Karajan’s versions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci dating from 1968 and 1970 (also Deutsche Grammophon), and a privately-issued recording of Bach’s B Minor Mass from Taipei.
Branagh’s Magic Flute film combines high-spirited elation with serious thoughts, exactly as Mozart’s original opera does. It succeeds against all the odds, using mostly young singers and combining them with spectacular visual effects. Branagh says on a bonus track that he hopes what he’s created will make people feel that love is still possible, and it certainly does that, setting sex against war — the adoration of bodies and the people who inhabit them against mankind’s worst habit, tearing them ritually apart.
Manon isn’t many people’s favorite opera, but why it was once so popular is revealed in Vincent Paterson’s exciting and colorful staging. Everything is unpredictable — Paterson a director from Hollywood, Barenboim a conductor who’d probably never been near Massenet before, and two charismatic and alluring singers as the doomed lovers. This product is full of brio, glamour and zest.
Karajan’s Cav and Pag are classic renditions that it’s wonderful to have at last on DVD. The first starring Fiorenza Cossotto, the second Jon Vickers, they’re characterized by their lucidity and inner strength. The images are intensely clear and memorable, and the music — well, this is Karajan, even if the scores are remote from his usual areas of expertise.
Taiwan’s Evergreen Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Chorus gave what was claimed to be the first ever Taiwan performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass on March 29 this year — astonishing, if true, as this is one of the summits of world music. It was a stupendous event, and was recorded by the Philharmonia technicians. It’s never been released, but a privately-made DVD is in circulation in Taipei, and if you can find one there could be no legal restriction on making a copy. Orchestra and chorus members are both probably worth a try, or even the Philharmonia administration. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.