Sun, Dec 12, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Classical DVD reviews

By Bradley Winterton

CARMEN
Garanca, Alagna, Frittoli
Metropolitan Opera
DGM 073 4581

One of the most attractive options this month comes in the form of an online transmission from Medici Arts, available for free until Dec. 31. It’s of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) from the Opera Bastille in Paris, and it’s a re-creation of a famous and thankfully traditional production by the late Italian director Giorgio Strehler. It’s excellently sung and beautiful to look at, with just one disadvantage — the only subtitles to the Italian text are in French. To see it, go to www.medici.tv. You’ll have to sign up first, but that’s also free of charge.

A new Carmen from the Metropolitan Opera is bound to be an important event. It was to have starred Angela Georghiu as Carmen, opposite Roberto Alagna as Don Jose, but following this former couple’s separation the role of Carmen was taken by Elina Garanca. Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Escamillo was also a last-minute replacement.

The British theater director Richard Eyre updates the action to fascist Spain, and uses the Met’s revolving stage to move around a craggy wall so that it sometimes encloses the interior of a police station, sometimes displays the required Seville urban space, and sometimes loosely suggests the mountainous background of the gypsy camp. It’s not a particularly brilliant idea, and for some reason you have to settle for the cigarette factory workers making their entrance in Act One out of a trapdoor.

Nonetheless, Elina Garanca proves a powerful and convincing Carmen, while Alagna is very strong as Don Jose, though not the gullible, innocent youth the libretto really requires. Micaela, Don Jose’s loyal and loving first love, always seems the real heroine of this work, self-effacing though her music generally is, and Barbara Frittoli’s portrayal is especially effective.

This is one of those Met products originally designed for relay to various US cinemas, so you have Renee Fleming introducing the action and later interviewing some of the stars. Yannick Nezet-Seguin makes his Met debut as conductor.

A strong DVD that came my way recently shows Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 with an orchestra of music students in 1988 (original DVD release date 2008). It’s also from Medici Arts, and comes in a Blu-ray version if required.

First you see some rehearsals. These give Bernstein the opportunity to expatiate on Shostakovich and the musical fashions of his day. It was totally unacceptable in the 1920s to write in the lush style of Wagner, he explains, so instead the 19-year-old imitates the quirky and modish irony of the Parisians. But he couldn’t hold back the Romantic impulse forever, and it begins to take over in the third movement. Instrumentalists, even young ones, must observe these changes, he says.

Then you see the performance complete, and it’s marvelous — an extraordinary achievement with a work that was originally only a required graduation exercise and isn’t usually rated very highly. This DVD, however, allows you to get under the symphony’s skin in what turns out to be a unique manner.

The DVD that affected me most this month is one I stumbled on purely by chance — it’s long been available in EMI’s Classic Archive series. It features the French violinist Christian Ferras playing the Sibelius and Stravinsky violin concertos and Franck’s Violin Sonata, all in performances from the 1960s filmed in black-and-white, together with some shorter pieces.

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