Wed, Dec 28, 2011 - Page 13 News List

The year in review: Classical DVDs

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Photo Courtesy of C Major

Far and away the most exciting classical DVDs I reviewed in 2011 were the Wagner Ring operas from Valencia, Spain (C Major; reviewed on Aug. 14). Conducted by Zubin Mehta, and choreographed by La Fura dels Baus (which staged the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics), these DVDs finally broke with the postmodern, euro-trash habit of mocking these late-Romantic masterpieces with a spurious modernization.

Instead, we had all the mystery of the ancient Nordic legends combined with high-tech projections and the gods singing from the top of electronic fork-lift towers, while the Fura dels Baus figures writhed on the ground as the Rhine gold itself and crossed the stage suspended on hooks like meat carcasses in Alberich’s underground workshop.

These DVDs — seven, plus one devoted to “the making of …” — seemed stylistically new, but in reality they revived the original magic and mystery that Wagner wanted, and the early productions strove to attain. A bargain-priced highlights disk is also available.

Staying with opera, and with Wagner, the Lohengrin (Decca; reviewed on March 13) starring Jonas Kaufmann and conducted by Kent Nagano managed to be memorable despite its bizarre 1930s staging by Richard Jones. The reason it is so fine has a lot to do with Kaufmann, who quickly proceeded to sing the same role (Lohengrin) at Bayreuth, plus Siegfried in New York, and the intense musicality of Nagano and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

The production, by contrast, had a Nazi-style militia, the ongoing construction center-stage of a honeymoon house, and much more directorial interference with the natural dynamics of the piece. Some will consequently judge this version distasteful, but the singing is very fine, as is the orchestral playing, and the video’s production values are very high.

Verdi’s Don Carlo (EMI; reviewed on May 9) is the Italian version of the opera he originally wrote in French as Don Carlos. The London production, conducted by Antonio Pappano and starring Rolando Villazon, Marina Poplavskaya and Simon Keenlyside, proved exceptionally strong.

There’s a push nowadays to have this opera accepted as one of Verdi’s greatest achievements, maybe even his masterpiece, and though I can’t agree with that evaluation, this was just the production, traditional and forthright, to support such a claim.

Lang Lang Live in Vienna (Sony Classical; reviewed on Feb. 13) is a lovable performance featuring two Beethoven sonatas, some Albeniz, a Prokofiev sonata, and three Chopin encores. Lang Lang’s (郎朗) charm easily overcame any initial reservations in this citadel of classicism. Meanwhile, Claudio Abbado continued to show his mastery of Mahler’s unique mystique with his beautiful recording of the First Symphony (EuroArts; reviewed on Feb. 13). Yuja Wang (王羽佳) played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, also to great effect, in the same program.

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