YEAR IN REVIEW: Classical DVDs and CDs

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 12

2013 has been a good year for opera, with the premiere of a new work by Philip Glass in Spain, a much-praised Handel production at the Met, and the issue in Blu-ray of a near-perfect Donizetti performance, also from New York.

Glass’ The Perfect American is about Walt Disney. The title is no doubt ironic, but Glass bestows considerable brio onto the iconic figure nonetheless. We see him in hospital in his last days, with figures from his past (including Andy Warhol) visiting him, together with others like Abraham Lincoln, with whom Disney claims a special affinity.

The Spanish production — the opera premiered in Madrid — is masterly. The Walt Disney Company refused to cooperate and denied the opera the right to use any of Disney’s characters — all to the good, it seems in retrospect. Only accessible in an online streaming version when we reviewed it, The Perfect American has been available since October on a DVD from Opus Arte.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (“Julius Caesar in Egypt”) at New York’s Metropolitan Opera was actually the restaging of a production first seen in the UK. David McVicar’s direction moves the action to just before World War I, with Egypt occupied by the British rather than the Romans. The result is simultaneously hilarious and bizarre — and highly recommended. Zeppelins drift menacingly across the sky, but the soloists respond by mostly dancing through their arias, Bollywood-style, even as they sing. If you want to watch this production on DVD, it is still necessary to access the UK version, from Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Anna Netrebko stars in Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor, issued on Blu-ray this year. The New York Met production by Mary Zimmerman seemed to this reviewer very fine indeed. Again the action is updated to the late 19th century — entirely successfully, so that you almost expect Sherlock Holmes to leap out of the undergrowth. Some may object to a physical ghost appearing where none was originally intended, but all in all this was both a credible and an aesthetically satisfying experience. Netrebko sings throughout with extraordinary freshness and purity of tone. The original DVD version, incidentally, has been uploaded onto YouTube.

As for CDs, Mahler’s 6th Symphony, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink, must be high on anyone’s list of the year’s finest listening experiences. The effect is arguably the result of its very different constituent parts — the sonorous power of the Chicago orchestra, Mahler’s characteristic anguish and Haitink’s self-effacing perfectionism, all combining to make a glorious performance, spread here over two discs.

Lastly, Peter Hill’s recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 has deservedly been highly praised. He plays as if the music is a secret shared only between you and himself, and the score’s magical aura shines out as a result. Hill has now issued Book 2 as well, thus completing the work.