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Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 1st, 2012, 11:15 PM
Janacek - The Cunning Little Vixen on DVD
I'm about to watch this. Only 1 h 38 min so I'll edit my post once I'm done.

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Chatêlet productions are usually visually amazing so I have great expectations. It has started, and looks lovely!

OK, finished.

First of all, the opera itself. I liked it quite a lot. This is a very interesting opera with the deep contrast between the lush, sensual animal kingdom with their easygoing approach to life and death (e.g., the main character gets killed and nobody makes a fuss about it), and the bitter human world with people constantly lamenting lost love and old age. The orchestration is quite efficient, and very precisely tied up to the action. Beautiful! And what an ending! The gamekeeper's ode to nature is very striking. And the frog in the last scene demonstrates to him the cycle of life... and how oral tradition ensures continuity: "It wasn't me... it was my grandad... they told me everything about you." Wow!

Now the production: very good indeed. Outstanding costumes, colorful and lively, the choreography transmits exactly the chaos of the natural world, good acting, charming little vixen, excellent gamekeeper. Eva Jenis, Hana Minutillo, Thomas Allen, and Richard Novak are the principals, and each one does a more than decent job.

I can't comment too much on the orchestra and on Sir Charles Mackerras' conducting due to the poor sound quality (see below) and my lack of contact with other versions of this opera, but at least one can tell it was very well timed to the action - like in a fabulous scene in which the Gamekeeper shouts and the orchestra responds like an echo of his voice - what a beautiful effect!

The props are a little too simple in the treatment of the trees (one wonders why they didn't employ there the same creativity they had exhibited with the costumes), but there are some visual pearls as well, like the bed on which the vixen and the fox mate.

Sound is not great (only a regular stereo track with some balance problems); there are no extras; camera work is not imaginative enough to match the fabulous staging; and sometimes the image is too dark. So technically this isn't a great DVD by any means (this is one of the examples of a production that was likely much more enjoyable in the theater than on a small screen), but the positives still outweigh the negatives, therefore I can confidently recommend this one.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 1st, 2012, 11:16 PM
Janacek: Kata Kabanova on DVD
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Given how impressed I was with the first two Janacek operas I've seen, Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen, I think I'm in for a treat. We'll see.

Well, technically speaking this DVD is horrible. 4:3 image, poor sound balance, no surround, subtitles are fixed in English only, no extras. And the subtitles seem to simplify things a lot, since when a character sings a full and long phrase, the subtitles translate it into just one word.

It's a Glyndebourne production but strangely (I got accustomed to expecting wonders from them), the staging is rather dull, and the pink, blue, green pastel colors just don't go well with what is going on in the story.

Singing and orchestra are marred by the poor sound balance and distant, muffled sound.

I hope Janacek's opera itself saves the day.

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OK, I've finished it. Here is my final verdict, regarding the opera more than the production: it's a good opera with effective orchestration, but in my opinion it is not as good as the other two from him I had seen before, and it comes from it being so short (under 90 minutes). It all happens in lightning speed, with not enough time for character development or build up of dramatic tension. Married girl has bitchy mother-in-law and drunken, abusive husband. A few side kicks show up with their side stories but aren't that important and their subplots go nowhere. Husband goes out of town in business, she has an affair. He comes back, she gets guilty and confesses. He beats her up, bitchy mother-in-law humiliates her, she wants to leave town with lover but he doesn't have the guts to take her. She kills herself. Curtain.

You know, 90 minutes could have been sufficient, but then, maybe Janacek and his librettist could have eliminated all the non-essential characters from the play and focused on the love triangle and the mother-in-law, with more time for the development of the psychological drama, because when you think of the 90 minutes minus the time wasted with the side plots (who cares for the lover's uncle, for the maid, for the adopted sister and her lover, etc) there is precious little time to get to Kát'a's desperation, ambivalence, and slow derailment. The core of the story feels very rushed the way it is. Opera takes longer to tell a story due to the singing which is slower than spoken dialogue, so, what may have been sufficient for the play seems rushed for the opera. Unsurprisingly, the best moment of the opera is her longer monologue at the end, the only part when she was given enough time to express her feelings. I'd like to have had more of these moments and less of the distracting junk.

Jenufa also has several other characters but it focuses a lot more on the four important ones - Jenufa, the two brothers, and the stepmother. And the Cunning Little Vixen is just very lively and varied, and the fact that there isn't big focus on any one character is meant to convey the cycle of life and the nature/humankind opposition. But Kát'a Kabanová could have used more focus. For an allegory of natural versus civilized life, no focus is needed, but it's hard to tell a psychological drama without focus.

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PS - See that I have changed my mind regarding the opera itself (more favorably) after I saw a different production, which is reviewed later in this thread.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 1st, 2012, 11:17 PM
Janacek: From the House of the Dead on DVD
I'm watching this opera DVD right now, and taking a break to type this. I'm in the middle of the final and third act. I seem to admire it more than our friend Herkku did in his review. I'd elevate it to the status of masterpiece (at the very least, a minor masterpiece).

Janacek is in his expressionism phase, his last, at the end of his life. Like Boulez says in the insert, the orchestration is very direct, very primitive and raw, and depicts each scene's mood to perfection, in an explicit and clear way. The sounds are uncomplicated and to the point (such as the frequent use of percussion during violent scenes, noise of chains, and ostinati symbolizing the unchangeable, claustrophobic and stagnant life in prison). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Boulez performs very well (and provides one of the few cheerful moments in this otherwise bleak work, in the figure of a very attractive female violinist...).

Janacek's vocal writing aims to achieve a form of musical spoken language that is not exactly recitative or declamation, but rather, tries to reach a sort of natural quality just like people in real life speak, although there is a hint of a melodic line. It is very effective in this setting of prisoners telling to each other little slices of their past lives. There are no arias, which sounds very appropriate in the bleak world of the prison. Chorus lines, however, do sound more melodic and the overall effect, although not properly within the conventional definition of tonal musical beauty, sounds beautiful to me.

The libretto is taken almost verbatim from Dostoiévsky, and being so, is of course of high literary value.

Chéreau's staging is pretty much perfect, and recovers with extreme precision the atmosphere of a prison camp. The garbage falling from the sky at the end of the first act so that the second act opens in a sort of foggy landfill is a very clever effect. The tall moving walls of the prison set the scene extremely well. This is a very successful staging, and as much as I don't care for his industrial-era Ring, I must recognize that here Chéreau was masterful, and was able to recover very well the notion of universality of this tale - it applies to any prison, in any era.

Acting in this version is superlative. This production seems like a very good stage play, with top actors. Singing is not demanding given the nature of Janacek's vocal writing, but is accomplished perfectly well by all singers with absolutely no weak link.

Edit, after finishing it: powerful ending!

The quality of the DVD is high, with good linear PCM stereo track and Dolby 5.1; subtitles in a few languages; good image definition in widescreen; interesting bonus features including a documentary with Boulez and Chéreau and other creators of this production; rehearsals of the acting and the choreography, etc. Particularly interesting is the filming of some 20 minutes of Boulez rehearsing the orchestra, explaining in detail the tempi; whether he wants some bars played forte or fortissimo; gaps and pauses that he wants, etc, making them avoid smothering the singers; explaining his gesticulation... This is very instructive in terms of those who are curious about conducting techniques and want to see a major maestro demonstrating his personal reading of a score.

In summary, it's an A+ production of an A+ opera. I'll go ahead and recommend it as a good buy, especially because Amazon.com marketplace vendors have it for some $16 bucks, a quality/price ratio that I find to be very favorable.

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Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 1st, 2012, 11:19 PM
Janacek: The Makropulos Case on DVD
1995

Anja Silja
Kim Begley
Andrew Shore
Anthony Roden
Manuela Kriscak
Victor Braun
Christopher Ventris

Andrew Davis
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Glyndebourne Festival

Nikolaus Lehnhoff (stage director)

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Kultur product, no insert except for a chapter list (in Czech), no extras, 1.33:1 image, subtitles in English, German, and Spanish. Sung in original Czech. Dolby 2.0 sound (good) and rather sharp image with good definition. Good video direction by Brian Large.

Conducting is by Andrew Davis; enough said, he's one my favorite conductors, energetic as usual. Good staging.

Acting: superb, phenomenal, exquisite. Wow!

Singing: excellent as well by every single artist, except that Anja Silja is not at her prime any longer, but this is actually hard to notice, so good she is in her acting and stage presence (and past her prime or not, she is still a spectacular soprano).

The opera itself is very good, with incredible dramatic impact (libretto by the composer) and very powerful, interesting score. A very curious work, a must for any lover of 20th century opera.

This production is close to perfect. It's another great Glyndebourne performance, highly recommended.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 1st, 2012, 11:19 PM
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova on DVD
Opera in 3 acts (1921) by Leos Janacek, sung in Czech.
Libretto by the composer after A. N. Ostrovsky's play The Storm

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2008(LI) - Jiri Belohlavek - Coro y Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Madrid)
Stage direction Robert Carsen (a production of Vlaamse Opera)
TV direction and extra feature direction François Rouissillon

Cast
Kat'a - Karita Mattila
Dikoj - Oleg Bryjak
Boris - Miroslav Dvorsky
Kabanicha - Dalia Schaechter
Tichon - Guy de May
Kudjras - Gordon Gietz
Varvara - Natascha Petrinsky
Kuligin - Marco Moncloa
Gisasa - Itxaro Mentxaka
Feklusa - Maria Jose Suarez

The 2010 release has the usual Fra Musica quality, with their impressive covers and production photos, a chapter track with characters and durations, and an essay and synopsis in five languages (wow!); the same languages are available as optional subtitles but unfortunately Czech is not one of them.

Image and sound are absolutely impeccable and crystalline, with 16:9 anamorphic format and DD 2.0 and DTS 5.1 tracks. The high-def image on this DVD approaches that of a blu-ray disc - by the way the same performance is also available on blu-ray. Running time is 1h 48m, plus 24 minutes of interviews with the conductor and the stage director.

The opera's action is set in a small Russian village around 1860 before an incoming storm, and represents the annihilation and subsequent suicide of Katerina Kabanová, a sensitive young woman married to a weak man and bullied by her mother-in-law, who is searching for liberation through love and ends her life consumed by remorse for her infidelity.

The Volga river is a character of sorts in this story (Kat'a drowns herself there) and the stylish staging recovers this element by showing an entirely flooded stage - a watery surface with some platforms on which the singers walk.

There is a partial reflexive surface on the back wall which at times gets some projected images as well, and the platforms get rearranged to look like bridges and paths and larger square areas on which some simple chairs are placed.

The effect is very beautiful.

Lighting is probably dark in purpose (this is a bleak, gloomy story). I think it works.

Musically everything is very pleasing. Karita Mattila as usual delivers superlative singing and acting and perfectly looks the part. The supporting cast is somewhat uneven but most of the time the singers provide adequate vocal and acting performances; it's just that Karita is in a totally different league.

In spite of the less than stellar reputation of the orchestra of the Teatro Real, I think that here they do a very good job, and Janacek's beautiful and highly expressive score is well rendered by their rather precise execution. They used Sir Charles Mackerras' new edition.

There are several operas by Janacek that I like better than Kat'a Kabanová, but this production did capture my imagination and upgraded my appreciation.

I own another version - the Glyndebourne one conducted by Davis:

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It is a very decent version, but I believe that this one is superior, mostly thanks to Karita, but also in great part thanks to the beautiful watery scenarios - I like minimalistic stagings, especially the tasteful ones (I like this one as much as I liked Carsen's somewhat similar one for Eugene Onegin except that it's leaves and not water for the latter), and while the use of reflecting water pools on stage is becoming a cliché of its own, it is still very visually pleasing.

While I did not place Kat'a Kabanová among my favorites when I watched the Glyndebourne, I'm now much more inclined to do like everybody else and elevate this opera to the same high level of other Janacek masterpieces.

Any production capable of doing this can't get anything less than a verdict of "highly recommended."

Herkku
September 20th, 2012, 06:52 PM
From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu)

This was my first review of an opera on another site that some of you have read there, but I would like to include it for nostalgic reasons.

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Hello to everybody!

I just joined the forum I found yesterday. I have been looking for a forum that would deal with opera on DVD, so I hope this is the place to be! I also spent a few hours screening through the messages sent so far to get an idea what has already been gone through.

But my first question is: how does one begin a new thread or do I always have to use the reply-button? I didn't find any option to start a new one, so how does this work? As one continuing discussion? No new threads for a new opera?

I trust that someone will give an answer to that. It seems that there aren't very many members, but the regular ones are all the more active. Suits me perfectly. It's not the quantity but the quality that matters and perusing the forum I have found many DVD:s that have wetted my appetite, the French Baroque operas e.g., none of which I have seen, or heard on CD, for that matter.

But let me begin with an opera I just finished watching: Leoš Janacek's From the House of the Dead. Not the jolliest work to begin with, it just happened to be the one I saw last. It's also the last collaboration with Boulez & Chéreau, whose Ring doesn't have many admirerers among the members, but we can leave that for later.

From the House of the Dead is indeed quite grim, based on a story by Dostoyevsky of a prison camp in Siberia in the nineteenth century and that was the context Janacek must have had in mind. Well, in Chéreau's production, Stalin's prison camps come to at least my mind, but what's the difference?

I would like to describe the opera as scenes from prison life in general, as there is not a single plot that would carry on through the opera. Some of the convicts tell their own tale about why they ended up in prison, there are disputes, fights, even deaths among them, the brutality of the guards. And there is even entertainment performed by the inmates for the inmates as pantomime. I am not sure if this kind of performances were in Janacek's mind (or Dostoyevsky's!), but I must warn you that it's openly sexual in nature, both male and female parts performed by the male prisoners. So, it may offend some watchers, although everyone knows what goes on in prisons. They certainly didn't have special visiting rooms for couples... There is only one role for a woman in the cast and she is described as a prostitute, and has a only a couple of lines to sing.

So far, this may not sound like an opera that one would like to see or hear. But, for me at least, Janacek's music redeems it all. At it's best the orchestral score is even beautiful, and if the overture includes rattling of chains, it's not inappropriate. There are no arias as such (nothing to whistle on your way to work or to set as a ringtone on your cellphone), but Janacek obviously had the same kind of talent to compose musical dialogue for singers as Puccini (I may be stoned for writing this!), tying the rhytm and line of speech together with the melodic line to achieve the effect that one is left wondering, why don't we always sing. In fact, Janacek died only four years after Puccini, and the opera was left unfinished (like Turandot!) and completed by his desciples. The singers are good, there are a couple of names you may be familiar with: Olaf Bär, Heinz Zednik, John Mark Ainsley.

I must admit that Janacek has other operas that may well be more easily to come to terms with: Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, Cunning Little Vixen. Jenufa and Katya are also very stark and violent, Vixen a little gem of a fairytale.

Summa summarum: I won't say that you should rush to the nearest record store to buy this one. You wouln't want to view it every other week. But, if you can find it at a library, you might give it a chance and decide for yourselves. How many novels and movies and TV serials (Prison Break was one of my favourites!) have dealt with life in prison? Why not operas? I wonder, when and by whom an opera depicting life in Guantánamo will appear.

P.S. This is not to mean that I wouldn't love the more classical repertoire! Quite the contrary! I love my Monteverdi, Mozart, Gluck, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss. It's only that I'm incurably curious, and if curiosity killed the cat, I seem to have survived - so far!

Herkku
September 20th, 2012, 07:00 PM
Another old review.

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This was a complete revelation to me! I mean in a positive kind of way. I had heard the Mackerras recording once, but didn't pay much attention. Now, just listening to the orchestra, I realize how beautiful music this is. The vocal lines are much like what we are used to in modern operas, but there is beaty in them, too, especially those of Káťa/Katia/Katya.

This production comes from The Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008. The stage is water, which seems to be all the rage nowadays, this time representing Volga, but works fine. After having been very disappointed with Karita Mattila's Tosca that I recently saw on TV, here she is in her element. And I don't mean the water, although she has cited swimming as her hobby - good for the lungs! She is in a glorious voice. The only other name familiar to me Katia's husband, Guy de Mey - also very good. In fact, there are not weak links among the singers.

The story itself is not that remarkable. Katia is unhappily married to Tichon, who is totally under the beck and call of his mother, Kabanicha (Dalia Schaechter), who in turn treats Katia like dirt. In Tichon's absence, Katia meets Boris and an old flame is rekindled. Upon his husband's return, Katia confesses her unfaithfullness and just loses it all - and we have a mad scene ending with Katia drowning herself!

Some backround information from Kobbe: Janacek's wife from his early marriage left him within a year, but at the ripe age of 63, he fell in love with a 25-year-old married woman, Kamila, who apparently inspired him greatly for the rest of his life. This happened 1917 and the opera was composed between 1918 and 1921. Long live love!

Strongly recommended!

Ann Lander (sospiro)
September 21st, 2012, 05:09 AM
Another old review.

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This was a complete revelation to me! I mean in a positive kind of way. I had heard the Mackerras recording once, but didn't pay much attention. Now, just listening to the orchestra, I realize how beautiful music this is. The vocal lines are much like what we are used to in modern operas, but there is beaty in them, too, especially those of Káťa/Katia/Katya.

This production comes from The Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008. The stage is water, which seems to be all the rage nowadays, this time representing Volga, but works fine. After having been very disappointed with Karita Mattila's Tosca that I recently saw on TV, here she is in her element. And I don't mean the water, although she has cited swimming as her hobby - good for the lungs! She is in a glorious voice. The only other name familiar to me Katia's husband, Guy de Mey - also very good. In fact, there are not weak links among the singers.

The story itself is not that remarkable. Katia is unhappily married to Tichon, who is totally under the beck and call of his mother, Kabanicha (Dalia Schaechter), who in turn treats Katia like dirt. In Tichon's absence, Katia meets Boris and an old flame is rekindled. Upon his husband's return, Katia confesses her unfaithfullness and just loses it all - and we have a mad scene ending with Katia drowning herself!

Some backround information from Kobbe: Janacek's wife from his early marriage left him within a year, but at the ripe age of 63, he fell in love with a 25-year-old married woman, Kamila, who apparently inspired him greatly for the rest of his life. This happened 1917 and the opera was composed between 1918 and 1921. Long live love!

Strongly recommended!

Thanks Herkku.

I want to explore Janáček more.

Yashin
January 4th, 2013, 01:24 AM
I see a new DVD of Jenufa is coming out. It stars Ingrid Tobiasson ,Gitta-Maria Sjoberg, Erika Sunnegardh and Daniel Frank. I think after the slightly disappointing DVDs from Liceu and Madrid in the last few years we need a really good one to match the wonderful Matilla Katya Kabanova. Its out on the Arthouse label from Malmo in Sweden - a new one for me!

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 4th, 2013, 02:47 AM
Thanks Herkku.

I want to explore Janáček more.

Yep, I also reviewed very favorably this production a couple of posts above, and now it is even more special for me since it is the one filmed by our interviewee François Roussillon, and he did mention this production several times in his interview.

Ann Lander (sospiro)
January 4th, 2013, 08:04 PM
Yep, I also reviewed very favorably this production a couple of posts above, and now it is even more special for me since it is the one filmed by our interviewee François Roussillon, and he did mention this production several times in his interview.

I'm looking forward to it, too. Just hope they don't mess with the libretto.