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Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 2nd, 2012, 12:45 AM
Prokofiev: War and Peace
Watching this now online, from the Naxos library:

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I've only seen the first 30 minutes so far, but I know I'll like it. It's really spectacular, what a great opera (it's my first encounter with it)! This one must be included in our top 100! And this DVD has good singing, effective minimalist staging, attractive principals. I think I'll have to buy it.

Ok, I loved Part I (Peace) but I can't say I love part II (War) as much.
I see its quality, it's not that. Good dramatic orchestration, choruses, impactful libretto, sure. But it's just too long and too over-the-top patriotic. Apparently Prokofiev wanted to focus on the love story of Part I but was forced by the Soviet authorities to do the patriotic War part too, if he ever wanted to see the piece accepted. He did, but ended up not seeing it staged anyway (had the bad idea of dying two months before it premiered, although partial productions with fewer scenes had been presented during his lifetime).

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 2nd, 2012, 12:48 AM
Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery
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Not a full review here; it's just to show my appreciation for a young Anna...

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OK. It's started.
OH! MY! GOD!!!!
Anna looks drop dead gorgeous! A young Anna Netrebko! I need a plastic sheet otherwise I'll drool all over the sofa!
And this is a transposition of a plot in the style of an Italian opera buffa into Russian 20th century musical language with spectacular and imaginative costumes and ballet at the Mariinsky, with Gergiev conducting. And have I mentioned a young Anna?
I'm in for a treat!!!http://www.clicksmilies.com/s1106/liebe/love-smiley-020.gif

Even though I'm a big fan of Anna's, it is surprisingly the first time that I see her in a Russian opera.
It's very refreshing to listen to her voice in Russian, without the heavy accent and articulation problems that sometimes taint her French and Italian performances.
She is completely natural, in her element (of course). Wow.

WOW!
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OK, have I made sufficiently clear how much I'm enjoying this?

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 2nd, 2012, 12:50 AM
Prokofiev: The Gambler on DVD
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Daniel Barenboim - Staatskapelle Berlin, Staatsopernchor
Costumes, stage design, and stage direction - Dmitri Tcherniakov

Cast:
Alexei - Misha Didyk
Polina - Kristine Opolais
General - Vladimir Ognovenko
Babulenka - Stefania Toczyska
Marquis - Stephan Rügamer
Blanche - Sylvia De La Muela
Mr. Astley - Viktor Rud

Barebones Kultur product, with only LPCM (but with good clarity and balance) and 16:9 image that isn't high def but is reasonably sharp and colorful. Subtitles in English only, tricky to bring on (a constant complaint of reviewers - but after a couple of attempts, they did). No extras. Running time 135 minutes.

I confess that I got this more for Kristine Opolais than for Prokofiev.

OK, I got my first glimpse of Ms. Opolais in the opening scene. Yes, she is stunning, a great looking woman with a beautiful voice too. The other female lead, Sylvia de La Muela, is also attractive.

Sleek, modern staging, in modern clothing.

Mycha Didyk as Alexei is not a very good tenor, and he keeps looking at the prompter. His voice sounds empty and is not particularly beautiful. His acting is conventional. He is entirely mismatched when compared to beautiful, imposing, elegant, classy Kristine Opolais whose voice soars a lot higher than his and has very pleasant timbre. Her acting is ten times better as well. A very gifted artist that only recently came under the radar of the international audiences outside of Northern Europe.

Dramatically speaking the scene between Alexei and Polina in the first act drags on and on and loses steam. Musically, at least so far (it's becoming a habit for me to do these reviews as I watch the opera, not after I finish watching it) I can't say I like this score as much as I did for the other Prokofiev operas that I'm familiar with (I know only three, War and Peace, The Love for Three Oranges, and Betrothal in a Monastery). This orchestration seems to me heavy handed and even bombastic at times. It's often in the style of a military march with loud percussion accompanying the rhythm of the recitatives (there are no arias). It may be atmospheric but is not very beautiful.

Act II is under way. Ognovenko as the General does well. I miss Kristine, she's been absent from the second act so far. Alexei is a very annoying character, I don't like him. It will be hard to enjoy the opera because he is all over the place. There's too much Alexis and too little Polina, therefore, too much of annoying Didyk (appropriate name) and too little of gorgeous Opolais.

I like the staging. They're making the best of the situation. They show three simultaneous rooms in the hotel, making the long and monotonous scenes more interesting by showing simultaneous silent actions in the other rooms (such as the Marquis making out with a disgusted Polina who seems forced to comply given her debt to him - now the Marquis has left and Polina looks very despondent - meanwhile another overlong scene with Alexei is going on in the hotel lobby with more annoying behavior - this character is likely to share with Werther the title of my most disliked character in opera - I don't remember from the book - which I read decades ago - Alexei being this annoying - the fault of Dostoyevsky, or of Prokofiev, who wrote his own libretto? - If someone has read the book more recently, please tell me).

Well, this opera is not the best showcase for Ms. Opolais' talents. Most of the time what the libretto asks of her is to sit silently and look bored.

Act IV starting after long pause for dinner.

Oh wow. Maybe it's because a belly well fed makes one more appreciative of the good things in life, aided by the nice wine I just had. But the thing is, fourth act is looking a lot better to me. I'm starting to like everything - Kristine has a wonderful scene and continues to be highly competent. The dramatic impact improves a lot with the casino scene, and the energetic orchestration with all the percussion starts to make more sense. Like I said, the staging is very clever, and it delivers more than ever in the fourth act.

Wow. This casino scene was really masterful. One of the best I've seen in a while. This alone justifies this production, and ensures a "recommended" verdict.

Then the final scene in the bedroom with Polina and Alexei is simply spectacular. Again, Ms. Opolais delivers superlative acting and singing.

I'm totally in love with her. Anna's reign is extremely threatened.

I don't know what I was thinking when I didn't like the first half.

Everything works in acts III and IV - orchestra, singers, actors, dramatic impact.

Definitely recommended. I wouldn't say highly recommended because of the first two acts. Maybe I was just in a bad mood before eating and drinking. I need to watch this again.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
January 2nd, 2012, 12:50 AM
Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel on DVD
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Attention: the above product is only readily available in PAL version, regions 2 and 5 from European vendors, since the American NTSC Region 1 version is, I believe, out of print (some used copies occasionally are offered through Amazon.com marketplace vendors, and there is a VHS version). Fortunately I've been wise enough to purchase a cheap Region Free PAL compatible DVD player exactly for this kind of occasion.http://operalively.com/forums/images/smilies/biggrin.gif This is a move I strongly recommend, thanks to gems such as the above that are not readily available in the American market.

The Fiery Angel (1927), opera in five acts, music and libretto by Sergei Prokofiev, after the novel (1908) by Valéry Bryusov, sung in Russian

Prokofiev worked on this opera from 1919 through 1927, and loved it deeply. He was however unable to see it staged during his lifetime after several attempts, to the point that he abandoned hope and recycled some of the material for his Symphony no. 3. It was only one year and a half after the death of the composer that this opera premiered in concert form at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 1954. The first staged performance followed a year later at La Fenice in Venice. It was however only in 1983 that this opera was first given with the original libretto in Russian.

Maestro Valéry Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater staged this opera in 1993, in co-production with the Royal Opera House, and this is the version that we find here on this DVD, with stage direction by Australian director David Freeman (a frequent collaborator with composers of contemporary operas) and design by David Roger. Video direction is by Brian Large.

The work is performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater, with the acrobatic dancing devils provided by The St. Petersburg Mariinsky Acrobatic Troupe.

The cast includes in the two leading roles of Renata and Ruprecht respectively soprano Galina Gorchakova and baritone Sergei Leferkus.

The other roles are sung by the following all-Russian artists, by order of appearance:

Hostess - Evgenia Perlasova-Verkovich
Porter - Mikhail Kit
Fortune-teller - Larissa Dyadkova
Jakob Clock - Evgeni Boitsov
Agrippa - Vladimir Galuzin
Mathias - Yuri Laptev
Doctor - Valery Lebed
Mephistopheles - Konstantin Pluzhnikov
Faust - Sergei Alexashkin
Host - Evgeni Fedotov
Three neighbors - Mikhail Chernozhukov, Andrei Karabanov, Gennady Bezzubinkov
Mother Superior - Olga Markova-Mikhailenko
Inquisitor - Vladimir Ognovenko
Two Young Nuns - Tatiana Filimonova, Tatiana Dravtsova

First of all, I must say that we're facing greatness here. This opera is a masterpiece, arguably Prokofiev's best operatic effort. The score is *extremely* powerful, expressive, vivid, colorful, and the vocal writing is equally good. Theatrically the work is very appealing, and the libretto is of the highest quality. The running time of only 124 minutes in spite of five acts adds to the enjoyment because it accounts for a rather intense roller coaster kind of experience.

Second, we have in our hands a masterful performance, by all artists involved with this production.

Staging is exquisite and imaginative, and conveys perfectly the nightmarish atmosphere of the work, with inventive solutions such as the partial walls in act 1, and the constant presence of the bluish devils who engage in impressive acrobatic dance (you can see them on the top half of the cover picture). The minimalist scenarios with slanted partial walls and platforms as well as stylized colorful buildings are both beautiful and effective, and stage direction in terms of singers/actors movements and dynamics of space are expertly done, with certain scenes getting to be as visually striking as well balanced paintings. Warning for the prude and faint of heart: there are disturbing scenes and graphic nudity.

If I had any doubts left about Maestro Gergiev's gifts, they would get dismissed for good, here. Given the right material, Gergiev can extract gold from his orchestra, and this is one such occasion. His interpretation is energetic and entirely satisfactory, and the orchestra plays beautifully under his waving hands.

Ms. Gorchakova is simply spectacular in the role of Renata. She is a specialist in this repertory, having interpreted this role multiple times in St. Petersburg, London, Milan, San Francisco, and New York, as well as many of the major Russian roles in operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Glinka. She is attractive, has great stage presence and good acting skills, sings with full dramatic force, and has a beautiful voice.

Her stage companion Mr. Lerfeikus is slightly less gifted, in the fact that he also has a beautiful voice but has some trouble projecting over the very loud orchestra, and his acting is less good than Ms. Gorchakova's.

I have no complaints about the secondary roles. This is a talented group of singers and weak links are hard to find.

Brian Large's video direction is flawless, achieving the right balance between close-ups, panoramic takes, and details of the acrobatic devils that are filmed at the exact moments that do not distract from the singing, and he goes back to the singers fast enough. He's helped by the competent BBC videotaping and editing crew.

Technically speaking, this ArtHaus Musik release with RM Associates and the BBC is generally good but could be better.

The liner notes are complete enough with a nice essay on Prokofiev's tribulations to write this work and insights about leitmotifs and other musical devices, as well as a synopsis, the biography of the main artists, and a chapter list in Russian with duration (but unfortunately, no character list for each track). These texts are available in English, German, and French.

Optional, non-intrusive subtitles are provided in English, French, German, and Spanish, and one of course profoundly laments the fact that they are not provided in Russian.

Sound format is only given in PCM stereo and is of extraordinary clarity, but sometimes the orchestra does smother the singers - it's hard to know if it is due to microphone placement, poor sound engineering, or just Gergiev's enthusiasm for this score. I believe it's the latter because the sound does seem well balanced, maybe Gergiev could have toned down his forces a little bit. I really can't understand the Amazon.co.uk reviewer who complained that the orchestra doesn't get enough presence from the sound mixing - more presence than this would deafen the audience and we might as well not have singers because we wouldn't be able to hear them!

Image, like in most PAL DVDs, is sharper and more colorful than that in their NTSC counterparts. The format is unfortunately 4:3, making one regret the lost opportunity to have a wider view of the beautiful scenarios.

So, while we're treated here to good liner notes, clear sound and sharp image, we still crave a surround track (with more emphasis on the voices and less on the orchestra) and widescreen image to do more justice to this spectacular work and this exquisite staging, as well as Russian subtitles (I don't speak Russian but I like to have second screenings with original language subtitles to better understand and enjoy the sonority of the words). This is the kind of performance that deserves an OpusArte blu-ray disc.

Regardless of these small technical shortcomings, this is one of the best opera DVDs I've ever seen, and gets, of course, my Highly Recommended seal, and I'm sure it will easily get Natalie's "Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!" seal once she sees it.