LEHAR: The Merry Widow
Carlo Hartmann (Baron Mirko Zeta); Angelika Kirchschlager (Valencienne); Gregory Turay (Camille de Rosillon); Yvonne Kenny (Anna Glawari); Curtis Sullivan (Vicomte Cascada); Jonathan Boyd (Raoul de St. Brioche); San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Erich Kunzel, cond.
OPUS ARTE OA 0837 D TT: 188 min. including 11:05 synopsis, 20:05 "Impressions"

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly
Mirella Freni (Cio-cio-san); Placido Domingo (Pinkerton); Christa Ludwig (Suzuki); Robert Kerns (Sharpless); Michel Sénéchal (Goro); Marius Rintzler (Il Bonzo); Elke Schary (Kate Pinkerton); Giorgio Stendoro (Prince Yamadori); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Herbert von Karajan, cond.
DECCA 071 404-9 DH TT: 144 min.

MOZART: The Magic Flute
Will Hartmann (Tamino); Dorothea Roschmann (Pamina); Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night); Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro); Papagena (Ailish Tynan); Adrian Thompson (Monostatos); Gillian Webster, Christine Rice, Yvonne Howard (Three Ladies); Thomas Allen (Speaker of the Temple); Matthew Beale, Richard Van Allan (Two Priests); Royal Opera Chorus; Royal Opera House Orch/Sir Colin Davis, cond.
OPUS ARTE OA 0886 D TT: 185 min. including illustrated synopsis of the pera, BBC behind-the-scenes feature, and Sir Colin Davis discussion

BIZET: Carmen
Anne Sofie von Otter (Carmen); Lisa Milne (Michaëla); Marcus Haddock (Don José); Laurent Naouri (Escamillo); Hans Voschezag (Moralès); Jonathan Best (Zuniga); Mary Hegarty (Frasquita); Christine Rice (Mercédès); Anthony Wise (Lillas Pastia); Stoke Brunswick School Children's Chorus; Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orch/Philippe Jordan, cond.
OPUS ARTE OA 0868 D TT: 220 min. including features

Franz Lehar's immortal Merry Widow is presented here in a San Francisco Opera production recorded during a performance Dec. 8, 2001 at the War Memorial Opera House. New dialogue from Pulitzer Prize-winning playright Wendy Wasserstein adds to the production as does an original ballet during the 'Chez Maxim' scene. The entire cast is superb, with soprano Yvonne Kenny singing the title role for the first time and doing so brilliantly. Angelika Kirschschlager, who already has to her credit a superb SACD of Bach arias (REVIEW), is wonderful as Valencienne. In addition to fine singing throughout, all of the singers are attractive, the many stretches of dialogue spoken with style. Everything about this production is first-rate, the beautiful sets and costumes are perfect, camera work exemplary, and the Dolby digital surround sound totally natural.

Herbert von Karajan's video is a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle color film production dating from about 1974, a lush, ponderous, big-scale treatment of Puccini's masterpiece. About the same time the conductor made a studio recording, also with the Vienna Philharmonic and Mirella Freni, this time partnered by Luciano Pavarotti as Pinkerton; Placido Domingo is featured on the video. He was in his prime at the time—and looked quite handsome as the unfaithful officer. Freni was a fine Butterfly, and one could not find a more effective Suzuki than Christa Ludwig. The remainder of the cast is equally strong. Decca's 5 channel "surround sound" is artificially created, but natural, although the singers often are quite distant. Karajan's tempi are lethargic and it is to the singers' credit that they can sustain their vocal lines at his slow tempi. The performance obviously was recorded first, then filmed, with occasional lip-sync problems. Ponnelle's direction is a bit artsy at times with many hazy outdoor episodes.On occasion the singers don't move their mouths while "singing," and Ponnelle has Pinkerton leap through the paper wall of Butterfly's house at the opera's conclusion—a dubious decision. Subtitles are provided in English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.

Sir Colin Davis leads the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a sprightly performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute filmed in 2003. The cast throughout is excellent and all benefit from Sir Colin's expertise as a Mozart conductor. Director David McVicar keeps things moving impressively with Diana Damrau a remarkably accurate Queen of the Night, Franz-Josef Selig coping well with the demanding bass role of Sarastro, Will Hartmann and Dorothea Roschmann perfect as Tamino and Pamina. Simon Keenlyside is a delightful Papageno, Ailish Tynan a charming Papagena. The Magic Flute is beautifully presented in every way and, as always, the surtitles (in English and Spanish) will help the novice understand the intricacies of the Schikaneder/Metzler libretto.

R.E.B.(January 2004)

Opus Arte's Carmen is not of the same level, primarily because of the David McVicar's direction. Perhaps the most performed opera in the world, Carmen seems to be indestructable in spite of being subjected to a variety of ill-advised intervening directors who impose their own will on Bizet's masterpiece—usually to negative effect. This recording, from a 2003 performance, stretches the concept of indestructability. It's hard to understand how Anne Sophie von Otter could be convinced to give the tasteless, slutty performance that she does here. She paints a Carmen devoid of any emotion but wantonness. Her characterization follows one idée fixe: Carmen exists to demean men and will connive and scheme to that end and to no other. This Carmen is a tiresome creature. I doubt that Marcus Haddock's wooden and vapid Don José would impress regardless of the director, but it’s particularly regretful that in this performance, where a large percentage of the original dialogue is used and the Guiraud non-original recitatives gratefully eliminated, none of the humanity uncovered in the dialog and intrinsic to this poor simpleton becomes apparent. He remains a buffoon, showing little change from the dumb-but-honest-I-didn’t-mean-to-kill-anyone-and-land-in-the-army-and-gosh-I’m-really-sorry corporal of Act I to the crazed, abandoned, desperate jilted lover of Act IV. Laurent Naouri's Escamillo is a disappointingly choreographed, unmasculine and wimpy "hero." Bizet actually wrote into the score that Escamillo is to end each stanza avec fatuité [silly conceit]. I would have expected this Escamillo to serve crumpets and tea. Lisa Milnes is a matronly-appearing Micaëla, more like a maiden auntie than the 16 year old rustic ingénue. Nothing appeals in Act I, where the set is cramped, the singers required to do gestures often totally unlinked to what they’re singing. Even at the very end, where Carmen’s hands are supposed to be disguisedly tied so that DJ can lead her off to detention and make her “escape” look spontaneous, von Otter blatantly takes the rope from her wrists, goes over to Zuniga, who’s reading a newspaper, dangles it in his face, then just runs off. Zuniga may not be the brightest bulb in the fixture, but he just sits dazed while DJ makes a feeble attempt to take a few steps in Carmen’s direction, then just stops, shakes his head, and looks like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Where’s the lust/love for which he’s just set her free? Where’s the satisfaction that his new would-be lover isn’t going to jail. What we end up seeing throughout this production has little to do with Bizet’s intentions. It is not an improvement.

Act II is even more bizarre than Act I. Director McVicar decides to animate only couples from the chorus to dance in the Act II Gypsy Dance (which conductor Jordan begins at a very slow tempo) leaving Frasquita, Mercédès, and Carmen to appear to play pattacake with their tambourines. It’s not unusal for the principals to eschew the dancing in this scene, since it requires so much energy that it may diminish their ability to sing effectively after dancing. However, Bizet’s music never receives the principals’ attention other than to fill in center stage with some silly movements—nothing resembling the Bohemian dance about which they’re singing and which no one on stage is performing. Act II’s unsuccessful stage business is only made more painful in the seduction. Bizet/Meilhac/Halévy instruct Carmen to tease DJ en route to seducing him. She is to play with him like a cat plays with prey [there’s an allusion to this imagery later in the dialog]. According to the original libretto, Carmen can’t find her castanets at first, playfully accuses DJ of having hidden them, and tickles him by pretending to go through his tunic. She finally decides to break a plate and use the shards. After a few bars, she “finds” her castanets and continues her dance for Don José. Here, von Otter starts to dance with the shards as her musical accompaniment, then tosses them to the ground and starts using her thighs, as if the slapping sounds were a sexual signal to DJ. When DJ hears the retreat playing in the distance and tries to leave, Carmen is lying on her back on the floor with her feet caressing DJ’s genitals while she slaps the floor and humps. It would be risible if it weren’t so puerile. Eventually DJ succumbs and does a little slapping of his own. The singers are obviously following the stage director to a “T”—make than an “X.” They could not ever devise so much unsuccessful shtick on their own.

From the very first scene of the soldier’s chorus in Act I, where corporal Moralès lasciviously gropes Micaëla and where shtick is the modus operandi of the moment, this production can be summed up in one word: annoying. As DJ’s final “Vous pouvez m’arrêter, c’est moi qui l’ai tuée” [You can arrest me, I’m the one who killed her.] ended the opera, I could only guess to whom he thought he had sung it. There was no one else on the stage.

Photograpy is fine, as is the surround sound, but the finest Carmens on DVD remain the 1984 Columbia Tri-Star issue conducted by Lorin Maazel with Placido Domingo and Julia Megenes-Johnson, or the Universal 1987 Metropolitan Opera issue with James Levine conducting, and Agnes Baltsa and José Carreras.

R.H.R. (January 2004) (Ed. note: This is the first review by a new reviewer - see BIO)