KHACHATURIAN: Spartacus Ballet
Vladimir Vasiliev (Spartacus); Natalia Bessmertnova (Phrygia); Maris Leipa (Crassus); Nina Timofeyva (Aegina); Bolshoi Ballet/Algis Zhuratis, cond.
VAI VIDEO DVD 4262 TT: 92 min.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Sinfonia Antartica
New Zealand Symphony Orch/James Judd, cond.
PANGAEA DVD PDVD 5401 TT: 150 min.

Choreography by Lin Hwai-Min performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier
Felicity Lott (Marschallin); Anne Sofie Von Otter (Octavian); Barbara Bonney (Sophie); Kurt Moll (Baron Ochs); Gottfried Hornik (Faninal); Olivera Miljakovic (Marianne); Anna Gonda (Annina); Heinz Zednik (Valzacchi); Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orch/Carlos Kleiber, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD 073 008-9 TT: 193 min.

The ballet Spartacus is about the historic revolt of slaves about 73 BC against their Roman captors. Spartacus was a Thracian warrior who led the revolt and was killed in the final battle along with about six thousand rebels who were crucified along the Appian Way. Khachaturian composed his ballet for a 1956 Bolshoi production, but it was not successful until in 1968 a revised version was choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Since then it has been popular, aided by concert hall presentations of orchestral excerpts, particularly the exquisite Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, as well as a number of exciting dances. This DVD offers Grigorovich's choreography in a 1977 film version directed by Vadim Derbenev, and stars four magnificent dancers. Vladimir Vasiliev is Spartacus, Natalia Bessmertnova is Phrygia, Maris Leipa is Crassus, and Nina Tomofeyeva is Aegina. All give stunning performances, particularly Vasiliev in the title role—his dancing enhanced at one point by several slow-motion shots. The battle and orgy scenes are splendid but don't expect precision dancing from a large group of warriors. Color cinematography is excellent, natural although not particularly vivid, and on occasion multiple-screens are used effectively. Sound is well-balanced mono. A few minor editing glitches do not detract from the value of this film. The brief final scene of The Little Humpbacked Horse danced by Vladimir Vsiliev and Maya Plisetskaya is the only bonus. This is an essential DVD for ballet fans.

Nothing could be more different from the athletic energy of Spartacus than the meditative Moon Water performed by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. "Energy flows as water, while the spirit shines as the moon" is the ideal state Tai Chi choreographer Lin Hwai-min has used as a point of departure for what is seen on this DVD. Tai Chi is a martial arts exercise practiced by young and old, usually in early morning. By silently performing a special sequence of slow-motion movements and simple breathing exercises one is training mind and body. Water and the moon figure importantly in Moon Water (on occasion there's a light layer of water on the stage) as dancers, usually solo or in small groups, perform to nine slow movements from Bach's six cello suites in the DGG recording by Mischa Maisky. It's all quite beautiful and imaginative. The scene is generally dark with images of the distant moon, all dancers dressed similarly. The performance is 65 minutes. The three "behind the scenes" features ("Teaching the Cloud Gate dancers," "Tai Chi" and "Moon Water") take 20. The "surround sound" is supposedly there, but all we here is one solo cello the sound of which is mostly up front.

The DVD called Sinfonia Antartica is difficult to pigeon-hole. Just what is it? A musical performance, a documentary, a travelogue? What is its purpose? What we have is a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 7, called Sinfonia Antartica, which began life as background music composed in 1947 for the film Scott of the Antarctic. Two years later the composer used much of this music in his Symphony No. 7, widely recognized as one of his finest works. This performance by the New Zealand Orchestra is effective in its own way but there are many other finer recordings. What this one offers is a powerful visual element—as you hear the music you see varied films of snow, ice, icebergs, vast expanses of frozen tundra, explorers, penguins, underwater exploration scenes, and sea storms, all quite imaginatively put together combining black and white vintage film with new color footage. The DVD also includes Icebound, a 52-minute documentary of Antarctic exploration including rare films and images; and The Unframed Continent, an "artistic odyssey" around Antartica with the work of two poets and a painter. And that's not all; we also have a travel guide to the Antarctic, "Reflections on Antarctica" with Join Baden Norris, Antarctic Curator at Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, and another section on "Antarctic Facts." There's lots of information here imaginativey presented. This DVD costs about half as much as most DVD videos.

The DVD of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, recorded during a performance at the Vienna State Opera in March 1994, is very special. It's a production of UNITEL Film- und Fernsehproduktiongesellschaft mbH & Co., Munich, with producer Hermann Enkemeier who, aside from occasional ill-advised focusing on the wrong characters—or not enough of them—has done an admirable job. The true "star" here is the elusive conductor Carlos Kleiber making one of his limited appearances. The respect Vienna audiences have for him is obvious from the huge ovation he receives at the beginning of each of the three acts—although, surprisingly, curtain calls are not included—the film cuts off rather abruptly after the final notes. The Vienna Philharmonic plays magnificently, and the cast is uniformly strong. I would prefer someone other than Barbara Bonney as Sophie, but she surely handles all those stratospheric notes very well. The Marschallin is one of Felicity Lott's most famous roles, and Anne Sofie Von Otter is splendid as Octavian. Sound is well-balanced stereo and generally very good although the orchestral opening of Act I is rather harsh. Menu languages are English and Chinese (!), with subtitles in German, English, French and Chinese. There are no "special features."

R.E.B. (January 2004)