BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle
Kolos Kováts (Bluebeard); Sylvia Sass (Judith); London Philharmonic Orch/Sir Georg Solti, cond.
DECCA DVD VIDEO 074 3254 TT: 56:00

WAGNER: The Flying Dutchman
Donald McIntyre (Dutchman); Catarina Ligendza (Senta); Bengt Rundgren (Daland); Hermann Winkler (Erik); Ruth Hesse (Mary); Harald Ek (Helmsman); Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orch/Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond.
DEUTSHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 00440 073 4433 TT: 117 min.

STRAUSS: Arabella
Gundula Janowitz (Arabella); Bernd Weikl (Mandryka); René Kollo (Matteo); Sona Ghazarian (Zdenkaa); Edita Gruberova (Fiakermilli); Margarita Lilowa (Adelaide); Hans Kraemmer (Waldner); Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Sir George Solti, cond.
DECCA DVD VIDEO 074 3255 TT: 189 min.

One can assume that the soundtrack of Decca's DVD is the recording made for that label in 1979 by Solti with the same soloists. That discontinued recording is again available thanks to ArkivMusic, and it contains the Prologue spoken by István Sztankay, which, for whatever reason, is not included on the DVD—and surely there was enough room for it. The film was directed by Miklós Szinetár with sets by Gábor Bachmann and costumes by Judit Schäffer. The movie begins and ends in darkness with falling snow. It is a superb presentation in most ways. Bartók's powerful opera is effectively presented, with Solti the perfect conductor. Appropriately gloomy subterranean castle scenes are contrasted with brillance of the third door (the treasury), the beautiful garden behind the fourth door, and the dazzling scenes behind the fifth door (the kingdom). However, all of this beauty is stained with blood, and behind the seventh door we encounter Bluebeard's three previous wives who are joined by the naïve Judith. Kováts is not very menacing as Bluebeard, and Sass makes little of her climactic high C at the opening of the fifth door. Audio quality is surprisingly substandard, particularly when one considers that Christopher Raeburn was audio producer of the original recording. Heard in fake 5.1, voices are backward, orchestral textures cloudy; sound improves in the stereo mode, but this is not the sonic spectacular it could have been—the organ does not impress. A track-by-track explanation of the simple plot is provided as well text of the Prologue, and subtitles are in five languages.

The Flying Dutchman is a specialty of Wolfgang Sawallisch—he first conducted it in the late '40's—and there are four different performances currently available on CD, ranging from 1959 in Bayreuth (with George London and Leonie Rysanek), to an Italian Radio production in 1969 (with Ferdinand Crass and Ingrid Bjöner). Now we have this stunning film made in 1974. The sound track was recorded in Munich in May, video in Munich's Bavaria Studios Oct. 14 - Nov 10 of that year. It is one of the most effective video presentations I've ever seen of an opera. This was adapted and directed by Václav Kaslík with sets by Gerd Krauss and Herbert Strabel, and costumes by Gerd Krauss and Helga Pinnow-Stadelmann. The elaborate sets include a very realistic phantom ship. During the sea and docking sequences one sees large splashing waves, and the dropping of the anchor is vividly depicted.The Dutchman sings most of his first aria in the waves, although at the end, after he climbs a ladder out of the water he seems quite dry. A minor quibble. Donald McIntyre is totally believable as the Dutchman, Catarina Ligendza, physically a beauty indeed, is in fine voice as Senta and a fine actress, althoughly she surely is no Rysanek. The entire cast is superb, with a special nod to Hermann Winkler's Erik. Lyp-sync is just about perfect, and audio quality rich and impactful, with voices perfectly balanced. This should be in every operatic DVD collection.

Decca has released an elegant performance of Strauss's Arabella, Sir George Solti's second commercial recording of the work. The first is the 1957 version which is rightfully famous, with a cast headed by Lisa Della Cassa, Hilde Gueden and George London, with the Vienna Philharmonic. There also is a performance from the 1958 Salzburg Festival with Gueden and London, long discontinued. Now we have this magnificent 1977 Unitel film directed with the greatest sensitivity by Otto Schenk who always has the camera in the right place. The performance is superb in every way. Gundula Janowitz specialized in this role, and although she is a bit matronly, vocally she is unmatched. Sona Ghazarian's Zdenka is equally fine, and their first-act duet is memorable. Bernd Weikl's Mandryka is perfect, and we have a very young-looking René Kollo as Matteo. Edita Gruberova is quite spectacular as Fiakermilli and tosses off those high notes with the greatest of ease. Audio quality is outstanding for the era and, with only a few exceptions, one cannot tell the sound track was pre-recorded. Perhaps the great asset this production has is Solti's total understanding of this score—the lush Straussian sonorities he coaxes from the Vienna Philharmonic are a pleasure to hear. Here's another essential DVD for opera lovers.

R.E.B. (May 2008)