MARIA CALLAS - Living and Dying for Art and Love

Music of Bizet, Mozart, Rossini, Massenet, Puccini, Donizetti, Leoncavallo, Halévy, Buzzi-Peccia, De Curtis and traditional works
Roberto Alagna, tenor; Lamoureux Orch/Anton Guadagno, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMOPHONE DVD VIDEO B 0004408-09 (5.1 channel) TT: 86 min.

HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32. A film directed by Rhodri Huw.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/David Atherton, cond.
BBC OPUS ARTE DVD VIDEO OA 0916D (2 channel) TT: 59 min.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin
Irina Udalova (Larina); Maria Gavilova (Tatyana); elena Novak (Olga); Vladimir Redkin (Eugene Onegin); Nikolai Baskov (Lensky); Aik Martirosyan (Prince Gremin); Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Mark Ermler, cond.

Nothing really special about any of these DVDs. The Callas is a rehash of what we have seen often before. This film was directed by Steve Cole, produced by Chris Hunt and Alan Sievewright, and tells us once again the story of the famous diva's sad life interspersed with excerpts from performances issued many times before, in particular Tosca, which is heard repeatedly. The claim is made that Callas had a baby boy by Onassis, and we see an Italian birth certificate dated March 30, 1960; the child supposedly died the same day, and there is a death certificate. It is rumored that Callas did become pregnant by Onassis but that he insisted she have an abortion. Are there any photographs of Callas while pregnant? It's rather difficult to imagine an international star of Callas' fame could have been pregnant and no one photographed her at that time. Surtitles are provided in German, French, Spanish and Italian; they also should have offered them in English—Franco Zefferelli's "English" is sometimes almost incomprehensible. As a "bonus" we have 14 minutes of the famed 1964 Covent Garden Tosca, but even with this the playing time of this DVD is only 71 minutes. For a list of about $25 the collector deserves more.

Roberto Alagna's publicity hype keeps him in front of microphones, cameras and audiences. Here we have him in a concert recorded in Salle Gaveau in Paris January 8 and 11, 2001, produced by Lévon Sayan and directed by Lévon Nizan. Alagna is in good voice in this varied program and his fans will be delighted, although often he slides up into high notes, rather disturbing for one of today's younger tenors. The entire production is a love-fest for Alagna including an interview, a video clip ("Carrettiere Siciliano"), a catalog of his recordings and information on how to join his Fan Club. Photography is superb, as is the sound.

The cover of BBC Opus Arte's The Planets suggests something mysteriously intriguing. Holst's seven-movement symphonic suite, each representing one of the planets known when the composer wrote it, has been an audience favorite ever since its premiere in 1914 and there are dozens of recordings of it. Colin Matthews has "completed" the score by adding Pluto, the Renewer, a musically dubious adendum written in the style of Holst. According to DVD notes, The Planets is "a lavish visualisation of Gustav Holst's orchestral masterpiece.. featuring spectacular images which enhance the symbolic meaning attributed to each planet by the composer." The film was directed by Rhodri Huw and supposedly "enthralled a massive TV audience with a spellbinding blend of images filmed in many locations around the world....along with computer graphics and animatronics." I found it to be a bore. Extraneous sounds often are heard over the music, with inappropriate images (Mars features armored tanks slushing through mud, Venus begins with an Artic scene, Mercury is a series of busy designs, Jupiter is a carnival, festive scene). Neptune is most interesting of all, a series of computer-generated color images (it's unfortunate this treatment wasn't given to the entire work). This performance of The Planets is not outstanding, and the sound, surprisingly, is stereo, not multi-channel, odd for a recent recording. Skip this one.

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, one of the mainstays of the Bolshoi Opera, is presented here in a television video production by Nikita Tikhonov directed by Boris Porkovsky, a revival of a production first mounted in 1944. Designs by Alena Pikalova and costumes by Yelena Merkurova are appropriate for the setting in Russia in the 1820's, all quite beautiful and effective. The men singers are a strong group, but the major role of Tatyana is sung by the matronly Maria Gavilova whose voice is shrill at the top, weak in lower registers. In addition, the sound is poor. The orchestra is up-close, the singers rather off-mike and on occasion distorted. If this is 5.1 surround sound, it has been artifically—and unsuccessfully—produced. Skip this one, too.

R.E.B. (April 2005)