WAGNER: Die Walküre
Richard Berkeley-Steele (Siegmund); Eric Halfvarson (Hunding); Falk Struckmann (Wotan); Linda Watson (Sieglinde); Deborah Polaski (Brünnhilde); Lioba Braun (Fricka); Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Theatre del Liceu/Bertrand de Billy, cond.
OPUS ARTE DVD VIDEO OA 0911D (3 disks) TT: 250 min.

WAGNER: Tannhäuser
Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser); Alfred Muff (Hermann); Roman Trekel (Wolfram von Eschenbach); Jonas Kaufmann (Walther von der Vogelweide); Solveig Kringeborn (Elisabeth); Isabella Kabatu (Venus); Zürich Opera House Chorus and Orch/Franz Welser-Möst, cond.
EMI CLASSICS DVD VIDEO 997339 (2 disks) TT: 187 min.

DONIZETTI: L'Elisir d'Amore
Luciano Pavarotti (Nemorino); Kathleen Battle (Adina); Juan Pons (Belcore); Enzo Dara (Dulcimara); Korliss Uecker (Giannetta); Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orch/James Levine, cond.
DGG DVD VIDEO B0004050-09 TT: 128 min.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C# minor
Lucerne Festival Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
EUROARTS DVD VIDEO 2054078 TT: 74 min.

Die Walküre is the second in Opus Arts' issue of the Ring cycle presented in June 2003 at the Gran Theatre del Liceu. The first, Das Rheingold, recently was covered unenthusiastically on this site (see REVIEW). Walküre demands first-class singers which are not heard here. Most of the singing is average or less, some of it positively mediocre, particularly Richard Berkeley-Steele's Siegmund. Linda Watson's Sieglinde is better, but she is taxed by the role. Deborah Polaski, who at one point in her career specialized in Wagner and Strauss, is not at her best here. Falk Struckmann's Wotan is serviceable but little more. Both Watson and Polaski, large women of the typical Wagnerian soprano image, sometimes have difficulty negotiating some of director Harry Kupfer's stage movement and ideas. The production is a modern approach to Wagner's epic music drama and has been acclaimed by many. In Act I a massive structure on the floor of Hunding's home is the tree from which Siegmund extracts the sword, and this tree remains throughout the performance ending up as the rock on which Brünnhilde is put to sleep by Wotan. In Act II Berkeley-Steele's face appears to be covered with whipped cream. The Magic Fire Music begins as flashing orange and yellow geometric designs with some flames in the distance towards the end. Much of the action takes place on a very dark stage; flashing strobe lights are often used. Bertrand de Billy's conducting is slack; this is one of the most boring "Ride of the Valkyries" you'll ever hear (or see). The audience is enthusiastic at the end; I would have left at the end of the first act. The surround sound is not as resplendent as sonics on the previous Rheingold issue. Skip this one.

Wagner-wise things are considerably improved with the Zürich Opera's Tannhäuser. Singing overall is at a much higher level. There is a drastic shortage of heldentenors today, and Peter Seiffert doesn't have the essential vocal power for the demanding title role. Isabelle Kabatu is a superb Venus, Solveig Kringelborn excellent as Elisabeth (once she gets through "Dich, teure Halle"). Roman Trekel's Wolfram is superb, but overall this performance doesn't begin to match the splendor of the best of other audio-only recorded versions—but it is the only DVD currently available. This production is by Jens-Daniel Herzog with sets by Bernard Kleber, costumes by Ann Poppei and lighting (generally very dark) by Jürgen Hoffmann. After the overture, the famous "Bacchanale" is heard in the orchestra, but not seen—but TV direction by Chloé Perlemuter does let us see Seiffert in his dressing room as the overture is being played (!), Kabatu preparing for her appearance (!), and other performers backstage during the performance. All of this is totally unnecessary and distracting. Perlemuter has countless close-ups of eyes, noses, and faces (usually drenched with perspiration), and we have numerous opportunities to view conductor Franz Welser-Möst's floating hands with his polished gold wedding ring. You can be sure that if there is a harp or other solo passage we will have a closeup of the performers' hands—just the hands. The surround sound is quite good, and subtitles are supplied in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish, but I probably won't watch this again.

Opera-wise things are in good hands with the Met's November 1991 television recording of L'Elisir d'Amore. This is a simple, sensible production by John Copley with set and costume design by Beni Montresor, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. This DVD offers small-scale grand opera at its best with superb singing from everyone in this spirited performance conducted by James Levine. Although late in is career (his recording of this opera was made more than two decades earlier), Pavarotti is in good voice (and maximum heft), and Kathleen Battle is extraordinary. Cameras always are where they should be with a welcome absence of prolonged close-ups. Sonics are OK although the 5.1 surround doubtless was artificially accomplished. A bonus feature offers photos and facts of some historic performances of this opera at the Met.

Claudio Abbado continues to produce memorable DVDs. This is a magnificent performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, a work the conductor previously recorded on disks with the Chicago Symphony and more recently, in 1993, with the Berlin Philharmonic, recently issued on SACD (see REVIEW). This glowing performance is with the first-class Lucerne Festival Orchestra which includes many of the leading players of Europe was recorded August 18/19, 2004. Camera work, directed by Michael Beyer, is perfect, and the surround sound is as natural as it could be. This is one of the finest DVDs of symphonic music.

R.E.B. (June 2005)