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Alert to nature's sounds

June 15, 2003|Mark Swed;Richard S. Ginell;Chris Pasles

Janacek "The Cunning Little Vixen"

Christine Buffle, soprano; Grant Doyle, baritone; German Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor; animation, Geoff Dunbar (BBC Opus Arte)

****

Janacek's wondrous animal opera, a lovable yet unsentimental celebration of nature, was inspired by a Czech cartoon strip and here is returned to its roots, 21st-century style. The opera's a natural for animation, and this superb adaptation for television made by the BBC, with some support from Los Angeles Opera, sets exactly the right tone. It's cute enough for kids (and adults) while still capturing the essence of deeply drawn (in both senses of the word) characters, human and animal. Janacek's incandescent score glows musically under Kent Nagano's baton, and under Geoff Dunbar's luminescent paintbrush, the film glows, literally. The opera is substantially trimmed to an hour, keeping the focus on the animals and losing much of the human goings-on. The characterful cast, all singing in intelligible English, adapt an unusual style that might be called operatic cartoon singing -- theatrically exaggerated but still Janacek. Some parents may worry about the composer's frank portrayal of life, death and, yes, sex in the animal kingdom. But all that is part of the glory of a film that presents opera as something real and yet fantastical. Kids should see it, and this DVD is the only way. KCET, not surprisingly, passed on it.

Mark Swed

*

In the grip of violent emotions

Bizet: "Carmen"

Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Marcus Haddock, tenor; Laurent Naouri, baritone; Lisa Milne, soprano; London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus; Philippe Jordan, conductor; David McVicar, stage director (Opus Arte)

*** 1/2

If the idea of Swedish lieder expert Von Otter playing Carmen strikes you as a gamble, perhaps it shouldn't. She has been cast against type before with startling success, as Baba the Turk in "The Rake's Progress," and here she presents a complete portrait even without looking at all like a Spanish gypsy. Her Carmen has loads of overt sexuality -- she languidly glides through the Habanera while sucking on a piece of fruit and then a cigar -- and she shows plenty of temperament and fatalism tinged with fear later. Haddock convincingly confronts the riddle of a baby-faced Don Jose capable of smoldering violence, while Naouri's cocksure Escamillo sings the Toreador Song in a deliberately banal way -- which is what Bizet probably intended. The dark-shaded Glyndebourne production looks claustrophobic on the small screen, but that's not a bad thing as the grip of violent emotions closes in. Jordan's tempos are on the dot, and the fights and crowd scenes are exuberantly directed. Glyndebourne uses the Opera Comique version with dialogue, which brings out the opera's humor and adds depth to the characters' backgrounds. In one of the plethora of extra features generously crammed into this two-DVD set, McVicar and his singers offer unusually penetrating insight into the characters. Better yet, they follow through in this August performance, tapping deeply into "Carmen's" ambiguous soul.

Richard S. Ginell

*

Two views of Monteverdi

Monteverdi: "L'Orfeo"

La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations; Jordi Savall, conductor; Gilbert Deflo, stage director (BBC Opus Arte)

*** 1/2

Monteverdi: "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria"

Vesselina Kasarova, mezzo-soprano; Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Orchestra La Scintilla of the Opernhaus Zurich; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor; Klaus-Michael Gruber, stage director (Art Haus Musik)

****

Monteverdi's three extant operas are winners all. These two, composed 33 years apart, define a golden age. Stage director Gilbert Deflo transports the audience imaginatively back to the 1607 premiere of "L'Orfeo" at the court of the duke of Mantua. Music director Jordi Savall -- dressed in heavy robes as Monteverdi -- makes an entrance through the audience at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu to take up the direction of similarly garbed musicians. Deflo's staging is a sumptuous period re-creation of Arcadia, in which the action is slow, dignified, poised and almost as economical as that in Noh drama. The singing is generally excellent, with Furio Zanasi superb in the marathon role of Orfeo. Savall conducts with exuberance, and the camera delights in moving from him to the stage and back again. An extra feature is an interview with Deflo.

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