Vivaldi: Orlando Furioso. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Jennifer Larmore, mezzo-soprano; Verónica Cangemi, soprano; Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Christian Senn, baritone; Kristina Hammarström, mezzo-soprano; Romina Basso, mezzo-soprano; Chœur du Théȃtre des Champs-Élysées and Ensemble Matheus conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Naïve DVD. $24.99.
Hvorostovsky in Moscow, with Guest Star Sondra Radvanovsky: Music of Verdi and Gounod. Philharmonia of Russia conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos DVD. $19.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Beethoven: Egmont Overture; Mozart: Minuet I from Serenade No. 9, “Posthorn.” Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
Sometimes it is easy to see the benefits of having classical music on DVD. The splendid Naïve release of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso with Marie-Nicole Lemieux is everything a classical DVD should be: involving, visually striking, well directed, beautifully sung and a way for music lovers at home to get almost the same experience as those in the original audience at the Théȃtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris last year. The opera itself is a wonderful experience. Based on Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem and completed in 1713, it is an especially fine example of Vivaldi’s vocal writing – although it is but one of three operas that the composer wrote from the same source (the others are Orlando finto pazzo  and Orlando ). As in Vivaldi’s other operas, and in accordance with practices of the time, the events of the story of Orlando Furioso are told in recitative – principally a narration of many of the exploits of the hero, Orlando, and the tale of the sorceress, Alcina. But the vocal and emotional heart of the opera is in the arias in which the characters express their emotions – arias that (again in accordance with period practices) were often reused by Vivaldi in other operas where similar emotion needed to be expressed. It just so happens that the arias as used in Orlando Furioso fit the story so well that the opera stands above many others in effectiveness. The reason is Vivaldi’s emphasis on the two mismatched couples, whose love comes into conflict with their duty. One matchup is between the Christian Orlando (Lemieux) and the pagan princess Angelica (Verónica Cangemi), who is eventually removed from the action (and from interference with Orlando’s duties to God and country) when she saves the wounded Saracen knight, Medoro (Romina Basso), falls in love, and elopes with him. The other couple in difficulty consists of the female Christian warrior Bradamante (Kristina Hammarström) and the Saracen Ruggiero (Philippe Jaroussky). It is Ruggiero who is taken captive by Alcina (Jennifer Larmore) and must be freed, after which he converts to Christianity and he and Bradamante are married. All the roles are exceptionally well sung on this DVD, with Lemieux and Jaroussky particular standouts. And Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducts with thorough understanding of appropriate performance practices and well-chosen tempos. The staging, directed by Pierre Audi, is highly effective as well – not true to Vivaldi’s time, but more universal, making the characters and their strengths and weaknesses seem more like archetypes than simply figures of legend. Fascinating to watch and wonderful to hear, this Orlando Furioso is both a visual treat and an aural one.
Hvorostovsky in Moscow is a more typical and less interesting video. Hvorostovsky’s rich baritone is as expressive as ever in excerpts from Verdi’s Ernani, Don Carlo, Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Trovatore, plus Gounod’s Faust, and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky partners him well, especially in the Il Trovatore “confrontation scene.” But despite the vocal pyrotechnics, this DVD gets a (+++) rating, because watching concert performances of excerpts from operas is simply not very interesting, and this production for Russian television is capable enough but really adds nothing of visual value to the music. In fact, seeing the singers on a concert stage in ordinary modern dress tends to undercut the effectiveness of their emoting. Of course, fans of Hvorostovsky, and those familiar with his appearances with Radvanovsky at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera, will enjoy the DVD, but there is little reason for listeners who simply want the music to have it in this form.
Similarly, the monophonic ICA Classics release of Boston Symphony Orchestra performances led by Erich Leinsdorf (1912-1993) is a (+++) DVD for aficionados only. Leinsdorf was an excellent conductor who was somewhat underrated in the United States because his controlled, precise style was less interesting for audiences to watch than the more flamboyant podium performances of his contemporaries, such as Leonard Bernstein. But Leinsdorf had a superb sense of musicianship, great understanding of the individual elements of an orchestra and the best way to fit them together, and complete dedication to analyzing music and bringing out composers’ intentions. Unfortunately, his rather clinical approach is not best suited to the music of Tchaikovsky, and the performance of Symphony No. 5 here offers clarity and rhythmic vitality but no strong emotional involvement. Beethoven’s Egmont Overture fares better in a very dramatic performance; the short excerpt from Mozart’s “Posthorn” serenade is pleasant, but just a filler. Actually, additional fillers of some sort would have been welcome: the DVD runs only 57 minutes, a paltry length. Only true fans of Leinsdorf will find this video offering of material originally produced for television in the 1960s to be worth its cost or their time.