October 30, 2008


Verdi: La Traviata. Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas, Roberto Frontali; Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala conducted by Lorin Maazel. ArtHaus DVD. $29.99.

Classical Archive: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Medici Arts DVD. $19.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Anna Larson, contralto; Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Tölzer Knabenchor and Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Zubin Mehta with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Mozart, Bartók, Dvořák. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Classical-music DVDs occupy a somewhat precarious position. Listeners accustomed to CDs and their predecessor media (audiocassettes, tape, vinyl records) are used to imagining themselves in a concert hall as they hear recorded performances. DVDs pull in that visual element, but this is not always an advantage: camera angles may be jarring (or at least different from the sights a person would see while actually watching a performance), and close-ups of performers and instruments may detract from rather than add to the musical experience.

     When a DVD is well done, both musically and visually, it certainly does add new pleasures to a work, as is the case with La Traviata featuring Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta and Ramón Vargas as Alfredo. This 2007 La Scala production is warm and evocatively emotional, and Gheorghiu makes Violetta a multifaceted character quite in keeping with Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto. She is all brilliance and gaiety in Act I – although her coughing and weakness are, as intended, ominous – and seems fully to enjoy domestic life in Act II, where she stands up regally to the conventionality-driven demands of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (a stolid Roberto Frontali) before finally acceding to them. Gheorghiu traces Violetta’s downward spiral effectively through the last two acts: her return to the party scene in Act II, Scene II is quite different from her embrace of it in Act I, and her final-act death scene is rendered with considerable pathos. Costumes and settings seem right for the opera but remain generally unobtrusive, with the result that this Traviata comes across as human drama rather than spectacle – making its characters all the more believable. Lorin Maazel conducts with a sure hand and well-chosen tempos, and the camera work is involving without being self-consciously arty or overly distracting.

     The wonderful operatic roles of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are nowhere in evidence on the new DVD showcasing some of her performances between 1961 and 1970. There is little rhyme or reason to this hodgepodge, which includes recitals with pianists Gerald Moore (who is wonderful) and Geoffrey Parson as well as performances with Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by the virtually unknown Berislav Klobucar. There is more Richard Strauss here than anything else – eight songs in all, from two recitals – but the repertoire is really all over the place, including bits of Brahms, Gluck, Mahler, Menotti, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Verdi and Wolf. There are a few pleasant, little-heard songs here, such as Mozart’s “Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein,” K. 539; and hearing Schwarzkopf sing the anonymous “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” is a special pleasure. But the switching between piano and orchestral accompaniment and the varying camera work and quality make the DVD seem rather choppy and uneven. Schwarzkopf fans will welcome the chance to see her anytime, but this is in fact a “fan DVD” rather than one worth owning for its musical value.

     The music is in the forefront in Claudio Abbado’s 2007 Lucerne Festival rendition of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the composer’s most monumental work and an exceptionally difficult one to bring off successfully. The performance was heard on TV, and director Michael Beyer knows that the medium requires close-ups and frequent changes of camera angles and perspective in order to involve the viewing audience. Unfortunately, TV’s needs are at odds with Mahler’s, especially in the long-drawn-out and very slow finale, into which a listener is immersed and through which he or she is ultimately exalted. Here the visuals actually interfere with Abbado’s sensitive, thoughtful interpretation in a way they do not in earlier movements (especially the choral ones). The difficulty of a DVD of Mahler’s Third is that the visual elements must, of necessity, be those chosen by the director, not those that a sensitive listener would select in the concert hall. And while closing one’s eyes is certainly an option (and can be a good idea during a concert performance), it seems a bit self-defeating to do so while a DVD plays. There is, in the final analysis, something a little jarring about this production, despite the excellence of the music-making itself.

     The Zubin Mehta DVD with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is, on the other hand, great fun to watch – at least as a historical document. This two-concert DVD dates to January 1977, when Mehta was 30. He had become the youngest person ever to head a major U.S. orchestra when he took over in Los Angeles at age 26. The circumstances make Mehta himself more of an attraction than the music – like the Schwarzkopf DVD, this is one for fans of the performer. That is not to say that all the works are minor, since the DVD includes both Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 (which gets a bright, propulsive performance) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which effectively shows off the orchestra’s versatility). But the music – which also includes Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, very well played by David Breidenthal, plus Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” and Slavonic Dance No. 8 – is better known than is Mehta’s approach of 30-plus years ago. His conducting is vivid, enthusiastic and well paced, perhaps a little lacking in subtlety, but making up for it in attention to color and orchestral detail. Given the familiarity of the music, this DVD is one that is at least as much for the eyes as for the ears.

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