Gershwin: Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell, Lester Lynch, Chauncey Packer, Karen Slack, Angel Blue, Eric Greene, Alteouise deVaughn; San Francisco Opera conducted by John DeMain. EuroArts. $24.99 (2 DVDs).
Paths Through the Labyrinth: The Composer Krzysztof Penderecki—A Film by Anna Schmidt. C Major DVD. $39.99.
Tianwa Yang Live in Concert in St. Petersburg: Music of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Ysaÿe and Bach. Tianwa Yang, violin; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos DVD. $19.99.
The value of video for classical music varies greatly according to the repertoire – but there is one type of music for which video definitely adds a dimension, and that is fully staged opera. Although concert performances of opera do not necessarily gain anything from video, and may in fact lose something by depriving listeners of the chance to devise their own visuals, staged performances were, after all, meant to be seen, and seeing them at home can be a highly involving experience. That is certainly true of the San Francisco Opera production of Porgy and Bess, whose dramatic staging by Francesca Zambello and strong and assured conducting by John DeMain are highlights of a new EuroArts two-DVD set. This recording is of a live 2009 performance in which the singers sizzle as much as does the summer weather on Catfish Row. The nobility of Eric Owens as Porgy, the turbulence of Laquita Mitchell as Bess, and the menacing intensity of Lester Lynch as Crown combine to make this reading come across as verismo in the melodramatic style of Puccini or Wolf-Ferrari, but with wholly American settings and characterizations. From Angel Blue, as Clara, singing the ever-memorable “Summertime,” to Chauncey Packer stealing the show every time he appears on stage as Sportin’ Life, this is a production that engages the audience – the home audience as well as the one at the opera house – and shows Porgy and Bess to be a true grand opera as well as a uniquely American one. The work’s emotional punch comes through more strongly than usual in this staging, notably when Karen Slack as Serena sings “My Man’s Gone Now.” And the choreography fits the story notably well – although it also points up the performance’s major flaw, which lies in Zambello’s decision to move the action from the 1920s to the 1950s. The reasoning here is hard to understand, and while the quality of the sets by Peter J. Davison is uniformly high, the notion of Porgy and Bess – which is, among other things, a snapshot of a particular time – happening in the 1950s makes no more narrative sense than would the idea of La Bohème taking place after the invention of antibiotics. The very fine DVD video and sound make watching this Porgy and Bess a pleasure, although the enjoyment is somewhat compromised by the odd sense that the opera has become unmoored from its appropriate time and place.
Another form of classical-music video that makes perfect sense is film: clearly, only a visual presentation is worthwhile for an offering such as Anna Schmidt’s Paths Through the Labyrinth: The Composer Krzysztof Penderecki. The issue with this (+++) C Major DVD and similar projects is mostly one of audience limitation and involvement: a work like Schmidt’s is intended only for viewers who are intimately familiar with the music of Penderecki (born 1933) and are seeking 104 minutes of insight into the man behind that music. Schmidt followed Penderecki for a year to make this film – an approach typical of that for profile/personality pieces – and, equally typically, got comments on the composer from musicians who know his work well, such as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lorin Maazel. Somewhat less expected here are the remarks by artists including Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and film director Andrzej Wajda; but their commentary makes perfect sense in the context of who Penderecki is and where he fits into today’s music scene. All personality profiles like this one smack of hagiography, and Paths Through the Labyrinth is no exception, but Schmidt paces the film well and gives Penderecki himself plenty of time to expound on his music, the ideas underlying it, and his personal life (to the extent that he chooses to delve into it). For listeners familiar with and fascinated by Penderecki, Paths Through the Labyrinth will be a chance to feel closer to the composer; but ultimately, what his music communicates on its own matters far more than what Penderecki and the others interviewed by Schmidt have to say about the works, their genesis and their intended meaning. Paths Through the Labyrinth works well as a DVD release but does not reach out, or try to reach out, to any viewers beyond those inherently interested in the subject matter at its core.
The Interest will be much wider in the repertoire offered by violinist Tianwa Yang on a new Naxos DVD, but here the production comes up against the limitations of DVD value in classical music. The recording captures Yang’s 2011 Russian debut and features her performing two highly familiar and ever-popular works: the Tchaikovsky and Brahms violin concertos. Both are close to inevitable for a violinist to offer on a first tour of Russia – the Tchaikovsky, in fact, really is inevitable. The DVD also includes two attractive encores, Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3, “Ballade,” and Bach’s Partita No. 2. But it is for the Tchaikovsky and Brahms that listeners will come to this DVD, if they choose to come at all. And why would they? That is a reasonable question for this repertoire in this packaging. Yang plays both concertos with assurance, style and considerable skill, but interpretatively, she does not offer any particularly new insights – everything is there that would be there in any other fine performance, but there is nothing to distinguish Yang’s from that of other high-quality young virtuosi. The St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra plays with its entirely typical warmth and beauty, but there is a sense of “going through the motions” in this well-worn repertoire rather than one of discovering anything new or plumbing any previously unexplored depths. Vladimir Lande is one reason for this: he is a fine journeyman of a conductor but does not seem particularly challenged by this repertoire – somewhat like Marin Alsop, he is more involved during his frequent performances of contemporary music than in his handling of standards of the 19th century. As for the DVD itself, it is well-made and nicely directed, but as always in a visual presentation of a concert, it requires home viewers to look only at what the director wants them to look at – a different experience from what they would have in the concert hall, and a more-dislocating one here than in watching an opera. This release gets a (+++) rating because of the quality of the performances and visuals, but it is unlikely to be a top choice for either listening or viewing for most people – except perhaps for those who have as strong a “fan” interest in Yang as Penderecki fans do in him.
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