Now that Father Christmas has been and gone, are the gift vouchers piling up? There’s a whole range of classical music DVDs available which I’ve been sampling over recent months, plus one huge surprise in a totally different medium, so you might find something to suit you here.
Maintaining the seasonal mood is a joyous release of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, lazily described as a “children’s opera”, but in fact with so much psychological undertow that it offers riches on an adult level as well – and can in fact be scary for the youngsters.
There are many delights in this generous package (interviews, too) from the New York Metropolitan Opera, not least the fact that it preserves Richard Jones’ original co-production for Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago (coincidentally, WNO’s current, galvanising boss David Pountney made the excellent translation).
Vladimir Jurowski conducts the lustrous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and a lively cast headed by the appealing Hansel of Alice Coote. And the greatest treasure in this presentation is the remarkable Witch of Philip Langridge, physically unrecognisable in the role, and giving us a gleefully malevolent portrayal as a memory of this wonderful tenor who remains so sadly missed (EMI Classics).
Decidedly scary is Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges, a one-acter cautionary tale telling of a naughty child the contents of whose nursery come alive in order to plague and haunt him. An act of kindness to an injured squirrel redeems the terrified child, and the opera ends with his plaintive Maman as he holds his arms out to his mother.
Colette wrote the touching and witty libretto, and Ravel’s score teems with both tender and jazzy elements, seamlessly delivered in this Glyndebourne production by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazushi Ono, certainly a conductor to watch (CBSO take note?).
This was one half of a Ravel double-bill mounted at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2012, with as its stable-mate L’Heure Espagnole, a cross between Whitehall farce and edge-of-the-seat pantomime.
The tale is a sexy one, when the frustrated young Concepcion plans an in flagrante hour with her poet lover while her horologist husband Torquemada is out winding the town clocks. But so many things go wrong, with the unwelcome appearance of various Persons from Porlock. We in the audience can predict the outcome from the start, so feel very smug at the crisp ending.
Facial gestures in this performance are too broad and obvious for close DVD viewing, but I guess they worked perfectly at Glyndebourne (especially to a well-oiled audience). Pluses included a deliciously camp portrayal of the poet Gonsalve by Alek Shrader; a big minus was the far-too-young Torquemada of Francois Piolino, a dead ringer for Allo, Allo’s Herr Flick. This cuckolded husband should be a decrepit old pantaloon, such as I saw in an unforgettable production at Glyndebourne in 1966 (FRAmusica).
Slight pause for a digression upon the effect of scariness on children. As kids we all loved being scared, just as long as there was a comforting grown-up safely near. I remember being terrified by the vision of the Wicked Queen in the mirror in Walt Disney’s Snow White, and I can’t hear that music from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty even now without shuddering. Thank goodness for my beloved aunt holding my hand.
But sometimes it can go too far. Over Christmas I watched Disney’s remarkable Fantasia, which would have been a huge cartoon achievement today, let alone in 1940, and it brought it all back to me.
The brilliant, but terrifying evocation of Mussorgsky’s demonic Night on the Bare Mountain would scare any receptive child: spectres, witches, warlocks and all kinds of beastly skeletons spinning about all over the place, presided over by the huge, glowering-eyed, bat-like Satan looking down on all below. OK, it ends mawkishly with a candlelit procession exorcising its way to the village church, which turns into a vast cathedral as they sing Schubert’s Ave Maria, but the damage has been done. One scare too far, I think.
But back to DVDs, and a few celebrating 2013’s anniversary boys.
Verdi didn’t get much of a look-in compared with his other bicentennial Wagner in terms of live performance, but technology has made up for that, beginning with Celebrating Verdi: Verdi’s Legendary Interpreters (Ideale Audience Classic Archive).
Legendary interpreters? Tito Gobbi certainly, in a powerfully-nuanced pairing of monologues from the two late, great operas Falstaff and Othello (Charles Mackerras the empathetic conductor in a 1958 BBC studio relay with the London Symphony Orchestra); Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Desdemona in a French relay of Othello towards the end of her career? I don’t think so.
Nor Arturo Toscanini bullying his way with his gimlet eyes and bilious beat through the Force of Destiny Overture for an NBC promotional film (though they are rather coy about that in this packaging). The time has come for a reassessment of this legend.
But Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Overture to The Sicilian Vespers and then the Stabat Mater? Now you’re talking.
Here was a conductor steeped in the Verdian tradition, and who realised that that much-loved composer needed shaping and empathy rather than bludgeoning.
The sound of this BBC relay from the Royal Festival Hall is pretty crumbly, but the camera direction from the revered Antony Craxton is sensitive and revealing, focussing quite rightly not only upon Giulini but also the wonderful mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (this DVD recommended even if only for her performance).
Verdi was a great favourite with Benjamin Britten (just compare their Requiems), and there were some intriguing releases during the centenary year of the English composer, not least the imaginative staging of Peter Grimes on the windswept beach at Aldeburgh overlooking the brooding North Sea. This was filmed at the Aldeburgh Festival last June, and is conducted by Britten veteran Steuart Bedford. Plenty of interviews, too, and a fascinating time-lapse manifestation of the set-build (Arthaus Musik).
And Wagner, like Verdi marking his 200th birthday, just couldn’t help muscling in on the recorded media scene, not content with getting the lion’s share of live celebratory performances.
Warner Classics under its Teldec label have reissued to us one of the greatest Ring cycles ever, that conducted by Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth in 1991, Harry Kupfer directing a stellar cast including John Tomlinson, Anne Evans and Siegfried Jerusalem.