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Mahler - Des Knaben Wunderhorn / von Otter, Quasthoff, Berlin Phil., Abbado
Mahler - Des Knaben Wunderhorn / von Otter, Quasthoff, Berlin Phil., Abbado
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Charles Ives of Austria?, May 15, 2013
Or was Ives potentially the Yankee Mahler? How much would you need to tweak the timbres and phrasing of Des Knaben Wunderhorn to convert the "past-post-Romantic" bittersweet mockery of Mahler's early songs into the tongue-in-cheek mockery of Ives? After all, Mahler himself considered these songs 'chamber music' and declared that "the orchestration is sweet and sunny -- nothing but butterfly colors."

No, of course I'm not serious! Just a little ear-and-mind experiment! :-) And I'm not asserting that Ives's musical accomplishment approached that of Mahler. Ives composed nothing close in power and glory to Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" or "Das Lied von der Erde." Has anybody?

This is a very fine recording. What else would you expect, with Abbado conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1998, and with Thomas Quasthoff and Anne Sofie von Otter handling the vocal chores? Quasthoff in particular has the gravity of voice and the anguish of life experience to render the 'anti-war' texts from the 1808 poetic anthology "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" palpable, while von Otter artfully blends wistfulness and grief in her simple love songs. The outstanding, unique songs of the collection are precisely the two that Mahler recycled in later works: "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" and "Urlicht" - both of them 'spiritual' meditations rather than meditations on spirits.

Django Unchained
Django Unchained
DVD ~ Jamie Foxx
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I Didn't Laugh Much ..., May 14, 2013
This review is from: Django Unchained (DVD)
... and I didn't feel roused to smack the head of the nearest racist. That comment could stand as my whole review, but I suppose I'd better clarify.

Okay, it's a cartoon, complete with the usual transformation of a weakling into a super-hero. Monsieur Candie (DiCaprio) is The Joker. Django (Foxx) is Batman, Spiderman, or whomever you wanted to emulate when you were twelve. But, as a comic book, it drags. It's twenty minutes too long.

Or, if you like, it's revved-up social history. But in that case it's thin on significant details. Why, for instance, is there no cotton growing on the Candie Plantation? No work gangs? None of the true horrors of slavery in the purported year 1858? The indifference to plausibility began to annoy me in the first few minutes: why on earth is a coffle of slaves being marched through the barren rocks of the far West? You don't need to cross West Texas to get to East Texas! Yeah, yeah, back to the cartoonish essence of the film. What's the point of griping about the lack of verisimilitude in a cartoon?

Mind you, I can relish the vicarious thrill of blowing away a couple dozen slave drivers and slave traders, just as I relished the climax of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, when the whole Nazi high command was machine-gunned in a theater. As a twelve-year-old I had my share of such fantasies. And as a mature (ha!) American, I simmer with rage against the slavers and racists of "our" history. An indomitable African-American revenging the villainies of the White USA? Good stuff! A cartoon version of the election and re-election of Barack Obama, which excited the billy-hell out of me. Strangely, this story isn't simple enough - not black and white enough - for a cartoon, not with the second-nastiest character (played by Samuel Jackson) being a virulently racist slave and male nanny to the planter Candie. The film sags from righteous empathetic mayhem against Bad Guys into commercial sadism.

Perhaps the best way to evaluate Django Unchained is to compare it with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. IG was funny, suspenseful, sardonic, well-shaped and well-edited, yet had just as much gore on display for the kiddies. If five stars is appropriate for Inglourious Basterds, the three stars are plenty for Django Unchained.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 14, 2013 3:56 PM PDT

Gluck: Ezio
Gluck: Ezio
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who? Handel? Porpora?, May 13, 2013
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This review is from: Gluck: Ezio (Audio CD)
Imagine that you've turned on your local NPR station in the middle of this unfamiliar opera, and you're trying to guess the identity of the composer. Hmmm. It's too inventive for Galuppi and just plain too good for Hasse... Wait! I've got it! It's a lost opera by Vivaldi, composed in his last year, in 1741 in Vienna and just rediscovered!

Nooo, it's not the Red Priest, though Vivaldi would have had no cause to be ashamed of this masterwork. And unless you're a topnotch conductor or musicologist, your guess isn't half bad. The opera is "Ezio" by the great ITALIAN composer Christoph Willibald Gluck!

Huh? Wasn't Gluck a Bavarian? And isn't he famous chiefly for reforming the conventions and excesses of Italian opera seria with his compositions "Orfeo ed Euridice" and "Alceste" in Vienna in the 1760s? Yes, that's the standard narrative, and if the only works you've heard by Gluck are those two plus some of his later French operas, you needn't apologize for being surprised by "Ezio," which was composed in 1750 and premiered in Prague. It's Italianate to its toes. The Italian libretto is by Pietro Metastasio, the very poet whose texts had dominated opera stages since the 1720s and the artificer against whom Gluck's reforms were supposedly directed. Except for one trio at the end of act two and one full cast ensemble at the finale, "Ezio" is composed entirely of recitativos and solo da capo arias, most of them seven or more minutes long. The arias are as florid as any by Handel or Vinci, with astoundingly flamboyant embellishments and cadenzas on the reprises ... exactly the sort of star-power castrato virtuosity that Gluck denounced. The orchestra is there to showcase the singers, whose earnings no doubt exceeded the composer's comfortably. Here's the paradox: Gluck, the reformer and prophet of "classical" opera, wrote very fine Italian Baroque.

Except for the mandatory "fine lieto" - happy ending - Ezio is one of Metastasio's most affective dramas. The six characters are based on Roman historical figures of the 5th C: the general Flavius Aetius (Ezio), the emperor Valentinian III, the traitorous patrician Petronius Maximus, plus Valentinian's sister Onoria, Massimo's daughter Fulvia, and Ezio's loyal friend Varro. Ezio and Fulvia are pledged as lovers, but Valentinian wants to wed Fulvia, Onoria wants Ezio, and Massimo wants to kill Valentinian and blame Ezio. But the plot is less convoluted than those of many Baroque operas, and the character portrayals are subtler and more complex. It's the variety and the psychological aptness of the arias assigned to each character that make this opera particularly stage-worthy. "Ezio" had previously been set, by the way, by both Porpora and Handel.

The noble Ezio is sung by contralto Sonia Prina, one of the brightest stars of our operatic era. She's perhaps too diminutive to sing this "trousers" role on stage -- though she did so in 2008 -- but her vocal timbres are more convincingly "masculine" in this recording than most countertenors could produce. Hers is a gorgeous voice trained to perfection in Baroque vocal technique. The countertenor of this cast is Max Emanuel Cencic, in the role of Valentiniano. Handel, I'm sure, would have given us at least one duet between sung compelling artists, but Gluck was too "traditional."

Two delightful surprises! Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg sings Fulvia and sounds better than I've ever heard her before. More secure. More even across her full range. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu, better known for roles in Wagner, sings the role of the villainous Massimo, whose nine-minute aria at the close of Act One is the sweetest, suavest, loveliest piece in the opera. Lehtipuu has immaculate HIPP technique! Superb breath control and phrasing! Incredible flexibility and agility! On top of gorgeous timbres! Why would a guy who can sing Baroque bel canto so superlatively waste his time on Wagner? ;-)

A lot of the credit for the polish of this performance must be due to conductor/scholar Alan Curtis, with his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. Curtis is a rehearsal perfectionist, as the results demonstrate. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Curtis had a strong hand in the "improvisation" of the embellishments and cadenzas of this recording. Obviously they were prepared and practiced, and their aesthetic unity implies Curtis's supervision. If Gluck was justified, in his later period in Vienna and Paris, in complaining about the overheated vocal pyrotechnics of his divos and divas, all he really needed was an authoritarian conductor like Alan Curtis. Il Complesso Barocco is a magniloquent prsence on this recording, with eight violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass, two oboes, two horns, bassoon, and harpsichord. The libretto is included in Italian and English. This is one of the most pleasurable CD recordings of a Baroque opera I've heard in recent years.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 11, 2014 9:17 AM PDT

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Resurrection
Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Resurrection
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mahler the Impressionist, May 12, 2013
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Conductor Paavo Järvi has a predilection for serenity over furor. The quietest and most delicate sections of this "Resurrection" Symphony get the attention that has often been denied them in more rambunctious performances by earlier conductors. Järvi's silences are affectively loud. His dreamy pianissimo passages carry more weight than his explosive fortes. Mind you, he unleashes his band and percussion cannonades at apt moments, yet the whole of his interpretation reveals a more delicate and impressionistic Mahler than most of us are accustomed to hearing. Luckily the sound recording quality is clear and clean enough to capture those impressions.

This performance would never have passed muster in the old Boston Symphony Hall where I first heard Mahler's Second Symphony fifty years ago, where the incessant coughing of the Beacon Hill matrons -- all season ticket holders -- would have drowned out Järvi's pianissimos and rendered his prolonged silences absurd. There are implications for your experience of hearing this CD. You will need a quiet room; a sensory deprivation chamber would be optimal. No traffic noise! No ticking or beeping mechanisms! No children frolicking on the floor or upstairs neighbors vacuuming! The silences of this Resurrection demand an equal silence from you and your world.

In a sense, this is a later-generation revisionist interpretation of Mahler, one that universalizes the beauty of his music by ignoring or minimizing the sardonic despair which older conductors heard in it. I also "miss" the funereal anguish - the "ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck" - that I recall from Bruno Walter's "Auferstehung." Likewise, I recall the second movement as more satirically boorish, and the third as more snarly and scornful. On the other hand, oddly enough, Järvi's 'Finale' - the 35-minute setting of Friedrich Klopstock's poetic promise of eternal life - sounds to my ears more assured than I've heard it before. The mordant cynicism of Mahler's neurotic religiosity is gone! This is a happier Mahler. This is the bitter Jewish Mahler sounding as sincere as Bach! Likewise, the voices of Alice Coote and Natalie Dessay sound sweeter and less edgy than those of Maria Stader and Maureen Forrester in the 1957 recording conducted by Walter. Is it simply cleaner studio sound, or is it that Mahler has become "absolute" music, in which the singers are to be heard as instruments, and the words as colorful timbres?

Oh well. Mahler transcends any single interpretation. And I don't give a hoot for his existential Angst about death and rebirth, being both post-Romantic and post-Christianity. But wouldn't Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) be astounded to discover that audiences a century after his life listen to his symphonies with rapture and reverence rather than outrage?

Iphigenie En Aulide / Iphigenie En Tauride
Iphigenie En Aulide / Iphigenie En Tauride
DVD ~ Gluck
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Back to the Future ... of Opera, May 10, 2013
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The standard narrative of musicology has always been that Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was the key reformer of opera history, who swept away the conventions of "opera seria" as they had congealed in the libretti of Metastasio, who purged operatic music of "recitativo secco" and the monumental repetitiveness of the da capo aria, who put those flashy ornamentalizing singers in their proper place of subordination to the composer, and who set the table for the symphonic operas of Wagner. However, as is often true, the accepted wisdom leaves a lot out of account. It's a long century from Gluck to Wagner, during which da capo and bel canto continued to thrive and the libretti of Metastasio were set to music as eagerly as Gluck himself had done both before and after his "reforms" in Vienna in the 1760s. Gluck's best pupil turned out to be Antonio Salieri, that backward-looking composer of opera buffa. Haydn's and Paisiello's operas show little response to Gluck's concerns. Mozart composed one patently Gluckian opera -- Idomeneo in 1780/81 -- using an Italian adaptation of a French libretto from 1712. It's an atypically static drama (with lovely music of course) that has never competed for stage time with Mozart's comic and tragicomic masterpieces. Over the next several generations of composers, only the Medea of Cherubini mimics the intensity of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride.

Meanwhile, with the successful revival of operas of Lully and Rameau, by conductors and singers of HIPP persuasion, we mere listeners have a perspective on Gluck that the academic musicologists never had. We can hear how obviously Gluck found his musical idiom in the French Baroque tradition. Not just the language of the two Iphigenies is French; the style of recitation, the fluidity of sequencing from recitation to aria (including da capo), and indeed the whole affect of the opera is best heard as the culmination of that French tradition. Gluck himself knew as much when he hastened from Vienna to Paris in the 1770s.

The libretto for Iphigenie en Aulide (1774) is closer to the drama by Racine than to Homer, while the libretto for Iphigenie en Tauride (1779) is based on a French text derived from Euripedes. The conclusion of the former is not entirely consistent with the premise of the latter; nonetheless, staging the two works together is a brilliant idea. "Aulide" ends poorly and unconvincingly as a dramatic statement but the psycho-mythic intensity of "Tauride" redeems it. Likewise, the music of Tauride is so monumental and memorable that Aulide sounds like a preface, just as the first act of Berlioz's "Les Troyens," in Troy, becomes a warm-up for the latter action in Carthage. Berlioz is far more aptly recognized than Wagner as the great-grandchild of Gluck.

This tandem production was first staged in Amsterdam by De Nederlandse OPera in September 2011, using the same set and many of the same costumes for both. It's a brutally 'modern' set composed of steel scaffolding and stairs on either side of a stage that stands behind the always-visible orchestra. Was the audience distributed fore and aft? And the chorus? As in ancient Greek theater, the chorus takes the secondary role of an audience of commenters. The costumes are brutal also. Ugly! Military drab, camouflage colors, beribboned uniforms for officers, lots of machine guns and even a suicide vest! Calchas, in the first opera, is patently a "commissar" of a police state. Thoas, the king of the Scythians in Tauride, is a blood-lusting sadist with a sexually charged dominance his priestess Iphigenie. I can hear the wails of outrage from opera fans committed to "traditional" stagings. But what tradition is there? Baroque operas based on Greek and Roman sources were NOT staged in togas or with classical nudity! Would a staging of Tauride in powdered wigs and 18th C greatcoats seem less anachronistic? How else could a stage director - in this case the redoubtable Pierre Audi - achieve the emotional impact of Opera Seria except by shrouding it with the context of tyranny and warfare? Hey, the Trojan War was nasty business! And this is Gluck with guts!

The musical values of these performances are equally gutsy. Conductor Marc Minkowski coaxes every bit of energy and pathos from the orchestral scores. His Tauride is musically far more ferocious than the older Zurich performance on DVD conducted by Bill Christie, though that also was exquisite.Christoph Williabald Gluck - Iphigenie en Tauride / Galstian, Gilfry, van der Walt, Christie, Guth (Opernhaus Zurich) Minkowski's Tauride could really be heard as a harbinger of Wagner. But the glory of both operas is the singing. In Aulide, it's the musical tension of Nicolas Testé as Agamemnon, the heroic tenor of Frederic Antoun as Achille, the the smooth virtuosity of Veronique Gens as Iphigenie. Tauride belongs to the guys: Jean-François Lapointe as Oreste and Yann Beiron as Pylade. Their dialogue recitatives and their duets are emotionally captivating as well as superbly sung. (It's worth recalling that self-sacrificing friendship had been the theme of the many settings of the libretto L'Olimpiade by Metastasio, which Gluck must have known well.) The only weakness in this performance - visually and musically - is the Diane, sung by Salomé Haller. It's a small role vocally, one that could be sung by many, so I have to wonder why a more majestic Diana could not have been selected, or why some trappings of majesty could not have been lent to poor Haller, who looks more like a grouchy housewife than an almighty Goddess.

I've never before been as entranced by Gluck - on stage, on CD, on DVD - as by this double whammy of a production. Makes me want to say "Ahh! Now I get it! What matters wasn't his role as a reformer but rather the genius of his music."
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 13, 2013 6:14 AM PDT

Declarations: Music Between the Wars
Declarations: Music Between the Wars
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Selective Affinities", May 9, 2013
Whether or not the Pacifica Quartet intended to assess the similarities among these three superb compositions -- the program notes suggest the opposite -- that's what I hear on this CD, an assertion of the musical and emotional unity of "Music Between the Wars." The lives of Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) were as far from intersecting as streets in different cities, but all three were confident of one common value: the universality of music. All three were embedded in, and defiant of, post-Romanticism, yet even their defiance will sound solidly Brahmsian to ears gestated after WW2, on the music of Carter, Schnittke, Nono, Takemitsu. What the Pacific Quartet accomplishes is to make these retrospectively conservative compositions sound as bold and innovative as their composers knew them to be.

The four members of the Pacifica Quartet are no longer quite as young as their album picture suggests. They've been together since the early 1990s, but they are plainly of the new school of fiddlers. They achieve their affective intensity through incisive rhythms, tempi, and articulations rather than through broad swaths of string timbre. Their vibrato is extremely lean and mean, with the result that their tuning is acutely fine. They've been acclaimed for their recordings of Elliot Carter and of numerous commissioned works by living composers. Their stringent anti-Romanticism announces itself even in the profoundly romantic "Intimate Letters" by Janacek, a quartet inspired by the composer's "June-December" love affair. Their ensemble technique is impeccable, so tight that their distinctive interpretations sound logical on all three compositions.

The second quartet of Leos Janacek, written when the composer was 74 years old, is among the finest chamber works of the 20th C ... at least to my 72-year-old ears. I have most of the available recordings of it, but this one bids to displace all others in my esteem. It's stormy rather than moody, sharply-incised rather than swoony. The tempi are bright; they sound fast even when they are not much different from the Emerson's. The viola part, which Janacek designated to be played "sul ponticello," is indeed played with fiery precision "at the bridge." But the whole ensemble favors bridge tones almost as devotedly as the Kronos Quartet, with the natural result of passionate stridency. I wouldn't want to hear Schubert played this way, but their style seems "just so" for both the Janacek and the Crawford works. (I've heard the Pacificas live, by the way, performing Haydn's "Seven Last Words" quartet, and I can vouch for their ability to play less astringently.)

Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet of 1931 sounds bigger here, holding its place bravely between the Janacek and the Hindemith. Perhaps the context reveals some of its strengths, making its atonal effects more striking and its affect more persuasive. The affinity of affect between the Janacek and the Crawford is so close that the Hindemith, supposedly the most modernist work of the three, sounds to my ears the most formalist and academic. But it too is a stunning piece of music, this "Quartet No.4" from Hindemith's 1922 collection of Kammermusik. Hindemith was the most explicitly anti-romantic of our three composers here, and his Kammermusik was intended as an anti-romantic manifesto. Down with the symphony! Down with atmospheric and impressionistic 'literary' bombast! Hindemith's declared objective was a kind of absolute music accessible only to chamber ensembles. Curiouser and curiouser ... time and the fiddles of the Pacifica Quartet have made Hindemith sound foursquare comfortable in the compositional lineage of 19th/20th classicism.

"Declarations" lives up to its album title. All three quartets sound like declarations of musical mastery, and with this recording the Pacifica Quartet declares its position as one of the foremost string ensembles active today.

The Dictator - BANNED & UNRATED Version
The Dictator - BANNED & UNRATED Version
DVD ~ Sacha Baron Cohen
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars When Being Offensive Isn't Enough!, May 8, 2013
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When shouting the Big F in a weird accent isn't really funny. When race, sex, and sadism become simply hard work for the comic. When even pertinent political satire can't elicit more than a sickly smirk. When the outtakes really needed to taken out ... you have The Dictator - Banned and Unrated.

But the joke's on me for not heeding the comments of my twenty-something son's twenty-something friends. This! Is! a Total! Waste Of Time!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 8, 2013 4:40 PM PDT

Mahler: Symphony No. 9
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Macaw and the Jackdaw, May 7, 2013
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This review is from: Mahler: Symphony No. 9 (Audio CD)
Remember when American elementary schools had "music appreciation" classes? When the teacher passed out crayons or colored pencils with which you were supposed to doodle expressively when he/she played some "classic" that you probably never heard at home or on your dad's car radio? Gustavo Dudamel is far too young to remember such classes, and besides he's Venezuelan, but the interpretative freedom of this performance reminds me of the freedom of youth and "first time" hearing. This is a frolicsome, lyrical, almost tropical Mahler. The crayons Dudamel doodles with are the vibrant primary-color timbres of his superbly transparent LA Philharmonic ensemble. Comparing Dudamel's Mahler 9 to the more typical Angst-loaded mordant-to-morbid interpretations -- von Karajan's or the venerable Walter's, for instance -- is like comparing a macaw to a jackdaw.

So take out your crayons and listen to this performance as if you were hearing Mahler for the first time and had no preconceived notions of his solemnity and anxiety. Can you hear the first movement as a restless seascape with sudden brief but refreshing squalls? Can you hear the second as a carnavale procession? The third as a stern examination period? I'll leave the fourth completely at your whimsy.

Dudamel makes Mahler beautiful foremost, but he doesn't achieve this illumination just with his baton. His orchestra plainly believes in him and gives him the sound he wants, including a refined and minimalized schmaltz-factor vibrato from the strings. And the recording engineers have captured that sound gorgeously. This CD demands to be played on high-end equipment, with a rich sub-woofing bass, and to be listened to from an armchair with no multi-tasking allowed. Otherwise, save your money for a live performance where the ticket price will force you to pay complete attention. Give it love and it will love you back ...

... even if you utterly reject Dudamel's interpretation! That's an open possibility. Several previous reviewers have dinged Dudamel for his lyricism and clarity. They wanted their full dose of old-time agony, of bitterness and Schmerz. They expected Freud's Vienna and instead they got Caracas live from the Disney Center. I can comprehend but I can't sympathize. Mahler's symphonies are great enough to tolerate "revisionism". I happen to be in rapture about this performance but I can still find substance in the darker broodings of older interpretations; I won't let Dudamel nudge Barbirolli off the shelf.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2013 8:21 PM PDT

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin / Fleming, Vargas, Hvorostovsky, Gergiev, Carsen [Metropolitan Opera 2007]
Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin / Fleming, Vargas, Hvorostovsky, Gergiev, Carsen [Metropolitan Opera 2007]
DVD ~ Renee Fleming
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Apex of Romantic Narcissism!, May 3, 2013
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Onegin is contemptible. A self-pitying narcissist, Don Giovanni without even the false nobility of defiance. On one hand, one can be gratified that the tale includes no Faustian Repentence/Redemption, so beloved of 19th C adolescence. On the other, one can feel aggrieved that the despicable jerk doesn't end the opera with a suicide. And that leaves the key question: why did such asinine heroes appeal to Romantic writers, composers, and audiences, from Goethe's mawkish Werther almost to the present?

Alexander Puskin's poem is a revered classic of Russian literature. Unfortunately, I can't read Russian and therefore have no idea how closely or amply the opera libretto by Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky represents the poem. The libretto is stock Victorian melodrama. That doesn't, of course, distinguish it from many other popular 19th and early 20th C operas, most of which depend on passionate music to rescue their stories from banality.

Is Tchaikovsky's music passionate enough? Forgive me, dear reader, but to my ears it's mere humdrum bandshell Heldenwhoopy. The only portion of the opera that affects me emotionally is the soliloquy of the poet Lenski as he confronts his almost-certain death in a duel with his "friend" Onegin. Lenski is another Romantic caricature, a fool but a likable one. The role is sung and acted, on this DVD, by Ramón Vargas; both acting and singing are superb enough to justify the whole 156 minutes of the production. It's the singing and acting that earn my five-star rating of the DVD, rather than the opera per se. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the very avatar of the arrogant selfish Onegin. Renée Fleming makes herself believable both as the puppy-love provincial maiden Tatiana and as the mature self-dominating faithful wife Tatiana. Extraordinary singing can redeem almost any mawkish text.

And the "film" is beautiful. Fleming and Hvorostovsky are sensual bliss in close-ups. The "sets" are utterly minimal -- a floor covered with scattered autumn leaves, bare walls, a few chairs -- but perfectly conceived to frame the gorgeous costumes, expressive faces, and well-directed choreography of the singer-actors' movements. The color coordination, from the lush orange and auburn of the first act to the brooding blues and somber blacks of later scenes, seems more artful to my eyes than any amount of costly clutter.

I know this is an ambivalent review. But it's sincere. Eugene Onegin is a perennial favorite of opera audiences. There must be something more to the music than my ears perceive. Conductor Valery Gergiev can't be held accountable for my taste; he elicits very fine instrumental timbres and tight ensemble from the Met Opera Orchestra. If you consider yourself - in your madness - a "serious opera lover," Eugene Onegin is an opera you must hear and see at least once, and this is as artful a performance of it as anyone could demand.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 5, 2013 9:27 PM PDT

Johannes Passion
Johannes Passion
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Musical Passion Play, April 28, 2013
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This review is from: Johannes Passion (Audio CD)
The staged dramatization of the the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, which draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Bavarian village Oberammergau every ten years, is a living fossil of Medieval European traditions that included the liturgical dramas sung in great monasteries as well as the "mystery plays" performed in the streets of English and French market towns. The Catholic Church had long asserted the requirement to include a reading or singing of the Passion narrative in the liturgy of Holy Week, usually as a portion of the services of Good Friday. One of the masterworks of the late Renaissance is the unique setting of the crucifixion narrative from the Gospel of John by the Italo-Fleming Cypriano de Rore. De Rore: Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi / Secundum Johannem Eschewing his typical polyphonic madrigalism, Cypriano set the text homophonically as an extension of Gregorian chant. That setting is in effect a "continental divide" between Renaissance and Baroque, paying tribute to the former and foretelling the latter. Later Italian composers generally chose to set the "Tenebrae" texts from Jeremiah, rather than the Gospel narratives, for vespers during Holy Week, but there are two very fine "Passions According to Saint John" - in Latin of course - available as recordings, by Alessandro Scarlatti and by Francesco Feo: Alessandro Scarlatti: Passio Secundum Ioannem / Johannes-Passion / ST. John Passion - Passio secundum Joannem

German Lutheranism in the 17th and 18th Centuries formalized an entire Baroque genre of Passion settings for their Good Friday worship services. The favored narratives were those of John and Matthew, though many composers produced setting of all four Gospel narratives. These German settings employ all the musical forms and effects of contemporary opera and oratorio. The earliest such Passion According to John now available on CD is that of Christoph Demantius, a polyphonic setting more motet-like than oratorio, but the seminal Baroque Passions are those of Heinrich Schütz. All four of Schütz's Passions have been recorded and are frequently performed these days, but the "900-pound gorilla" in the genre is unquestionably JS Bach. There are more recordings listed of Bach's "Johannes Passion" than of all the Passions of all other composers together. The same is true of Bach's "Matthew Passion," a work of such grandeur that it nearly eclipses any other efforts. Both Bach Passions have been superbly recorded quite recently by the Dunedin Consort. John Passion - Matthew Passion (Final Performing Version, c. 1742) Nevertheless, several of the dozens of Johannes Passions produced by German Baroque composers have been revived and recorded, including works by Handel, Telemann, CPE Bach, and the little-known Gottfried Homilius. To my taste, they're all well worth hearing.

Not the least worthy is this setting by Georg Gebel the Younger (1709-1753). Gebel was a Silesian, the scion of a musical family, who spent most of his short career in Rudolfstadt, Saxony. Apparently he was, like Mozart, a child keyboard prodigy with a pushy father. Paternal pushiness was successful; Gebel the Younger gained both fame and position, and composed an enormous oeuvre of music during his short life, nearly all of which has been lost. This Johannes Passion is the most ample of his surviving works, and "we" are very lucky to have it. It's an inventive, incisive concert oratorio, though the scant records suggest that it really was intended for Protestant worship services within the Catholic community of Saxony. To compare it to Bach's monumental Johannes Passion would do it no favors, and yet it's worthy of comparison. Both Bach and Gebel chose to stick to the single Gospel text rather than the fashionable poetic pastiche called the Brockes Passion, and Gebel chose to include every word of the Luther translation of John, a decision that precluded the inclusion of as many non-Gospel chorale hymns and meditational arias as one hears in most other Johannes Passions. Thus Gebel poured most of his inspiration and his expertise in counterpoint into those portions of the whole Passion that were often simplest and starkest in other settings. The chorales in this Passion are in fact the work of Gebel's anonymous assistant.

What will delight a modern listener in the aesthetic cocoon of her/his living room is the fanciful variety and delicacy of Gebel's instrumentation, both of continuo and obbligato. Each aria has its own affect, its rhythmic and harmonic surprises, and its special instrumental effects. The Weimarer Barock-Ensemble, conducted by Ludger Remy, includes the usual strings plus horn, traverso, oboe, bassoon, theorbo, and organ, and each instrument gets its moment of glory, particularly the theorbo played by Andreas Arend. On the whole, this is not a Passion that requires or inspires religious fervor. Rather it's a finely-wrought Baroque opera for the stage of one's musical imagination.
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