Opera & Ballet on Blu-ray

 


Overview

For the collector who has everything: Are you ready explore an untapped silver mine?

 

Drop the needle into any groove of many a high-definition video transfer of live opera and prepare yourself for some jaw-dropping special effects.  The very special effect of live theatre.  For hardly anywhere else in the vast video library in the sky can you find such layers upon layers of non-stop grab-your-attention video.  Unlike thrillers like Fast and Furious (and I’m a fan), where the big moments are separated by yawning scripts mumbled or yelled over desperate locations until sufficient time passes before the next big chase or gun battle, opera is a self-contained world of stunning metaphor, peppered with real world sex, politics, intrigue, jealousy, passion and murder only a breath away. It’s like a visit to your favorite museum, only all the paintings and sculptures have come alive to tell their stories.  Your choice.  And if you should choose not to watch, you can always just listen - and in high-definition sound.  Try that with Fast and Furious!


   

    Otello

 

Live opera recordings have a unique place in our library of performances.  They are the real thing in a way that studio recordings are not.  But they are not the same thing as what we would have seen had we been sitting in the audience.  Unlike audio recordings on LP and CD, where completely satisfying casts and musical interpretations are rare but possible, filmed live opera adds two ingredients that all but make perfection impossible: staging and no retakes (though the final edit is generally derived from two or three performances.)  Of course, both of these factors only add to the human factor, a sense of immediacy, tangibility and dramatic potential, but being live, even the slightest misstep will stick out, especially with repeated visits.


   

    Orfeo ed Euridice


On the other hand, so layered is the experience in high-definition video, so involving are the visuals and singing that I have a great deal of difficulty getting into a critical mode as regards the playing and conducting of the orchestra.  For this I find it helpful to close my eyes.  At a live performance, my right and left brain seem to be in better balance, possibly because I am fully in charge of where my attention is fixed rather than being at the mercy of the video director.  One thing is certain, operas were never written with expectation that the audience see as decisively as a telephoto lens.


   

    Doktor Faust

 

These video performances are not meant to be archival in the same way as audio recordings are.  Nor are the productions themselves in any way to be taken as definitive.  They are, rather, explorations of the possible meanings, not the intentions, of the original work despite efforts to be historically accurate.  For the most part these Blu-ray operas are unedited live performances - a photographic record of an event that can never be repeated, nor was ever meant to be.  When we attend an opera we do so with that understanding.  If the performance is particularly good, we take home with us a memory that eventually evolves into nostalgia.  In an audio recording, the producer is hoping to make a statement about the best cast, musicians, conductor and engineers that money can buy.  Once in a long while, they hit a mark that all other recording ensembles have to challenge.  Not so with these operas which are more like plays, raised two or three powers; improvisations; explorations; experiments. Remarkable experiments, indeed. . .


   

    Le Nozze di Figaro


. . . which brings me back to the idea of Opera on Blu-ray as a collector’s dream.  Not only are there dozens of time-proven operas out there, but every production is a new experience in ways that different performances of a symphony or concerto are not.  Not only does a new production show off a different cast of singers - often the least of what makes it special - the setting, costumes, the basic approach and tone of what we see on stage is so altered that our feeling about it will necessarily be new - and, if all goes well, enhanced.  By contrast, the effect on our psyche of the orchestra and conductor are relegated to sideshow status - which is not to say they don’t count.  Hardly.  In fact, a new setting requires new thinking and a new approach by the conductor. With any luck the intent will be coordinated and the result, profound, or at least entertaining and satisfying.


   

    Rusalka


Compare this enterprise with movies on video where we have a half a gazzilion titles to choose from and add to our personal libraries, many are classics where the idea of a remake is met with horror or skepticism at best.  When we watch Casablanca for the twentieth time, we don’t expect to find nuance and meaning we never saw before but for the re-acquaintance of an old friend and the assurance that all’s right with the world.  We don’t want it to be different.  When we hear that George Raft was considered for the part of Rick Blaine, our minds can hardly take in the disconnect.  There’s only one Casablanca and despite other attempts, only one Maltese Falcon. 


   

    La Cenerentola


Opera is the highest performing art form ever invented by our species.  It is the most complex to produce and the most rewarding to embrace.  As powerful and diverting as they can be there is no great motion picture that can touch us as profoundly as La Boheme or Otello, or tickle our fancy as Le Nozze di Figaro or hypnotize us as Wagner’s RING.  It’s not even much of a stretch to think of cinema in operatic terms, though the other way around doesn’t really work despite the efforts of benighted video directors.  This is why opera is performed in theaters all over the world with international casts for over two centuries now, why opera tickets sell out and why there are multiple versions in play and on video. After all, what chance does a mere movie have without a tenor!  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Broadway musical, from 42nd St to Les Misérables, owes everything to Opera.


   

    Billy Budd

 

Editing

Nothing can nibble away at the impact of live theatre as editing, yet there is no escaping the necessity.  I think we can agree that it won’t do to simply allow the camera to sit in one place steadfastly recording the events on the stage at a fixed focal length.  Our eye/brain system doesn’t do that, after all. Our attention during a live performance wanders about the stage, seeking, responding.  The video director attempts to make manifest a similar operation, but is not easily satisfied with simple cuts.  Instead he or she tries to weave a tapestry of movement that supports their understanding of the drama unfolding.


   

    Deidamia


Success in this is not easy. Few directors and editors appreciate the value of restraint.  Even if they did, the stage is so huge, and so much is going on it in, that it argues against a static view of the action. The most subtle mistake commonly made is to ignore consistent and sensible correspondence between image and music.  I discuss in some detail one such compound error in Opus Arte’s magnificent 2006 Lohengrin production at Baden-Baden where, despite the fabulous sound of orchestra, chorus and soloist, each taken on it own, their relative levels and especially in relation to their image size on screen is disorienting.


   

    Le Grand Macabre

 

Unlike our experience in the opera audience, the video director rarely rests on a static wide shot for long (the exceptions, however, are noteworthy), but instead chooses when and for how long the camera takes in the entire stage and when it goes to medium or close-up, when it will include a mute reaction by another character in the frame and when it will cut to it or ignore it altogether.  Most important, the video director orders the rate at which cuts are made, which, if not chosen well, can have a debilitating effect on the musical line, to say nothing of the drama.  No such tinkerings apply to motion picture transfers to home video, where our only area of contention is size.


   

    I Puritani


For those of us who watch opera on Blu-ray projected onto a large screen in a darkened room, the most enervating decision made by video editors is evident not on the stage but in the orchestra pit, which in my view, ought to be heard, not seen.  It’s bad enough for the camera to scour the orchestra during the overture, often with glaring bits of light from a dozen music scores drilling into my eyeballs, but to return to the conductor and/or orchestra during fragments of relaxed tension on stage takes me right out of the experience.  Why not follow the actors offstage and into their dressing rooms!  From the point of view of the theater audience the orchestra is there to provide music, not visual entertainment.  Once the action on stage begins the orchestra can't be seen anyhow.  The spotlight on the conductor is for the singers not the audience.  I’ve never seen any value in transferring the editor’s restlessness to me, nor do I feel it’s helpful to cater to what surely is nothing more than an allegiance to fashion.


   

    La Vida Breve

 

Yes, nearly all operas on Blu-ray are presented in 1080i rather than 1080p, but I assume you are watching these titles through a player that can handle the de-interlacing effectively and unobtrusively.  And, yes, some titles have vestiges of motion judder that creep in from time to time, but these are few and far between and even then shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment.  All the titles I have seen so far are presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio and are encoded Region-free, which means that they will play on any Blu-ray in any country, and all have English subtitles - usually several more (in white, often with a black border, thank the gods). . . which reminds me to urge everyone to watch an opera without subtitles once you get the hang of what people are saying.  It’s less daunting than it sounds, and the improvement in emotional immersion will be well worth the effort.


   

    The Sleeping Beauty


One subtle aspect to the photography of these live events, and one that I have not seen commented on elsewhere relates to where the cameras are placed and the choice of focal lengths that such placement dictates.  Unlike interactive staged events from RiverDance to music and variety shows of all stripes, there is a convention followed for live indoor opera or ballet coverage that I’ve not seen violated (Decca’s coverage of Swan Lake at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater is a fascinating exception) that permits cameras in the line of sight of the audience.  They do not float or travel or dolly on wires or booms.  It’s a noble gesture and much appreciated by the audience, I’m sure, and it therefore limits camera placement to the area just above the orchestra pit, the wings and the back of the auditorium where the technical director usually resides.  The armchair director in you will probably notice that there are angles not used just at the moment you would have chosen had you been in charge.  Well, now you know why.  Equally important is that these camera positions limit the focal lengths possible.  From the rear of the hall, for example, the only place from which a proper close-up can be obtained, the cameraman has to rely on long lenses which compress perspective and more often than not limit depth of field, often a desirable thing in still photography, but not always the case here when you want everyone in the frame in focus.


   

    Die Fledermaus

 

Nearly all operas on Blu-ray are presented in 1080i rather than 1080p, but this is no cause for alarm, for I assume you are watching these titles through a player that can handle the de-interlacing effectively and unobtrusively.  And, yes, some titles have vestiges of motion judder that creep in from time to time, but these are few and far between and even then shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment.  In fact, I have yet to come across a ballet that is hindered in any way.  All the titles I have seen so far are presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio and are encoded Region-free, which means that they will play on any Blu-ray in any country, and all have English subtitles - usually several more (in white, often with a black border, thank the gods). . . which reminds me to urge everyone to watch an opera without subtitles once you get the hang of what people are saying.  It’s less daunting than it sounds, and the improvement in emotional immersion will be well worth the effort.


   

    Don Giovanni


Lighting 

One handy thing about filming stage works is that the lighting is already set and color temperature, as distinguished from color filtering, is a constant.  But beyond this, photography can be a bit of a challenge.  With many operas, lighting changes not only from scene to scene but across the stage, with "hot" spots here and there designed for the actors to walk through.  The audience sees these as enhancements or highlights but the limited dynamic range of even the best video sensors simply can't handle it.  A clever director might choose a view from another camera at just the right moment where exposure adjustment has already been set, otherwise we must wait for the scene to run its course for however many seconds it takes.  After all, the lighting director lights for the audience, not the camera, and for a number of reasons our eye/brain system has far greater contrast latitude than a camera sensor or film.


   

    La Didone

 

Audio

Then there’s the audio - how accurately and dynamically it is transferred and, Then there’s the audio - how accurately and dynamically it is transferred and, equally important, how the vocals are captured so that nuance and power in proper balance with the orchestra are recorded with few if any adjustments beyond the initial setup.  The surround mixes are uncompressed, lossless 5.0 or 5.1, though there is little need or sense for LFE (low frequency effects) in an effects-free, musical environment . . . which reminds me before I forget to mention it that it is usual (Met Opera notably excepted) that audiences remain respectfully mute in all ways until the end of an act.


   

    Marco Polo

 

The whole business of surround audio for an event that takes place in front of us is a question that I have long pondered.  I have observed that the video we see is not the same the thing as what the audience sees, nor should it be, so why do I squirm when the same thinking is applied to the audio?  Perhaps because every view the camera sees exists in the real world, but the same is not true for audio surround - leastways, not when we hear the orchestra both in front of us and to the sides.  There is no point in the real world of an opera theater where such a stage exists.  If the surround channels were devoted merely to ambiance, then I would take no issue, but when part of the orchestra is designated to one side of the other or behind us, however slight, then I get nervous.  The otherwise fabulous 2005 Gyndebourne Giulio Cesare and 2008 Royal Opera Don Giovanni are hampered in this regard, as opposed to Baden-Baden’s Don Giovanni which nails the audio perfectly.


   

    Der Ring die Nibelungen

 

Spatial and aural incongruities are inevitable as the camera pans across the orchestra, highlighting this player or that instrument, making a jumble of aural perspective - clearly, we’re supposed to ignore the obvious - and most everyone does. Interesting, that!  But on those few works, like Strauss’s Salome, where the events on stage begin without an orchestral introduction, there is every opportunity that the director gets the surround correct.  Other operas get it right from the outset and remain in the real world.  Baden-Baden’s 2010 Lohengrin, Salzburg’s 2010 Die Frau Ohne Schatten and 2011 Věc Macropulos, and Decca’s presentation of the 2010 Adriana Lecouvreur are several examples.


   

    Věc Macropulos

 

You might think that the 2.0 stereo relieves me of my trouble, but these are not in every case mixed sensibly either, so it is useful to listen both ways first to make an informed choice.  Most of the time I come down in favor of the surround despite my reservations.  The soundstage has more room to breathe and the voices more often than are properly projected from the stage. That said, if you have the use of an outboard DAC of good quality, you should investigate relying on the PCM 2.0 output into the DAC. I have had such a component in my system and the improvement is such that I now generally favor the 2-channel mix so configured.It may be no coincidence that the 2-channel mix is the default.


   

    Salome


I want to place this discussion about surround sound on pause for just a moment to consider the question of resolution. It all started three decades ago with Phillips’ slogan for CD: “Perfect Sound Forever!” Bah! No surprise to those of us with ears and a few grams of gray matter between them that Phillips’ claim had as much credibility as that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of John F Kennedy. How one improves on perfection is anyone’s guess, but improve we did and will continue to do so. Nevertheless, there is this latent belief out there that “CD Sound” is something akin to the Grail. Despite audio recording capability of higher resolution in general use today and the existence of some (a very few, really) Blu-ray discs that demonstrate its superiority, Blu-ray producers seem content with sampling rates only a bit higher than CD: 48 kHz/24-bit vs. 44.1 kHz/16-bit.  As far as I can tell, the jury is still out on the latest darling: 96 kHz/24-bit. To date, there are a few such titles, listed HERE. I doubt this signals a future trend. In any case, I suspect the limiting factor here is really HDMI.


   

    The Barber of Seville

 

Moving right along. . .

 

The microphones cannot be placed in consistent proximity to the singers as they are in an audio recording; and, except for the occasional outdoor venue they ought not be attached to one’s head, or hair or on a costume, nor may they impede the audience’s view of the stage. Moreover, microphone placement for the stage must take into account the orchestra, which is another challenge in itself: nearby, with an invisible ceiling scarcely higher than their heads.  If it weren’t for the audience, two or three microphones could handle both stage and pit most satisfactorily. Add a couple mikes out in the audience for surround, and presto. But these are live performances and adjustments must be made.  The miracle i how easily we are seduced by the picture into accepting the sound as credible.


   

    Die Entführung aus dem Serail

 

Another audio-related issue is stage balance, especially left-right placement as singers walk across the stage.  Think about it for a moment: how would you place the voice of a singer who is seen to be on the right in a wide shot and as or after he moves to the center, is seen in a close-up? Similarly, would you as the balance engineer alter the level when there is a cut to a close-up?  Add to this the difficulty presented when singers face each other at close distance, as in the Royal Opera House production of Mozart’s classic comedy when Figaro and Susanna sing while caressing each other inches apart.  When we hear these two singers we will very likely be dumbfounded that there appears to be no change in vocal character despite their singing into each others faces.  How do they do that, we wonder?  It’s a mystery.  Try to locate the stage microphones for each opera.  They are generally in the same place, but not always.


   

    Giulio Cesare

 

In short, none of these video titles represents the opera as we would have seen or heard them had we been in the audience. In fact, the singers’ approach to a live staged performance is necessarily quite different from that of an audio recording.  These are, rather, adaptations of that experience for the home theatre, resulting in very much a new work, often exciting, always intimate.


   

    Anna Bolena

 

Labels

What about labels? While major recording companies like Decca and Deutsche Grammophon keep their hands in, and a few oddball enterprises here and there produce some memorable titles, the big names in high-def opera are Opus Arte and C Major, and of those, the lion’s share of well-produced, popular titles are the work of England’s Opus Arte, which, even though primarily associated with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, produces opera videos from Glyndebourne (also in England), Baden-Baden (Germany) and Salzburg (Austria.)  It will undoubtedly come as a surprise to many that, despite the resounding success of the Met Live in HD theatrical broadcasts, there are not nearly as many titles from the Metropolitan Opera on Blu-ray as you might think.  A mere handful so far.  Opus Arte can be counted on for excellence in video and audio reproduction, while editing and balance choices remain the provenance of the director.  Their titles also include interesting and enjoyable Bonus Features.


   

    Lohengrin

  

The German label, C Major, together with its partners and subsidiary labels, Unitel Classica, Arthaus Musik and Kultur, despite mostly eye-popping color and sharp images, will make use of as little disc space and low bit rates as they feel they can get away with.  Arthaus Musik’s La Scala 132-minute production of La Traviata is content with about 20 GB of space.  Contrast that with Opus Arte’s generous transfer of their Royal Opera House production of Le Nozze di Figaro for which they used almost three times the space (57.36 GB) across two (count them!) dual-layered discs for a 184-minute opera.


   

    Andrea Chenier


C Major, the people responsible for the brilliant, and in most other ways highly recommendable La Fura dels Baus Wagner RING cycle, saw fit to stuff a four-and-a-half-hour opera onto a single dual-layered disc, with bit rates necessarily hovering scarcely above those for DVDs (viz., between 13-17 Mbps on Die Götterdämmerung.)  Their treatment of the four-hour long Die Walküre and Siegfried follows similar thinking as does their 2011 release of Dvorak’s Rusalka. Why spend all that money, time and energy over three years only to compromise on image and sound quality - even if, for most viewers, the discrepancy is largely theoretical?  On the other hand C Major has produced one of the best rendered opera Blu-rays in the catalogue: Leos Janáček’s Věc Macropulos.  Go figure.


   

    Carmen

 

I spend so much time on this apparent discrepancy because it’s just possible C Major is onto something.  Since the big and respected video studios, Fox, Warner and Criterion tend to max out the available space (most often on BD50 dual-layers) you would think that they have found that the higher the bit rate the better the picture.  But the evidence of Věc Macropulos and Opus Arte’s unassailable The Rake’s Progress, with bit rates scarcely above 20 Mbps, suggest that it is entirely possible to obtain satisfying, even superb image quality and movement within it without necessarily high bit rates.  The question still remains of why any studio would let space go begging, but there you have it.


   

    Suor Angelica


Where to buy? Seeing that opera on Blu-ray are all coded Region-Free (so far), it means you can take advantage of Amazon.co.uk pricing which, even including shipping costs, is generally less than their American cousins.  Check there first, then compare to Amazon (U.S.) Marketplace sellers Classical Music Superstore and Movie Mars.  Remember to add $3.99 per title as against Amazon.co.uk shipping which passes on quantity discount pricing.  Shipping times to the U.S. from England vary for no predictable reason, usually between 5-10 work days, although lately they have seen fit to use DHL as one of their international carriers, with predictably unpredictable results.


   

    La Boheme


Comparative Reviews

If you are a reader of on-line user reviews at, for example, the Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk web sites, you would notice a profound sea change when it comes to comments about opera.  For the most part, instead of the shoot from hip, semi-hysterical entry common with “user” reviews of movies and video, we find, for the most part, thoughtful, informed opinion.  Clearly, the people who take the trouble to enter their views love opera and have a vast history of experience with both the real thing and the recorded repertoire.  More than mine in many cases.


   

    Hansel and Gretel


If there is an opera on video I am interested in, I often start with reviews of the opera in performance.  A simple Google search will turn up a few such reviews from opera critics writing for legitimate magazines and newspapers.  Or you could simply subscribe to The Opera Critic which reprints just about every opera production on the planet since 1999.  Just make sure you reference the same production company, stage director, cast and conductor.  If the Blu-ray has already been published, I read Amazon comments on both sites and finally check out any reviews by Jeffrey Kauffman, who is the only on-line video critic that I feel knows what he is talking about when it comes to opera, though his comments are not as critical of some technical and perceptual aspects of production, e.g. lighting and audio.


   

    Les Troyens


More than you probably wanted to know, no doubt, but such is my way.  You can look forward to many thrilling hours of drama and comedy of Opera on Blu-ray, artfully staged and seductively captured in sight and sound.



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 30, 2012







          
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