Concert: Live at the Sydney Opera House originally aired on PBS last year in a heavily edited form, lasting about an hour if I recall correctly, compared to this 127:37 minute version (there is a CD version too) where Olivia and her long time band joined up with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, lending a grander scale to the project than would otherwise be the case. My own admiration of Olivia dates back to the early 70's when the lady became one of the rare Country music cross over acts of the day, evolving with time into pop culture superstar status even before her cinematic breakthrough in Grease opposite John Travolta. Dozens of hits later, her place in musical history assured, Olivia tried to tackle all sorts of environmental causes, got married, started a chain of stores, had a child (Chloe), got divorced, fought successfully against cancer, and made occasional appearances on television and in movies, never as successful as her heyday but always a crowd pleaser.
The concert itself used a screen to play clips, most notably from Xanadu, and played in sets that were interrupted by short interviews of Olivia and her entourage (including daughter Chloe and the band) as they toured Sydney Australia. The songs were played differently than their original arrangements in some cases, scaled back in some cases for an almost acoustic appeal while others presented in more grandiose versions suited to the opera house. The anamorphic widescreen helped make it look better on my HD television but the band stayed largely static on the screen so I'd be lying to you if I said that the visual components of the show really added much value for me, the lack of extras contributing to this dynamic. Sonically though, Olivia's voice has held up nicely and it is hard to believe that she turns 60 this year, the lady looking a few years younger than that. As a fan of hers for 35 years, my experience is that people either like her or not with little middle ground, her style of pop music with catchy lyrics and toe tapping beats pleasant even decades later. Here's a quick look at the song list in order of the tracks, previous releases of the list online proving out of order:
1. Have You Never Been Mellow
The songs did not really follow a specific timeline but did tend to be grouped chronologically after some hits used to warm up the audience. There were 27 picks here, a few personal favorites skipped in favor of her newer, lesser known songs. The revamped versions were not all her best work either, Twist of Fate lost a lot in the translation (no clips on the screen either, just the movie poster) and Physical sounded more like it belonged in an elevator at the dentists' office but Dancing Round and Round was surprisingly decent even without ELO backing up the orchestra. The overall impression I have of the show is that fans of Olivia Newton-John should consider this a "Must Have" while fans of music in general might be better suited with this one as a light Recommended, certainly better than the PBS airing last October.
Picture: Live at the Sydney Opera House was presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color as shot by director Jim Shea. The show lacked much visual punch as there were no fancy costume changes, fancy light shows, and no dancers showing the latest steps; the presentation focusing largely on the music as Olivia put on her version of a basic concert (she has tried the other things in the past to great effect, especially her 1982 tour). To make up for the relatively boring visuals, the editing bounced around more than usual with some pans added in to distract more than enhance, a few duets coming across as overly emotive. I watched the concert a few times to get the best feel of what was taking place too but there was a softer than usual focus and some aliasing going on, even though the bitrate hovered in the lower 7 Mbps range most of the show (no compression artifacts noticed in the process).
Sound: The audio was presented in English with two choices, a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or a 2.0 stereo version. The surround track was barely noticeable as such, offering a 448 Kbps bitrate but little separation and so little use of the rear channels that you would miss much if you're waiting for your speakers to come in. Like the visuals, the audio seemed glossed over too much as well yet the appeal of Olivia's music has never been severely weakened by over processing in the past so while there were no musical revelations due to the surround process applied in what appears to be post production, it did not hurt the end result either, just serving as a lost opportunity more than anything else. The 2.0 track was a bit louder and released in a 192 Kbps, not materially sounding better or different on my home theatre set up.
Extras: There only extra was a single sheet included in the box listing the songs and the cast credits.
Final Thoughts: Live at the Sydney Opera House was a decent concert for Olivia Newton-John's fans to celebrate her 60th birthday later this year. It could have been better in numerous ways, including higher end audio, some extras, and maybe a better floor show yet the core audience this was designed for, Olivia's legion of fans, should be quite forgiving thanks to the myriad of fond memories most of us have towards the songs offered up over the last 35 or so years. Olivia likes people and the clips of her tour through Sydney and Manly Australia humanized her more than her down to earth approach leading the band on stage. Still, as appealing as Olivia Newton-John and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: Live at the Sydney Opera House will be to people like myself that have adored the musical muse over the years, newcomers might want more from a 2008 release.