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Puccini's Greatest Operas

Image // Unrated // January 24, 2006
List Price: $79.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Svet Atanasov | posted April 28, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Operas:

With the introduction of the digital versatile disc there was a notable shift in mentality between consumers who became interested not only in conventional products (theatrical releases, TV-product) but also in some typically lesser targeted by the studios genres such as opera, ballet, and even theater. But why, what gives? How can a massive opera production involving hundreds and hundreds of actors (AIDA would be a good example) be accurately filmed when unlike film opera was always meant to be seen on stage. Sure, before the launch of DVD there were plenty of VHS releases that would offer some of the classic masters' works but these were products supplied for a very limited number of art connoisseurs as well as libraries and other educational institutions that would request them. These days there is a whole new community of collectors out there that most certainly appreciates the multiple possibilities DVD offers (the language variety is certainly a major point here) and more and more classical productions are now available on the market.

In an attempt to meet the demand for classic opera (unlike film one of the major selling factors with opera is the variety of productions, with other words it could be the same work, yet what matters is the variety in choreography, the orchestration, etc.) Image Entertainment have compiled a lovely boxset of four DVDs representing some of the best Giacomo Puccini created focusing on the maestro's most notable works: Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Turandot, and last but not least La Boheme.

Madama Butterfly:

Based on the play Madama Butterfly by David Belasco (1900) the opera was first performed at La Scala, Milan on February 17, 1904. Madama Butterfly follows the tragic love story between beautiful geisha Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) and Lieutenant Pinkerton from the US Navy as they fall madly in love. When the young Lieutenant however announces that he can no longer stay with Cio-Cio-San and leaves the geisha's happy world is shattered to pieces. She soon receives a note that Lieutenant Pinkerton has married an American woman and they are planning to adopt Cio-Cio-San's child. When the American couple finally arrives Cio-Cio-San kills herself with her father's dagger.

With a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica this specific production of Madama Butterfly is conducted by maestro Lorin Maazel (directed by Keita Asari) under whose baton a very talented cast has been assembled. With Yasuko Hayashi (Cio-Cio-San), Hak-Nam-Kim (Suzuki), Peter Dvorsky (Pinkerton) Anna Caterina Antonacci (Kate Pinkerton), Sergio Fontana (Bonzo), and Giorgio Zancanaro (Sharpless) this is indeed one spectacular cast of singers that provides a much needed authentic glimpse at a word that no longer exists.

The exquisite sets from this acclaimed La Scala production are quite frankly breathtaking. While most certainly one has to be present at such a production to fully appreciate the brilliance of singers, musicians, and stage producers what this recording reveals is by large indicative of the actual experience. The inclusion of two of Asia's most renowned opera singers provides a unique touch to the story and certainly places the La Scala production amongst some of the best Madama Butterfly renditions.

There are two aspects in an opera performance that I always pay close attention to: the chemistry between singers and orchestra and the manner in which the story is told (successful set designs). In both cases the La Scala production is near flawless. Those of you familiar with opera will definitely recognize the high production values and more importantly will enjoy musical performances of the highest caliber.

How Does the DVD Look?

Unlike standard DVD releases of films or TV-shows with operas it is always rather subjective to judge how the show was filmed. After all we can hardly talk about aspect ratios or preferred filming techniques as once again opera was never meant to be filmed. With this said the producers of this DVD have chosen to film Madama Butterfly in 1.33:1 and most of the time the transfer looked rather soft to my eyes. I don't have any particular information how Madama Butterfly should be seen as far as this specific production is concerned (what I mean is that the 1.33:1 treatment is most certainly the only one in existence) but I assume that it was shot on video and therefore plenty of the typical issues that come with such recordings are easily noticeable here: there is some mild digital noise, I see some edge-enhancement, as well as plenty of unconvincing shadow detail. Presented in two acts Madama Butterfly also reveals some minor color fluctuations (bottom) that are not overly distracting but are nevertheless visible.

How Does the DVD Sound?

Not surprisingly the audio offered here is only Dolby Digital (Italian with optional English subtitles) which automatically makes me think that this specific release is not of the highest caliber possible. Given the tremendous amount of releases offering lavish DTS tracks Image's version is rather tame. With this said, there are also some noticeable "soft" areas with this audio treatment as occasionally I was able to hear that the balance between the left and right channels was quite a bit off – what I mean is not that there was a defect with the mastering of this DVD but inconsistency with the manner in which the opera was recorded in the first place.

Extras:

There are no extras to be found on this DVD release!

Turandot:

The second opera in this DVD set is Piccini's equally impressive Turandot. Premiering in 1926 Turandot was very much a fantastic tale where the old forces of good and evil once again collided. The story concerns the young princess Turandot whose hand is up for grabs. The "winner" must answer three riddles in order to win but…if he can not deliver the correct answer the brave candidate for Turandot's hand will lose his life.

With a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni this specific recording of Turandot was conducted by maestro Donald Runnicles (in collaboration with stage director Peter McClintock) at the San Francisco Opera.

Much like Madame Butterfly Puccini's Turandot unveils a mix of Eastern themes the treatment of which scholars have described as "typical". What this means precisely is that a lot of the characters in Turandot as well as the orchestration have been regarded during the years as a reflection of Europe's naive perception about China as the "eternal kingdom" – the orchestration has plenty of pentatonic-derived sonorities and the characters are often rather straightforward.

Much of the fame that Turandot gathered during the years was fueled by the enormously colorful costumes as well as stage designs that even nowadays require a good amount of preparation. The massive decors which the opera necessitates are virtually a challenge which only a few renowned opera houses can successfully address. Fortunately enough the San Francisco Opera has done a marvelous job (especially with the recreation of the Forbidden City) and judging by the reactions of the audience the production herein reviewed must have been a formidable success.

Cast:

Eva Marton, Michel Sylvester, Lucia Mazzaria, Kevin Langan, Theodore Baerg, Dennis Peterson, Craig Estep, Joseph Frank, Chester Patton.

How Does the DVD Look?

As it was the case with Madama Butterfly opera aficionados will be interested to learn more about the technical presentation of their favorite opera (obviously the aspect ratio becomes an issue here as well as the audio options). With this said the San Francisco Opera production was also filmed in 1.33:1. Unlike Madama Butterfly however just about everything looks better on this DVD: colors are better, contrast is significantly better, and detail is largely more impressive. I did however see some soft areas again (at times they look as if "combing" was present) which is a bit puzzling to me. What I mean is that during extremely dark scenes (the first execution scene is a good example) the image could become noticeably softer. That put aside everything else seemed rather well covered by the filming crew!

How Does the DVD Sound?

With the presentation of Turandot we are given two different options: there is a basic 2.0 Dolby Digital mix and a more elaborate Dolby Digital 5.1 track with optional yellow English subtitles. First thing first there is an obvious difference between the two tracks and I would not hesitate for a second to recommend the 5.1 mix. However, I am fairly unimpressed with the manner the orchestra is being treated. It seems to me that too often the vocal parts stick out and the balance is a tiny bit off. Perhaps I am bit biased in my evaluation (as I have spent years and years sitting in the pit) but I tend to hear more of the singing and less of the music. Aside from that there were no drop-outs or noticeable audio defects that I could hear.

Extras:

There are no extras to be found on this DVD presentation.

La Boheme

The third opera in this DVD set is the notorious La Boheme which was filmed, or recorded if you wish, at the Australian Opera House under the supervision of the man responsible for the most recent modern retake on Romeo and Juliet: the Aussie director Baz Lurhmann. Right from the beginning I must admit that having La Boheme in the form of a DVD makes me both sad and happy. Sad: because the story is well scripted and the characters so vivid that they must always be seen live to be fully appreciated (while this holds true for most every opera production out there it is particularly true for La Boheme). Happy: because if not for this recording of Puccini's famous opera I would have never seen Baz Luhrmann's rendition, plain and simple.

The story of La Boheme is indeed rather complicated. Based on Murger's adaptation of his own novel La Vie de Boheme written in 1849 the opera follows the love story between Rodolfo and his beloved Mimi as well as his roommate Marcello and his darling Musetta. Filled with love, jealousy, and above all endless romance La Boheme is without a doubt Puccini's most profoundly entertaining work whose timeless beauty is unmatched.

The treatment which La Boheme has received by the Australian Opera is simply fantastic. With a libretto from Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica this is also Puccini's most misunderstood work as often those unfamiliar with the premise behind it fail to recognize its brilliance. The complicated relationships which Puccini has scripted feel as if they were taken straight out of a modern love story with a few unusual twists. Above everything else however Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of La Boheme is a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of conventional opera renditions that more often than not fail to impress with originality.

Cast:

Cheryl Barker, David Hobson, Roger Lemke, Christine Douglas, Gary Rowley, David Lemke.

How Does the DVD Look?

Out of all four DVDs in this boxset La Boheme is the one that truly would have benefited from a widescreen recording (the scene where Mimi sings her aria with the neon lights behind her back comes to mind) yet the producers have chosen to film it in 1.33:1. The overall presentation is not as impressive as I expected and certainly there seem to be a few issues with the camera work: what I mean is that occasionally the print will once again (as it was the case with the previous DVDs in this set) reveal some mild "soft" areas bordering what I would describe as a lack of focus. In addition, I am not at all impressed with the camera man responsible for the recording of La Boheme. Due to some unknown to me reasons when Musetta was performing her aria she would occasionally run across the stage and as a result more than a few times the audience was "caught" in the "film". Some may consider this a minor detail but as far as I am concerned this is quite a letdown.

How Does the DVD Sound?

Similar to Turandot Puccini's La Boheme offers a basic Italian 2.0 mix and a more elaborate 5.1 track which clearly is the winner here. However once again I am a bit unsure about the manner in which the orchestra versus singers balance is being treated. Considering that this is a live performance and all of the issues that come with it I still find it rather disappointing that the music score is at times overshadowed by the singing. It seems as if the mix-master was more concerned with the vocal score as opposed to having a more balanced recording of the actual performance. Yet again, this is just a technical matter which has little to do with the way the DVD was pressed. The rest of the audio presentation is considerably well done as there are no annoying pop-ups or other detrimental issues that I could spot.

Extras:

There are no extras provided for this DVD presentation.

Manon Lescaut

Inspired by the short novel Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by French writer Abbe Prevost Manon Lescaut tells the story of a young woman who enjoys a life of pleasure and respect. But when she is thrown into a contradicting predicament resulting in a dramatic change of her lifestyle all of a sudden her world turns upside down.

A beautiful co-production by the Flemish Opera and the Opera de Paris Puccini's Manon Lescaut is every bit as glamorous and spectacular as the Italian maestro's earlier works. With massive decors, impressive costumes, and a choreography that screams perfection this specific recording is my favorite one in the boxset. Conducted by Silvio Varviso and directed by Robert Carsen Manon Lescaut transports its audience into a world where love is once again the focus of attention. Unlike Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Turandot where exotic themes were prevalent Manon Lescaut most certainly remains a more traditional effort full of continental pride.

The treatment which the opera has received in this joint production is impressive. From the colorful decors to the immaculate costumes Manon Lescaut is a visual stunner. The arias sung by the main protagonists are equally well done leaving absolutely nothing to the opera fan to be unhappy with. Anthony Ward, the man responsible for the beautiful costumes, has done a small miracle as the large number of participants in this opera and their lush attire create quite the spectacle.

As it is the case with the three previously reviewed operas it is almost impossible to describe the spirit Manon Lescaut evokes in simple words. The story, the orchestration, the arias, and vibrant scenes that Puccini has created are something that needs to be witnessed live. With Manon Lescaut more than ever it becomes painfully obvious that there is so much happening on the screen that the camera would always be a "discriminator". Regardless, this little seen co-production between the Flemish Opera and Opera de Paris is a great addition to the sea of adaptations Puccini's masterpiece has received during the years.

How Does the DVD Look?

Recorded in 1.33:1 Manon Lescaut follows the pattern witnessed in the other three operas from this boxset: the lighting is somewhat questionable, the image quality is often revealing "soft" areas, the contrast is good but not impressive, and detail is lacking quite a bit. With other words once again all of the issues mentioned above should be treated with the proper amount of leniency as it is the camera man responsible for all of them hence the production team behind this DVD had very little to do with it. The fact remains however that the video presentation could have been more impressive and certainly there are specific areas where attention must be paid when opera (and any stage production for that matter) is being recorded!

How Does the DVD Sound?

Manon Lescaut offers a basic 2.0 Dolby Digital Italian track and a more elaborate 5.1 mix virtually revealing the same issues I mentioned earlier: the audio is above average however there are some noticeable areas where the "live"-effect is definitely present. Clarity of the sound is at a decent level but one must wonder what technology will be able to provide in the future so balance is being dealt with accordingly. With optional white English subtitles.

Extras:

There are no extras to be found on this DVD.

Final Words:

The 4DVD set of Puccini's operas herein reviewed was released way back in October of 2001 and it clearly shows. Since then many of the studios have expanded their catalogs with widescreen presentations of renowned opera recordings (the reasoning should be obvious) and the audio presentations have moved in the right direction as well. This being said, this specific collection is a good introduction to the works of Giacomo Puccini – one of Italy's most celebrated composers. Take a step away from the conventional product we see released on DVD and explore what the format has to offer. There is a whole new world waiting to be seen and heard!! RECOMMENDED.

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