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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 13 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 50
Two Operas: A Hit and A Miss
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Two Operas: A Hit and A Miss

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

If you seek opera for beautiful melodies and lovely singing, you can forget about this DVD (from La Fenice, Italy) of Arnold Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen ('From One Day to the Next'). It's a one-act, 60-minute opera that one might call a chamber opera, if it weren't for the large orchestra involved. The music is strictly a-tonal, 12-tone serialism, and is, in Schoenberg's own words, 'ugly music.' The vocal writing is difficult, mostly loud, and does not use the voice in any traditional way. That is to say, high notes (of which there are way too many) have no intention of conveying special intensity of feeling. There is almost no moment of repose. There is, however, some considerable comedy.

The plot is mostly an argument between an insensitive not-to-bright husband and his wife, late at night after a party. He waxes eloquent about his attractions to a certain lady at the party; his wife, of course, is very put off. She sets out to both get even and re-arouse his passions for her. She changes to a black wig and sexy 1920's party attire. He can't believe his eyes. She tortures his self-esteem and teases him, rejecting at first his new interest. She pretends to be infatuated with a tenor she met at the party. Their fighting wakes their little boy.

The buffoon of a tenor arrives, and she flirts with him to irk the husband, who comes around completely. Later, when the tenor and the lady arrive and exhort the couple to engage in some 'modern' sexual adventures, the renewed couple rebuff them and proclaim their old fashioned love.

The singers (Georg Nigl, Brigitte Geller, Sonia Visentin, and Mathias Schulz) display excellent comedic acting while coping with such a difficult score. If you can get past the a-tonal music, the whole affair is quite enjoyable. But at what an expense of effort by all involved! The orchestral writing is extremely complex and difficult, although the Orchestra of the La Fenice opera does an excellent job under the baton of the venerable Eliahu Inbal. In fact, the main reason why this opera is not performed more often is likely its very difficulty. While the debut in 1929 was well received, it never achieved the popularity Schoenberg had hoped for.

Certainly this DVD makes as fine a case for this opera's virtues as one could wish. The Dolby Surround sound is excellent, as are all other elements of the disc. The booklet includes an almost unreadable essay that meanders over two pages of small print, all in one paragraph! (I'm glad the writer was never in any of my composition classes.) There are no extras or behind-the-scenes interviews.

From this excellent DVD we move to an absolutely lousy Blu-ray of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. I have often praised the unprecedented audio capabilities of many new Blu-ray discs in these reviews. But this disc has audio so poor that I can only call it defective. The set-up menu claims Dolby Digital Stereo sound, yet all the sound comes from only the center speaker! Not a peep from either right or left channel. The sound is clear but squeezed, tinny and flat. No fiddling with the settings on either the disc player or the Surround sound receiver would improve it. Yuck!

I wish there was something of special merit to make one overlook this critical flaw, but there is not. The sets are low-budget to a laughable degree: a little furniture and a number of small boulders (for the last scene) is all you get. Lighting is unimaginative, and the direction is not great. This was adapted for British TV in 1997 and thus lacks widescreen appeal. But the production is from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which has often come up with superb productions. The best word I have is for the conducting of John Eliot Gardiner, but even that is surprisingly ordinary.

The singers (Adina Nitescu and Patrick Denniston) are adequate but nothing special. Picture quality is very good (4:3 old TV size) and the camera work is okay. But one wonders why make a new Blu-ray of such a lack-luster show? No extras are included, not even an essay.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.ed

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