BERG: Lulu
Laura Aikin (Lulu); Cornelia Kallisch (Countess Geschwitz); Peter Straka (Alwa); Steve Davislim (Painter); Peter Seller (Medical Specialist); Alfred Duff (Dr. Schön); Guido Götzen (Schigpolch); Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House/Franz Welzer-Möst, cond.
TDK DVUS-OPLULU (5.1 channel) TT: 164 min. (130 min. opera/34 min. feature)

Nikolai Putilin (Mazeppa); Sergei Aleksashkin (Kochubey); Larissa Diadkova (Lyubov); Irina Loskutova (Maria); Viktor Lutsiuk (Andrey); Kirov Opera Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra/Valery Gergeyev, cond.
PHILIPS B0002213-09 (5.1 channel) TT: 174 min.

DVORAK: Rusalka
Renée Fleming (Rusalka); Larissa Diadkova (Jezibaba); Sergei Larin (The Prince); Franz Hawlata (The Water Spirit); Eva Urbanova (The Foreign Princess); Michel Sénéchal (The Gamekeeper);Karine Deshayes (The Kitchen Boy); Michelle Canniccioni, Svetlana Lifar, Nona Javakhidze (Wood Nymphs); Kevin Greenlaw (Voice of a Huntsman); Paris National Chorus and Orch/James Conlon, cond.
TDK DVUS-OPUS (5.1 channel) TT: 155 min.

VERDI: Otello
Plácido Domingo (Otello); Renée Fleming (Desdemona); James Morris (Iago); Jane Bunnell (Emelia); Richard Croft (Cassio); Charles Anthony (Roderigo); Alexander Anisimov (Lodovico); Theodore Lambrinos (Montano); Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orch/James Levine, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B 0002107-09 (5.1 channel) TT: 142 min.

The TDK Lulu was recorded live in November 2002 in the Zurich Opera House where the opera (the two completed acts) had its premiere June 2, 1937. As Berg didn't complete Lulu, he prepared a concert suite for conductor Erich Kleiber excerpts from which are usually used to "complete" the opera. There is a three-act version by Friedrich Cerha who used the composer's detailed sketches and, when available, instrumentation. Pierre Boulez led the premiere of this in Paris in 1979. Zurich elected to present the two-act version plus two movements from the Lulu suite, Nos. 4 and 5 (in which both Lulu and Countess Geschwitz are murdered by Jack the Ripper). The opera is filled with sex, blood and violence, all emphasized by director Sven-Eric Bechtolf in a stark production with mod costumes designed by Marianne Glittenberg. Gore is rampant - do we really need to see body parts being sliced up? The cast generally is excellent, with American soprano Laura Aiken superb in the incredibly demanding title role. In the rather boring "feature" Director Bechtolf discusses his views of Lulu—another example of an opera company letting a director present an ill-advised concept of a masterpiece. Sonic quality is excellent, photography first-rate.We're still waiting for a DVD issue of Lulu that does justice to it.

Mazeppa was composed in 1883 immediately after Tchaikovsky completed Eugene Onegin. It's based on Pushkin's story of the legendary Ivan Mazeppa, a hetman (or leader) in the Russian Ukraine. The young girl Maria, daughter of wealthy landowner Kochubey, infatuated with the aging Mazeppa, runs away with him. Her father plans revenge on what he perceives is his daughter's abduction, and is captured by Mazeppa and executed. Mazeppa tries unsuccessfully to reunite with Maria, then leaves to escape the approaching Tsar's army. Maria's childhood friend, Andrey, who has always been in love with her, wounded by Mazeppa, dies at the end of the opera as Maria sings a "mad scene" as she sees the lifeless bodies of her father and Andrey. Paul Smaczny's staging is elaborate and realistic. In the orchestral "Battle of Poltava" which opens Act III an extra brass band of 20 players appears on stage.Casting in this live Kirov Opera production, apparently recorded in 1996, is uniformly strong, particularly Nikolai Putilin's singing of the title role. The chorus has much to do and does it well. Brian Large directed the video and did his usual superb job—and the surround sound is wonderful, with many stage sounds, particularly during the "Hopak" of Act I in which a ballet corps performs energetically. This is an enjoyable, first-rate production.

The role of Rusalka is one of Renée Flemming's most famous roles and reportedly her favorite. She sings it magnificently in this French Television Paris performance recorded in June 2002. Unfortunately stage and costume designer Michael Levine has taken this story from the woods and waters into more modern times with up-to-date costumes and angular sets which distract from the charm of Dvorák's opera. Television and video production are by Francois Roussillon. The cast uniformly is excellent and the surround sound very fine—although singers are recorded too prominently. It's a superb performance by any standards, if you don't find the sets/scenery distracting. For some reason the opera is on two disks (no increased price) when it easily could have occupied just one. Act III is on disk 2, along with brief samples from other TDK video operas (Abduction from the Seragio, La traviata, Rigoletto, Aida) although, strangely, no casts are identified—but conductors are. The excerpts do not hold much promise for these performances.

Plácido Domingo has been the Otello of the last two decades; currently there are four of his performances on DVD. This is a 1996 Met TV production by Elijah Moshinsky who, fortunately, does not try to update Verdi's masterpiece. Domingo is his usual splendid self, Fleming an exquisite Desdemona. All those Wotans have taken a toll on James Morris who is more effective visually than vocally. It's surprising James Levine doesn't make the opening scene more dramatic. Overall this is a commendable performance very well directed for video by Brian Large. Sonically this DVD disappoints. This cannot be true surround sound, and there is little impact to percussion or brass. Admirers of Domingo's Otello surely will wish to have the MGM issue of the Franco Zefferellli film production even though there are a number of cuts (including the "Willow Song"!)—but it is spectacular to watch. I wouldn't want to be without Karajan's 1974 filmed production with Jon Vickers, Mirella Freni and Peter Glossop.

R.E.B. (July 2004)