The video sector is booming, with two outstanding opera recordings from Deutsche Grammophon, musical travelogues from Naxos, a revival of a 19th-century ballet and a BBC production about the composition that changed music history. Audio activity is also notable, with a new work from one of America's leading opera composers, two vocal recordings from Pulitzer Prize winner William Bolcom and a hard-hitting recording of a history-making Shostakovich symphony. Who said the pace slows down in hot weather?
Franco Alfano: Cyrano de Bergerac (Deutsche Grammophon DVD).
If ever there was a theatrical work that cried out to be an opera, it was Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac." One might prefer Verdi as a composer, but the dates are wrong and Alfano, in his less spectacular way, does a workmanlike job. Roberto Alagno is brilliant, vocally and theatrically, in the title role, and that is what it calls for. He is well supported by the cast in this skilled French production.
Gaetano Donizetti: L'Elisir d'Amore (Deutsche Grammophon DVD).
Luciano Pavarotti gives the performance of a lifetime in this production of Donizetti's very comic opera; Kathleen Battle is captivating as the woman he loves at a distance, and there are two stellar performances in supporting roles: Enzo Dara as the swindler who sells Pavarotti a fake love potion and Juan Pons as his strutting rival for Battle's affection.
This is one of the best opera recordings ever made for home video.
Paris: A Musical Journey
Whether you use it to relive happy memories, to plan for a trip or to substitute for a visit, this beautifully edited series of pictures with musical accompaniment will put you in touch with the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur and other Paris landmarks, with side trips to Versailles, Chantilly and Chartres.
The music is mostly by French composers, but there is a movement from Mozart's "Paris" Symphony and music from Verdi's "La Traviata," which is set in Paris. For armchair travelers, Naxos has similar DVD treatments of London, Vienna, Rome, Venice and Prague.
Eroica: The Day That Changed Music Forever (Opus Arte DVD).
The composition of Beethoven's Third Symphony ("Eroica"), its dedication to Napoleon and Beethoven's angry withdrawal of that dedication add up to one of the most dramatic and stylistically significant events in music history. On this disc, the story is told in a vivid, superbly acted and directed BBC dramatization that includes a complete performance of the symphony.
The Pharaoh's Daughter (La Fille du Pharaon) (Bel Air DVD).
This ballet originated in 1862, fell into neglect and has been revived in a brilliant Bolshoi production complete with lavish ancient Egyptian scenery and costumes, and some spectacular dancing. The music, by Cesare Pugni, keeps things moving without calling attention to itself.
Carlisle Floyd: Cold Sassy Tree (Albany, two CDs with libretto).
Floyd is very much at home in this story, set in 1900, of a small Southern town that is scandalized by a leading citizen who marries a Yankee woman half his age and by his grandson who befriends a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The story is rich in atmosphere and psychological nuance, the music expertly crafted, the performance, by the Houston Grand Opera, polished to a high gloss.
William Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and of Experience (William Blake). (Naxos, 3 CDs with texts). William Bolcom: Songs (Naxos, with texts)
The setting of all the poems in Blake's collection is monumental, involving a vast array of professional and amateur performers and ranging in style from simple folk-flavored melodies to vast Mahlerian visions. The one-disc collection of songs, sung by soprano Carole Farley with piano accompaniment by Bolcom, is slighter but impressive, including musical theater numbers, cabaret-style songs and two cycles, a large one based on the work of women poets and a set of three songs recalling the river episodes in "Wind in the Willows." These productions give different kinds of satisfaction, but both satisfy.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar). (EMI, with texts and translations).
This music is closely connected with the late-20th-century upheaval in Soviet history. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's cycle of poems "Babi Yar" was a literary thunderbolt, portraying the shortcomings of Soviet society (anti-Semitism, shortages, bureaucratic cynicism) with vivid images. The censors' consternation was compounded when Shostakovich set the revolutionary texts to powerful music for orchestra, chorus and bass soloist.
Conductor Mariss Jansons, a great Shostakovich interpreter, captures all the power of words and music in a brilliant performance by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus with solos by Sergei Aleksashkin.