New Year’s Concert 2006 from the Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino: Overture [8.19]
I Lombardi alla prima crociata: “O Signore, dal tetto nation” (Coro) [4.28]; “La mia letizia infondere” (Oronte) [2.38]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca: “Vissi d’arte” (Tosca) [4.48]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le nozze di Figaro: Overture [4.55]
Don Giovanni: “Là ci darem la mano” (Don Giovanni, Zerlina) [4.21]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Don Pasquale: Sinfonia [6.50]
L’elisir d’amore: “Una furtive lacrima” (Nemorino) [4.53]
Giuseppe VERDI
Nabucco: “Va, pensiero” (Coro di schiavi ebrei) [6.23]
La Traviata: Brindisi: “Libiamo me’ lieti calici” (Alfredo, Coro, Violetta) [3.28]
Fiorenze Cedolins (soprano); Joseph Calleja (tenor); Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatro La Fenice/Kurt Masur
rec. live, Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 1 January 2006
Picture format: 4:3, Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1. Region Code 0 (NTSC)
Subtitles: NONE
Booklet: English, French, Italian, German
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107283 [55.00]

Despite the programme’s seemingly random selection, the liner-notes tell us that since Italy does not have a “Johann Strauss” composer, Maestro Masur took it upon himself to choose a program to allow “astonished listeners to discover just how many waltz rhythms in 3/4 and 3/8 time may be found in 19th-century operas, even if those rhythms are sometimes concealed or obscured.” Perhaps if I had read the notes before playing the DVD, this would have drawn more of my attention, but I cannot say it stood out for me. Nor did I see any sign of astonishment on the faces of audience members; the few times the camera panned to their faces, they tended to look rather disengaged. However, I very much enjoyed seeing the inside of the hall, which burned down in January of 1996 and was rebuilt to look exactly as it was before. It is an opulent, baroque space, very much a work of art itself. The notes state that the restoration allowed acousticians to improve the acoustics greatly, and, indeed, the sound is one of the chief glories of this production.
Orchestra, chorus and soloists are all in fine form, though tenor Joseph Calleja often produced a closed, pushed sound above the stave that was, at times, hard to listen to. Soprano Fiorenza Cedolins has a rich voice and an engaging on-stage personality, well matched by bass Roberto Scandiuzzi. Orchestra and chorus perform with plenty of energy and refinement, though one would never confuse them with their colleagues in Berlin, Vienna or La Scala. Masur’s interpretations are very much middle-of-the-road: everything is in its place, as fidelity to the score is very much a part of Masur’s conducting persona. Yet his minimal use of rubato and tight control of the orchestra produced performances that were literal, sometimes unyielding and low on passion. Surely Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini intended their melodies to have greater elasticity, to break free of the bar line and soar a bit more? Certainly there is more to this music than Masur and his players allow us to hear. While the two selections by Mozart may seem like odd bedfellows with the other musical selections, 2006 was the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and as anyone who attended a classical concert then knows, it was almost impossible not to hear Mozart that year. We also see two dancers and a Harlequin perform in a few places, taking us away from the musicians. I know the New Year Vienna Philharmonic broadcasts do a similar thing, and I have never understood why. It seems distracting and somewhat silly.
The video direction is fine, and unobtrusive, save for the time between selections. During applause and stage re-arranging, a cameraman is encouraged to move quickly around the floor of the hall, panning the camera at odd angles. Is this another way for the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the room? Is it so we can watch members of the audience suddenly shift in their chairs to avoid being run over by the camera? Whatever the rationale, it is annoying and completely unnecessary. As to the performers, the soloists are the most enjoyable to watch, because they interact with one another and the audience. Both orchestra and choir seem disengaged because they don’t move with the music. There are surely some teachers who would argue that the best technique involves a minimum of movement. Yet if a person decides to watch a performance on DVD, then part of that experience should include seeing performers fully engaged with what they are doing. How the chorus can sing “Va pensiero” so beautifully yet remain so immobile is a mystery to me; is this really the chorus that Italians consider an unofficial national anthem? One would never know that from watching this performance. Finally, Kurt Masur, for all his excellence as a musician, is not the most engaging conductor to watch: his arm movements (conducting without a baton) often seem jerky, and are restricted in front of his body. This would hardly prove bothersome, except that his face remains mostly expressionless as he conducts, save for a few eyebrow lifts and the occasional gentle smile. Again, one may argue that this should not matter if the music-making is great - though I would suggest that the most inspirational conductors have faces that are constantly communicating - but this DVD is meant to be viewed, and Masur’s dour expression does not make for pleasant repeated viewing.
With no extras, no subtitles, and less than an hour of music, this is a disappointing release.  

David A. McConnell

A disappointing release.