Verdi’s Last Opera Fares Well as a Film

 

IMG_20150531_0002_NEWVerdi’s Last Opera Fares Well as a Film

Although the text to Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is something of a mess and although the character of Falstaff is quite a letdown from that character in the “Henry IV” plays, the comedy has certainly inspired at least three major operas—four if you count one by Antonio Salieri. There is “Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor” by Otto Nicolai, the very English “Sir John in Love” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the greatest of them all, “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. There are so many recordings of the Verdi work, both on CDs and DVDs, that picking out one as the “best” is a highly subjective practice.

However, I have just watched the 1979 film version “Falstaff” on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD, and I would dare to offer this as the one to own. Directed by Goetz Friedrich, it stars French singer Gabriel Bacquier in the title role, with Richard Stillwell (Ford), Max-Rene Cosotti (Fenton), Karan Armstrong (Alice), Jutta-Renate Ihloff (Nannetta), Martz Szirmay (Quickly), and Sylvia Lindenstrand (Meg). The Wiener Philharmoniker is conducted by Georg Solti.

To succeed in the title role, the actor must create a likeable Falstaff. Although what he tries to do is reprehensible, the audience must be on his side just a little. Bacquier is indeed likable, as is Donald Gramm in a Glyndebourne Opera production and as is Paul Plishka in a Metropolitan Opera production from 1993, and as Bryn Terfel is NOT in a cartoonish production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

As a film, this video offers a very fluid production. Indeed, during the German-language synopses that precede each scene, we get to see a lot of the action only implied by the libretto of Arrigo Boito: Falstaff pulling himself out of the river, the townsfolk preparing for the woodland haunting, and so on. Since the cast is lip-synching to a prerecorded soundtrack, some of the vocalizing seems too tame for what we see in their body movements; but this seems to be a problem built into doing an opera film in this manner.

The running time is 125 minutes and the subtitles are in six languages, including the original Italian. The only bonus features are promotional ones.

Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”

 

IMG_20150531_0001Ohio Light Opera Dishes Up a Happy “Gondoliers”

  I believe that the score to Arthur Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” is his happiest, while the plot is a topsy-turvy affair in the true William S. Gilbert manner.. In the past, The Ohio Light Opera has been performing and recording on CDs full productions of rarely done operettas. The Gilbert & Sullivan works so far in their series of recordings have fairly complete dialogue and therefore are in competition with the D’Oyly Carte recordings of those works that contain only the musical segments..

However, the latest release on the Troy label, “The Gondoliers,” has competition from a D’Oyly Carte recording with dialogue on the Decca label; and I was afraid that this OLO version would suffer in comparison. In two words, it doesn’t!

This is a nearly perfect recording of the musical tale of two gondoliers, Marco (Jack Beetle) and Giuseppe (Nicholas Hartley), who having just married Gianetta (Kemper LeCroy-Flarin) and Tessa (Sahara Glasener-Boles) then learn from the Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra del Bolero (Gary Moss) that one of them is really the King of Barataria and (later in Act II) that the same one is also married to Casilda (Anne Marie Frohnmayer), the daughter of the out-of-pocket Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro (Ted Christopher and a light-voiced Sandra Ross). Trouble is, no one but the king’s mother knows which is the king and which the gondolier. And she is on her way to sort things out.

And so the two rule jointly as a monarchy based on republican (small “r”) principles. The only satire is against the belief that ALL people can be equal in rank, and that line of thought comes to an end half way into Act II. The plot’s ending is a nod to one of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, and no more need be said.

The dialogue is spoken with a good tempo and the enunciation is very good with final “t’s” and “d’s carefully hit off. (I cannot understand why “livery” is pronounced with a long “i,” but let that go.) The dialogue is absolutely complete and the music is conducted with verve by J. Lynn Thompson.

The booklet has minimal notes abut the background of the play and the entire text of the dialogue and songs. I would call this one a Grabbit.

“Henry V” at the Globe Lacks the Grand Style

 

A-SH-Henry V[Globe]“Henry V” at the Globe Lacks the Grand Style

I am delighted that videos of performances at the Globe Theater reconstruction in London are becoming available again, this time on the Kultur label. The first of the current releases is a 2012 “Henry V” with Jamie Parker in the title role. The text is fairly complete and the show runs close to three hours. And while there are no subtitles, the cast speaks clearly enough, and at a rapid pace. Dominic Dromgoole directs.

After seeing too many modern dress productions of the history plays, it is a pleasure to see the proper period costumes here. I recall how unfunny the comic characters are in some recent productions. At the Globe, Sam Cox makes a fine Pistol, along with a really carbuncled Paul Rider as Bardolph. It is interesting that Chorus is played by a woman, Brid Brenna, but she does not get to speak the closing bid for applause.

Fluellen is your comic stage Welshman, with his obsession for the Roman way to conduct a war and his references to Alexander the Pig.  The joke here is that he is favorably comparing his beloved King Henry to a pig, which brings me to the main point.

Shakespeare was able to see quite through the facades that history puts around its heroes. He knew that Henry V was considered a great English hero and he couldn’t safely deny it in a play. So he lets the Chorus praise the king to the skies, while the play itself shows him to be as scheming as certain recent politicians in whipping up a war to consolidate his power on grounds so shaky that audiences still laugh at them.

Where King Henry IV is shown taking an active part in the battle in “Henry IV, Part I,” Henry V is not seen in action at all at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s script. In fact, the only confrontation Shakespeare gives is Pistol capturing a terrified French knight. It seems that Henry is good at getting his men into a war and shouting rousing speeches to keep them going, but that is all.

(The film versions (Olivier in 1945 and Branagh in 1989) are careful to show Henry as a warrior king. Olivier, of course, was making propaganda during wartime. Branagh’s Henry’s big moment was carrying a dead body across the battlefield. Many stage productions follow as this tradition. Shakespeare, however, knew what he was doing.)

Parker’s Henry gives no indication of the disparity between the usual positive view of him and Shakespeare’s view of things. I would like to hear from some local English teachers and theatre groups about their view of this play.

Alas, following the current trend, all the heightened language inherent in the lines are flattened by a refusal to bring dramatic utterances to any dramatic climax (as Henry’s off-hand “God for Harry, England, and St. George”). It is like playing Chopin with no regard to note values or dynamics. Why bother?

Peabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical

 

A-Broadway MusicalsPeabody Expert Illuminates the American Musical

   The much admired Teaching Company has several CD and DVD sets about classical music. However, they are all bested by “Great American Music: Broadway Musicals” on four DVDs. (The course number is 7318.) The instructor is Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute and a mighty fine teacher is he.

The 16 topics of 45 minutes each cover popular stage musicals from the Minstrel Shows that set the foundation, right through the Reviews and Book Musicals, and up to the “present,” which was 2006 when these talks were recorded.

messengerMessenger is a double threat to all competition. First, he is a fine speaker with a good sense of humor, and he never talks down to his audience. Second, he is an excellent pianist who can illustrate a musical point simply and clearly (although his singing does not quite meet the level of his other talents).

His opening talk, “The Essence of the Musical,” prepares us for all that is to come. While apologizing for “The Minstrel Era,” he does point out the benefits those shows afforded to black artists who never would have otherwise attracted such large white audiences. The tale of the rise and downfall of two composers, one white and one black, is heartbreaking.

“The Evolution of the Verse/Chorus Song” explains the nature of all the popular songs that use a verse to set up the situation and a chorus that is repeated often enough so that the audience can join in.

“The Ragtime Years,” “The Vaudeville Era” and “Tin Pan Alley” continue to follow the fortunes of popular songs with respect to their formats and performances by different artists, many of whom are heard in vintage recordings.

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Broadway a long time ago

Later on, special attention is given to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, who are contrasted; George Gershwin; and the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter two ruled over the “Golden Age of Musical Theater (1950s)”; but even they could not withstand the new sounds when “Rock ‘n’ Roll Reaches Broadway.”

The last talk is about “Big Bucks and Long Runs,” a title that speaks for itself.

The PBS stations have recently rerun a series about Broadway Musicals with all sorts of Big Star commentators and spectacular videos. Messenger does it all and does it better with a podium and a piano. I have watched this set three times and heard it as many on my car tape player and now my iPod. I cannot recommend it too highly

“An Age of Kings”is a Lesson for Our Times

 

A-SH-Age of Kings

“An Age of Kings” is a Lesson for Our Times

Any one interested in Shakespeare especially, the English theatre more broadly, or simply how good television can be, must see the BBC Video DVD release of “Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings.” I have been waiting since 1960 for a video release of this 15-part series which set standards for televised Shakespeare that have seldom been met, even by the later BBC complete (so-called) color series that has been available on video tapes and DVDs for quite some time.

“An Age of Kings” tells the story—well, Shakespeare’s version of the story—of what happened in England from the moment Richard II unwisely banished his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, through the rebellions that followed, Henry V’s victory in France, the War of the Roses that marred Henry VI’s reign, and right up to the death of Richard III in 1485, when a family named Tudor took over the country and changed history.

Each episode runs between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes. Each of the plays are given 2 episodes each, with the exception of “Henry VI, Part I,” which is reduced to a single episode by omitting the main character, Lord Talbot! Surprisingly, his absence does not affect the main story in the least. No play is free of cuts, but the continuity is excellent even without the missing scenes.

The one thing most politically oriented viewers will notice—and Shakespeare is always very careful to emphasize this theme—is that while all of the characters speak of England’s good, what most of them really want is Power. Some of them, unlike the politicians of today, take some pains admitting it. (Pol-Sci majors, take note.) Others are good men, who truly love their country, but make fatal mistakes. The huge cast of characters, aside from the lower classes who are expected to lay down their lives for their leaders but have nothing to say about it, is divided into the Power-hungry  and the Patriot camps; and one cannot help notice how the latter usually are the first to suffer.

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Before James Bond, Sean Connery was Hotspur

A relatively small group of actors was willing to work for minimal pay to bring this project off, and many of them play numerous parts, as was done in Shakespeare’s Globe and in any repertory company down through the ages. So a crowd scene will show an actor named Terry Scully, who will later appear as Henry VI a few episodes later—and so on.

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King Henry (Robert Hardy) woos Princess Catherine (Judi Dench)

There will be several familiar faces of British actors who were to become international stars later on. Robert Hardy is an excellent Prince Hal/Henry V, while Frank Pettingell is by far the best Falstaff I have seen. “Henry IV, Part I” has a remarkable Hotspur played by an obscure young Scottish actor named Sean Connery, who knows exactly how to steal a scene by the sheer exuberance of his style.

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Pual Daneman as Richard III

Other members of the cast who have gone far include Judi Dench as Princess Catherine in “Henry V” and Eileen Atkins as Joan of Arc in “Henry VI, Part I.” The very nasty Queen Margaret is played by the very talented Mary Morris, whom some might remember as the only important female Number 2 in “The Prisoner” series. I must also mention the excellent Duke of Glouster/Richard III of Paul Daneman, who plays Richard as a dangerous and intelligent man.

I have lost count of how many clever directorial touches illuminate the text; and I can only wonder why so many of the excellent leading actors did not have more prominent screen careers afterwards.

While the picture and sound are not absolutely crystal clear, they are quite good; and I was delighted to find subtitles for those who cannot quite catch the often rapidly spoken dialogue.

There is a booklet that comes with background information about the series and its making, along with some nice production photos. Unhappily, it does not list the cast—a serious omission. One has to wait for the end of each episode to see who plays whom; but real fanatics will hit the pause button and take notes.

I can only urge my readers to get a copy of this historic project, which is selling at a surprisingly low suggested price.

Old “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition

IMG_20150530_0004_NEWOld “Maigret” Returns to DVD in New Edition 

  As I keep saying in my articles, I can watch over and over the older episodes of Hercule Poirot with David Suchet (before they took all the fun out of his character) and of Miss Marple with Joan Hickson. But I never mentioned a third favorite, which has not suffered any remakes since its original showings in 1992-93. “Maigret” has now been reissued in a boxed set of 4 DVDs holding the 12 episodes that comprise Series 1 and 2 of this wonderful police drama.

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The man behind the detective

Jules Maigret is the creation of French writer Georges Simenon and played here by an all-British cast led by Michael Gambon in the title role. The directors wisely chose to have all the characters speak without French accents. The outdoor scenes are mostly shot in “Paris” (actually Budapest, which didn’t modernize as quickly as did Paris). The pictures behind the opening titles perfectly establish the time and place. Gambon is ably assisted by an equally good cast, which includes Ciaran Madden (Series 1) and Barbara Flynn (Series 2) as his loving wife; Geoffrey Hutchings as his assistant, Sgt. Lucas; and John Moffatt, as his obstructive superior, M. Comeliau.

The guest stars who do exemplary jobs include Cheryl Campbell, Edward Petherbridge, Brenda Blethyn (the current lead in “Vera”), Minnie Driver (in a very strong role) and even Jane Wymark (the wife of Tom Barnaby in “Midsomer Murders, Series 1-20). And kudos to Campbell and Driver for playing two very tough women who are a match for Maigret himself.

Gambon plays Maigret not as a “character,” as are Poirot or Marple, but as a serious policeman who looks into the characters of his suspects before coming to conclusions. His sense of wry humor does much to make this series quite enjoyable.

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One of the many French editions of a Maigret mystery

Out of the 12 episodes, my favorite is “Maigret Sets a Trap” (Series 1, episode 6). Here a sex killer is terrorizing Paris and the story starts in media res with Maigret bringing someone into the station but refusing to say anything about him to reporters. There is a touch of “Psycho” in a certain mother-son relationship and more than a little painful suspense as a policewoman is put in harm’s way to lure the killer.

Yes, “Maigret” provides 645 minutes of intelligent and enjoyable police drama. And subtitles and a booklet are included to further enhance one’s enjoyment of this set.

Seldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

A-OLO-Princess IdaSeldom Done, “Princess Ida” Gets a Fine Production in Seattle

I have been writing much about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Here, I want to commend their 2007 production of the seldom-performed “Princess Ida.” With a weak libretto, dialogue in blank verse, and an uncomfortable anti-feminist approach, this work still has one of the most delightful scores in the G&S series.

Taking aim at women who, in Gilbert’s time, wanted equal rights to an advanced education, the plot concerns Prince Hilarion (Scott Rittenhouse) and his two friends Cyril (John Brookes) and Florian (Michael Giles) who break into Castle Adamant so that the Prince can claim his bride Princess Ida (Amanda Brown), while her father King Gama (Dave Ross) is held hostage by King Hildebrand (William J. Darkow), father to Hilarion. (Get it?)

Among the students of Adamant, all of whom are sworn to avoid males of any kind (including chessmen and roosters), are the philosophical Lady Blanche (Alyce Rogers), her daughter Melissa (Elizabeth Ford), and Florian’s sister Psyche (Cara Iverson). And let me not forget Ida’s three hulking brothers, who always appear in armor until they have to fight, at which time they strip it all off.

The songs are a joy. Gama has two patter songs, the first of which is really Gilbert’s opinion of himself; Psyche has the delightful tale of the ape who loved a lovely maiden; Ida has two operatic arias of great beauty; the three young men have two funny trios in a row; the three brothers have a wonderful parody of Handelian oratorio; and all of the ensembles are either amusing or beautiful. Lady Blanche’s only solo is among the worst Sullivan ever composed (look at the lyrics!), but I am glad it is kept for the sake of completeness.

The scenery is colorful and does a good 180-degree rotation in Act II. The costumes are as Gilbert wanted them: medieval, despite the presence of telescopes and cigars. There is some silly ad-libbing as the men change into women’s gowns, but that is the only addition to the text; and the three brothers do bump into each other a little too often. But in general, director Christine Goff shows respect for her author and composer, and conductor Bernard Kwiram gives her able support from the pit.

Copies can be ordered through the website at www.pattersong.org.

Seattle Group Does “The Grand Duke” Proud

 

 

A-OLO-Grand DukeSeattle Group Does “The Grand Duke” Proud

Gilbert and Sullivan’s final collaboration, “The Grand Duke,” was created in less than the best of circumstances. Earlier, Gilbert had taken Sullivan and their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte to court (!) over some financial matters that included the cost of a new carpet in their Savoy Theater. When the three were reunited with “Utopia, Ltd.,” it was clear that Sullivan was starting to repeat himself. In “The Grand Duke,” the plot is the most complicated and surely the silliest of any of their former efforts; and the score shows strong evidence that Sullivan was pretty burned out.

On the other hand, Gilbert seems to have “fallen” for the Hungarian soprano cast to play Julia and compromised his libretto by building up her part to more than it could hold. (He did the same with another soprano in “Utopia, Ltd,” and ultimately adopted her!)

I saw a production in New York that cut the text heavily and actually added a scene created by someone who thought Act II needed improvement. The songs are for the most part jolly but not particularly memorable. There is a beautiful ensemble in Act I that recalls the madrigal in “The Mikado” and offers a sort of oasis from the (I hate to say it) pedestrian tunes around it. Indeed, two or three of Sullivan’s worst efforts are found in this score; and I thought it is no wonder that it ran only 123 performances.

On repeated hearings, however, I am getting to like many of the numbers through familiarity. Also, I realize I am consciously or not comparing the score with the ones I grew up with, and this is not nice.

However, the intrepid Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, true to its mission of producing and committing to video all of the Savoy operettas, did a very complete version of the original “Grand Duke” script and score in 1999. It makes, amazingly, a good case for the work. Granted that the dialogue does go on far too long in many spots, director Hal Ryder accepted the work as written–no current joking references–and managed to bring life into it with a cast that takes the silliness and spotty score and makes it sound good for the most part.

Set in the 1930s (an updating departure for the Seattle group), the plot unfolds showing a theatrical group who is plotting to overthrow the Grand Duke and take over the government. There is much ado about eating sausage rolls, statutory duels fought with a deck of cards, and one character finding himself engaged to four women at the same time. The overly long first act is divided into two acts—a very wise choice. The voices are a bit removed from the overhanging microphones, and a copy of the text would help during the musical numbers, as indeed with any operetta. Two of the songs in what is Act III in this production are not found in the standard text.

I had the pleasure of watching our local Moving Company perform a non-musical version I had prepared for them—and the Keene Sentinel compared it to a Monty Python sketch. Once again, Gilbert was there first! In fact, this DVD has no competition at all. Both Gilbert and Sullivan fans and theatre historians will surely want to own the Seattle “Grand Duke.” It can be purchased through their website at www.pattersong.org.

Kalman’s Operetta, “Die Csardasfurstin,” Brims Over with Lively Melodies

A-OP-CsardasfurstinKalman Operetta, “Die Csardasfurstin,” Brims Over with Lively Melodies

  A csardas or czardas is an Hungarian dance noted for its changes in tempo. “Die Csardasfurstin” is a 1907 operetta by Emmerich Kalman (1882-1953), a Hungarian composer, many of whose works were contemporaneous with those of Franz Lehar, a Hungarian composer working in the Viennese style (that is, waltzes).

Even at the time of “Die Fledermaus” (1874), Hungarian music was all the rage in Europe. So while other composers did what they could to get Hungarian music into obligatory party scenes, Kalman’s scores gave audiences the real thing. Since Act I of “Die Csardasfurstin” takes place in Budapest, the songs and dances are brimming over with Hungarian folk melodies.

Back in 1969, an abridged version was made for television with Anna Moffo in the title role (“The Gypsy Princess” is the common translation for this work, but it is inaccurate and misleading) and it is available on a Deutsche Grammphon DVD. But now there is a complete “live” performance on the Video Land label as given in 2002 at the Seefestspiele Morbisch. The open air stage is vast, the cast of singers and dancers fills it nicely, and the whole production is given a glitzy Broadway style that somehow does not seem top-heavy.

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Emmerich Kalman

The plot involves a nobleman, Edwin (Ferdinand von Bothmer), who is engaged by his parents to the Countess Stasi (Kerstin Grotrian) but is in love with the singer Sylva (Vera Schoenenberg) whose specialty is singing czardas numbers. Although ready to leave on a tour to America, she is willing to stay for Edwin…but of course things go awry. The denouement, although not very original, still comes as a surprise.

Schoenenberg is tall and attractive enough to make a convincing Sylva, while von Bothmer is not quite as attractive as one would wish for the dashing male lead. Contributing to the fun is Edwin’s friend Count Boni (Markus Werba), who with Countess Stasi shares the role of the secondary loving couple. Alas, those horrible body mikes are even more offensive in close-ups.

I am most impressed with the opening, in which the dead bodies of civilians are lying amidst the rubble of some restaurant. Then two clocks turn back a quarter-hour, the bodies revive, and all is jolly in pre-World War I Budapest. Act II takes place 10 minutes before the fatal hour, Act III 5 minutes before. Thankfully, the show ends on a happy note; but the Seefestspiele fireworks after curtain calls might be interpreted in a less jolly manner.

The running time is 132 minutes and subtitles are in three languages but not in German.

Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise

A-OP-Otello (Rossini)Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise 

In all the years I have been giving my “Shakespeare in Opera” talks, I have lamented the absence of video versions of Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Rossini’s “Otello.” At last half of that lack has been satisfied by the appearance of the latter on a Decca DVD.

It was filmed at the Zurich Opera House in 2012 with Muchai Tang conducting the Orchestra Scintilla and a very strong cast. Alas, the program notes claim that it is set in modern times to show that racial bigotry still exists—as if the play were about that! The only one who hates Othello (or Otello in this case) is Desdemona’s father (here named Elmiro). But in this production, a silent bit is added in which a white man treats a black servant with disdain. Frankly, I think the setting is simply to save the cost of Renaissance costuming.

This is the very first time I have seen this work performed. I knew that the first two acts were a pale modification of the original: no Cassio, no handkerchief but a letter falling into the wrong hands, no slow poisoning of Otello’s mind by Iago, and certainly no great depth of characterization. The third act, however, follows Shakespeare’s fifth act faithfully. (Of course, it all suffers when compared to Verdi’s masterpiece; but that is not fair in judging Rossini’s work.)

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Desdemona and Emilia in the last act

This opera calls for three lead tenors (!) and here all three acquit themselves nicely: John Osborn (Otello), Javier Camarena (Rodrigo), and Edgardo Rocha (Jago). The Jago-Rodrigo duet (No, non temer) in Act I is powerful and the ensemble that follows is quite impressive. Since Emilia (Liliana Nikiteanu) has no handkerchief to give her husband, she is merely there to give Desdemona someone to sing to. Peter Kalman’s Elmiro is strongly sung and well acted.

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Bartoli, when not being strangled

The Big Draw here, however, is Cecelia Bartoli, whose unique manner of singing seems in the style of the early 1800s (“Otello” premiered in 1816). Her acting is intense and her lower notes are a marvel. It is not her fault that her Willow Song in Act III is staged with her standing still and facing the audience rather than Emilia.

It is known that Rossini composed an alternate happy ending at the request of the head of the Naples Opera, and those who wish to hear it may do so on the Opera Rara CD set of this work. (My favorite line in both versions is Desdemona’s exclamation, “What a day!” Surely the understatement of all time.)

It is also noteworthy that the orchestra plays on “authentic” instruments, giving perhaps the sound that Rossini wanted. The score is complete except for a chorus at the start of the Act I finale—a minor point for those not familiar with this work. But the “modern” setting and costuming, to me, are a strong minus for a video.

The running time is 156 minutes and there are subtitles in seven languages.