Berlioz-La Damnation de Faust (Staatskapelle Berlin) (2000)

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Released 4-Oct-2000

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Music Booklet
Main Menu Animation
Scene Selection Animation
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 2000
Running Time 146:00
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (73:03) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Alexandre Tarta
Studio
Distributor

Select Audio-Visual Distrib
Starring Vesselina Kasarova
Paul Groves
Willard White
Andreas Macco
Staatskapelle Berlin
Sylvain Cambreling
Case Super Jewel
RPI $39.95 Music Hector Berlioz


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Auto Pan & Scan Encoded Audio Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 (1536Kb/s)
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
German
Dutch
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Good grief! The last time I heard Hector Berlioz's Damnation Of Faust, it was in a wonderful version by Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. So of course I took the opportunity to stick my hand up to review this DVD almost as soon as it was announced. Bad move. Really bad move. What happened to all that wonderful music? And what the heck is that thing stuck on the stage? Basically, if you know and love this wonderful vocal work (note, it is not an opera despite what people might think), then perhaps you best head to the transfer section now. If you don't know and love this wonderful vocal work, then perhaps you best head to the transfer section now too. This is not going to be pretty at all.

    The Damnation Of Faust - so what exactly is the story? This is going to be a difficult synopsis to write, as I really don't know. It makes wonderful music, but the story? Obviously based upon Goethe's Faust, the eponymous lead character (sung by Paul Grove) is basically a suicidal manic depressant, feeling alienated from the world and with no sense of purpose. The story is basically set around the furnace into which he and everyone else has been busily casting their ego. So the furnace basically contains what might be termed the soul or essence of every person, including Faust. But he tires of his existence and wishes to end it all by tossing himself into the furnace. Particularly depressed after an eclipse of the sun watched with awe by the other people around him, Faust finally decides to do it and after tossing his daily psychic contribution into the furnace, his mortal vessel follows quickly thereafter. The smelter is started up and Faust finds himself taking a journey into the casting mold whereupon his ego is transformed into Méphistophélès (Willard White) who is essentially Faust's shadow, his yang to his ying. Méphistophélès urges Faust onto a journey, a journey where his every wish is met. In true Aussie style, his first stop is a cellar where a major booze-up is taking place. Faust has a good time but the experience still is not completely satisfying. So Méphistophélès takes him to a place of dreams, where he dreams of a beautiful, perfect woman - Marguerite (Vesselina Kasarova). Determined to seek out this exquisite beauty, Méphistophélès leads Faust into the furnace once again where Marguerite happens to have her chambers. Méphistophélès arranges for she and Faust to meet (no mean feat since all this is imagination), but things go a little awry when Marguerite has some problems dealing with the two parts of Faust. She disappears and Faust loses the essence of his soul. He also loses the women of his dream, for he is incapable of love and does not go to Marguerite, so good old Méphistophélès sticks his oar in again and warns Faust that she is in danger, thus encouraging Faust to action. In order to save Marguerite though, Faust must make a pact with Méphistophélès, a.k.a. the Devil, and heads off to save his love. He does not make it and both he and Méphistophélès fall into the furnace for the final time and are melted. Méphistophélès apparently has won, but we have a nice ending. Well two in fact: on Earth, all three of the characters are melted to form a new person, whereas in Heaven the beautiful Marguerite is rescued and joins her virginal sisters.

    Okay, my Goethe is pretty darn rusty, but I think that is the general gist of the story. Apologies if it isn't. The Damnation Of Faust was not conceived as a stage work, but rather as a vocal concert work. This however has not stopped people putting the work on as a stage work, and this is a staging of the work at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1999. You might recognise the venue from a certain film of the 1960s starring Julie Andrews. Unfortunately, the staging is one of those modernistic pieces of rubbish that frankly I hate. The whole setting looks like something rejected from a Tina Turner concert or something, and the whole performance is based around a dirty great cylinder on the stage, into which are crammed people and upon which are played a variety of lighting effects - some of which seem to have no purpose whatsoever. I vaguely recall reading a review somewhere (I think it was on Amazon) whilst researching for this particular review that referred to this sort of staging as "Eurotrash". Sounds good to me. It's the sort of modernistic arty-farty stuff that art-snobs come up with that keep the average punters away from "cultural" shows in droves (and they then start complaining in hissy fits that no one understands their "vision" - like this actually has some meaning?). As a piece of entertainment, this is not. It is as boring as all hell (pun intended), so much so that I briefly nodded off about 75 minutes into the show. All that wonderful music has been given a stodgy Germanic treatment that makes Wagner sound like Johann Strauss. About the only positive that you can come up with here is the fact that the singing is not bad at all. It is just that it is wasted on this staging. Basically if you think the front cover photograph looks interesting, then you will probably like this staging. If you think that photograph looks stupid, then you are in my camp and should avoid this derivation of The Damnation Of Faust like the plague.

    So there you have it - a stodgy Germanicised interpretation of some glorious French music which is based upon the work of a German. Add in some ordinary staging and the performance itself is one to avoid except in one respect - the singing of the three lead performers. This is definitely in the category of try before you buy. I don't think there is anything on earth that would entice me to watch this ever again and when I feel the need to listen to the music, I shall resort to digging out that wonderful Sir Colin Davis CD.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    I might have some serious qualms about the actual content of the transfer, but not too many with respect of the video transfer itself. Recorded in high definition format in August, 1999, this is in general a rather nice looking transfer indeed. It is presented in the usual format for such high definition recordings, namely 1.78:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.

    This is a wonderful video transfer in most respects: nicely sharp where it can be (intense stage lighting does impinge upon the ideal quite frequently), with plenty of detail especially of the rather historic venue. The only issue really with the detail is that the shadow detail at times is a bit lacking and dark foreground detail often blends into the darker background somewhat. There is little in the way of grain noticeable here and overall this is a terrifically clear transfer. Low level noise does not appear to be an issue in the transfer.

    This is a wonderfully vibrant transfer, with a wide range of colour to contend with. Whilst there are plenty of blacks and whites, the inclusion of intense reds, yellows and the like at times does create a problem. There was only one short segment where it looked like the reds were breaking out into oversaturation mode, but this was not really a problem overall. There did not seem to be any issues with colour bleed in the transfer, although it should be noted that the stage lighting at times did seem to result in an "aura" effect (such as at 57:45). One thing that stands out from early on is the fact that blacks are black.

    The only apparent MPEG artefact in the transfer is a blurring of the pan shot during which the layer change occurs. You do notice it. Despite the stage being a candidate for aliasing nightmares, the whole film-to-video artefact issue was kept pretty much under control the whole time - until the last few minutes where the cylinder became aliasing hell. All sorts of shimmer, aliasing and minor moiré artefacting were obvious during the period from around 134:00 through to the end of the performance. Up until then, the aliasing had been quite minor and usually in the step ladder used to climb to the top of the furnace. You might notice something that looks like moiré artefacting during the show, such as at 21:24 and 78:55. This does not appear to be such and would seem to be the result of the lighting of these scenes. There are no film artefacts in the transfer at all, at least as far as I could see.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming at 73:03. It is a shocker - it occurs just as Méphistophélès throws Faust's old white clothing down into the furnace. The camera starts to pan down to follow the clothing then - boom, everything stops and we wait for the layer change to happen. Whilst appreciating that this sort of work does not make it easy to insert a layer change, I am sure that there were better places to hide this one. It is almost like they were desperate to get the change dead on half way through the transfer.

    There are a few subtitle options on the DVD but since my command of French is not the best, especially when it is sung, I am not able to attest to the accuracy of the English efforts. They are certainly a stilted form of English, but at least they are reasonably easy to read.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two soundtracks on offer on the DVD, being an Audio Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 soundtrack and an Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I listened to the first half hour of the Linear PCM soundtrack before switching to the Dolby Digital soundtrack for the rest of the programme.

    The vocals come up quite well in the Linear PCM soundtrack, but not so well in the Dolby Digital soundtrack. Both suffer somewhat from microphone placement issues, so that when the performers move away from the front portion of the stage, or turn away from the front of the stage, the vocals drop noticeably in volume and suffer somewhat through lack of body. Obviously this is a source-related issue, but it is nonetheless disappointing. The Dolby Digital soundtrack compounds the problem by having the vocals slightly recessed in the overall soundtrack, which is itself somewhat congested. There did not appear to be any audio sync problems in the transfer.

    The uncompressed Linear PCM soundtrack is a nice open sounding effort which really comes over much clearer than the Dolby Digital effort. It might lack some body when compared to the Dolby Digital soundtrack, but not an awful lot as I found out when testing a five minute sequence by flicking between the two soundtracks. I have no complaints about the Linear PCM soundtrack and would recommend this as the preferred way to listen to the sound.

    The Dolby Digital soundtrack on the other hand is not a fine example of the art of surround sound. For starters, despite this using the higher bit rate, the sound is a little congested and fails to make use of that extra bit rate. It comes over just a little on the murky side and most unusually lacks a whole heap of punch. Whilst there is certainly surround encoding in all channels, and possibly some in the bass channel, it really is not spectacular stuff at all. There are some problems in the balance so when, for instance, Marguerite first appears, she can barely be heard in the overall soundscape. Not really good at all.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Well apart from a booklet, nothing at all. And the booklet is sadly lacking as it does not contain a libretto, nor does it provide any details as to the singers in each chapter of each scene. The synopsis provided is fairly minimal and complete novices to this work will no doubt have no idea who the heck is singing and what.

Menus

    Nice clean and classy look that is standard for DVDs from this source. There is some minor animation to the main menu and the scene selection menu.

Booklet

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    As far as we can ascertain, this is identical in content to the Region 1 NTSC release.

Summary

    The Damnation Of Faust should have been a stellar DVD - glorious music presented with a good video and audio transfer. It is not. It is a stodgy performance at best, the audio transfer leaves plenty to be desired in terms of Dolby Digital and there is a distinct lack of necessary extras. All in all, there is nothing here to entice any sort of positive recommendation. If you are a fan of the work, I would strongly suggest a try before you buy.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Monday, October 15, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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