Adolphe AdamThe DVD medium has had the unforeseen capability of clarifying the appeal of classical works that are germane to the theater. Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) was born the same year as Hector Berlioz and represents the other side of the Berliozian coin. If Berlioz represents a kind of early French Romantic avant-garde, Adam is like the derrière-garde, though still fighting the same battle. Whereas Berlioz produced three cantatas to win a Prix de Rome -- the Paris Conservatoire's seeming pre-requisite to practice as a French composer -- only to discard the winning effort, Adam never succeeded in winning the Prix at all, and his family and professors alike persuaded him to find another line of work. Nevertheless, Adam prevailed simply by digging in and doing it. While Berlioz toured with his own symphony orchestra, singers and corps de ballet, Adam's fate was at the mercy of the public, his fortunes rising and falling in line with how well his properties did in various Parisian theaters. Adam's attempt to set up his own opera company was foiled by the outbreak of the Paris Revolution of 1848, and it took him six years to pay back the debt he incurred because of its failure. Ironically, one way he earned the money back was through teaching at the Conservatoire!

Adolphe Adam composed more than 70 operas and 13 ballets of which a small handful still enjoys some currency on the French stage; most are little seen outside of their native land and are seldom recorded, and some have never been revived since their first productions, if they were given at all. This may lead some to believe that these works must either be hopelessly dated or too French to travel. However, most people -- without regard to nationality or language -- seem to know Adam's Christmas carol Cantique de Noël a.k.a. O Holy Night, so at least some of his music has a degree of international appeal. Ironically, the ubiquity of that carol has probably contributed to Adam's reputation as a composer of lightweight and insubstantial music. However, hearing Adam's music in the context of the theatrical productions for which it was written reveal this hard working composer as a genuine master of music for the theater.

Pavarotti singing Cantique de Noël


Le Toréador DVDKultur's Le Toréador

Through their series "L'Opera Français," Kultur is helping to expand access to French theater. Although Adam's opera incorporates fragments of popular Spanish songs, Le Toréador is really like a pocket version of Cosí fan tutte. The whole work is like a trope of Mozart, from the overture down to an ensemble on "Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman," better known in the English-speaking world as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Le Toréador only features three characters: the blustering, faithless, self-absorbed toreador, his long-suffering wife and her charming, worldly lover. The latter two hatch a plot to bring the toreador to his knees.

There is a studio recording of Le Toréador, featuring the superlative talents of soprano Sumi Jo, however this DVD production gives the viewer a sense of immediacy and a grasp of what is going on in the opera that no recording can convey.

Sumi Jo sings Adam's variations on Mozart from Le Toréador

GiselleVAI's Giselle with Alicia Alonso

VAI's Giselle is a special document. Alicia Alonso is a legend in dance and the greatest of all Cuban ballerinas, yet she sacrificed her career in the West when she became an ally to Fidel Castro's regime. Her ballet company was re-dubbed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and became her nation's greatest cultural export, though limited to appearing in Soviet bloc satellites. When the Bolshoi's Vladimir Vasiliev came to Havana to dance in Alonso's production of Giselle, it was a sensation; Vasiliev's appearance in Havana was greeted as symbolizing the 30 years of cooperation and accord between Castro's Cuba and Moscow. No one then was aware that that this sense of cooperation would evaporate even before the fall of the Soviet Empire.

Alicia AlonsoIt was such an extraordinary event that the ballet was broadcast on national television in Cuba. Going back many years later to retrieve the video, Alonso was shocked to discover that more than half of the performance had been erased. She sent out an appeal to those who might have taped it on home video, and yet others responded with short footage taken during rehearsals and the like. The additional footage, incorporated into the finished video, at times seems as though it is being used to relieve the tedium of the uninspired master shot from Cuban TV. In addition, some of the video from out in the field, as the producers put it in four languages during the overture, is less than ideal. The opening of Act II is particularly dark for a long time.

Adam's Giselle with Richard BonyngeNevertheless, this performance of Giselle has a real sense of occasion, and Alonso's choreography and costume -- based on the original Coralli and Perrot settings rather than the traditional version by Russian Marius Petipa -- brings something very different to Giselle than is the standard treatment. Alonso is trying to take Giselle out of its Russian context and bring it back to Carlotta Grisi and the Paris of 1841. Albrecht was one of Vasiliev's best roles and he is at the peak of his youthful strength and virility in it here -- Alonso, by contrast, was 60 (!) when she gave this performance, though if you aren't looking at her face you probably won't notice. (Although you also can't tell from the video, Alonso is also legally blind owing to a detached retina she suffered in early adulthood. The other dancers had to take care not to collide with her on stage.) While the piecemeal assemblage of the footage, the occasional looseness of the corps and the gradual scrappiness of the orchestra as the second act progresses does make this Giselle less than ideal, it is still worthwhile. It just might fool you into thinking you are seeing some fugitive video from the 19th century if you don't have your wits about you.

Montage of Alicia Alonso in various performances of Giselle