It's been a long time coming. The age of Shakespeare has now entered today's world of high definition and it's about time. Now Opus Arte has the honor of becoming the first label to distribute a Shakespearean production on Blu-ray HD with the ballet of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
For those readers new to the world of HD, it offers a picture resolution with almost triple the resolution of standard DVDs while maintaining the aspect ratio of the original film (the way the director intended it). In the United States, televisions run at 30 frames per second and film runs at 24 frames per second, so there's a conversion called a "pulldown" for every film that's converted to DVD. High-definition formats work more like film, so there's no conversion needed. HD can also have the Holy Grail of audio: uncompressed sound, enabling the listener to hear incredible detail. Once you've experienced a film on HD, it's very hard to go back to standard television or plain ol' DVDs.
Upon launching the DVD, the menus show a clean and simple design of monochromatic silhouettes evoking forest and fairies to come. A short overture and shots of a real forest dissolve into the opening twitter of fairies. The set is a blue nighttime sky with tree silhouettes, augmented in each scene by oversized flowers and Greek-style columns. It's not long before the magical and athletic dancing of Puck (Seth Belliston) instantaneously energizes the stage. Belliston is a delight to watch in every scene as he glides effortlessly across the stage, making mischief.
Long-time company member Patricia Barker (Titania) has no equal on stage, even if it's Pacific Northwest's principal Paul Gibson (a local San Francisco Ballet alumni). While Gibson is suitably regal as Oberon, Barker is the epitome of grace and poise with every gesture she makes. As the crown jewel of PNB, Barker retired last season. Her presence is sure to be sorely missed.
The "rude mechanicals" are very much secondary (even tertiary) aspects of this production. Their dancing is minimal, if at all, and Timothy Lynch as Bottom is rather unremarkable. Much of his role is literally lost in translation and minimized in this balletic interpretation. The result is only a flat caricature.
The exquisite costuming shines the most in what is arguably Mendelssohn's most well-known tune, The Wedding March. In one of George Balanchine's choreographed numbers, some 40 dancers hijack the story for an elaborate number. This is Balanchine's first original full-length ballet and surely he was carried away by the sweeping melodies of the BBC Concert Orchestra.
All in all, this is a lovely production and Opus Arte deserves high praise for being the first out of the gate (and for removing regional encoding so it's playable worldwide). There are a few other Shakespeare titles in their canon that have yet to be released in HD, but now that the "format war" is over, those and many other titles should be forthcoming. Advance HD schedules from other studios show no Shakespeare titles planned through the end of 2008, and that further demonstrates how far ahead of the curve they really are.
ADDITIONAL RATING CRITERIA:
Overall Film: 4 stars
The dancing is sublime and the production values are breathtaking. Though the choreography is a bit over-indulgent and a few of the dancers are a tad on the melodramatic side, this is a solid production.
Video Quality: 4 stars
Overall quite good, but some shots are simply out of focus. This is surely less-noticeable on a regular standard definition television, but you can't hide from HD quality. There's a marked difference between many shots throughout the DVD that show below-average camera work. As a fan of HD, I guess I've been spoiled by the landmark Discovery Channel series, Planet Earth.
Audio Quality: 5 stars
If you don't have uncompressed audio, which more and more studios are offering on their high-definition DVDs, then PCM 5.1 is a very satisfying alternative. The only anomaly is the audio cuts out halfway through the curtain call.
Bonus Extras: 1 star
Some of the recent HD operatic productions from Great Performances on PBS have offered a glimpse a what goes on backstage between scenes and set changes. The camera never stops rolling and this is a wonderful way to enhance a theatrical performance and let the audience in on aspects they've never seen before. Backstage clips or behind the scenes glimpses should be standard on all performance DVDs. This DVD just cuts to each act or scene and the only thing offered as supplementary material is a cast photo gallery of shots from the production. Also included is a program booklet in English, French & German, helping the viewer follow along with the story.
IMPORTANT NOTE: You need a Blu-ray DVD player and a HD television to watch this disc.
Opus Arte product page: http://www.opusarte.com/pages/product.asp?ProductID=228