Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Sopranos return...and I don't mean Leontyne and Renata

Season five, after a marathon of DVD-watching, is now firmly ensconsed "in the books"--and as always, I'm stunned, breathless, and awash in admiration. This is something so far above the realm of "regular TV" as to not really belong to the same genre. It's an incredible 13-hour movie that leaves everything in the film department I've seen over the last few years utterly in the dust. Tell me about one film you've seen that even begins to approach the screenwriting, cinematography, casting, and acting of this.

There really is hardly a false note. (O.K.--the "acting" of Patti D'Arbanville is an eye/earsore, and for once some of the secondary roles--Robert Loggia's Feech La Manna is a conventional over-the-top gangland impersonation--don't really ring true.) As usual, at the center, James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano demonstrates the value of low-key underacting (or is that a drug-induced coma?), and Lorraine Bracco shows how talking funny can win you too an Emmy. My favorite remains Uncle Junior (the great Dominic Chianese), who can still provide us with one of the season's most obscenely memorable moments in his admonition to two patrolmen who've just picked him up wandering dementedly in Newark: "Go shit in your hat."

Although the season aired on HBO a year ago, I won't reveal specific plot details, other than to note that there's the customary disposal of one major cast member three-quarters of the way through the season (closely followed by another one), and mention that Christofuh ends the season with a tenuous grasp on sobriety. Oh, yeah: he and fiance Adrianna both are allocated brand new mothers.

There are those spoil-sports who will tell you the series is played out, and that there shouldn't be a season six. I'll say only this: you'll be sorry when it's gone. (Please, though: no more guest stars--Frank Sinatra Jr. was cool a few seasons ago, but we could do without former football great Lawrence Taylor sitting there at the poker table like a dummy.) I for one will be waiting anxiously for season six.

The video--er, film--looks glorious in its 1.78:1 "widescreen" format, and the transfers are faithful to the beautiful photography, though faces look a bit brownish-ochre pasty (by design?). Anyone who could criticize something that gives us a terrific half-a-feature film for 13 weeks is the very definition of churlish.

The Sopranos: winner and still champion.


Saturday, June 11, 2005

Leontyne's Christmas album all dressed up

Decca recently re-released all three of their big-opera-star Christmas albums: those of Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, and, perhaps most memorable of all, Leontyne Price. This was recorded in Vienna in the Summer of 1961 with Herbert von Karajan on the podium, and members of the Vienna Philharmonic and several of the city's best-known choruses. A real Cadillac--make that Mercedes--setting all the way. John Culshaw produced and Gordon Parry was the engineer--both famous for the great Solti Ring.

All these high-class elements make for a holiday album for the ages. Price is in her best, most youthful voice, before her crisis during La fanciulla del West at the Met that Fall, after which even her most loyal fans will admit the voice never quite sounded as effortlessly radiant. Here it's simply glorious--listen for proof to the ending of "We Three Kings of Orient Are," a floated high note that a cranky friend of mine calls one of the most efforlessly gorgeous tones ever comitted to record. Likewise the opening lines of "Von Himmel Hoch"--simply ravishing. There's very little here that fails to make its full effect.

I'll say only that I detect a slight lack of "festiveness"--the album lacks a celebratory aspect, something that simply pervades the Sutherland. It's more a low-key, private recital, thanks no doubt to Karajan, who views this all in abstract, beauteous terms. It succeeds on that level, to be sure. But don't expect jingle bells all the way, or Santa coming to town. Honey, you ain't gonna find it here.

The transfer is lovely. Everything floats in the air of the Sofiensaal, as it did on the far hissier open-reel tape edition way back when. This is much better in every respect, and the digipak cover is a nice reproduction of the U.K. original.

Two thumbs way up and a hearty Christmas cheer.