Too Much Tchaikovsky

Opera and Immersive Sound

This is the first of two articles I’ve planned on immersive sound. The second will follow in Copper #109, covering recent Grammy nominees in that category. Space permitting, I will survey recent developments in the field.

Thumbing through TAS 304 this week, I was surprised and delighted to see a pair of lengthy communications from readers who liked Anthony H. Cordesman’s paean to multichannel sound (Issue 302). Cordesman, a distinguished foreign-policy analyst, is also a fastidious listener; I’ve always admired his audio writing. But I had no idea he harbored an affection for immersive (formerly known as “surround”) sound.

AHC’s message was eminently reasonable: why not put together a good second system and use it to play multichannel audio as well as movies? He even gave a shout-out to the worthy, affordable Oppo disc players so many of us treasure. (I’ve still got a UDP-205 in my system—and another one available for spare parts someday.)

Those letter writers had a message too. As John Arango put it, “There is a ‘high end’ in multichannel reproduction comparable to that in two-channel.” There certainly is, and I’ve watched it mature over the twenty-plus years I’ve spent upgrading my own rig. Marooned happily at home these days, I got a blunt reminder of how things have changed: we celebrated Stephen Sondheim’s 90th by watching ancient DVDs of Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. What god-awful sound! Especially in Sunday, an obvious casualty of Early Digital. Both picture and sound had been converted to DVD from an (analog) VHS master, and as a result, audio quality was on a par with the original-cast LP—harsh, tinny, painful. (Yes, the LP release was technically vinyl, but it had been recorded in 1984 using a shiny new process branded “Red Seal Digital.” Oy.)

Since then, home theater has evolved, and so has its sound. When DVD gave way to Blu-ray, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the improved picture quality as I was by the audio. More bits, better codecs! (Not to mention engineers who had learned how to handle the signal chain.) In #109, we’ll talk about immersive’s latest developments, especially the object-oriented tools that bring new soundstage height and depth. Today I’m going to focus on what’s already available. The scene is currently in flux, and not merely because of innovations like Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D. The sad stories of SACD and DVD-Audio, neither of which caught on with most consumers, could soon be repeated with Blu-ray Pure Audio and its downloadable cousins.

We’ll start with two relatively new releases, both operas. To some extent they use multichannel audio in unexpected ways, but they also—perhaps predictably—neglect to use it in certain ways. Regardless, there’s a ton of good sound and good music hiding in plain sight on these recordings.

Verdi: Otello. Schukoff, Moore, Lynch; Gulbenkian Orchestra & Chorus, Lawrence Foster (Pentatone).

This 2017 release, a hybrid SACD, includes 5.0 high-res multichannel tracks—in other words it’s typical of the audio-only multichannel recordings still being issued by Chandos, BIS, and (now less frequently) Pentatone. I took this one down from my shrink-wrap shelf because I find the idea of an immersive Otello quite attractive. In its blockbuster opening scene, a thunderstorm rages at sea; dockside, a restive, fearful chorus waits for the arrival of Othello’s frigate. Through wind and rain, they catch glimmers of its pitched battle offshore with a Turkish marauder. At odd moments (think of them cinematically, as two-shots and closeups) we hear Cassio, Iago, and Rodrigo making cryptic remarks about their general.

 

Verdi paints the scene vividly, with a large orchestra in the pit—including a “thunder machine” and expanded winds—plus a large onstage chorus and soloists. I held out some hope that the engineers might create a truly immersive storm, with thunderbolts, sheets of rain, howling winds coming from front, sides, and rear. (With Dolby Atmos or Auro-3D, they could even have come from above.) No such luck. In fact, I’ve heard very few “surround sound” audio-only opera recordings that actually surround you. Is that due to assumptions about what the audience expects?

This multichannel sound was used in default classical-music manner, to broaden the soundstage while suggesting a hall acoustic via the rear speakers, but it was still pretty impressive. Switching between high-res 2ch and 5ch, the latter consistently offered more air around solo vocalists, better imaging, and richer orchestral timbres. Dynamic range seemed wider—as it should have been, if only because more drivers were pumping out sound; this was especially effective for bass-drum thwacks and other transients. But a sense of greater detail came with it: I only became fully aware of the thunder machine once the 5ch track was engaged.

Turning to the remarkable love duet that ends Act I, I had similar reactions. The muted cello quartet that opens this scene sounded fuller and more expressive when spread among the three front speakers; likewise Otello (Nikolai Schukoff) and Desdemona (Melody Moore) created their alternately intimate and soaring dialogue within better-defined locations on the soundstage, their specific vocal colors more apparent throughout.

 

This is one of the very best-recorded Otellos I’ve ever heard; it certainly shows that state-of-the-art sound is now available to any outfit that hires Pentatone’s engineers. Nevertheless Riccardo Muti’s 2011 live performance with the Chicago SO remains my own top choice for multichannel presentation, because the performance itself is much stronger overall. Here’s a sample (more available online):

 

Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle. Relyea, DeYoung; Bergen PO, Edward Gardner (Chandos).

If you prefer listening to opera with the windows shut—that is, as an audio-only experience—then Castle is your opera! It was Bartók’s only venture into the genre, written when he was 30 years old. In perceptive liner notes, Paul Griffiths lists the composer’s likely motivations: firstly, librettist Béla Balázs (1884–1949), a personal friend, shared Bartók’s interest in combining modernism with authentic folk sources. Griffiths goes on:

Secondly, the subject was psychological, so that the music could always be primary, never upstaged by action. And thirdly, this drama of two people recently married allowed the reticent Bartók to express himself to his own new wife, Márta. . . . The work was a wedding gift and a warning.

A warning? Perhaps, but by 1911, when Bartók began composing the opera, Freud and Jung had long since made psychoanalysis and its neuroses, complexes, and fantasies (most of which originated in sexual repression) the stuff of coffeehouse chatter. It may have seemed only natural that, in Balázs’s libretto, Judit seeks not to escape her husband but to understand him. By unlocking Bluebeard’s seven doors, she hopes to transform their relationship. The libretto is otherwise vague and “symbolic,” an interior drama open to personal interpretations.

This left Bartók free to create a one-act dominated not by singers or scenery but by an enormous orchestra. The action proceeds like a series of tone poems, one for each time a door opens. After discovering a blood-soaked torture chamber and armory, then a blood-stained treasure room, Judit’s desire and curiosity only increase; behind the fourth door lies a beautiful garden, its soil bloody, while behind the fifth door a radiant landscape appears. Here’s a clip from that last sequence:

(To access the libretto for this clip, click here and scroll down to p. 13, where you’ll see tr. 6 marked. The excerpt begins with Judit’s plea, “Who has bled to feed your garden?”)

These two doors offer only a brief respite from the increasingly dark narrative. Door six reveals a lake of tears; door seven, Bluebeard’s three former wives. Judit’s fate will be no different from theirs.

Edward Gardner leads a powerful performance stunningly recorded by Brian Pidgeon, Ralph Couzens, and the Chandos team. You can easily find performances that bring out more of Bluebeard’s hyper-emotionality, but for sheer audio pleasure I can’t imagine a better-realized recording. Strongly recommended.

I guess we’d better get to the 800-pound Yeti in the room, namely video. Isn’t the best recorded opera experience these days not only multichannel but also (high-res) visual? Two nights ago I sat spellbound in our home theater watching the most fabulous Nozze di Figaro I’d ever seen. Great singing, great acting, great staging, great sound, great video. Opéra de Paris, Philippe Jordan conducting a revival of the unequalled 1980 Giorgio Strehler production. I had purchased the video three, maybe four years ago and never got around to watching it.

Folks, life is short! Don’t leave the shrink-wrap on.

 

Want another quick history lesson? If you’ve got a DVD of the Glyndebourne 1973 Figaro, with Cotrubas, Te Kanawa, and von Stade, take it out, put it on. Wonderful performances, but Standard Definition, 4:3 screen ratio, PCM stereo transferred from VHS, brown sets and brown costumes. Be glad you lived to see HD video and dts-MA sound. More bits, better codecs.

There’s tons more out there, of course. One example: Buñuel fans may want to sample The Exterminating Angel in Thomas Adès’ new operatic version. If you missed the Met performances, there’s still a Warner Home Video available:

 

Header image by Adrien Marie, restored by Adam Cuerden, cropped to fit format. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.