Blu-rays of the Week
Downton Abbey—The Complete Series (PBS)
The most watched PBS Masterpiece offering in history is this six-season series created by Julian Fellowes, who meticulously recreated the insular worlds of both masters and servants on a British estate, stretching from pre-World War I to the roaring (but still ominous) ‘20s. What began as a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs for a new generation soon became an absorbing soap opera in its own right, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville playing the gentrified family members whose own domestic dramas are played out while their servants’ own lives undergo scrutiny. This 21-disc set comprises all 52 episodes from the half-dozen seasons, as well as plenty of bonus features that include on-set featurettes, interviews and five hours of previously unseen material.
Hamlet (Opus Arte)
Young British actor Paapa Essiedu was one of the highlights of the recent Shakespeare Live! at Stratford for the 400th anniversary of his death (shown on PBS), speaking Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech with clarity and power, so it’s heartening that he plays the part with intelligence and charisma in Simon Godwin’s otherwise unexciting staging at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The supporting cast is undistinguished except for Natalie Simpson’s emotive Ophelia, while directorial liberties obscure rather than illuminate. At least Essiedu shows he’s one of Britain’s great acting hopes. Hi-def video and audio are good; extras are Godwin’s commentary and behind the scenes featurette.
Hermann Prey—The Schubert Song Cycles (C Major)
One of the best German lieder singers of the past half century, Hermann Prey was especially compelling performing his beloved Franz Schubert, and this disc brings together video recordings of him singing the three great Schubert song cycles: Die schone mullerin, Schwanengasang and Winterreise. He’s in peak vocal form, and his piano accompanists (Leonard Hokanson on the first two, Helmut Deutsch on Winterreise) are with him every step of the way. Audio and video (these are recordings from 1984 and ‘86) are adequate; extras are Prey’s intros for all three cycles and a 50-minute documentary about his career.
Mefistofele / La Traviata (C Major)
Recent stagings of two classic 19th century operas are distinguished by top-notch casts, beginning with Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, brought into the musical stratosphere by peerless bass-baritone Rene Pape as the devil, tenor Joseph Calleja as Faust and a riveting Kristine Opolais as Margherita. Verdi’s Traviata has at its center Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, who makes the courtesan Violetta her own and may be well on her way to becoming the new Anna Netrebko, now that Netrebko has abdicated that title. Both discs feature first-rate hi-def video and audio.
The Night Has a Thousand Desires (Mondo Macabro)
Spanish softcore auteur Jess Franco made this 1984 pseudo-erotic thriller, characterized—as always—by his leading lady’s penchant for frequent disrobing, which, since the actress in question is Lina Romay (who’s easy on the eyes, whatever her merits as a thespian), it’s a not unpleasant way to spend 94 minutes. Dramatically, Franco’s style is inert and turgid, but he does occasionally make things interesting if not entirely engrossing. The film looks decent enough on Blu-ray; extras comprise a Franco documentary and interview with horror-film buff Stephen Thrower.
DVDs of the Week
Britain’s Bloody Crown (Athena)
Historian and English monarchy expert Dan Jones has made an engaging four-part document of royal history, essentially going over the same Wars of the Roses territory that the recent PBS Masterpiece series The Hollow Crown did via Shakespeare. But even though Jones makes such red rivers of royal blood—through corruption, double-crossing and endless wars—come alive, he’s hamstrung by one of my own betes noires, re-created historical events, which even when done well as they are here seem inadequate to illuminate historical events.
The Secret Agent (Acorn)
This adaptation of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels (albeit not as well-known as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim) is centered by an accomplished performance by Toby Jones as a British businessman and family man who doubles—to the behest of no one, not even his wife—as a Russian spy. This sumptuous three-hour adaptation, originally made for British TV, has several sequences where it spins its wheels dramatically and narratively, but overall it’s a stimulating, even at times gripping, piece of work.