In my last few opera video reviews an important piece of information has been lacking. Not only are these releases available on VHS or Beta - many of them are also to be had on LaserDisc.
That's a format a number of my more technologically oriented buddies have tried to convert me to for years. Yes, the demonstrations were impressive, as was the implied potential. Imagine a video signal as impervious to wear as a compact disc, with an audio signal to match.But first there was the initial outlay - like the first CD players, often up into four figures - and, early on, the bugs. (One of those friends admits having gone through four players before he found one that would even play the discs.) Then there was the problem of continuity - as regular readers know, I am no more partial to interruptions in "Goetterdaemmerung" than I am in, say, "Citizen Kane." Or vice versa.
So what pushed me over the edge? To begin with, mounting irritation over the variable quality of some of the opera tapes I've sampled. Paramount, for example, seems to be able to turn out zillions of trouble-free copies of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" but I've yet to find one set of "Les Troyens" (presumably duplicated on the same equipment) that doesn't have blips or dropouts or worse somewhere in its four-hour running time. And I'm still looking for a really clean copy of "The Tales of Hoffmann."
As it happens, both those releases have been around for years on laser - the problem is finding them. But judging from the opera discs I have been able to play around with in recent weeks, there's every reason to think that's the way to go. Not only has Pioneer - currently the major producer of classical LaserDiscs - been careful about layout, in nearly every instance apportioning one act per side; both the picture quality and sound are far and away superior to any other in my experience.
Undoubtedly I'm due for some headaches - a few early discs reveal more than their share of problems, including what may or may not be at least one example of "laser rot." But that's not true of the Jon Vickers/Shirley Verrett "Samson et Dalila" on Pioneer Artists, which purely as a sound recording strikes me as being in many ways preferable to any of the competing versions. (Not that there have ever been all that many.) Nor would I want to be without the Vickers/Davis "Peter Grimes," which adds to the excellence of the same artists' commercial recording the immediacy and visual impact of a live performance.
But maybe opera doesn't interest you. OK, how about movies? Here again I resisted, largely for reasons of continuity - like "Rosenkavalier," "Gone With the Wind" has no more interruptions on videotape than it has in the theater. But that resistance began to melt in the face of the full stereo soundtrack from "Ben-Hur" - something we couldn't even offer at the Cineplex Odeon - in the best sound I can remember. Not to mention the inclusion of the Overture and Entr'acte, the first of which I don't even recall hearing in the theater.
Which brings up another advantage of the laser format, namely the extras the manufacturers often provide. And not just the theatrical previews that sometimes accompany the films - what we're talking about here is alternate footage.
The MCA issue of the Paul Muni "Scarface," for example, not only gives you the film with the now-standard ending director Howard Hawks oversaw; it also offers as an appendix the 1932 ending the Hays Office insisted on, with appropriate chapter indexing to permit your keying to that one instead. Ditto the four different endings Hitchcock experimented with before he called it quits on "Topaz."
Nor are the options entirely visual. Current technology, for instance, permits both two analog (usually CX-encoded) and two digital tracks on a single LaserDisc - a capability some manufacturers have taken advantage of by offering the mono soundtrack on one of the two analog channels and commentary on the movie on the other. (In the case of "Winchester 73" the latter is provided by the star of the picture, James Stewart.)
This has prompted my friend who went through the four players, and even more discs, to suggest that if and when the Disney organization releases "Fantasia" on home video they offer their digitally re-recorded soundtrack with Irwin Kostal click-tracking to Stokowski on the digital track and the original Stokowski/Philadelphia Orchestra stereo track (that's right, "Fantasia" was recorded in stereo) on the analog.
Otherwise LaserDiscs currently lack the programability of CDs - you can key into one nearly anywhere, but you can't preprogram the player to do it, much less skip around without your hand on the tiller. Nor do we know how long they will last. The original estimate was forever, but there are those who report various kinds of deterioration over time (for what it's worth, the same kinds of dark rumors are beginning to circulate vis-a-vis CDs). On the other hand, I have friends who went into Beta early on who say they are starting to see problems that have built up on those tapes. And of course no tape format - not even DAT - is impervious to wear.
All I can say is that, for the present, the main problem with laser video appears to be distribution (I am aware of only two retail suppliers in the Salt Lake area) and, possibly, education. And both of those may be due for a boost now that Philips and Sony have declared their intention of moving back into the medium in a big way.
Among other things this means at long last we can look forward to commercial release of the immense backlog of videos, opera and otherwise, Herbert von Karajan has spent the last part of his career accumulating. In addition the Chereau "Ring" is reportedly due from Philips - not on CD but on LD.
As someone who grabbed it off the air when it was first telecast some years ago, I can hardly wait. Because even with the interruptions the sound has got to be better than what my VCR was capable of getting at the time - although some of those have made giant strides in recent years, too.
No, I'm not about to pitch out my LPs, 78s and certainly not my open-reel tapes. Until the compact disc came along, I tended to regard the last-named as the Rolls-Royce of recorded sound. But judging from the sonic, not to mention the visual, splendor I've found myself enjoying in recent weeks, it looks like we're going to have to make room in the garage - if my wife reads this column, maybe for me.