30 December 2016

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet Remains Superb
by Kristin Battestella

Before there was YA, there was this 1968 British-Italian adaptation of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. Their family feud and forbidden love at first sight leads to a whirlwind of love and death, and this version from director Franco Zeffirelli remains a superb potboiler of medieval splendor and ill-fated romance. 

Zeffirelli (The Taming of the Shrew) wastes no time to start Romeo and Juliet as the chorus fills the audience in on the rival houses, tense times, and new generation of old enemies. Accusations, sword fights, and marketplace quarrels put the action up front while overhead shots and group scenes provide scale. Interior conversations introduce the players – investing the viewer in the paired down old speaketh, rowdy tales of fairy dreams, and Capulet party crashing – and intimate up close shots become asides for the audience, pausing upon the fourth wall but not breaking it. Bawdy jokes, boys' fantasy, and the masked ball titillation invoke an effortless Bard alongside beautiful music, shy glances across the room, and in love, spinning until one is dizzy innocence. Though colorful, there's an of the past, firelight patina, and Romeo and Juliet moves quickly as minstrel's lyrics and villainous threats sow the seeds of this love story made all the better because it is so tragic. The familiar but pretty laments and undeniable prose arrive with the balcony scene forty minutes in, and I wish the publishing industry and category romance wasn't intentionally designed for formulaic happy ever after and instead made room for dark romances like Romeo and Juliet to come back on the bookshelves. The fun medieval festiveness gets out of the way early, and Romeo and Juliet becomes increasingly serious as our eponymous couple risks life for love. Their marriage comes by the intermission, the family fallout dominates the last half hour, and the whole whirlwind upheaval actually only takes a few days. Rival parents turn up their noses at home while hectic street fights and the too many heads in the mob lead to a rumble that irrevocably interferes with this young love – a relationship that can both simultaneously end this family feud peaceably or fuel it to a bitter finale. We root for a wedded escape to Mantua, but epic turns rise in the last act with deception and misunderstandings. Despite knowing of the preventable daggers and poisonous mistakes, Romeo and Juliet grips its audience from start to finish fifty years hence as boys choir vocals and maidens tossing flowers lead to torch-lit crypts of youth lost and #trueloveisdead crescendos.


Both my mother and sister refer to this Romeo and Juliet as “the one with Olivia Hussey,” and indeed her beautiful innocence and natural performance stand out here. I love her hair, too! At fourteen, Juliet isn't ready for her parents to marry her off – she's reluctant to dance and shy, peering over the shoulders of the adults at the concert. Upon seeing Romeo, however, she quickly learns the tease. It's not wrong to touch her hand, but lips are for prayers; this is a sweet sin they've discovered, yet he can't expect satisfaction on the first night! Love has already blossomed, and Juliet is distraught to learn this boy is extra forbidden. Naturally, they plan to marry, and it's easy to be swept up in their happiness and idyllic hopes that love will cure all. Unfortunately, Juliet is immediately torn between her husband and her family – as alas, they aren't one and the same. Maybe if her vain parents had been paying more attention to Juliet and not treated her like an extension of themselves to use in their feud, none of this would have happened! Instead, they prefer Romeo's head on a platter and their obedient daughter hiding in her nurse's skirts, but Hussey's (Black Christmas) Juliet finds her backbone and chooses Romeo at dire costs – leaving her parents to learn their lesson the hard way. Of course, Leonard Whiting's (Frankenstein: The True Story) Romeo begins the play a truly romantic figure in love with being in love. Initially, he is infatuated with Rosaline – a girl he cannot have – and replaces her with the more taboo choice in Juliet. He's a bit flaky, and the popular Romeo gets by on his good looks and bad poetry. Fortunately, Romeo's true love revelation matures him overnight. He grows bold at the dance and pleads his balcony case, now understanding the prize beyond the humor and idea of romance. Our teen lovers are prepubescents becoming adults – childhood as we know it is a relatively recent social concept unknown to them – and Romeo and Juliet discover themselves in each other. It's a powerful awakening, but Romeo remains blinded by their love, thinking the fighting will cease and that he can maintain his loyalty to his friends as Juliet's husband. Rather than the newlyweds leaving Verona when they have the chance, Romeo tries to befriend Tybalt as a relative. Sadly, like Juliet's parents, The Montagues are useless, only bothering to show up when it is time to point fingers, and this young love isn't enough to trump the hate, anger, and vengeance enveloping Romeo and Juliet.

Call me crazy but I have always preferred Michael York (Logan's Run) as Tybalt in this Romeo and Juliet. Whether the Capulet cousin is despicable or not, he sticks to his jerkery and never claims to be anything other than spoiled. From Tybalt's point of view, Romeo and Juliet is a tinderbox ready to make or break either family. We should recognize his to the side ticking time bomb for what it is, and York makes his presence known in each of his scenes. Tybalt refuses Romeo's offer of friendship, escalating the street revenge and relishing the swordplay right to the end. By contrast, John McEnery's (The Land that Time Forgot) Mercutio is a jealous BFF who loses Romeo to Juliet. He must know where Romeo is at all times and insists Romeo partake in his attention seeking games. He's an annoying loudmouth, and as the Bard says, Mercutio may protest too much with his macho fronting. While its easy to claim homosexual innuendo, the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio goes deeper – Mercutio represents the time to put away childish things and the pulling girls' pigtails that Romeo must leave behind. This acclaimed ensemble takes turns as the devils or angels on the shoulders, and in some ways, the Nurse character in Romeo and Juliet can be as important as the leads. I saw a live play once where the Nurse wailed so far beyond comic relief that it became off putting farce! Thankfully, Pat Heywood's (Girly) Nurse is a fine companion to Juliet who alleviates the rigid parental demure with a touch of bawdy. She's happy to share secrets on love's behalf and be the couple's go between, and The Nurse is eager to make the rendezvousing couple marriage official alongside Milo O'Shea (Barbarella) as Friar Lawrence. These characters become the male and female allies for each half of the couple, supporting them where their parents do not with healthy hearth and church sanctity that inadvertently undoes just as much as it helps. The Friar dislikes Romeo dropping the safer choice in Rosaline, but he also hopes a proper union will mend the family fences – anchoring Romeo and Juliet with a godly undercurrent. Juliet wears a prominent cross (want it!), the lovers cross themselves or pray for each other, and secret meetings are held in the church or disguised as going to confession. Who are these Montagues and Capulets that would put asunder a love and faith that God has blessed with sanctuary and hope? Even after unfortunate crimes are committed, we still believe these kids didn't do anything wrong – save trying to overcome earthly grudges at a terrible price. Although he is only heard at the beginning and in the fatal finale, Laurence Olivier's behind the scenes assistance on Romeo and Juliet also offers a Shakespearean seal of approval for the ill-fated lovers here.

If ever there was proof that more movies should be filmed on authentic locations it is this Romeo and Juliet. The Italian scenery is totally superb – cobblestone courtyards, colorful marketplaces, and medieval churches immediately establish the Verona time and place. Tolling bells, velvet doublets, giant hats, and sword fights feel bona fide out of the past, and the ornate ribbons and beaded attention to detail sparkles on the divine women's robes. My mother's wedding gown was this so-called Juliet style, and I want this empire silhouette to come back. Though applauded for its age appropriate casting, the striped tights and in your face codpieces certainly add fuel to the bemusing juvenile fire. I liked Romeo and Juliet a lot, until I got to school and had to sit at my desk while we read the play aloud with horny little boys laughing at the “draw thy sword” puns. This began my early love/hate relationship with Shakespeare – I enjoyed the plays and numerous adaptations but hated how we were taught to treat dramas as mere textbooks. Fortunately, I never tired of Romeo and Juliet's soundtrack. The LP with its risque nude cover and matching booklet full of pictures from the film was one of my favorite records as a kid, and the score remains Greensleeves melancholy to match the visual cat and mouse and “What is a Youth” lyrics. Though innocent enough now, it all seemed so scandalous then. Who really opens the bed curtains hanging out in full view and stands naked in front of the window? The brief nudity can be skipped for the classroom, however, it's important for this couple to have a moment of unashamed bliss – the ironic orgasm and little death of the marital bed to be followed so soon by dying over a kiss and dagger sheaths. Romeo and Juliet trades hopeful dances for dark altars, veils, night weddings and day funerals that become one and the same.

Though this award winning version pairs down much, it can still be overlong at two hours plus with subtitles from the bare bones DVD necessary. There doesn't seem to be a tricked out Region 1 blu-ray edition either, yet this Romeo and Juliet remains a great place for Neo-Elizabethan or fanciful youths to meet Shakespeare. Were these titular kids just being stupid? Give it another few days and they would have gotten over themselves! Were meddling family, miscommunicating assistance, happenstance, or love really to blame? Despite its youth centric melancholy, Romeo and Juliet remains open for discussion with a bittersweet fate and timeless edge made better by the superb sixties meets medieval loss of innocence here.

19 December 2016

These Are Special Times

Celine Dion's These Are Special Times is Uneven yet Tough to Deny
by Kristin Battestella

The 1998, so multi-platinum its diamond hit These Are Special Times is the first English language holiday release from French Canadien star Celine Dion. Though at times lacking in spirit and its best seller mechanics are often apparent, Theses Are Special Times nonetheless packs a powerhouse as previously released Christmas singles join carol staples and new holiday compositions for over an hour of sentiment.

It's usually reserved for a big finale, but the lengthy O Holy Night opens These Are Special Times with soft, careful notes and choir echoes before going heavy with deep octaves indicative of the reverent weight meets stylized pop in operatic dressings found here. The nineties sounding bars of this original Don't Save it All for Christmas Day have since been covered elsewhere, but this power ballad orchestration is in top form thanks to backing chorus vocals with a gospel persuasion to match the wishful lyrics and rousing refrains. After starting with such heavyweights, Blue Christmas delivers a mellow pleasantness with jazzy and swanky but no less sorrowful notes. It might have been interesting to see These Are Special Times continue with this kind of adult sophistication for a quiet, intimate, relaxed holiday mood. The Bryan Adams composed Another Year Has Gone By, however, seems like a pop ballad one can hear any time of year, for the big notes and sentimental words feel surprisingly generic for a holiday release. Don't Save it All for Christmas Day already knocks the quest for a contemporary holiday classic out of the ballpark, yet the original compositions on These Are Special Times all feel like carefully orchestrated try hards desperate to become major hits. Previously a charity single duet, The Magic of Christmas Day (God Bless Us Everyone) is indicative of this catchy, almost able to sing a long desire that somehow lacks the much needed jingle and jolly. 


Thankfully, light echoes and soft humility begin Ave Maria, allowing time for the heavy breaths to increase alongside the rising crescendo reverence. Some of the exiting ad libs are unnecessary – certain carols should be left as is – but the trembling vocals remain powerful into Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful). Initially, Celine's solo versus in between the organ and orchestra swells jar as if they were recorded separately and merged later. However, the full on choir adds a fitting church spirit and the rousing invitational comes together for one big finish. These Are Special Times returns to the easier chic with The Christmas Song, a previous collaboration with Dion's longtime album producer David Foster rightfully included here thanks to a classy embrace of mellow lower notes amid the long-held and high-winded. It's okay to be quiet and effortless instead of constantly bombastic – especially on a Christmas album that needs tenderness as much as the awestruck. Just because Celine is one of the select few who can be constantly bombastic doesn't mean she always should. Fortunately, the original duet single The Prayer featuring Andrea Bocelli captures the best of both words with sentimental spirit and operatic power made even better with soulful Italian refrains. These lyrics are again not necessarily Christmas, however the inspiring high notes invoke an international, moving in itself peacefulness. Though a familiar melody, the previously released Brahm's Lullaby feels somewhat tacked on after the strength of The Prayer. It's not a short track, but the whispering mood and slightly different arrangement feels over just when your about to get into it.

Likewise, Christmas Eve is another new chance to rock out with its deliberately toe tapping beat and easy rhyming chorus. It's quite catchy in its particular nineties pop way – a welcome, happy break from the serious vocals and big religion. But built in December airplay safety or not, there's not much staying power when a song intentionally sounds like every other adult contemporary top forty hit. There really isn't anything wrong with it, yet the hollow, about nothing undercurrent remains. Something something mistletoe...something something Christmas...yadda yadda yadda. The lovely songwriting queen extraordinaire Diane Warren penned the titular These Are Special Times, and this regurgitated mellow for the sake of it, love for the season drippy makes the album itself feel more like a regular release rather than a holiday CD. Instead of going for broke with Celine singing all the carols the majority of lacking singers simply cannot, the carefully planned hits deviate from the December details for maximum mainstream reach. These Are Special Times would have been a much truer, complete concept had it consisted of all holiday classics and seasonal heavyweights. Surely the love songs shtick can be let alone for just one album? Despite a tinge of updated pop, Happy Xmas (War is Over) remains much more meaningful, as new heights make contemporary listeners stand up and take notice of this retro seasonal statement song. While not as good as the Lennon original, this bittersweet tune is an important reminder of December's unhappiness for so many.

The number one single duet with R. Kelly I'm Your Angel is the longest track on These Are Special Times. This is a great song – the kind you sing in the shower, play at weddings, and cry to in the car as you drive on a lonely dark night. It's the quintessential millennial sound, and yet...putting 'angel' in the title doesn't make it a Christmas song. I suspect part of the bestselling status enjoyed by These Are Special Times is due to people buying the CD to own the hit singles – as we had to do lo those twenty years ago – and not because such listeners were expressly looking to purchase a Christmas album. Yes, I feel a little stinky thinking that, but the obligatory fourth quarter capitalizing potluck of These Are Special Times defines our ever increasing meaningless holiday mentality. Luckily, Feliz Navidad adds some much needed December fun for all. The genuinely happy ad libbing and sing a long sound humanizes Celine's grand octaves just enough, and more lighthearted charm should have been peppered throughout These Are Special Times instead of saving the cheer for the encore or ditching half the jingle and jolly altogether for a conflicting presentation. Likewise, the short family coda Les Cloches du hameau has everyone joining in for some innocent tidings of the season. Even if you don't understand what the Dions are saying, the bells and shepherds swell with an old world fireside feeling – something the intended hits on These Are Special Times lack.

Naturally there are regional editions of These Are Special Times, bonus tracks, and companion DVD specials featuring the beloved Celine hits, live concert performances, and big guest stars. I like the video for It's All Coming Back to Me Now and of course The Bee Gees collaboration on Immortality, but I'm still so forever tired of My Heart Will Go On and Titanic. Many may love Celine Dion or hate her international romantic saccharin, however after thirty years strong on love songs and power ballads, you always know what she is going to deliver. These Are Special Times is one of the highest selling holiday albums of all time, but the uneven sense of I see what you did there production craftedness for the commercial season leaves the holiday bells and whistles beside the point. Whether it is the English calculation from a non-native romance language speaker or the old fashioned obligation to have a B side of religious songs, at times These Are Special Times doesn't feel like a Christmas CD but a Celine Dion album with carols on it. Unfamiliar new compositions make it tough to sing a long and the holiday focus wavers. Thankfully, the reverent powerhouse performances and hit holiday singles carry These Are Special Times. There's simply no denying Celine Dion's voice is meant for the sentimentality of the season, so pick and choose your favorites from These Are Special Times for a sophisticated holiday dinner party or a romantic December evening. 


10 December 2016

Krampus (2015)

Krampus is Disappointing Holiday Horror Fare
by Kristin Battestella

If you think your December is bad, consider the anti-Saint Nick killer of the 2015 horror comedy Krampus. Though starting strong with relatable holiday family sarcasm and budding snowbound scares, this PG-13 combination tale never embraces its unique monster potential and fizzles into disappointing, pedestrian fare.

Young Max (Emjay Anthony) wants his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) to have some Christmas spirit again. Unfortunately, arguments with his visiting Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman), Uncle Howard (David Koechner), and his nasty cousins make Max tear up his ridiculed letter to Santa Claus – creating an invitation for the evil, ancient spirit of Krampus to descend their chimney instead...

Writer and director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat) starts Krampus with promising seasonal satire and jovial Bing Crosby holiday tunes winking at the December mad dash shopping. The out of hand festiveness increases thanks to crying kids on Santa's lap, stressed and glum employees, and fighting customers tasered by security while the crowd videos it all on their smartphones. A Christmas Carol is on the television, mom's obsessing over the perfect crème brulee, and the War on Christmas peppers the news – Krampus is up front about its holiday honesty with debates over Santa being a cheap marketing ploy to sell Coca Cola and cruel tales of his crashed sleigh and Big Nick eating his reindeer to survive. Arguments at the table worsen every year, and the hope of the holidays being like they used to be can't be overcome by one's DNA. The destruction of an admittedly preposterous letter to Santa summons a thunderous snowstorm and blackout – no heat, water, or electricity and twelve crabby people. The usual holiday tiffs turn into worse bleak as mysterious snowmen surround the isolated house and thumps on the roof aren't the sleigh they expected. Scary attacks from under the snowbanks and jack in the box decoys create suspense as do abandoned trucks, echoes lost in the blizzard, and footprints suggesting an upright goat walking on its hind legs. While under siege, the family re-discovers sentimental ornaments and recalls late relatives – there's nothing like a monster attack to bring everyone together at Christmas! Gunshots break the silent holiday night and people go missing as the sub-zero temperatures drop. These are realistic scares, and the family asleep about the fire will soon be privy to the evil coming down the chimney with baited hooks and sinister presents to lure children for punishment rather than giving. Initially accurate wisecracks and understandable difficulty in believing Krampus is at work help the self-aware mix of interior drama and terrors amok. Unfortunately, Krampus is surprisingly lacking in its own folklore flair and descends into a busy, supposedly cognizant but unintentionally laughable lag trading what should be innate fears and the uniquely sinister for rowdy action or juvenile delays. The misleading comedy label becomes an excuse for silly animated accessories, undercutting the terror of Krampus waiting within the walls ready to emerge and abduct. Shooting at what they don't understand, falling asleep when they must stay awake, not heeding the Krampus tale when they hear it – perhaps a united spirit or singing a carol might vanquish the monstrous invasion, but Krampus instead divides its family in a hollow finale asking for a do over on the sorry not sorry.

Likable dad Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) isn't traveling for work but he's still on business calls, creating a supposed marital strain and leaving his son to watch Charlie Brown alone. Tom's sardonic wanting to get the holiday over with turns into action as the scares mount, and he uses his town knowledge for a fighting advantage and plan of attack to proactively protect his family. Sadly, the adults in Krampus are under developed clichés –ironic place holders learning how to make sacrifices for a happy holiday just because the plot says so. We never know what Tom's job is, where they live, or why the marriage is troubled, compromising any relatability the stars have. Toni Collette's (United States of Tara) Sarah tries to make Christmas perfect by having everything super clean, but her decorating is considered to be “Martha Stewart threw up in here” over the top. She has some moxie when her kitchen or fancy food are criticized, but her angel on top of the tree saccharin doesn't add the spirit Krampus needs. Though too brief, Krista Sadler (Lena Rais) provides Old World strength and wisdom as the German-speaking grandmother Omi, and she respects the past when cultural ethnicity and traditions mattered instead of celebrations without meaning. Omi crosses herself once – the only time Jesus is referenced in a Christmas parable about sacrifice – and does what needs to be done but Krampus remains too modern and mainstream bland, generic rather than Germanic. The titular potential is neutered by stagnant characters who never really learn but drop in quick succession – almost as if they knew the ninety minutes were up and an absolutely wrong time and place joke was due to deflate any meaningful foothold. I almost want to see Krampus from his point of view, watching as his nasty influence and take rather than give plan reveals everyone's true colors.

Emjay Anthony's (Chef) Max wears a bow tie, annoyingly repeats everything his grandmother says, and claims he's smart and old enough to know what's happening – never mind that his torn up and tossed to the wind letter is what brought the wrath of Krampus upon them. At thirteen he's too old to believe in Santa Clause, and Max even gets in a fight defending the Jolly One before writing him seeking help for his family. If Max truly wanted Christmas to be as it was, he could have gone ahead with their traditions and reminded everyone of their holiday memories instead of bitching over his letter to Santa being read aloud. That's the worst thing that has ever happened to him? That embarrassment is worth cursing your family to damnation? Unfortunately, Max thinks he can fix his fault by asking for a reset, and Krampus sacrifices its Scrooge scared straight possibility in favor of the very millennial blasé it warns against. Likewise, daughter Stefanie LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries) is irrelevant alongside too many gross, mean, disposable cousins and a baby who's initially forgotten in a tricked out Hummer named Lucinda. I think the family dog gets more screen time than some of the non-speaking kids! Sarah's sister Allison Tolman (Fargo) is made little woman simple while her redneck husband David Koechner (The Office) forges an odd friendship with Tom. He has useful skills and calls it like it is, but Krampus makes him smart or stupid as needed. Conchata Ferrell's (Two and a Half Men) Aunt Dorothy gets through the scares with some peppermint schnapps – Krampus liking schnapps is never mentioned, boo – and her drunken sarcasm should be the only requisite quipping comedy. Unfortunately, Krampus goes overboard with ill timed laughs and puns in all the wrong places. Does this bitter family deserve what Krampus brings? We never know them as anything more than script proxies, so the audience can't be sure.

Blowing snow, aerial shots, and weather effects give Krampus a fitting brr alongside holiday music and other bells, chimes, and diegetic sounds of the season. Fine blackout schemes and blue patinas work well – a chilly to contrast the yellow firelight and candlelit glows. While the leaping from house to house and rooftop flying effects are messy CGI, the thumping landings and howling echoes match the horned silhouette, giant hooves, and beastly furry cloak. Brief binocular sightings, unseen creatures attacking under the snow, and abandoned, frosty homes with trashed wreaths and destroyed fireplaces invoke fitting fears alongside trees on fire and ruined presents. Krampus uses practical designs and doesn't reveal the full enormity of the monster – leaving the caressing, pointed nails and long, too close for comfort tongue to suggest the sinister. There's minimal technology as well – tablets and smartphones are used until their power dies – but the gingerbread men effects are poor, even stupid along with unnecessary jesters and animated toys, hectic attic battles, confusing flue action, and intercut household sieges. Krampus himself doesn't do very much as his trying to be humorous but ultimately laughable little minions run amok. The notion of his Santa mask having something hidden underneath is disappointing up close, and minimally used evil elves abducting children, a sack of souls collected by Krampus, and his ghoulish sleigh are better reversions on the theme. The retro animated flashback is also an old school anchor for Krampus, showing the bleak loss of seasonal spirit and giving in terrible times with a sad narration and the scared reaction of one little girl. Unfortunately, the fiery finale leaves some audiences confused, and the production mistakenly relies on alternate scenes or commentaries – absent on the rental blu-ray, naturally – and companion books to explain Krampus when a film must take care of itself.

Instead of wasteful ignorance and apathy, perhaps a prayer or some faith could have given Krampus a stronger battle of wills? The neither here nor there tone inadvertently embraces both anti-religion by not mentioning anything creche yet also admonishes audiences for treating Christmas like a going through the motions date on the calendar. A straight forward family holiday drama or full on horror one or the other decision may have served Krampus better – breathing room to trust its own dark, sardonic allegory instead of dampening good horrors with a humorous overload. What's supposed to be so funny about Krampus anyway? This is a divisive, anti-Home Alone, and Krampus' need for commercial safety, weak jokes, and trite action combines for an uneven parody and try hard “oops my bad” disappointment that inexplicably underutilizes its own ominous folklore. 


06 December 2016

Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration

Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration is a Joyous Holiday Concert
by Kristin Battestella

The Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration Live from Dublin concert DVD serves as a companion to the 2006 platinum CD of the same name featuring the Irish ensemble's original lineup of Chloë Agnew, Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, Órla Fallon, Lisa Kelly, and Máiréad Nesbitt alongside producer and musical director David Downes. This sophomore session remains a well balanced mix of carols, traditional hits, and classic holiday sounds complete with an Old World festive flair.

The colorfully begowned ladies open A Christmas Celebration with Carol Of The Bells, and the backing choir wonderfully contributes to this harmonizing staple. Although the tune is a little short and not a show stopping opener as seen in other Celtic Woman specials, these familiar melodies introduce the audience to the heraldry in store. Méav's first verse of Silent Night is sung in Irish, leaving the lovely universal recognition to shine with Máiréad's tender fiddle. The beauty of the season happens here – no spectacle needed beyond a voice, a string, and the tearful, humble story. White Christmas is also a slower piano based nostalgia with Chloë, Lisa, and Méav rotating the refrains before a big, all together finale. Órla's mellow a cappella opening of Away In A Manger likewise needs little else, and the pleasant chimes softly rise for a solid but no less lullaby tender. Although the songs are slowed to let the long winded notes linger, A Christmas Celebration moves fast thanks to short, three or four minute renditions.

The lighthearted vocals and choir echoes of Ding Dong Merrily On High give everyone a chance to swish their skirts and get into the the somewhat amusing Celtic Woman choreography – if you can call the turning left or right and walking forward or back choreography. The slightly silly moves are unnecessary, for standing still and singing is the point and what the ladies do best. There's also a slight costuming change as the shimmery wraps are lost in favor of some uncomfortable looking strapless gowns. Celtic Woman always seems to wear such unflattering, ill-fitting dresses! Fortunately, there's a happy sway to A Christmas Celebration, and Máiréad gets into her little skipping fiddlery as the octaves rise. The men and women of the choir also have a chance to shine with the unique liturgy chants opening Little Drummer Boy, and the percussion instruments keep the rhythm simple behind Órla and Chloë as the orchestra swells. Lisa (anglicized from Laoise, in case you were wondering where her fancy was) sings an intimate The Christmas Song with Downes at the piano, starting off with a soft, melancholy reminisce before turning to the concert crowd with the familiar lyrics and big notes. I wish In The Bleak Midwinter was sung because the words are so touching and its melody may be less familiar to modern listeners. However, Máiréad's instrumental is just as rousing, with a weeping warmth and heartstrings that segue into The First Noel. The carol is again slowed to make room for Chloë, Lisa, Órla, and Méav's high harmonizing, and the rising choir and orchestra crescendos bring the reverence home.

Simply put, Méav's The Wexford Carol is the way this somewhat difficult carol should be sung. With little else required, listeners are able to understand the humble creche story and choir echoes alongside the retained medieval high notes. I simply love the pleasant, catchy verse of Christmas Pipes and include it in almost all of my Christmas music playlists. Accenting bells, whistles, and harmonies match each whimsical refrain, getting everyone involved in this seven minute standout on A Christmas Celebration. This is a fun, jovial, and memorable new composition fitting in wonderfully amid the holiday classics. While this O Holy Night is not as operatic as other powerhouse versions and it's disappointing none of the ladies go for the major big note – which I think they all can hit – the lofty harmonies and choral atmosphere exude the heavenly heavy nonetheless. This all somber edition doesn't have a bombastic overboard but sounds like church, and that's not a complaint. Likewise, Chloë continues the humility in Panis Angelicus. The accompanying small string section invokes a baroque performance mood and the centuries old notion of how when people wanted to hear a carol, they had to sing the prayers themselves – no immediate phone recognition and instant download available.

Lisa breaks the December focus per se with the perhaps more expectedly Celtic Green The Whole Year Round. Although not as immediately recognizable as a Christmas song and some may not like the out of place, almost shoehorned advertising of what Celtic Woman is about the rest of the year, the holly and the ivy-esque, life amid the chilly tone remains festive. It's also unusual to have all four singers on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, but the arrangement showcases the melancholy vocal echoes and lonely fiddle spotlights. Máiréad's fiddle also introduces the lesser known Irish carol Don Oíche Úd I Mbeithil (That Night In Bethlehem) with an ancient somber to match Órla's harp. Méav and Chloë bring the ye olde lyrics, and even if most of us don't know what they are saying, the melody carries its titular peace. Though again too short, only Celtic Woman can do these kinds of unique carols, and I wish A Christmas Celebration had more obscurities like this. Fortunately, Chloë, Méav, Lisa, and Órla hold hands for the penultimate invitational O Come All Ye Faithful as Máiréad rouses the choir with escalating refrains. You want to sing along with each verse but the familiar welcoming chokes one up and gets that holiday spirit a flutter.

The Let It Snow coda provides A Christmas Celebration with some jazzy fun for the ladies – complete with some new dance moves as Celtic Woman puts on the ritzy. This didn't have to be last, however, as if the softer December tunes were somehow more respectful and there couldn't be any louder, fast paced, or happy songs amid the heavy traditionals. The brass notes let the good time shine, and even the usually silent, fiddle only Máiréad has a final holiday say. Unfortunately, the A Christmas Celebration CD has a different track order and excises songs or regional bonuses, trading In The Bleak Midwinter and The First Noel with That Night in Bethlehem, O Come all Ye Faithful, and Let it Snow. It's surprising that this concert is relatively short at just over an hour, as there are plenty more carols to sing. The DVD of A Christmas Celebration is also a little plain with a cumbersome interface. However, there are closed captioning options – which are nice to have for the difficult to understand carols. Celtic Woman has no need for some kind of spectacle or big light show, but the Dublin venue seems small and dark. The choir and orchestra are also dressed in black to be shadowed behind the star group, but perhaps some festive red, white, or green attire may have made the evening even brighter.

It's a little sad that Celtic Woman has become a revolving door group and now none of the original members remain. Wikipedia even has a chart counting how there are now more former ladies than there are current ones. I tend to view the group in two halves, with the original superior years at best through 2012 and the more recent tours of mere pleasantry. Thankfully, A Christmas Celebration remains one of the group's finest – a delightful concert video and CD filled with joy and holiday charm for all. 


02 December 2016

A Vocal Holiday Trio

A Vocal Holiday Trio
by Kristin Battestella

Hang on to your ear drums for this trio of Christmas sessions brimming with big crescendos, sweeping arias, and plenty of star power gone caroling.

A Christmas Celebration: Kathleen Battle – Make room for some huge notes for this 1986 hour featuring everything from two divine “Ave Maria” renditions and a truly lullaby “Away in a Manger” to the medieval “What Child is This” and a happy “Zither Carol.” The familiar religious operatic swells keep coming with the welcoming “O Come All Ye Faithful,” impeccable “O Holy Night,” powerful “Silent Night,” and rousing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” However, short versions of rarer carols like “Bring a Torch Jeannette and Isabell,” “Fum Fum Fum,” “Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming,” “Gesu Bambino,” “Marie Wiegenlied,” and “Rise Up Shepherd” add a pleasing and sentimental yet international, performance atmosphere. A somber “I Wonder as I Wonder” and the tender “Mary Had a Baby” accent the choir-backed “I Saw Three Ships/The First Noel/The Holly and The Ivy” medley before the session goes out in style with a giant, Christmas concert in itself reprise finale featuring Veni Veni Emmanuel/ It Came upon a Midnight Clear/ O Little Town of Bethlehem /Silent Night/O Come All Ye Faithful. Whew! This is an old CD with a very low volume mix, which makes it tough to have individual tracks in a random holiday playlist. It's also one of the first discs I ever owned, so many artists often pale in comparison to the booming vocals here. Though I'm sure we often try, most listeners can't exactly sing along, and at times, it is tough to understand the lyrics of such operatic or obscure renditions – this epic session doesn't quite cater to the masses despite an inclusive variety with Catalan, French, Czech, Italian, and German carols. Fortunately, new downloads make it easy to pick and choose from your favorite octaves for an evening of reverent awe.

Stars of Christmas – Catch all holiday sets like this are a dime a dozen, and this generically named and occasionally billed as a Volume 3 CD hour has its share of clunkers alongside great tracks from big names that are tough to find elsewhere. Perennial essentials like “Sleigh Ride” from the Boston Pops and expected artists like Bing Crosby on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and Frank Sinatra's “O Little Town of Bethlehem” anchor a helping of family fun with Eddy Arnold's “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Up on the Housetop” and Doris Day's carefree “Deck the Halls.” Children join in with Patti Page for “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and a triple Perry Como with “Jingle Bells” and “Twelve Days of Christmas” is surprisingly solid in the reverent “Ave Maria” – as is Eddie Fisher's “O Come All Ye Faithful” compared to Andy Williams' somewhat nonchalant “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” There are some unusual tracks and questionable renditions here, too, including the unfortunately plain “Joy to the World” from Vic Damone, Engelbert Humperdink's easy listening “Away in a Manger,” Vicki Carr's too soft “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and a struggling “O Holy Night” by Bobby Vinton. Although the fine medieval strings of Jose Feliciano's “We Three Kings” seems a little out of place amid the casual flavor, it matches the absolutely dynamite medley of “The First Noel/Silent Night/O Holy Night” by Kate Smith. Mahalia Jackson's “Silent Night” finale is also yes please and amen, and overall the mid century nostalgia here has enough spiritual attention and holiday lightheartedness for a family party or trimming the tree.

Christmas with The Three Tenors – I had to check and make sure I hadn't already reviewed this somewhat rough around the edges 2007 compilation hour, as a 'Christmas Three Tenors' search brings up hundreds of titles! These recordings apparently come from a variety of performances without notes as to their concert, and Placido Domingo receives the unceremonious coal at only two stirring appearances for “Requeim/Ingemisco” and “Et Incarnatus Est.” Instead, The Royal Music College squeezes in with the brief “A Christmas Medley” and “Vivaldi's Gloria” amid familiar but no less powerhouse odes including Luciano Pavarotti's “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Gesu Bambino” and a “Silent Night” finale from Jose Carreras. Poor mixing and audience noise can be heard on Pavarotti's otherwise powerful “Pieta Signora,” but the big notes keep coming in his humble “Agnus Dei.” Carreras, meanwhile, adds more somber with “Misericordia” and the reverent “Ave Verum Corpus.” Rival tugging at your tearducts “Ave Marie” versions come from both Carreras and Pavarotti, as does a doubly captivating “Panis Angelicus” and varying sweet versions of “Mille Cherubini” from Carreras and “Mille Cherubini in Coro” from Pavarotti. Try not to get confused, right? While similar downloads of The Three Tenors at Christmas or the superior The Three Tenors Christmas make it easy to pick and choose your favorite third's sweeping tracks, one probably has to be acquainted with the stars here. These are not laymen December tunes and to the breezy holiday album listener, this may be both too ecclesiastical and not Christmas enough thanks to the unfamiliar if breathtaking linguistic display. Fortunately, one just needs to know a scared octave when he hears it, and this budget presentation has a global, renaissance feeling poignant for the season.