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24 Apr 2005

“Fly, Thought, on Golden Wings” — Verdi’s Life told by Thomas Hampson

With a running time of 60 minutes, this DVD biographic feature on Verdi’s life might possibly be a satisfactory introductory piece for the newcomer to the great man and his art. Even then, the knowledge gained would barely form an outline to be filled in by much more study. However, if one would like a pretty travelogue of the sights and landscapes of Verdi’s Italian roots (with a side trip to Paris), plus a little time joining Thomas Hampson in admiring his own handsome self, Euroarts has a treat in store.

"Fly, Thought, on Golden Wings" — Verdi's Life told by Thomas Hampson
A film by Felix Breisach
Euroarts DVD 2051047

With a running time of 60 minutes, this DVD biographic feature on Verdi's life might possibly be a satisfactory introductory piece for the newcomer to the great man and his art. Even then, the knowledge gained would barely form an outline to be filled in by much more study. However, if one would like a pretty travelogue of the sights and landscapes of Verdi's Italian roots (with a side trip to Paris), plus a little time joining Thomas Hampson in admiring his own handsome self, Euroarts has a treat in store.

The film has a simple format - Hampson in voice-over tells the story of Verdi's life, in chronological fashion, while the camera pans the countryside near his hometown or the streets of whatever city his career took him to. The film is attractive and high quality, although everything tends to look just a bit too neat and pretty. From time to time Hampson appears on screen, seated in a church pew or leaning against a column, to intone some passably profound commentary.

Most of that commentary, besides running through the basic facts of Verdi's life, focuses on economic/social class issues, and not without interest. As delineated by the narration, Verdi's life epitomizes the dictum, "Living well is the best revenge." Feeling the humbleness of his roots, from his youth Verdi searches out ways to use his innate musical gifts to push his way up the social ladder. The crowning glory for him, therefore, is to build his beautiful home in his hometown and have it become larger and more magnificent than any of those inhabited by the local aristocracy who had apparently patronized him.

The quotes selected from Verdi himself tend to emphasize his brittle, cranky side, especially as regards his sojourns in Paris, trying to find that first big success outside his native Italy. Although not exactly focusing on "feet of clay," the film does tend to downplay the love and respect the man engendered, or at least it does until the description of his death.

The DVD cover trumpets the inclusion of four arias sung by Hampson. These are slipped in with no meaningful introduction. The four selections, in fact, come from Hampson's 2001 EMI release Verdi Arias, and Hampson, understandably, rather stiffly lip-synchs to the tracks. The Hampson voice glows with its fine amber tone through key arias from I due Foscari, Macbeth, Trovatore, (actually, sung in French), and Traviata. One can certainly question, however, what it means to have Verdi's art, best understood when heard with singers, confined to four baritone arias. The rest of the music offered is instrumental - the film opens, rather oddly, with the Traviata prelude over a beautiful scene of birches emerging from shallow water. Only the director, however, can explain why Rossini's overture to Barbiere appears early on, with no identification whatsoever.

The review copy came with no documentation of any kind other than the sparse info offered on front and back covers. The DVD has no subtitles, and so can only be recommended to English speakers. Finally, as a bonus, there is a brief trailer for an Aida staged at the Pyramids, with horses and elephants in numbers to make Zeffirelli die of jealousy. The tacky splendor of the scene can barely be described. Unfortunately, no singing is heard from a cast whose names were unfamiliar to your reviewer.

Only if the price for this DVD reflects its brief running time and lack of features should it be considered, and only then, as stated in the introduction, for those who need a brief, simple understanding of who this "Verdi" is. Other than that, this Euroarts DVD offers too little for even a modest investment of money or time.

Chris Mullins
Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy

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