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Elder conducts Lohengrin

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Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

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Sherrill Milnes - An All Star Gala
14 Dec 2005

Sherrill Milnes - An All Star Gala

The former TV-producer in me tells me the following conversation took place between producer and director (in German as this is a GDR (East-Germany) product).

Sherrill Milnes - An All Star Gala

Sherill Milnes, with Julia Migenes, Peter Schreier, Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo. Hosted by Burt Lancaster. Recorded in 1985.

VAI DVD 4355

$24.95  Click to buy

Producer: You know we have Burt Lancaster as a host? What set are we going to use?

Director: Censure just gave a movie free that is called Carrousel. Typically American. Wasn’t Lancaster an acrobat?

Producer: Yeah and a carrousel somewhat resembles a circus! And we can put him and a few of the artists on the wooden horses and we can build a small stage next to it to use for Pagliacci.

Director: Fine. Have you already written the script?

Producer: Well, there’s a snatch. Lancaster is rather expensive and we can have him only for a day. There are a lot of fragments to be introduced and his memory is not what it used to be.

Director: You know? In the West they have autocue-machines

Producer: Yeah, but we don’t. You know what we can do. We give Lancaster his cues for a few presentations and we ask him to make a general statement which we can insert everywhere. And when he’s tired or has gone we can always ask Sherill to introduce an aria himself. And I’ve heard from my Flemish colleague Jan Neckers who once produced a Domingo-special that the tenor presented himself on camera for him in Dutch. And that took Domingo 5 minutes to learn. And here he can do it in English if Lancaster is gone.

Director: OK with me. By the way, did you get that call from the Stasi?

Producer: Yeah; they want an East-German artist to perform as well, preferably in those fine sets we all admired in Esther Williams-movies. And it seems the singer has to be Peter Schreier. Well, Sherill told me he has no German roles in his repertoire but he is willing to conduct that Wunderlich-surrogate and we can use some old footage from Sherill beating a stick for a few seconds. What do you think?

Director: Wunderbar!

OK friends? That’s enough fun for now but this gives you a fair idea what to expect. I’d like to add that the whole show is dubbed but the artists all know their job and they do it rather well though every opera lover knows that no singer can open his mouth as aesthetically correct as they do here when they go for a strenuous high note. During the show I had one moment that had me really looking up: the duet from Don Carlos (truncated) with Domingo. The sounds the Spanish tenor uttered didn’t belong to him anymore in 1985 and as there is no line in the accompanying booklet telling you who was the conductor I had to wait for the credits. And look and behold next to some East-German luminaries there stood the name of Anton Guadagno proving that the two gentlemen play-acted their recording from 14 years earlier. The rest of the show was clearly recorded for the show and there are some minuses and plusses. Milnes always was a controversial artist, even at the Met. A lot of opera fans thought the voice somewhat unexceptional without an abundance of colour in it though he had a formidable almost tenor top which sat somewhat loosely on the rest of the voice. Moreover, opera stars are often becoming a small household word in the wider world the moment their salad days in the opera house are gone but this is the time television finally picks up and we have to be glad with what we get. And this is surely the case here. In Pagliacci Milnes is chopping up the line, not singing really fluently though proving he can act believably.

Almost worth the purchase of the DVD is the duet from La Traviata (however not including the cabaletta) with Mirella Freni. The soprano (50 at the time) not only looks half her age but sounds half that age as well. She has brilliantly mastered the role in all its nuances and the voice has broadened without losing its magnificent silvery shine. She made a fine TV-recording in 1973 with Bonisolli but she is even better here, vocally and as a convincing actress. Milnes is not on a par with her. The voice has not much weight in the lower register and the sound in the middle register, never his biggest asset, is simply not rich and broad enough to compete with Freni. The baritone was never known as a lieder singer and purists will shrink when they hear him singing a Brahms-song in a kind of language that shows some relationship with German. Yet, it reminds me of Carlo Bergonzi singing a Beethoven and a Schumann lied. You smile when you hear the atrocious German coming from those mouths but after some seconds you are resigned and you just concentrate on the big and beautiful sounds coming. I’ve got an inkling that some of those composers wouldn’t have minded major voices in the Italian repertory singing their lieder, how bad the pronunciation may be. And Milnes brings with him more than the usual heft of voice in this lied. He ends it with a very fine falsetto. Milnes does a fine Jago too as he can use his still estimable vocal means in an aria where legato is not the first requisite. The Schreier aria from Cosi in a kitschy set that ought to be seen to be believed is a strange and superfluous interlude. The best of the show is the fine duet with small but sensuously voiced Migenes in the Romberg piece. Maybe the music here too lies a little bit low for Milnes but he and Migenes sing with utter conviction and charm proving how fine this music is. A pity nobody thought of asking those two artists for a whole show of classical American operettas and musicals. As far as I know this is the only DVD figuring the American baritone in a solo recital and therefore indispensable for his fans and for those of Freni and Migenes.

Jan Neckers

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