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Recordings

Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vol. 2
27 Jun 2006

Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vols. 1 and 2

Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.

Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vol. 1 and 2

Vol. 1: Caruso, Enrico; Gigli, Beniamino; Schipa, Tito; Schmidt, Joseph; Slezak, Leo; Tauber, Richard
Vol. 2: Bjorling, Jussi; Kozlovsky, Ivan; McCormack, John; Melchior, Lauritz; Rosvaenge, Helge; Thill, Georges

Euroarts Vol 1 (2050207) [DVD] and Vol 2 (2050217) [DVD]

$21.98  Click to buy

Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era was produced in 1997 by Jan Schmidt-Garre as a television series of thirteen episodes broadcast on a variety of European networks. The series was packaged as four videos and then as two DVDs. Highlighted in Volume I of this latest incarnation are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt (the episode on Schmidt received mention at the Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film festival). The second DVD features segments on Lauritz Melchior, Helge Rosvænge, Jussi Björling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Koslovsky and others, including a final episode on “The Singing Robot”—the record player. Timed fairly equally at just under 30 minutes, each episode has a similar format: following a “canned” introductory film of a nameless tenor in a recording studio (usually singing from L’Africaine), the viewer is taken back into the lives of these great singers. In the case of Caruso, we are introduced to New Yorkers who knew the tenor when they were young; to get a glimpse of Slezak’s past, we are transported into the mountains where dirndl and lederhosen-clad mountainfolk with beer steins recall how the tenor loved his free time there among them. Other episodes offer less-stereotypical portraits, but the pattern remains: an exploration of where these men lived and performed, interviews with people who knew them as friends or colleagues, and various commentaries on recordings of their voices. Although the soundtracks of recordings of the singers, particularly of lesser known voices like Schmidt’s, are worth the viewing time, the dissections of their vocal styles not only leave much to be desired but make one question the overall point of the exercise.

In general, the listening “analyses” in these episodes are so subjective that one is reminded of the childhood game of “Telephone” in which everyone supposedly hears the same phrase yet each repeats it back differently. It is absolutely true that recordings have become “primary source” research materials, and historians of both opera and recording science use them to trace issues like the technical influences singers of the past have had on present performance practices. Yet such commentary often slips into the realm of subjective interpretation. Clearly, there are objective judgments that one could make about listening to recordings; one might, for example, note that an artist’s approach to a particular phrase was technically correct or that a certain critical pitch was delivered sharp or flat. One can also compare the recordings of singers to trace the transmission of stylistic elements from an important voice teacher to his or her pupils. However, comments—all too frequent in these episodes—such as “He caresses the melody” are senseless and, in fact, detract from the worthwhile moments. What is even more puzzling is why the producer would include contradictory comments one right after the other. For instance, one commentator will applaud a certain singer’s ability to control volume; the very next person interviewed will bemoan said singer’s dynamic weaknesses. One can only expect differences of opinion in a format such as this, but it becomes difficult for the viewer to know precisely whom to believe.

Most interesting in the series are the interviews with other performers who share their memories of working with these great artists. Next come the portions dedicated to recording historian Jürgen Kesting; it is a revelation just to watch him as he listens to recorded excerpts. He provides a living example of audience interaction with recorded sound. By far the weakest portions of the series are those featuring Stefan Zucker; he may well be an expert in this repertory but his comments do anything but demonstrate this. For example, he comments that when Joseph Schmidt sang in the synagogue, he was performing in the florid style of the nineteenth-century opera house; to cap off this reference to Rossini and his colleagues, the video cuts to a cantor who is singing a traditional prayer. Although there a thread of logic here—that cantors and singers embellish vocal lines—it is so poorly stated that Zucker’s point goes far afield of its intended mark.

Perhaps the wisest remark is offered by John Steane, who seems to be commenting on the series title: Bel Canto. The term, he notes, is “so vague. I sometimes think that the term should be banned. It’s used without any definition. Its principle use is negative—we know what isn’t bel canto.” In fact, the series title, Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, demonstrates the lack of focus of the entire series: does it center on the singers and their careers? On recordings of their voices? On clips that document their cinematic activities? The latter—even if they are the only ones available—offer unflattering profiles of Slezak’s activities with the Ufa and Gigli’s appearances in Fascist-era movies; the former would hardly appreciate being remembered in a scene that shows him singing “Kleine Frau” while surrounded by a roomful of merry Nazi officers. While there are moments of wonderful music and interesting information in these episodes, one can not help but wonder why the producer did not simply let the singers’ eloquent voices speak for themselves.

Denise Gallo

Click here to buy Vol. 1

Click here to buy Vol. 2

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