DVD0481. BELCANTO – The Tenors of the 78 Era, Part II, incl. Lauritz Melchior, Helge Roswaenge, Jussi Björling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Kozlovsky, etc. Each episode with a biographical and musical focus, captured on black & white sound film, much of which is shown here for the very first time. (E.U.) Medici Arts 2050218. A documentary by Jan Schmidt-Garre. - 880242502186
“This is a most precious treasury of operatic greatness and history. A six-part documentary by Jan Schmidt-Garre (1997) presents six famous (and great) tenors in archival film footage, recordings and modern commentary….The amount of material presented is staggering and absolutely fascinating. It will take repeated viewings to comprehend all of the information….The films are mainly in black and white, with a splash of color here and there. Sound is excellent.”
- Charles H. Parsons, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, July/Aug., 2011
“Herman Klein, born in 1856, lambasted Melchior for his dull, plodding rendition of ‘O Paradis!’ that opens the video, preferring him in Otello and Wagnerian rôles . Of course, the producers of this series were limited to what footage was available, and as it happens most of the existing footage of Melchior is from his later career as a TV and film comedian. He was very good at this, of course, so much so that one imagines that, had his physique and voice been smaller, he’d have been a natural onstage as Nemorino, but by the time his segment is finished you realize that his career was divided into two halves: the ruling Heldentenor of his day, king of Bayreuth, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera, and the jovial jokester who lampooned Bing Crosby, sang ‘Cocktails for Two’ with Spike Jones, and traded jokes with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Jimmy Durante. This video does include a TV performance of him singing ‘For You Alone’, and his color film footage of ‘Vesti la giubba’, but focuses more on his schtick with both Durante and the Hoosier Hot Shots. Bel canto? Not really.
Apparently there’s very little footage of Roswaenge — just ’Che gelida manina’ and a bit of the Rodolfo-Marcello duet (with Willy Domgraf-Fassbaender) from LA BOHÈME, both from a Nazi propaganda film warning people not to waste paper, a short clip of him as an old man in 1958, and in the company of Max Lorenz and Frida Leider welcoming Hitler to Bayreuth in 1934 — so right after the latter clip, the film switches gears and spends its second half going over Lorenz’s career. Yet the ‘Che gelida’ is sung with both energy and a great deal of charm, which shows us how good Roswaenge was in his prime.
Each video starts the same way, with a re-creation of a 1930s radio studio, gaffers moving equipment around and tuning dials, while an actor behind a goose-necked microphone apes a singer doing ‘O Paradis!’. People who either remember or were related to the artist are shown sitting around commenting on and remembering him. Some film footage is shown, then they cut away to Jürgen Kesting, author of THE GREAT SINGERS, for an analysis of the singer’s voice and style—usually correct but not always enlightening . Then we get performance clips, silent clips with talk-over, and more records. The director keeps it somewhat interesting, but as I mentioned above, he is limited by what he had to work with.
The Björling profile carefully circumscribes the tenor’s alcohol addiction and the rages that such imbibing generally produced. He was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde personality because of this, fortunately more of the former than the latter. He was also one of the worst actors of the post-World War II era, his stage work alternating between indifference and outright clumsiness, and only on occasion was his dramatic fire really lit. Yet it was indeed a unique, extraordinary voice, in some ways the most chameleon-like of all those singers profiled here, though little of the film used is particularly rare or unusual.
The McCormack segment (which starts with ‘Spirto gentil’ because he never recorded ‘O Paradis!’) includes two really rare pieces of film, the first being color footage (probably from the early to mid 1940s) of the tenor with Henry Fonda, the second his appearance at the 1932 Apostolic Conference in London where he was asked to sing’ Panis Angelicus’. The rest comes from his marvelous concert footage in the 1929 film SONG O’ MY HEART. McCormack emerges as a warm, balanced, and likable singer and personality. It is a special treat to see and hear Lily McCormack reminiscing about her husband in 1963.
The Thill segment, however, is the most ear-opening of the lot for me. I had always admired his technique but never warmed to the somewhat hard tone and overripe vibrato on his studio recordings, but here three film clips—one, a portion of ‘In fernem land’ (in French), the second a French song, and the third a clip with Grace Moore from Abel Gance’s 1938 film of LOUISE, reveals much more roundness and ‘ping’ to the tone, which I find particularly wonderful to hear. Thill is credited as being ’the first modern tenor’, which is not entirely true; beginning in 1916, and continuing through the 1920s, McCormack was the model for cleanliness of musical style that we today recognize as modern. Thill is also hailed as ‘the last great French tenor’, which I’m sure was quite a surprise to Alain Vanzo. Nevertheless, this was one of the most fascinating profiles of all, especially in seeing Thill in old age talk about his vocal lessons with Fernando de Lucia.
Kozlovsky, perhaps, best represents what oldsters referred to as ‘the true bel canto style’. Despite his somewhat dry and nasal timbre, he developed incredible breath control and an ability in cantilena and florid music that harked back to the old days . He also cultivated a phlegmatic style that paid little attention to note values but, rather, pulled the music around like taffy in endless streams of stretched-out phrasing, rallentando, overdone rubato, and messa di voce. He and many other singers of his generation were heavily influenced by Boronat, who spent a great deal of her career in Russia. Saying all that, it would be unfair to characterize him as a willful singer. Like many Russians of his time, his goal was to present the music as poetry, to interpret the words elegantly and, at times, with an inward sense of suffering. He was, to me, the greatest tenor who ever essayed the role of the Simpleton in BORIS GODUNOV, and it is wonderful to see him singing this rôle in a 1954 color film. And what other tenor of any nationality do you know who made his début when Lenin was still alive yet continued singing publicly when Boris Yeltsin was President of a free Russia? Kozlovsky was unique in having a 69-year career and sounding almost exactly the same at the end of it as he did in the beginning!
With all its quirks and omissions, this DVD is fascinating and valuable for lovers of old singing. I’m only sorry that I didn’t have the opportunity to review Vol. 1, which included Caruso, Schipa, Slezak, Gigli, Tauber, and Schmidt.”
- Lynn René Bayley, FANFARE, May, 2011