Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: Mario del Monaco (Grandi Voci, London, 1993)

This is old but gold. On that CD, released back in 1993 but still available, there are 19 magnificent studio recordings from Mario del Monaco’s absolute prime. And yes, he is at his best. I know, I know! I contradict myself. I constantly repeat that for Mario’s best you have to go for his live recordings. Listening to that disc, I’m not so sure anymore. These performances may be slightly less elemental than their “live” counterparts, but there is elegance and refinement that are sometimes lost in the heat of the stage. 

Besides, the sound quality is distinctly superior. All selections on that disc, including the single mono example, boast the sumptuous sonics that have become Decca’s trademark. No “live” recording from the 1950s has depth, clarity and naturalness even remotely comparable to the studio efforts of the legendary British label from the same time. Now let’s listen to some music.

The beautiful thing about this disc is that 11 of the 16 arias on it are extracted from complete recordings. These are all gems, not easy to obtain separately. For my part, Del Monaco owns the roles of Otello, Canio and Cheniér. The Moor’s death (16), Canio’s anguished reflections (14) and Cheniér’s famous “Improviso” (12) have never received more impassioned renditions. The only possible exceptions, of course, are Mario’s countless live recordings. He may not own Cavaradossi (7-8), Calaf (10), Alvaro (2), Manrico (5), Radames (1), Enzo (6) or Dick Johnson (15), but he is certainly a top contender. Alvaro’s poignant monologue is not quite as fine as Mario’s stupendous live rendition with Mitropoulos (Florence, 1953), but neither is it much inferior. 

Manrico’s aria and cabaletta, here nicely given with the intervening short duet and Ruiz’s intrusion, is Mario’s best version; only one other complete recording of the part has survived, the 1957 radio performance that was used as a soundtrack, but this is less accomplished. Note his robust yet graceful phrasing in “Ah si, ben mio”, and the thrilling trills, the perfect pace and the stunning, yet devoid of ostentation, finale of “Di quella pira”. For once in this “cabaletta to end all cabalettas” (Charles Osborne), I have a feeling I’m listening to a character anxious to save his mother from the stake, not to a male prima donna whose only purpose is to split the roof with the final note.

In his charming memoirs, La mia vita e i miei successi (1982), Mario remembered the Decca recording sessions with some distaste. Most of them, he says, were made in the stifling halls of Academia di Santa Cecilia during the hot summer months. He was amused by the contrast between the operatic artist in gorgeous costumes and the recording artist in sweaty t-shirts. As you can see above, eight of the complete studio recordings – that is, all of them except Il Trovatore and La Gioconda – were made with the orchestra of Santa Cecilia and, presumably, under the unpleasant conditions described by Mario. None of them, however, shows any sign of fatigue or discomfort.

Unfortunately, Mario never made a commercial recording of Ernani, though there are at least six live recordings in existence; one of these with Mitropoulos (Florence, 1957) has become truly legendary. This 1956 studio take on Ernani’s recitative, cavatina and cabaletta (“O tu che l’alma adora”, not mentioned in the booklet but it’s there, trust me) is no slouch either. Live performance from 1946 is the only complete recording of Mario’s singing Riccardo that we have. The recitative and aria included here are ten years younger. “Forse la scoglia attinse” is among the finest opportunities (together with “Se quel guerrier io fossi”, “La vita e un inferno all’infelice” and so many others) to appreciate Mario’s versatile and always dramatically relevant declamation in Italian, while the aria, “Ma se m’è forza perderti”, shows him at his lyrical best. The same is true of the beautifully executed “Amor ti vieta” from the same sessions. (It must have been some LP, this one with Alberto Erede recorded in 1956.) Mario loved the role of Loris Ipanov in Giordano’s Fedora, but he came to record it commercially only in the end of his career (1969). The voice is considerably fresher 13 years earlier. Finally, Vasco da Gama’s “Paradiso” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africana survives the hardest test. Mario makes perfectly mediocre music sound like masterpiece. It takes genius to achieve that. 

(Having mentioned the lyric repertoire, one can lament the omission of some of Mario’s best work in the field. Rodolfo from Puccini’s La Boheme was hardly his best role, so it is no wonder that Decca partnered Tebaldi with Bergonzi for the 1959 studio recording. But Mario did sing the role on the stage early in his career (1943-50) and in 1954 he made a wonderful recording of “Che gelida manina”. But with total timing of 75:53 it seems churlish, if not stupid, to complain about omissions.)

The liner notes by Alan Blyth are not much unlike the essay he supplied on the next year for the Testament release of Mario’s early recordings for HMV. It is very pleasant to see the most notorious feature of Mario’s singing defended by such an “authority”:

Del Monaco was often accused, both on stage and on his many recordings for DECCA (with whom he sang exclusively for the major part of his career), of singing at a relentless forte. That is not borne out by close scrutiny of his singing here. For instance, in the recitative before Riccardo’s last-act aria in Un ballo in maschera, the tone is often subtly shaded, and the aria itself is delivered with sensitivity as regards line and phrasing. He also scrupulously avoids the lachrymose effects that mar the singing of so many Italian tenors. Inevitably with a singer of his weight of voice, the softer grain of a lighter tenor is not always in evidence simply because it is impossible for a dramatic tenor to refine his tone in that manner.

As I have already made clear, I agree about Riccardo’s recitative and aria. Mr Blyth’s example is a fine one, but it is by far not the only one. It’s high time to demolish once and for all the myth about Del Monaco’s “relentless forte”. Certainly, his piano was nothing like Di Stefano’s or Bergonzi’s, but then again neither was their forte anything like his. Furthermore, many people seem to associate lack of subtlety (that word!) with lack of dynamic contrasts. This is a very superficial point of view. Subtlety – whatever that means – must be achievable by other methods as well, for example rhythmic variations and accentuated diction. Mario excelled at these, though he was by no means as dynamically monotonous as many connoisseurs would have you believe.

The 19 tracks on this disc are full of examples. “Vesti la giubba” and “E lucevan le stelle” are “subtly shaded” and “delivered with sensitivity as regards line and phrasing”, are they not? Just hear the beginning of the former and “o dolci baci, o languide carezze” in the latter. What about the beginning of “O tu che seno agli angeli”? Isn’t this a beautifully produced piano? “Celeste Aida”, “Come rugiada al cespite”, “Cielo e mar” and “Amor ti vieta” are more robust than most other recordings. But are they sung with “relentless forte” or without subtlety? I don’t think they are. “Niun mi tema”, Othello’s death, taken by the way from the 1954 recording with Erede and not from the comparatively mild remake with Karajan (1961), is anything but insensitive to the text. In fact, there is not a single aria on this disc that displays the vices that Mario del Monaco is supposed to have according to his detractors.

I am obviously a great fan of Mario del Monaco. But I do not subscribe to the “unconditional admiration” demanded of this otherwise wonderful site. Hero worship is not my cup of tea. Nobody is or ever was perfect, and Mario certainly isn’t and wasn’t the sole exception in human history. Occasionally, “live” and not only, his passion got the better of him. Then his phrasing and even his normally impeccable diction suffered. Very occasionally, he could and did produce very ugly stuff indeed! The only examples for something like that on here are “Torna a Surriento” and “O sole mio”. The refrains come off rather well, with Mario attacking the high notes in his typically ferocious and compelling way, but the rest is much less admirable. It sounds as if he tried deliberately to scale down his voice and sound more lyrical. But going against your nature seldom leads to worthwhile results, and this is certainly not the case here. Mario recorded a good deal of Italian songs, not to mention excerpts from musicals, operettas and church works, but he was seldom as convincing in this repertoire as he was in opera.
Granada” redeems the faults of its Italian companions. This is the perfect conclusion of the disc. I don’t need any other recording of this lovely Spanish song. I used to like Placido Domingo a lot, but that was before I heard Mario del Monaco. This is some of the greatest singing on record – ever. Mario has everything: ringing top notes, solid low ones, perfect diction, dynamic variety, marvellous ability to keep the lilting rhythm and sustain the melodic line. Placido, and everybody else, has fallen into complete oblivion. Hear why.

Random selections with arias performed by Mario del Monaco are legion on the market. This is one of the best. It can easily stand comparison with any other collection, live or studio. The only drawback of this one is that the sound is not well equalized, and this has nothing to do with the voice; some arias (those from Tosca, for instance) just sound too quiet compared to the rest. Never mind a quibble like that. If you want to know why Mario del Monaco was one of the greatest operatic superstars of the 1950s, get this disc and you will know. Somerset Maugham once wrote that every writer has the right to be judged by his best. I don’t see why this rule should not apply to tenors as well. Whoever compiled that disc evidently agreed with me. 

Note on Recording Dates

The recording dates given in the booklet seem to be highly inaccurate. “Celeste Aida” and the three songs recorded in 1954? Well, the aria comes from the 1952 complete recording, that’s for sure. As for the songs with Ernesto Nicelli, the booklet to Mario del Monaco: Decca Recitals, 1952–1969 claims that “O sole mio” and “Granada” were recorded in 1958, “Torna a Surriento” in 1960. Similar comparisons show quite a few discrepancies more. It’s a pity that such sloppiness should accompany so fine an album. Compiling data from various sources, I think a more reliable version would be this one: 1952 (1); 1954 (16); 1955 (2, 10); 1956 (3, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13); 1957 (6, 12); 1958 (15, 17, 19); 1959 (7, 8, 14); 1960 (18).

Monday, 25 August 2014

Mario del Monaco on Video: Trovatore (1957), Otello (1958, 1959), Pagliacci, Carmen (1959), Aida, Chenier, Pagliacci (1961)

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore (1957)

It was Caruso, I think, who once famously said: “It’s easy to stage Il Trovatore; all you need are the four greatest singers in the world.” The remark is profound. If you don’t want your production of Verdi’s most elemental score to suffer, you do need a tenor, a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone of the highest quality. You don’t need great acting and you don’t need much subtlety. All you need is great, glorious, incredible singing. That’s why it’s not possible to stage a decent Il Trovatore nowadays. There are just no voices around. But in the 1950s there were plenty of them.

Whatever its technical deficiencies may be, this 1957 RAI production is stupendously sung. The soundtrack has been released separately by Myto and is well worth having. The young Leyla Gencer, who was only 29 years old at the time, is a luminous Leonora. She is in magnificent voice, effortlessly climbing all heights of the demanding part; when you hear “Tacea la notte” and “D'amor sull'ali rosee” (in the second case without the cabaletta, unfortunately), you will know why she was one of the hottest tickets at the time and why today she is regarded as criminally under-recorded. Nor should her acting be underestimated. In the famous “Miserere”, her distraught face complements the tragic pathos of the music to perfection. Ettore Bastianini needs no extensive comment. He is the finest Count Di Luna on record. Period. Fedora Barbieri may not have the impeccable technique and the terrific high notes of Giulietta Simionato, but dramatically she is the superior actress. Her histrionic acting may be out of place in many operas, but Il Trovatore is definitely not one of them.

For MDM fans, the film is as much a treasure as it is for the Gencer buffs. Mario sang the role of Manrico for only ten years between 1947 and 1957; indeed, the radio recording for this film was one of his last performances. Although he made a spectacular studio recording in 1956 (with Tebaldi, who never sang the role on the stage, as a meltingly beautiful Leonora), there are no surviving live recordings that may suggest how Mario approached Manrico on the stage. This movie is the closest approximation we have. It includes a robust “Ah si ben mio”, an exhilarating “Di quella pira”, some fine quiet singing (yes, you’ve read this right!) in the moving final duet with Azucena and much else that many cannot stomach. The acting is similarly impressive in scope and ranges from the tenderness of the aforementioned scene with Azucena to the awesome drama of “Ha quest'infame l'amor venduto”. For me, personally, this passionate and heroic Manrico is among the finest on record.

One can only be sorry that the technical aspects of the production are subpar even for those bygone times when filming operas was a great novelty and a huge challenge. The picture and the sound are nearly terrible, the direction is awkward, the sets are preposterous, and the lip-syncing is poorly done. Nothing of this matters much when the singing is on that level. 

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello (1958, 1959)

These two must always be viewed together: each has different pros and cons, so they complement each other to perfection. The 1958 Milan production is a film-opera with the singers lip-syncing to a pre-recorded soundtrack, while the one from 1959 is video recording of a live performance from Tokyo. The film-opera has the advantage of better picture and sound quality and more accomplished direction, with plenty of beautiful close-ups to appreciate the acting of the principals; but the lip-syncing is not always perfect, and even when it is it doesn’t have the exhilarating power of live singing. The Tokyo performance boasts blurred picture, boxy sound and amateurish direction; but what you hear is what happens on the stage, a window-in-time effect no film-opera can achieve.

Mario is stupendous in both productions, clearly proving, if any proof is needed, that his vocal glory and his intense acting were in no way mutually exclusive. And yes, he could and did sing mezza voce. Just listen to the Love Duet and the Death Scene in either production. I’m tired of the old nonsense that he was relentlessly loud, lacked subtlety, etc., etc. Even Renata Tebaldi, while praising the voice, once remarked in an interview (what a shame!) that Mario perhaps lacked a little humanity. Rubbish, of course. Del Monaco could never manage anything like Di Stefano’s heavenly pianissimi (who could indeed?), but his voice did have dynamic variety and a not inconsiderable ability for shades and colours. As for humanity, the truth is precisely the opposite: Mario had too much of it. That’s why his interpretations make many people uncomfortable. That’s why, I venture to suggest, so many people resent opera. It tells too many unpleasant truths about them, truths about excessive sentimentality and violence they would prefer not to know.

For my part, these two video recordings, together with the two audio attempts in the studio (1954 with Erede, 1961 with Karajan) and who knows how many performances captured live in the theatre (I have heard three myself, all superb), document the finest Otello of the last century. Mario is untouchable. Nobody comes close to his portrayal; not Martinelli, not Lauri-Volpi, not Giacomini, not Vinay, certainly not the puny efforts of Domingo. It is not just that del Monaco had the glorious voice and the perfect diction to do full justice to Verdi’s most Wagnerian tenor role. He had the artistry to convey, not just Otello’s madness and anger, but also his nobility, integrity and even tenderness. To hear all this is exhilarating. To see it is mesmerising.

Incidentally, it is a pity that we don’t have Tebaldi’s Desdemona on video, though she is on both of del Monaco’s studio recordings. Carteri and Tucci are very pretty and very capable substitutes, however. The Iago situation is rather the reverse. Instead of the decent but rather ordinary Aldo Protti, we have the superb Tito Gobbi live, by all accounts one of best Iagos and a particularly impressive actor, and the unlikely but compelling choice of Renato Capecchi on film. Capecchi was most famous for his comic roles, most notably Fra Melitone where he dwarfs the competition, so it was quite a surprise to see him as Iago. His Ancient doesn’t have the versatility and worldliness of Gobbi’s, but it is not to be dismissed lightly. Capecchi is especially outstanding in the scenes where the “honest Iago” twists Otello around his little finger. He exudes sincerity that is very difficult to doubt.

Mario del Monaco at the Bolshoi: 
Carmen, Pagliacci (1959)

These excerpts from two of Mario’s most iconic roles are the best opportunity to appreciate his incredible acting on the opera stage. Not for nothing was Boris Christoff himself deeply impressed with Del Monaco’s dramatic intensity. “Vesti la giubba” is tremendous, by far the most shattering rendition I have ever seen and heard, matched only by Mario’s later performance in Tokyo (see below). “No, Pagliacco non son” and Carmen’s death, the finales of both operas, are simply stupendous. This is acting in the grand style. To my mind, it is perfectly suitable to deranged maniacs like Canio and Don Jose; any of them is even more insane than Otello, and, incidentally, Mario’s explosive performance brings to mind Olivier’s bizarre yet magnificent Othello. Today, in our emotionally crippled age, many people find Mario’s histrionic gestures and wild, bulging eyes unacceptable, even repulsive. I find them captivating, consistent with the character, and wonderfully complementing the voice. No wonder the Bolshoi audience went mad.

It must have been quite a sensation when Mario visited Moscow in 1959, reportedly the first Italian singer to break into the USSR. The Russians knew a great thing when they saw one and took a lot of trouble to preserve the occasion for posterity in the best possible way. Except for Del Monaco singing in Italian (and occasionally French in Carmen), the whole casts are Russian singing in Russian. No matter. Irina Arkhipova shines as a sultry, seductive Carmen. Mario was so taken with her vocal and dramatic interpretation that, according to the liner notes by Allan Altman, later “arranged for her to sing Carmen in Naples and Rome, setting Arkhipova on the path to become one of the first Soviet opera stars to sing extensively outside of Russia.” It’s a pity we don’t see more of Pavel Lisitsian’s Escamillo, for judging by the audio from this performance, which has been released separately, he is no less terrific.

The sound and picture leave a great deal to be desired by modern standards, but they are certainly no worse than other live performances from the late 50s and early 60s. Actually, the camera work is rather advanced for its time. The Russians evidently used several cameras and the editing, though crude, is dramatically relevant and often very effective. Most of the attention, naturally, centers on Mario and there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate his intense facial expressions.

A Gramophone critic once said that Del Monaco’s face is just “as inexpressive as the voice”. Amazing what rubbish these people get away with, is it not? Nobody is obliged to like Mario. It is the most natural thing in the world that his voice and acting should not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, claims like the one just quoted carry the blind-spot excuse a little too far. Quite a number of people, myself included, find the voice and the face highly expressive. Are we all supposed to be in some kind of mass delusion? Is it so much to ask from “The world’s authority on classical music since 1923” just a little appreciation of what they dislike? To their presumptuous assuming of authority I would reply with a quote: “One should always cultivate one’s prejudices.” Thus wrote Somerset Maugham in his mid-20s. Most people, including many eminent Gramophone critics, never learn this lesson.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida (1961)

Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chenier (1961)

Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (1961)

Isn’t it funny that most video material with Mario del Monaco should come from Moscow and Tokyo? Apart from occasional arias in concert, Europe and America don’t seem to have been interested in recording him. Fortunately for posterity, Russia and Japan did realise the historical importance of Mario’s guest appearances. These three complete live performances were recorded during a Japanese tour in October 1961.

Sadly, none of them captures Mario in his element, not even Pagliacci which comes the closest of all. “Vesti la giubba” is still fabulous, but not quite so fabulous as it was two years earlier in Moscow. Radames and Chénier, too, were among his most celebrated roles, but on those two evenings he seems to have been in the wrong mood. He sounds stiff and bland. In the case of Chénier, he doesn’t even take the performance very seriously. Before “Vicino a te”, the great duet in the end, he gives the audience a sly smile that rather ruins the effect opera tries to achieve. Incidentally, this is the only video that also features Renata Tebaldi, and she isn’t in top form either. I freely admit that the case of Chénier is partly my fault, as Giordano’s only opera to have survived (well, sort of) the test of time is far from my favourite works, but I certainly can’t say the same about Aida. By the way, there is a 1955 film-opera of Chénier with Del Monaco, Stella and Taddei that makes the Tokyo show look vapid by comparison.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy on these DVDs. Tebaldi and Del Monaco, even not at their best, still have more flashes of brilliance that many opera singers today manage in their whole careers. Gabriella Tucci is an excellent Nedda and an even better Aida. Plump and pretty, she is in excellent voice here. Giulietta Simionato never was much of an actress, but, vocally speaking, her Amneris is one for the ages. Aldo Protti had the misfortune to be born in the age of giants; in the baritone department, these included Ettore Bastianini, Leonard Warren, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei and Robert Merrill. Signor Protti has suffered much, and not without reason, in comparison with his contemporaries, but on his own he is a fine singer quite able to dispatch difficult parts. He does well in Chénier, where his swarthy good looks are a fine bonus, and he does even better as Amonasro, not the most grateful part, but dramatically very important.

To sum up in conclusion by quoting Irving Kolodin, “it is not enough to hear Mario Del Monaco, but you must see him performing on the scene.” Quite true. That’s why his video recordings, which the above list does not pretend to list complete, are essential viewing for anybody who cares about the art of Mario Del Monaco. Like many great artists, Mario was nearly always better “live” than in the studio, especially live on the opera stage. It was not because of the audience, he once said, naively or not, but because of the costumes, sets and make-up which create a special atmosphere, apparently conductive to artistic miracles but unfortunately impossible to recreate in the recording studio or the concert hall. Whatever the reason, Mario del Monaco’s video legacy, both on film and live, remains one of the most astounding examples of dramatic singing-acting ever recorded. Even on the concert stage, dressed in “civilian” clothes, he could summon, not just volcanic vocal energy, but awe-inspiring dramatic presence, as evident from this “Vesti la giubba”. For the true opera artist there is no such thing as “concert performance of an aria”. It is the revelation of character that matters most.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tosca on Video: Kabaivanska (1976) and Gheorghiu (2000)

There are those who object to film-operas on the grounds that when the singers do not sing live, but merely lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, the whole thing is fake. They do have a point, but let’s not make too much of it. Opera is a great deal more mere singing. It is supposed to be “drama per musica”, and drama requires acting. The combination of singing and acting is what makes opera most compelling. Sadly, this also makes it a nearly impossible art. It’s hard enough to do the singing alone, oratorio-like in the concert hall, but to combine it with powerful and convincing acting at the same time is superhuman. Very, very few exceptional singer-actors from the last century, for example Boris Christoff, Mario del Monaco, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, have managed to achieve that, and even they weren’t always successful. Sometimes their voices failed them and they had to save the situation with their acting genius. Many others, such as Renata Tebaldi and Ettore Bastianini for instance, did the opposite. They managed to overcome their relatively limited (but by no means absent!) acting skills with glorious voices. Both approaches are fine as long as you don’t have singing statues or anti-musical actors on the stage. To repeat myself, opera is no oratorio, and on other hand great voice and great acting, when unevenly distributed as is always the case, compensate each other only to a certain extent.

Tosca, in fact, is no opera at all. It’s a music drama par excellence. So the acting looms even larger than usual. The great thing about film-operas is that the singers can concentrate on their acting. As these two films show, the results can be stunning. Both come, in their own and very different ways, as close to perfection as possible. You may find certain details better done in other productions, but I think you will be very hard pressed to find another film, let alone a live performance, in which everything – singers, conductor, director, sets, costumes, lighting – combines into a whole so much greater than any of its parts. This bold statement refers just as much to the filmography of Tosca as to that of any other opera/music drama.

The soundtrack for this film was recorded in Walthamstow Hall, London, in August 1976. The shooting took place on location in Rome during the next two months. One of the greatest things about this movie is that the soundtrack can easily stand alone; I don’t think it’s ever been released separately and I do think that’s a pity. The principals are caught in their absolute prime and deliver performances that range from good (Domingo) to excellent (Milnes) to fabulous (Kabaivanska). Bruno Bartoletti conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra with all the passion and dramatic drive Tosca requires. Since the recording was originally made for DECCA, the sound is as sumptuous as you’d expect.

The visual side is stunning. To begin with, the original locations – the church Sant’Andrea (Act 1), Palazzo Farnese (Act 2) and Castel Sant’Angelo (Act 3) – look terrific on the screen: lavish, spacious, evocative. Gianfranco de Bosio is an excellent director who knows how to make the best of both the gorgeous surroundings and the considerable acting abilities of his cast. His direction is a veritable wealth of insight. To take but one example, as pointed out by Kenneth Chalmers in the liner notes, de Bosio imaginatively combines the opening Scarpia-theme with the looming façade of the Sant’Andrea, thus suggesting from the very beginning that the villain is every bit as unscrupulous and corrupt as the church.

Raina Kabaivanska was one of the greatest Toscas of the 1970s, if not of all time. It is a sad fact that she made (except the soundtrack for this film) only one studio recording, as late as 1982 when her voice was no longer quite that fresh, and with largely undistinguished cast. (It is still a pretty good recording worth searching for, though.) She had a light, smallish voice, but quite adequate to the monstrous demands of the title part. She sings with polish and precision rather than with passion, and her subtle inflection of the text repays careful study. But what she truly excels in, and what matters enormously on film, is acting. Each gesture and each glance have meaning. The complexity of Tosca’s character, a fascinating cocktail of piety, devotion, jealousy, bitchiness and goodness, is conveyed brilliantly. This is not grand acting in the best histrionic traditions of Maria Callas; this was no longer possible in the 1970s, and Kabaivanska’s temperament was not like that anyway. This is an intelligent and superbly accomplished portrayal of a woman who is infinitely more than mere “diva”.

I have never understood the widespread adulation that surrounds Placido Domingo. The man is a good musician in the possession of a good tenor. That’s all he is, or ever was in his prime: just good. He seems to have struck the best balance of the “three tenors”. He has neither Pavarotti’s stupendous voice nor the subtle, refined and original artistry of Jose Carreras, yet he outlasted them both and finally attained the greatest amount of worship from the critics if not from the public. Perfect mediocrity, it seems, is the best that can happen to an opera singer nowadays. Add a little longevity and there you have it: a legend in his own time. Anyway, Domingo sings a very decent Cavaradossi here and compensates for his wooden acting with certain presence. In the third act, he does the best fall on the ground. I will give him that.

Sherrill Milnes is a wonderfully baleful Scarpia. He is in terrific voice and more than capable to do justice to the part without resorting, as so many lesser baritones do, to shouting. Dramatically, he is rather restrained, but with his body language and especially with his sinister eyes he works wonders. There is nothing buffoonish in this Scarpia, and that’s saying a great deal because even the finest Scarpias from the previous generation (Gobbi, Taddei, London) were not always free from this unfortunate form of overacting. A very good test is Scarpia’s entrance in the first act. He has to project immense authority to match the music, and he has to do it in a very short time, singing only one brief phrase. It’s a difficult thing to do convincingly. Milnes is perfect: not too fast, not too slow, with ringing voice but without shouting. Or, better still, take his reaction after Tosca’s “Quando… Il prezzo” in Act 2. Many baritones prefer to laugh heartily at the proposition – and they look quite silly. Milnes merely smiles, chillingly, then sits down and leaves the music do the rest.

One can quarrel about minor details if one is inclined to nitpicking. There is an embarrassing lip-sync error during Scarpia’s “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio” (Milnes comes in much too late for the last word), there is much too little blood in his death scene, occasionally the direction is idiosyncratic and decidedly undramatic, things like that. Never mind. No single interpretation of masterpiece as complex as Tosca can hope to be perfect; and perfectionism, let it be reminded, does not lie in getting right all tiny details, as the common delusion runs, but in recognizing the important details and getting them right. This Tosca is sumptuously shot, very well sung and superbly acted. True, Domingo is not on the same level as the other two principals, but that, too, is a minor detail. As a total experience on film of one of the greatest music dramas, this one is very hard to beat.

Interlude: Malfitano, Domingo, Raimondi (1992)

This was an honest attempt to outdo the 1976 version. It went one better by shooting the whole thing, not just on the original locations, but at the precise times of day and night. This ridiculous striving for realism – as if realism had anything to do with opera! – led to some bizarre situations. Imagine you’re an opera singer. How exactly do you sing the last act of Tosca in four o’clock after midnight? The fascinating thing is that this is a live performance, shot and sung on the spot; apparently it was even broadcast live. It is not a feature film to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Considering this, it is a remarkable technical achievement. The camera work is rather crude and shaky, but there are many fine close-ups of the singers and some excellent panoramic shots of the lavish surroundings. Evidently a lot of effort went into this broadcast. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe how they could achieve the continuity “live” without the cameras getting in the way. I also wonder how the sound was captured so well and where the orchestra was during the shooting.

However, despite the compelling immediacy of the live performance, the singing is rather disappointing. Domingo is strained and wobbly, Malfitano struggles with both the lyrical and the dramatic passages, Raimondi is the only one among the principals who handles his notes with authority. He is in slightly fresher voice than eight years later with Gheorghiu, but his acting live, though impressive, is nowhere near as charismatic. Malfitano’s acting is slightly better than her mediocre singing, but nothing to write home about and often cringe-worthy; her confrontation with Scarpia in Act 2 lacks intensity, while some moments in the outer acts are shamelessly hammed up. Domingo is his usual wooden self, acting-wise. He has, perhaps, become a little more relaxed with age, but he still couldn’t act to save his life.

All in all, this filmed live performance at the original locations is a charming experiment very much worth seeing. But, in the end, it only shows that film-operas have their legitimate place, too. They may look more artificial, but they do compensate for that by being more accomplished visually as well as vocally. This, incidentally, is the case with both film-operas discussed here.

Many reviewers have pointed out several disappointing oddities of this movie. I am willing to join the general indignation by repeating them. First, those black-and-white flashbacks from the recording sessions are decidedly annoying. All they do is to interrupt the action, especially harmful in so action-packed a music drama as Tosca. Second, having the singers speaking some of the lines is simply crass – not to use stronger words. All would have been well if Puccini had written them so in the score, only he didn’t. It is likewise stupid to have other lines presented as thoughts, an ingenious stratagem that has the disadvantage of losing the immediacy and intimacy conferred by singing. The beautiful visual side is marred by some odd choices. Now and then shaky shots in sepia intrude, the footage of Rome and Castel Sant’Angelo in the beginning of the third act looks like a documentary from the dawn of colour television.

However, all these unfortunate innovations are minor quibbles. They certainly don’t fit well with the rest, but they happen but seldom. The speaking is confined, mostly, to several lines in the first love duet, the thinking occurs even less frequently, and the flashbacks are not that prominent either. Although these effects can be embarrassing (e.g. Mario’s recognizing Tosca’s voice in his mind only makes nonsense of Scarpia’s interrupting his own speech), it is foolish to degrade the whole production because of a few minor blemishes. The film has considerable merits.

First of all, the singing and the acting are generally excellent, conveying the drama and the dark overtones with great vividness. So, for that matter, is Pappano’s impassioned conducting. My only complain is that occasionally he tends to rush certain passages; slower, weightier tempi would in my opinion enhance the drama. The sound is splendidly engineered, with depth and clarity you don’t always find in modern recordings. Even in the trickiest ensembles, most notably the “Vittoria” trio from Act 2, the voices blend perfectly and every word is audible. The wealth of orchestral detail behind the voices also comes through with startling clarity. This is especially important in a music drama in which the orchestra constantly comments on the characters and the action.

The only exception from the general excellence is Roberto Alagna. Even at his best he is no more than decent. But one should be grateful: live on the stage he isn’t even that. Angela Gheorghiu is totally gorgeous. She has the looks, the voice, the versatility, and the temperament to do full justice to Tosca’s not exactly simple make-up, not to mention vocally daunting part. Ruggero Raimondi is way past his prime, but his frightening face and superb acting more than compensate for his mild vocal problems. I have never seen Scarpia’s consuming lust presented with such shattering force. This is an important part of the drama. Scarpia is a man who worships power. He wants to be in control of everything, himself firmly included. Tosca is probably the first and only case when his carnal lust (as opposed to his lust for power) has ever got the better of him.

Visually the movie boasts lavish historical sets and costumes as well as imaginative lighting and direction. Many moments are both memorable and illuminating. For instance, staging the whole second act against a background of profound blackness is a very effective way to suggest Scarpia’s evil nature. In a way, thanks to his complete lack of moral scruples, everything beyond his study dissolves in nothingness. By the way, the same method works rather nicely in the other two acts as well. To me it is a powerful reminder about the villain’s controlling the action. Tosca’s delivering “Vissi d’arte” against the fireside is both beautiful and dramatically relevant. In this aria she addresses God directly, and a fireside is as good a symbol of Him as any. Tosca’s development from very pious woman in the first act to one who all but accuses the “Good” Lord in the second is often neglected. The direction makes a wonderful use of close-ups that give you the opportunity to appreciate the great acting of Gheorghiu and Raimondi as you can never do in the opera house. Bird’s-eye views are also used to great effect. Wonderful examples include the end of the love duet in Act 3, showing the platform of Castel Sant’Angelo flooded with moonlight but floating in darkness, and Tosca’s gorgeous red dress in the second act. These are striking, unforgettable images.

The film is such a visual tour de force that to find faults in this respect looks like sheer nit-picking. Nor, save Alagna’s mediocre performance, is there anything to complain of as far as the soundtrack goes. On the whole, this is a terribly fascinating surreal alternative to the more naturalistic version with Kabaivanska, Domingo and Milnes. More importantly, the film of Benoit Jacquot stands well as a masterpiece on its own. Fans of Tosca should on no account miss it. Newcomers to Puccini’s most dramatic score could do much worse for their visual introduction.

PS. Two of the films appear to be available complete on YouTube. If there are none of those idiotic copyright restrictions for your country, have a look.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review: The Art of Singing (DVD)

Like its companion volume The Art of Piano, this documentary is a baffling hotchpotch of greatness and mediocrity, with irrelevant commentary, questionable editing and ridiculous omissions/inclusions thrown in for good measure. It is difficult to see the rationale behind it. What is the purpose of this documentary? Since it starts with Caruso, obviously it doesn’t attempt to tell even briefly the history of singing; the previous two centuries were quite full of “golden voices” as well. The major aim, presumably, is to present the best singers since the invention of recording, especially those who have left some video legacy behind them. In this respect, the documentary fails almost completely.

Before going further, let me state clearly that there is a good deal of priceless stuff on this DVD. Every admirer of the most perfect of all instruments, the human voice, should have it on their shelves. I purchased it solely because Boris Christoff’s shattering performance of Boris Godunov’s Death Scene. This alone is worth the price of admission several times over. Bjoerling and Tebaldi do miracles with the finale of La Boheme (with better picture and a slight cut in the beginning compared to the version on Renata Tebaldi: A Portrait), and I’m saying this as a non-fan of the Swede. Giuseppe Di Stefano’s “Vesti la giubba” is more beautifully phrased than any other I have ever heard; Rosa Ponselle’s wildly seductive Carmen makes it clear why Harold Schonberg himself was in the habit of raving about her voice; Fritz Wunderlich is just about the finest Tamino you’re likely to find in the history of recorded opera. Some performances, notably Tito Schipa, Kirsten Flagstad and Risë Stevens, have rather strange settings, but the singing is glorious enough to override them.

Now to the negatives. Many and major these are. It’s hard to decide where to start.

Granted that any such documentary must by definition be highly selective, the list of unforgivable omissions in this one is incredible. ''Golden Voices of the Century'' is a vastly misleading title: nothing newer than the mid-1960s is included. Even if we assume, not without a good reason perhaps, that newer generations of singers did not, on the whole, match the quality of the old ones, the situation is hardly improved. Del Monaco, Bastianini, Merrill, Warren, Siepi, not to mention many others from older generations (e.g. Ruffo, Stracciari, Lauri Volpi, etc.), are just a few great voices whom you are not going to hear on this DVD. Many of them left incredible video material. Would it not have been wonderful to compare Del Monaco’s incandescent renditions of “Vesti la giubba” with Di Stefano’s polished brilliance? Instead, we have Hampson, Rescigno and co. deliver a lot of pulp in the commentaries. Did I hear wrong, or did Rescigno really call Di Stefano “anti-musical'”? Such trash should have been omitted without ceremony.

Many famous names which are included should have been omitted, or at least represented by better material. Amazing as Caruso was, his silent movies are pathetic curiosities and nothing more. They don’t sit well with his audio recordings. When you hear Gigli’s bland “Ombra mai fu” or Pinza’s atrocious Coronation Scene (from a biopic of Shaliapin), you might legitimately wonder what the great fuss about these singers was. Other legendary names, such as Shaliapin and Tibbett, are similarly unimpressive; the former is hampered by the indifferent music, the latter is physically imposing but vocally undistinguished Escamillo. Surely these singers must have done much better elsewhere and if this was not preserved on video, perhaps they should have been omitted from the documentary, their legendary fame notwithstanding. I have never understood the widespread reverence for Melchior, but in the 1941 broadcast with Toscanini he delivers a quite decent “Winterstürme”. What we have here is pure travesty! Not only is Melchior way past his prime, but he doesn’t take the piece seriously at all – perhaps inevitable considering his “audience”. This is topped by Richard Tauber’s impersonation of Schubert at the piano and his sadistically incompetent rendition of the famous “Ständchen”. I don’t even want to mention the aged, fat and hideously attired Tetrazzini “singing” over one of her very old recordings…

Other selections include fantastic singing but, all the same, they don’t represent the singers to their best advantage. Corelli’s “Non piangere Liu” is beautifully sung by a great tenor in his prime, but what really should have been included is his fabulous rendition of “O tu che in seno agli angeli” from the 1958 La Forza del Destino with Tebaldi, Bastianini and Christoff. Jon Vickers was a great Florestan, no doubt, but he was an even greater Otello. Joan Sutherland’s artistry was more than jaw-dropping coloratura and killer high notes. It would have been better illustrated by “Sempre Libera”, rather than by Meyerbeer’s trivial music.

The purely technical quality and the editing are serious problems, too. Callas' Lisbon La Traviata is not worth seeing, so terribly dark is the video. More of her stunning Tosca with Tito Gobbi in Covent Garden (1964) would have been much better. Six minutes out of 44 is simply not serious. Both excerpts from Magda Olivero’s Tosca are badly cut. Even the three-minutes-or-so-long “Vissi d’arte” you don’t hear complete. What a shame! The narrator is also sometimes intrusive: the climax of Caruso’s “Vesti la giubba” is hardly the best place for some bio trivia.

Several movies dedicated to different types of voices (e.g. male and female), without commentaries at all but with more singers and better selections included, might have made this a far better documentary. It is still worth having and worth watching – for my part, Boris’ Boris is enough to treasure the DVD – but it could, and should, have been done a lot better. As it is now, it represents a bizarre mixture of glorious moments, embarrassing absurdities and missed opportunities.

Tebaldi on Video: Tosca (1961), Forza (1958), A Portrait (1956-67)

Renata Tebaldi: A Portrait (1956-67)

This set of two DVDs contains mostly previously released material, but much of it has long been out-of-print and hard-to-find. Only the Butterfly bonus tracks, due to their inferior picture quality, have never been released before, and it is fascinating to compare them with the “official” versions from 1959. All these are, to put it in a decidedly confused way, live performances recorded in studio. In other words, the excerpts from operas are staged, sung and shot on the spot, more or less as if they were given in front of live audience; the few songs in between are concert performances. By modern standards, the production values may look old-fashioned and even ludicrous. Many reviewers have remarked on the hideous dress and make-up used for “Vissi d’arte” and, alas, I have to agree. Nevertheless, these television appearances are a fine tribute to Renata’s art.

The first disc is almost exclusively dedicated to Tebaldi in her dazzling prime. The two excerpts from Butterfly, joined together with a short narrative that summarises the intervening plot, are shot in ravishing colour and performed with Tebaldi’s customary passion, less smoother than a Freni, for example, but no less compelling. Note, also, that for a rather big woman with large hands Tebaldi’s movements are remarkably graceful. (Unfortunately, Pinkerton’s entry and the orchestral explosion in the finale are cut.) The famous excerpt from La Boheme, which includes not just the love duet that concludes the first act but also the two arias that precede it, suffers badly from grainy picture. But who cares? The singing is divine! I’m saying this as a non-fan of Bjoerling. The same performance can also be found on The Art of Singing DVD with improved picture quality, but slightly cut at the beginning (Mimi’s entrance and the search for the key).   

The rest of the first disc is not quite so entrancing, but everybody not indifferent to Renata’s voice would find it delightful. The selections from Tosca, the love duet and part of the meeting with Scarpia in Act 1, are exceptional because they don’t come from the archives of Bell Telephone Hour but from the 1961 live performance of the opera in Stuttgart also released on DVD (see below). The arias from Mascagni and Ponchielli are notable for the austere and atmospheric sets. They were recorded in 1967 when Renata was 45 and slightly past her prime, having been on the opera stage for more than twenty years. The top notes are slightly strained, but the sweetness of the middle and low registers is intact.

The second disc is the complete “Concerto Italiano” from 1965, hosted by the dour Dr Boyd Neal and with the pleasant participation of the young baritone Louis Quilico; his rendition of Michele’s soliloquy is terrific, but he is neither London nor Guelfi. Consequently, the Act 2 finale of Tosca is not among Tebaldi’s most high-profile collaborations. It is nicely shot from several angles, though, and you have several wonderful opportunities to appreciate one of the most under-appreciated sides of Tebaldi’s artistry: the acting she does with her face. She does a lot of it, and it repays careful watching. The real gem on the second disc is Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana, a charming cycle of three short songs describing a Venetian regatta. These tuneful trifles are performed much less often than they deserve, but I suppose Renata does them full justice. She loved the cycle, sang it often in her late years, and even recorded it with Richard Bonynge and the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1969.

Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino (1958)

This is arguably the finest Forza ever recorded, video or audio, mono or stereo, analogue or digital, whatever. Many connoisseurs argue in favour of the 1953 live recording under the incandescent baton of Dimitri Mitropoulous, but I think the conducting is just about its only real advantage. Otherwise it is either equal to this one (Del Monaco = Corelli, Simionato = Dominguez, Tebaldi is equally stunning both times) or inferior (Protti < Bastianini, poorer sound, no picture). The 1955 studio recording is among the best efforts from Decca’s early stereo era, but there we have Siepi and Corena replacing, respectively, Christoff and Capecchi. For my part both substitutes are unfortunate. Not that Siepi and Corena are bad; far from it; Christoff and Capecchi simply are incredible. But there is no accounting for taste. For some people the best Forza is Sinopoli’s 1985 studio version with the screechy Plowright and the wobbly Carreras.

Renata Tebaldi owns the part of Leonora di Vargas. It is that simple. No other soprano comes within hailing distance from her portrayal of the “infame figlia”; not Cerquetti, not Milanov, certainly not Callas. Tebaldi must have felt singularly inspired that night in Naples 56 years ago. She sings with élan and gusto that equal, to say the least, her stupendous performance from 1953 and far surpass her studio effort from 1955. I guarantee you have never heard, much less seen, “Son giunta… Madre pietosa vergine” sung like that. This is the advantage of video recordings: seeing is believing. Another unbelievable highlight is the great duet with Boris Christoff in the end of Act 2. And yes, Tebaldi is a much better actress than generally given credit for; note the exquisite piece of comedy when she blocks Alvaro’s arm with the gun in Act 1 or the tragic poignancy of the final scene, to name but two examples.

How immensely lucky we are to have this treasure on video! The grainy picture and the constrained sound are meagre price to pay for Tebaldi, Corelli, Bastianini, Dominguez, Christoff and Capecchi at the height of their powers. What a sextet! The singing is incredible! So, for the most part, is the acting; Corelli and Bastianini are somewhat limited in this respect, but with voices like these they can well afford it. Corelli’s effortless delivery of the horrendously difficult “O tu che in seno agli angeli” is yet another thing you have to see in order to believe. Once upon a time such feats really were possible on the opera stage. Likewise, Ettore Bastianini tosses off “Son Pereda” and “Urna fatale” (plus the cabaletta) with ease that defies belief. The imposing Padre Guardiano of Boris Christoff, the deliciously funny Melitone of Renato Capecchi and the flirtatious Presiozilla of Oralia Dominguez are among the all-time greatest achievements in these roles.

The old-fashioned sets and costumes, not to mention Christoff’s notorious wig and fake beard, may look quaint, but I, for one, prefer them to the sick perversity of modernist directors bent on “reinterpreting the old masterpieces”. The sound is excellent for a live recording in the theatre from 1958. If you have ever wondered why some people consider Forza one of Verdi’s masterpieces, this DVD is all you need to see and hear. You will become a convert.

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca (1961)

Tebaldi’s Tosca is one of the greatest glories in the history of recorded opera. We are extremely fortunate to have, in addition to two studio and who knows how many (at least seven!) live audio recordings, two complete performances on video. The other one, also from 1961 but recorded in Tokyo, has Gianni Poggi and Gian Giacomo Guelfi as Cavaradossi and Scarpia, respectively. Neither is any improvement over what we have here. In fact, Guelfi is distinctly inferior, both vocally and dramatically, to London. The picture and sound quality of the “Tokyo Tosca” are no great shakes, either.

Now, the “Stuttgart Tosca”, as you must expect from a live performance captured in those ancient times, is very far from the aural and visual standards we have come to take for granted. The picture is black-and-white and slightly fuzzy. The camera work is crude and far too distant. The sound is fine as far as the voices are concerned, but for the orchestra you’ll have to rely more on your knowledge of the score and musical imagination than your ears. The production is entirely conventional but quite serviceable.

Renata had gained some weight since the late 50s, but she still looks stunningly beautiful, and she is capable of conveying Tosca’s alluring seductiveness without a single move. The voice is fabulous beyond description. No strain, no hard edge, no signs of age or fatigue whatsoever. The superb diction and the numerous subtle inflections of the text are every bit as fine as in Tebaldi’s other live recordings – and far better than in her studio efforts. Tosca is a monstrous part that requires a voice of great versatility; dramatic and lyrical moments follow one another seamlessly, often reaching extremes. Renata scores an A at all fronts. As this video performance confirms, there is more, much more in her than just a great voice.

Much has been written about Tebaldi’s “poor acting skills”, especially in comparison with La Divina. This is tosh. Certainly, Renata didn’t have the histrionic intensity of her nemesis, but neither did Callas, even in her prime, have a voice even remotely comparable to Tebaldi’s. This is precisely the point. Renata’s rather restrained acting was the perfect complement to her incredibly expressive voice, while Maria’s highly dramatic acting compensated for her vocal shortcomings. In the few places where their roles overlap – Tosca, incidentally, being the most notable example – it is clear to me that the world needs both great divas. The justly legendary second act of Tosca with Gobbi and Callas from Covent Garden (1964) makes a most fascinating comparison with the completely different take of Tebaldi and London in Stuttgart. This is the ultimate proof that masterpieces do survive – indeed, demand! – variety of interpretation.

And yet, there are still people who complain that Tebaldi is too static. What do they expect Tosca to do? Jump through the window? Hit Scarpia with a chair? Dance tarantella? Well, see and judge for yourselves. Just about the whole thing is available, piece by piece, on YouTube.

The supporting cast is excellent. George London needs no introduction: his Scarpia combines the best of Gobbi’s histrionics and Bastianini’s gorgeous tone. This is a towering performance, certainly one of the finest on record. London was, of course, Tebaldi’s Scarpia on her second studio recording (1959), so both knew their parts and each other pretty well. The mysterious Eugene Tobin is one of those tenors that would have been superstars today but were unfortunate enough to be born in the era of Del Monaco, Corelli, Di Stefano and Bergonzi. The fact that he is completely forgotten today and the likes of Rolando Villazon are superstars speaks volumes about the modern decline of operatic voices. The even more mysterious Heinz Cramer does a beautiful job with the Sacristan, wonderfully refusing to turn him into a caricature.