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.

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