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DVD Review

Belcanto - The Tenors of the 78 Era

TDK EuroArts DVD 2050207

Part I

Enrico Caruso
Beniamino Gigli
Tito Schipa
Richard Tauber
Leo Slezak
Joseph Schmidt
TDK EuroArts DVD 2050207 (DVDOCBEL1) 170min Full Screen Dolby Digital 2.0
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In the late 1990s (I think – EuroArts is not forthcoming with this information), film-maker Jan Schmidt-Garre created a series of thirteen nearly half-hour television programs about tenors who lived, sang, and recorded during der Schellackzeit – the time of the 78-rpm record. Six of those programs are collected here, back to back, and I assume that the other seven will be along presently.

Viewers looking for quick video biographies of the tenors will need to look elsewhere, because such was not Schmidt-Garre's intention, apparently. These programs are a little bit of everything. Each one starts with the tenor's voice. In four out of six cases, the aria is "O paradis" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. (Is this a favorite of the film-maker?) Throughout the course of 28 minutes, we hear comments from various critics and other experts, including the famous (and rather bizarre) Stefan Zucker, who once was known as "the world's highest tenor." Other singers might be interviewed. In the Gigli segment, there are treasurable appearances by Giulietta Simionato and Magda Olivero, among others. Each segment also includes a group of folks who pass around photos and reminisce about what a nice person and singer the tenor in question was. (This is particularly funny in the Slezak segment, as Schmidt-Garre has found a bunch of beer-drinking Bavarians who apparently lived one villa over from the tenor.)

What makes this DVD valuable, however, is the footage of the tenors themselves. No, for the most part, you will not see video of actual stage or concert performances. What these tenors had in common was the fact that they all made commercial movies, and yes, with the exception of Caruso, they sang in them. (Caruso died too early to benefit from the sound era of motion pictures.) As a whole, these movies probably are forgettable, and the tenors are no Barrymores. Nevertheless, the musical performances within them should not be forgotten. Schmidt-Garre tracked down rare footage which you are unlikely to see anywhere else. I'm a Joseph Schmidt fanatic. I knew that he had made several films in the 1930s – for a time, German politicians almost were willing to overlook the fact that he was a Jew. I'd despaired of ever seeing those movies, but here are excerpts from several them, and what a joy they are!

With discussions of vocal technique peppering the scripts, these programs might be too specialized for the casual listener. On the other hand, they are too disjointed and brief to contribute much to the knowledge of more scholarly fans. More questions are raised than answered. For example, what happened to Leo Slezak's Jewish wife in Nazi Germany? Even so, there's rickety charm to these programs, which I like, and the rare footage seals the deal.

Except for a few moments in color – Mr. And Mrs. Richard Tauber's home movies! – these programs are in black and white, and unsurprisingly, the vintage footage is of variable quality, but never less than watchable. A full screen (4:3) format is used.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet