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DVD Review

Belcanto - The Tenors of the 78 Era

TDK EuroArts DVD 2050217

Part II

Lauritz Melchior
Helge Rosvænge
Jussi Björling
John McCormack
Georges Thill
Ivan Kozlovsky
TDK EuroArts DVD 2050217 (DVDOCBEL2) 200min Full Screen Dolby Digital 2.0
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In the late 1990s, film-maker Jan Schmidt-Garre created thirteen 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 were released on EuroArts 2050207, and the remaining seven are released here.

As in the other programs, Schmidt-Garre eschews straight biography in favor of a more impressionistic style. In place of voice-overs, a title card (shades of silent movies!) is superimposed over the image at intervals. Schmidt-Garre's modus operandi is to start with the tenor's voice – usually singing "O paradis" from L'Africaine. Over the course of each program, we'll probably hear comments (not very insightful, usually) from friends or family members, commentary by Jürgen Kesting (author of The Great Singers) as he plays one of the tenor's typical recordings, period documentary footage and movies, and perhaps comments by other performers. (Astrid Varnay and Elisabeth Söderström make brief but memorable appearances in the segments devoted to Melchior and Björling, respectively.) This time around, we hear less from the ghastly modern-day tenor Stefan Zucker, although in the seventh segment ("The Singing Robot," a look at recordings in general), we are "treated" – I use the word guardedly – to a fragment of Zucker singing Tonio's showcase aria from the Act I finale of La Fille du régiment.

As a whole, these programs are not as well done as those in the previous volume. The program devoted to Helge Rosvænge, for example, drifts aimlessly, for example, and even digresses into a discussion of Max Lorenz for several minutes. Especially in the McCormack program, there is too much vague sentimental chatter from people who seem to know relatively little about singing. In "The Singing Robot," a German academic is brought in to spout precious nonsense about the philosophical ramifications of records and recordings – it's an eye-roller to be sure. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the Melchior program, and particularly with the excerpts from his MGM films. (His "after-career" as a popular American entertainer largely has been forgotten.) The Björling program also is well done (his issues with alcohol are briefly mentioned), but I was most intrigued by the program devoted to Ivan Kozlovsky, who is almost unknown outside of Russia. What a beautiful voice, and what an interesting career! Excerpts are shown from a studio film (circa 1954) of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, in which Kozlovsky plays the Simpleton. The complete film has been released on DVD by Video Artists International (VAI), and if you like Boris, you'll snap it right up after seeing the few minutes presented here.

As I said in my review of Volume 1, these programs have an attractive, rickety charm. In terms of content, however, they can't seem to decide whether they are biographies or thoughtful essays, and they end up being neither. The result is a bit superficial. The programs are in black and white, except for a few moments in color. Although the archival footage shows its age, it doesn't take too much patience to enjoy it. A full screen (4:3) format is used.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle

Trumpet