If your primary interest is Donizetti's opera, this DVD is not entirely satisfactory. Recorded live and essentially outdoors at Wolf Trap (outside of Washington, D.C.) by WETA, this muffled, monaural taping from 1974 falls short of the sonic standards that we expect today. Wolf Trap elected to present this opera in English, in the translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin. As operatic translations go, this one isn't bad, but it tends to make Donizetti sound like Gilbert and Sullivan, and anytime one changes languages, one changes the essential sound of the music. The production, originally designed by Beni Montresor for opera houses in San Diego and Houston, is a flimsy, low-budget affair, down to the too obviously phony facial hair glued on the faces of the French soldiers. The house orchestra is provincial, and it parts company with the singers on more than one occasion.
However, once I made note of these complaints, I forgot about most of them and surrendered to the many pleasant aspects of this production… and of course to Donizetti's sparkling music. In a brief interview segment, Beverly Sills calls her portrayal of Marie "Lucille Ball with high notes," but I was reminded more of Shirley Temple. Sure, she's self-consciously cute (and if she saluted once more, I thought I would scream), but she's also human and endearing – qualities I don't associate with Joan Sutherland, who resuscitated this role a few years earlier. Moreover, not even Sutherland could negotiate the role's coloratura demands with Sills's effervescence.
Tenor William McDonald was unlucky to be placed in a role that Luciano Pavarotti had just recently owned. Once one accepts that McDonald isn't Pavarotti (and who was, at the time?) and that his style of singing owes more to English operetta than to French light opera, he's an acceptable Tonio, and he gets through his nine high C's at the end of Act One without strangling. (I was amused by his superficial resemblance to the rock star Meat Loaf.) Spiro Malas reprises the role he sang with Sutherland and Pavarotti, hamming it up so much that we don't realize until later that Donizetti, ungallantly, doesn't even give him an aria! Even the Marquise de Berkenfeld is treated better, and Muriel Costa-Greenspon makes the most of the role's comic potential.
As a souvenir of Sills's enjoyable performance, this DVD works well. Those who admire her will look past the deficiencies of this Wolf Trap production without too much difficulty. VAI offers sixteen access points within the opera; the Sills interview (love those 70s fashions!) must be accessed separately.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle