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Belcanto. The Tenors of the 78 era. Part 1
Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Toto Schipa, Joseph Schmidt, Leo Slezak and Richard Tauber
Subtitles GB, F, D, I, E, Picture Format 4;3 Black and White PAL, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Liner Notes GB, D, F, DVD9, Region 0
Director Jan Schmidt-Garre Producer Elmar Kruse



This is a fascinating series of six thirty-minute documentaries, the first of a series, devoted to some of the most famous tenors in recorded history. The format is similar in each case. The singer is introduced and a coterie of admirers or individuals reminisce or talk about the particular singer – so, for example, a group of elderly expatriates in Little Italy talk about Caruso, with especially touching affection, and Gigli’s nephew is interviewed amongst a group of like-minded admirers of his uncle. Surviving film, whether on stage, in recital, domestic or otherwise is woven into the fabric of the documentary and it proves to be remarkable.

We see Caruso drawing one of his inimitable caricatures, or relaxing in the family apartment with a factotum; also the famous "in costume" montage of his most famous roles and his bonhomonious entry from a motor car in New York surrounded by welcoming family and friends (one such recalls the event all these years later). With Gigli we can witness excerpts from a rather hammy 1936 film that, for all its artificiality, does at least summon up something of his wonderful vitality and virility. Schipa is caught in very early sound, 1929, that I assume is film but could just be synchronized sound and vision of the type that Vitaphone specialised in – whichever he is piano accompanied in Padilla’s Princesita, something of a recital rarity in these clips, and doubly valuable for that. Tauber, like Caruso, has a series of silent, face-to-camera shots with the tenor dressed in his favourite roles. There’s a clip from the English Pagliacci film of 1937 and a very rare live outdoor concert and some delicious colour shots of him in overalls and civvies, relaxing, playing and singing, or else on holiday. Slezak is represented by a slew of his "big-bear" acting-singing roles and by mainly lighter material – none of which is enough to obscure his warmth and personality. We can see Joseph Schmidt in what looks like some exceptionally rare live 1936 material singing before a vast audience at a Dutch Festival, wearing slacks and jacket, and belting it out with one hand nonchalantly in his pocket.

Recorded examples of the artists’ work are played and analysed. One of the most scrupulous and analytical judges is Jürgen Kesting whose clarity and precision are a constant source of pleasure and elucidation. He’s especially acute on Caruso, but so is Michael Scott, as they guide the viewer towards the salient features of Caruso’s singing. Kesting is interesting on the subject of Gigli’s "passivity" – and the political accusations that dogged his later career - and Rodolfo Celletti is perceptive on the question of the singer’s "lack of taste." If Schipa’s early Argentinean experiences take rather too much air time and Schmidt’s cantorial roots – whilst clearly vital – do likewise, no one can argue with the question of Slezak’s melancholy final years or Schmidt’s tragic early death. On the subject of Schmidt I’d have welcome the kind of close textual analysis given to some of the others; things tend to get rather woolly, adjectivally and, however justifiable, a note of retrospective sentiment tends to obscure penetrating technical judgement.

We hear from a number of other knowledgeable insiders: Clemens Höslinger, Alan Bilgora and Robert Tuggle and others. There is also the eccentric figure of Stefan Zucker who set my teeth on edge every time he spoke – as a practitioner he has plenty of value to say but he has cultivated an absurd way of doing so. There are also interviews with some very distinguished colleagues – Magda Olivero who talks about Gigli, Elizabeth Bergner who began scoffing but ended up entranced by Tauber, and Paula Lindbergh-Salomon on Schmidt.

With the exception of the Tauber colour film everything here is in black and white; the filmed sections flow seamlessly into recollection and analysis without jarring between colour and black and white. It’s an editorial decision that works well as far as I’m concerned. The filmed scenes have been reproduced with as much sharpness and definition as one could wish. Subtitles are in five languages and there’s a tidy, though brief, booklet. This first in the series has been accomplished with thoughtfulness and imagination and it’s highly recommended for lovers of the Vocal Art.

Jonathan Woolf

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