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Bel Canto: Great Tenors of the 78 Era, Part I
Enrico Caruso [28:00]
Beniamino Gigli [28:11]
Tito Schipa [27:59]
Richard Tauber [27:50]
Leo Slezak [28:04]
Joseph Schmidt [28:58]
A series by Jan Schmidt-Garre.
EUROARTS 2050207 [170:00]


Jan Schmidt-Garre has created a very interesting if not kitschy series of half-hour-ish documentaries on the lives and careers of a dozen great tenors from the 78 rpm era - six more make up volume two. Each episode begins with a period-looking scene from an early broadcast studio, and there follows film clips, interviews with critics and experts, and usually one or two scenes featuring geriatric colleagues or acquaintances of each of the singers. All filmed in black and white, the formula gets rather old rather fast when watching each episode in succession, the sameness of format much better suited for a weekly television broadcast than a three hour viewing marathon via the DVD player.

Shortcomings aside, this series is invaluable for its archival records of these memorable artists. Excellent commentary and analysis is provided by Jürgen Kesting, and the reminiscences of the singer’s colleagues and acquaintances are entertaining. Absolutely maddening however are the repeated appearances of “singer and writer” Stefan Zucker, whose grating voice, slovenly look and pretentious, useless babbling had me reaching for my gin bottle. By the time I got through the sixth episode, his very appearance had me entering the suicide hotline on my speed dial.

What is most remarkable is the high quality of the films and their soundtracks. The fact that so much footage of these great singers even exists in such excellent condition is astounding. That these documents have now been preserved digitally is a contribution to history that will be treasured for years to come.

Little need be said about the individual singers and the performances. They have long ago proven themselves, and music lovers have firmly established camps in favor of one singer or another. What is worth saying, however, is that these great artists have all been captured here in the prime of their careers and these recordings have been lovingly restored to as near optimum sound as possible. Kesting’s play-by-play analysis of at least one full aria by each singer is technically right on the money, and provides a raft of new appreciation for each artist.

This is a disc that offers a treasure trove for opera lovers. And, now that enough time has past to allow for the bel canto and verismo singing styles to be considered from the point of view of historically informed performance practice, these living documents of the musicians that invented the styles will serve as irrefutable evidence as to how the composers themselves would have expected their music to be rendered. After all, many of the singers on display here knew the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo personally or at least had studied with pupils of the composers.

Except for the annoying Mr. Zucker, these are priceless archives, highly recommended to all lovers of great singing.

Kevin Sutton







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