WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde (excerpts)
BELLINI: La Sonnambula
VERDI: La traviata
This Tosca is a live performance June 3, 1961 from the Suddeutscher Rundfunk filmed in black and white, recorded in clear mono sound. Operaphiles will welcome it as it documents Renata Tebaldi's imperious performance of the title role at a time when her voice was in its prime. The other principals are very strong. The DVD unfortunately contains no information about any of the performers. Eugene Tobin is an American tenor born in 1925 in Philadelphia. After studies in New York he sang with the Dusseldorf Opera from 1952-1954 then became a member of the Stuttgart Opera where he remained for some years. He also sang smaller roles at Bayreuth, larger roles with several other opera companies including those of Vienna, Cologne and Chicago. For whatever reason, his career didn't develop as it could have; he has a virile, secure sound along with an impressive stage presence. American bass-baritone George London was at his peak of performance at this time, an appropriate match for Tebaldi. This is a bare-bones production with very basic, commonplace sets. The DVD includes the numerous curtain calls (the conductor appears on stage along with the singers, even after acts one and two!).
The two operas with Anna Moffo are glamorous productions, both films by Mario Lanfranch who had made a Italian television film of Madama Butterfly with Moffo in 1956. She married him in 1957; they divorced in 1972 and two years later she married Robert Sarnoff, former chairman of RCA Victor. For Lanfranchi's films the music recorded first, filming afterwards—with the usual lip-sync problems. La Sonnambula was the first recorded of the two, dating from 1956, a black and white film in mono sound. The opera itself taxes credibility with its plot of a mysterious phantom ghost who turns out to be the sleepwalking Amina. Moffo is ideal for the role; the remainder of the cast is satisfactory if not outstanding. Of interest is that the minor role of the Notary is sung by Guseppe Nessi (1889-1961) who created the role of Pong in the world premiere of Turandot under Arturo Toscanini in 1926 (he also appears in Maria Callas's 1955 recording of Sonnambula).
Violetta was one of Anna Moffo's greatest operatic achievements, the role for her 1959 Metropolitan Opera debut, one which she recorded with great success for RCA Victor, and sang about 900 times during her career. It's surprising that a soprano so slight in appearance could have the range and stamina to perform this demanding, dramatic role. RCA at one time offered a twin-LP set of Moffo in a wide range of Verdi arias; it deserves resurrection on CD. Moffo's performance of Violetta is outstanding both musically and dramatically, and she surely looks like the beautiful courtesan. Franco Bonisolli is a handsome tenor, a perfect partner for Moffo both vocally and physically although his acting is limited. Gino Bechi sings well enough but has numerous lip-sync problems that distract from his performance. This is a gorgeous production with beautiful, authentic-looking sets in the big scenes, and elaborate costumes. Camera work is exemplary and we often have close-ups of the glamorous soprano.
The Tristan DVD is valuable, if frustrating. Apparently there was a series of performances of Tristan scheduled by Québec Opera in 1976 all conducted by Zubin Mehta, with a video to be made afterwards—but with Franz-Paul Decker on the podium. Roberta Knie was a last-minute replacement for Caterina Ligendza as Isolde. She is adequate as the Nordic princess, but Vickers deserves a stronger partner—and he has it in the form of Birgit Nilsson, an audio-only recording of one of six performances recorded at Teatro Colón in 1971, available on VAI Audio VAIA 1178-3. The Tristan DVD was produced for television by CBC Film, part documentary, produced and directed by Richard Bocking with set and costume design by Roberto Oswald, staged by Ernst Poettgen in cooperation with the Québec Opera. As the music of the first act prelude begins we see rolling waves, a cast listing and hear a spoken commentary by Jon Vickers about Wagner and Tristan. During the closing of the Liebestod, once again we see the rolling waves which soon occupy the entire screen. It's unfortunate more music wasn't included, but we do have the Love Duet from Act II. Maureen Forrester's Brangäne is a decided plus.
R.E.B. (February 2004)