WAGNER: Der Fliegende Holländer
VERDI: Un ballo in maschera
ALFANO: Cyrano de Bergerac
BELCANTO - THE TENORS OF THE 78 ERA: Enrico Caruso,
Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, Joseph Schmidt
Harry Kupfer's staging of The Flying Dutchman was highly acclaimed at its 1978 Bayreuth Festival premiere—there were 35 more performances through 1985. Kupfer's concept focuses on Senta, a disturbed woman who hallucinates, rather than the Dutchman. As the overture is being played, a picture of the Dutchman falls from the wall, she picks it up and holds it for most of the remaining performance. Senta looks to the Dutchman to release her from her dismal existence in the spinning room. In this production, at the end of the opera she commits suicide by jumping out the window, thus finding release. The entire cast is superb, particularly Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev as the disturbed Senta. Simon Estes also impresses as The Dutchman. Woldemar Nelsson, a conductor new to me, leads the Bayreuth forces in a powerful performance, and the 5.1 surround sound (probably artificially simulated) is totally satisfying. The opera fits onto one disk and there are 28 cuing tracks. Director Kupfer also is responsible for The Ring at the Liceu Opera, also being issued on DVD, another imaginative production but the big difference between this Dutchman and The Ring is the fact that this has truly outstanding singers while The Ring vocally is second-rate at best.
Herbert von Karajan was to have conducted Un ballo en maschera at the Salzburg Festival in 1989. The 80-year old conductor had started rehearsals when he died, but plans for the production continued and Sir Georg Solti (who was 76 at the time) was available to conduct the star-studded cast. The production was a triumph, with a total of six performances. The lavish sets, costumes and singing were highly praised, and the production was revived the following year with the same cast and conductor. The revival is seen on this DVD, an Austrian Broadcasting film in a joint enterprise with NHK, directed by Brian Large.The performance, recorded July 28, 1990, has been beautifully photographed with cameras always in the right place. It's unfortunate there wasn't a true "Verdi soprano" around at the time; Josephine Barstow isn't quite right for Amelia, and it takes her some time to warm up. This is not in surround sound, but the regular stereo is rich, satisfying, and well-balanced. There are 50 cuing tracks.
Franco Alfano (1895-1954), best-known for his completion of Puccini's Turandot, wrote 11 operas himself, the last (I Cavalieri e la bella) unfinished. Most of these are neglected and unknown today although there are sporadic presentations of Risurrezione, Sakuntala and Cyrano de Bergerac. The last is one of his later works (1936), a showcase for the leading tenor. Last season the Met revived Cyrano to showcase Plácido Domingo who wished to add it to his performance repertory—which he did with great success. Alfano's opera is extraordinarily effective and contains much beautiful music reminiscent of Strauss and Korngold. The Act II love scene, and the final scene as Cyrano dies, work well. This production is Alfano's original, in French; a year after the premiere, the opera was given in Italian This filmed production by Lévon Sayan who also produced the DVD Roberto Alagna Live in Paris (REVIEW).The National Opera and Chorus of Montpellier conducted by Marco Guardini, is superb. This presentation is very much an Alagna family affair. Robert sings the title role, his brothers, David and Frédérico are in charge of stage production and set design, Marinella Alagna is identified as "artistic coordinator." Alagna is perfect as the ill-fated, frustrated poet-soldier, and makes much of the poignant death scene. The challenges of the role of Roxanne are easily conquered by Nathalie Manfrino, and the remainder of the cast is first-rate, both dramatically and vocally. Sets and production are wonderful, with appropriately elaborate costumes. Daniel Cendron is given special credit for "Cyrano's nose." The film obviously was edited quite a bit. At the beginning, Cyrano makes his entrance through the audience, but otherwise there's no indication of an audience except for final curtain-calls. At times the lip-sync seems to be a little bit off, but not to the extent that it disturbs. Of major interest is the fact that the 5.1 surround sound is magnificent - full-bodied, perfectly balanced, and wide in range with splendid bass. A debit is that DGG doesn't provide a complete list of all tracks and timings—this should be standard on all DVDs—and their synopsis of the plot isn't very clear. English subtitles are rather quixotic, with some strange use of English words. Still, this is highly recommended.
Belcanto - The Tenors of the 78 Era (Part I), the first in a series by Jan Schmidt-Garre, is a disappointment. There are six programs on the DVD, each about 28 minutes in length, devoted to Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt. Each begins has an unnecessary prologue and epilogue (all the same), and contains many reminiscences by friends, relatives and associates of the singers. Don't expect a half-hour of film of each artist—it's not there, and even when some rare films are played, they are incomplete and often there is talking over them (!). Jürgen Kesting, author of The Great Singers, has a lot to say and we get to watch his reaction as recordings are played. Another commentator is Stefan Zucker, a fanatic opera authority who had a regular radio program in New York and is listed in the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records as being the "world's highest tenor for having hit a high A above high C and holding it for 3.8 seconds" during a Town Hall recital in September 1972. His comments are delivered in an annoying falsetto voice, and his opinions are questionable ("Caruso lacked musical imagination"). Of course there are many bits and pieces of filmed performances, but not enough.This could have been a terrific series, gathering together available film clips of these remarkable artists—but I don't want to watch others talking about how great these singers were.
R.E.B. (July 2005)