Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vols. 1 and 2

Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era
was produced in 1997 by Jan Schmidt-Garre as a television series of thirteen
episodes broadcast on a variety of European networks. The series was packaged
as four videos and then as two DVDs. Highlighted in Volume I of this latest
incarnation are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber,
Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt (the episode on Schmidt received mention at
the Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film
festival). The second DVD features segments on Lauritz Melchior, Helge
RosvÊnge, Jussi Bjˆrling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Koslovsky and
others, including a final episode on “The Singing
Robot”—the record player. Timed fairly equally at just under 30
minutes, each episode has a similar format: following a “canned”
introductory film of a nameless tenor in a recording studio (usually singing
from L’Africaine), the viewer is taken back into the lives of
these great singers. In the case of Caruso, we are introduced to New Yorkers
who knew the tenor when they were young; to get a glimpse of
Slezak’s past, we are transported into the mountains where dirndl and
lederhosen-clad mountainfolk with beer steins recall how the tenor loved his
free time there among them. Other episodes offer less-stereotypical
portraits, but the pattern remains: an exploration of where these men lived
and performed, interviews with people who knew them as friends or colleagues,
and various commentaries on recordings of their voices. Although the
soundtracks of recordings of the singers, particularly of lesser known voices
like Schmidt’s, are worth the viewing time, the dissections of their
vocal styles not only leave much to be desired but make one question the
overall point of the exercise.

In general, the listening “analyses” in these episodes are so
subjective that one is reminded of the childhood game of
“Telephone” in which everyone supposedly hears the same phrase
yet each repeats it back differently. It is absolutely true that recordings
have become “primary source” research materials, and historians
of both opera and recording science use them to trace issues like the
technical influences singers of the past have had on present performance
practices. Yet such commentary often slips into the realm of subjective
interpretation. Clearly, there are objective judgments that one
could make about listening to recordings; one might, for example, note that
an artist’s approach to a particular phrase was technically correct or
that a certain critical pitch was delivered sharp or flat. One can also
compare the recordings of singers to trace the transmission of stylistic
elements from an important voice teacher to his or her pupils. However,
comments—all too frequent in these episodes—such as “He
caresses the melody” are senseless and, in fact, detract from the
worthwhile moments. What is even more puzzling is why the producer would
include contradictory comments one right after the other. For instance, one
commentator will applaud a certain singer’s ability to control volume;
the very next person interviewed will bemoan said singer’s dynamic
weaknesses. One can only expect differences of opinion in a format such as
this, but it becomes difficult for the viewer to know precisely whom to

Most interesting in the series are the interviews with other performers
who share their memories of working with these great artists. Next come the
portions dedicated to recording historian J¸rgen Kesting; it is a revelation
just to watch him as he listens to recorded excerpts. He provides a living
example of audience interaction with recorded sound. By far the weakest
portions of the series are those featuring Stefan Zucker; he may well be an
expert in this repertory but his comments do anything but demonstrate this.
For example, he comments that when Joseph Schmidt sang in the synagogue, he
was performing in the florid style of the nineteenth-century opera house; to
cap off this reference to Rossini and his colleagues, the video cuts to a
cantor who is singing a traditional prayer. Although there a thread of logic
here—that cantors and singers embellish vocal lines—it is so
poorly stated that Zucker’s point goes far afield of its intended

Perhaps the wisest remark is offered by John Steane, who seems to be
commenting on the series title: Bel Canto. The term, he notes, is
“so vague. I sometimes think that the term should be banned. It’s
used without any definition. Its principle use is negative—we know what
isn’t bel canto.” In fact, the series title,
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, demonstrates the lack of focus
of the entire series: does it center on the singers and their careers? On
recordings of their voices? On clips that document their cinematic
activities? The latter—even if they are the only ones
available—offer unflattering profiles of Slezak’s activities with
the Ufa and Gigli’s appearances in Fascist-era movies; the former would
hardly appreciate being remembered in a scene that shows him singing
“Kleine Frau” while surrounded by a roomful of merry Nazi
officers. While there are moments of wonderful music and interesting
information in these episodes, one can not help but wonder why the producer
did not simply let the singers’ eloquent voices speak for

Denise Gallo

Click here to buy Vol. 1

Click here to buy Vol. 2

image_description=Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vol. 2
product_title=Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vol. 1 and 2
product_by=Vol. 1: Caruso, Enrico; Gigli, Beniamino; Schipa, Tito; Schmidt, Joseph; Slezak, Leo; Tauber, Richard
Vol. 2: Bjorling, Jussi; Kozlovsky, Ivan; McCormack, John; Melchior, Lauritz; Rosvaenge, Helge; Thill, Georges
product_id=Euroarts Vol 1 (2050207) [DVD] and Vol 2 (2050217) [DVD]