Lynn René Bayley
, May 2011
The question of what constitutes bel canto and what does not has changed so drastically over the past century and a third as to confuse even the most conscientious researcher. For many decades I, like everyone else influenced by recordings, the classical media, and the music establishment, came to believe that true bel canto meant a seamless legato, superb breath control, and a beautiful, well-supported tone. Such quirks of style—as exhibited by singers of that school from the first third of the 20th century on records—as excessive rubato, rallentando, portamento, and additional technical frills such as unwritten high notes and extra technical tricks were taken for granted as part of the style that must have extended back into the 19th. But just recently, my entire concept of “true bel canto” was somewhat overturned by reading the musical criticism of Herman Klein, born in 1856, who began going to live performances of opera at age 12, studied with Manuel Garcia II, and had some quite definite ideas about what constituted true bel canto and what did not. According to Klein, the greatest singers of that era, some of whose training went back to teachers who had been singers in the earliest years of the 19th century and who themselves learned their style from singers of Mozart’s time, combined a beautiful, well-placed tone and faultless legato with “true dramatic instincts” that brought the music, and the characters, to bold and aesthetically “true” life with tasteful and minimal use of rubato and portamento. In other words, the real progenitors of bel canto were not the quirky singers of the era like Margarethe Siems, Olimpia Boronat, Fernando de Lucia, or others like them, but such artists as Lilli Lehmann, Mattia Battistini, Enrico Caruso (when he behaved himself—Klein had some reservations about his less artistic efforts), Johanna Gadski, and Frida Leider. He even included in his list of exemplary singers baritone Titta Ruffo, whose singing could never be said to be calm or continent, while sometimes (but not always) criticizing John McCormack for being too relaxed and uninteresting even when he admired the voice itself. Klein is unique in my experience, for instance, in not praising McCormack’s famous record of “Il mio tesoro” as proper Mozart style: He found it too placid, too uninteresting despite the faultless legato phrasing.
Thus one must approach this DVD and its designation of included singers as bel canto with an eye to the authentic style. Klein was lucky to have heard Patti in her prime as well as such great artists who left no records at all, such as Etelka Gerster and Theresa Tietjens, and he constantly compared singers of his day to those types of artists. He was neither unfair nor ungenerous to younger singers, but kept his earlier models firmly in mind. Of the singers in this program, he admired Melchior, Thill, and Rosvaenge, liked McCormack within limits, and never heard Björling or Kozlovsky, but comments made of similar singers indicate that he would have had some issues with the latter’s stretched-out, sometimes lachrymose style.
That being said, Klein lambasted Melchior for his dull, plodding rendition of “O Paradis” that opens the video, preferring him in Otello and Wagnerian roles. Of course, the producers of this series were limited to what footage was available, and as it happens most of the existing footage of Melchior is from his later career as a TV and film comedian. He was very good at this, of course, so much so that one imagines that, had his physique and voice been smaller, he’d have been a natural onstage as Nemorino, but by the time his segment is finished you realize that his career was divided into two halves: the ruling Heldentenor of his day, king of Bayreuth, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera, and the jovial jokester who lampooned Bing Crosby, sang Cocktails for Two with Spike Jones, and traded jokes with Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Jimmy Durante. This video does include a TV performance of him singing For You Alone, and his color film footage of “Vesti la giubba,” but focuses more on his schtick with both Durante and the Hoosier Hot Shots. Bel canto? Not really. I was surprised they didn’t include his Firestone TV appearance singing the Steersman’s song from Der Fliegende Holländer. At least that was Wagner, despite his being done up in a sailor’s mackinaw in front of a fake helm.
Apparently there’s very little footage of Rosvaenge—just “Che gelida manina” and a bit of the Rodolfo-Marcello duet (with Willy Domgraf-Fassbaender) from La Bohème, both from a Nazi propaganda film warning people not to waste paper, a short clip of him as an old man in 1958, and in the company of Max Lorenz and Frida Leider welcoming Hitler to Bayreuth in 1934—so right after the latter clip, the film switches gears and spends its second half going over Lorenz’s career. Yet the “Che gelida” is sung with both energy and a great deal of charm, which shows us how good Rosvaenge was in his prime.
Each video starts the same way, with a re-creation of a 1930s radio studio, gaffers moving equipment around and tuning dials, while an actor behind a goose-necked microphone apes a singer doing “O paradiso.” People who either remember or were related to the artist are shown sitting around commenting on and remembering him. Some film footage is shown, then they cut away to Jürgen Kesting, author of The Great Singers, for an analysis of the singer’s voice and style—usually correct but not always enlightening. Then we get performance clips, silent clips with talk-over, and more records. The director keeps it somewhat interesting, but as I mentioned above, he is limited by what he had to work with.
The Björling profile carefully circumscribes the tenor’s alcohol addiction and the rages that such imbibing generally produced. He was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde personality because of this, fortunately more of the former than the latter. He was also one of the worst actors of the post-World War II era, his stage work alternating between indifference and outright clumsiness, and only on occasion was his dramatic fire really lit. Yet it was indeed a unique, extraordinary voice, in some ways the most chameleon-like of all those singers profiled here, though little of the film used is particularly rare or unusual.
The McCormack segment (which starts with “Spirto gentil” because he never recorded “O paradiso”) includes two really rare pieces of film, the first being color footage (probably from the early to mid 1940s) of the tenor with Henry Fonda, the second his appearance at the 1932 Apostolic Conference in London where he was asked to sing Panis Angelicus. The rest comes from his marvelous concert footage in the 1929 film Song O’ My Heart. Klein’s caveats to the contrary, McCormack emerges as a warm, balanced, and likable singer and personality. It is a special treat to see and hear Lily McCormack reminiscing about her husband in 1963.
The Thill segment, however, is the most ear-opening of the lot for me. I had always admired his technique but never warmed to the somewhat hard tone and overripe vibrato on his studio recordings, but here three film clips—one a portion of “In fernem land” (in French), the second a French song, and the third a clip with Grace Moore from Abel Gance’s 1938 film of Louise, reveals much more roundness and “ping” to the tone, which I find particularly wonderful to hear. Thill is credited as being “the first modern tenor,” which is not entirely true; beginning in 1916, and continuing through the 1920s, McCormack was the model for cleanliness of musical style that we today recognize as modern. Thill is also hailed as “the last great French tenor,” which I’m sure was quite a surprise to Alain Vanzo. Nevertheless, this was one of the most fascinating profiles of all, especially in seeing Thill in old age talk about his vocal lessons with Fernando de Lucia.
Kozlovsky, perhaps, best represents what oldsters referred to as “the true bel canto style.” Despite his somewhat dry and nasal timbre, he developed incredible breath control and an ability in cantilena and florid music that harked back to the old days. He also cultivated a phlegmatic style that paid little attention to note values but, rather, pulled the music around like taffy in endless streams of stretched-out phrasing, rallentando, overdone rubato, and messa di voce. He and many other singers of his generation were heavily influenced by Boronat, who spent a great deal of her career in Russia. Saying all that, it would be unfair to characterize him as a willful singer. Like many Russians of his time, his goal was to present the music as poetry, to interpret the words elegantly and, at times, with an inward sense of suffering. He was, to me, the greatest tenor who ever essayed the role of the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, and it is wonderful to see him singing this role in a 1954 color film. And what other tenor of any nationality do you know who made his debut when Lenin was still alive yet continued singing publicly when Boris Yeltsin was President of a free Russia? Kozlovsky was unique in having a 69-year career and sounding almost exactly the same at the end of it as he did in the beginning!
The last segment is translated into English as “The Singing Robot,” but the screen clearly says “Automaton” and that’s closer to the mark. The object in question is in fact the phonograph, and here a German philosopher questions whether it is really useful in preserving and re-creating a unique moment. If you hear it once, and it surprises you, it’s a joy; when you hear it again and again, the element of surprise wears off and is replaced by expectation, which in turn is replaced by formula. What was originally a moment in time now becomes a moment pinned to the wall like a dead bug. Here we get some clips from Vol. 1, such as Tito Schipa and Joseph Schmidt singing, as well as recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi. In the latter segment we see and hear Stefan Zucker, a cult figure in New York who has a radio program in which he interviews old, retired singers (he also appears in the McCormack piece), analyzing Moreschi’s style and later starting to sing “O mon âme” from La Fille du Regiment as an example of the 19th-century approach. Fortunately for us, his dry, strained voice is cut off just as he approaches the first of the nine high Cs. This segment also includes a brief segment with John Steane, author of the early 1970s classic The Grand Tradition.
With all its quirks and omissions, this DVD is fascinating and valuable for lovers of old singing. I’m only sorry that I didn’t have the opportunity to review Vol. 1, which included Caruso, Schipa, Slezak, Gigli, Tauber, and Schmidt.