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Nicholas E. Limansky, Reviewing #5000, Trovatore, #OF5, Trovatore, and #5011, Ernani, in Opera News

Il trovatore (Björling, Cigna, Wettergren; Gui)

Il trovatore (Corelli, Parutto, Barbieri, Bastianini, Ferrin; De Fabritiis)

Ernani (Cerquetti, Del Monaco, Bastianini, Christoff; Mitropoulos).

“If you want these performances in the best sound available at this time, get the BCS. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

“Collectors of live opera recordings tend to obsess about sound quality. Record companies need only hint at ‘newly discovered masters‘ or ‘superlative sound,’ and fans will rush out to buy yet another version of a beloved performance—most of the time only to be disappointed and out another $25-30. The underlying psychology for this is similar to why one collects more than five recordings of Verdi’s Aïda. It is a quest for the ever-elusive perfect performance in superlative sound.

Continue reading Nicholas E. Limansky, Reviewing #5000, Trovatore, #OF5, Trovatore, and #5011, Ernani, in Opera News

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Alan Blyth, Reviewing #OF5, Trovatore, #5013, Tosca and #5000, Trovatore, in Gramophone

Alan Blyth, reviewing in Gramophone

“These two sets have been issued primarily with Corelli fans in mind—and well may they be satisfied with his viscerally thrilling interpretations of both Manrico and Cavaradossi, but in the case of Il trovatore the fact that we can hear five Italians in the major roles, virtually an impossibility today, is of even greater significance. It lends the performance an authenticity and flavour others simply cannot equal now, let alone surpass. Corelli, Barbieri and Bastianini can be heard separately in other sets of the opera, but hearing them together, along with the fine bass Agostino Ferrin, is a special treat, though it has to be said that Barbieri is to be heard to greater advantage earlier in her career on the Callas/Karajan version (EMI). Parutto is a minor figure by comparison with her colleagues: she sings with true Italianate sound, but is no stylist. Fabritiis is, as he always was, a splendid exponent of Verdi, energising the score from within. Apart from some distortion on the soprano’s louder notes, the sound is good.

“Corelli is once more in prime form in the Parma Tosca so it is hardly surprising that an encore is urgently sought by the audience. He turns down the offer but returns at the end to sing ‘Core ’ngrato’, much to the delight of the fans. Gordoni, an American in spite of her name, had an appreciable career in Italy and turns in a very decent performance as Tosca. D’Orazi offers an incisively sung, imposing Scarpia that few better. This is indeed a superior version to the most recent, that conducted by Muti on Sony, and well worth having.

“Indeed, I very much enjoyed both sets for their idiomatic delivery of words and notes.”

John T. Hughes, writing in Classic Record Collector

“A connoisseur’s choice from operatic issues of the past quarter

“Bel Canto Society, known mainly for its videos, presents Tosca from Parma 1967. The protagonist is American soprano Virginia Gordoni (b. 1919), known from Concert Hall opera sets. Her lirico-spinto tone is well projected, firm, extracting the drama, with strong low notes: a positive Tosca. The selling-point, however, is Franco Corelli, not necessarily as Cavaradossi but just as Corelli. He is in magnificent voice, which he flaunts, to the delight of the noisy audience. Those critics who called Roberto Alagna self-indulgent at Covent Garden will undergo paroxysms of curmudgeonly grumpiness over Corelli. Top notes are held for ages (a 12-second ‘Vittoria’) and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is spun on an elongated, elegant line. Narcissistic? Possibly. Self-indulgent? Certainly. Impressive? Oh, definitely. Attilio D’Orazi, who deserved a great career, is dark-voiced, well focused, but some Gobbi-like modulations would have been welcomed. Virgilio Carbonari is a Sacristan who sings. Bruno Grela is both Sciarrone and Jailer.

“We confront Il trovatore, and Corelli again, in Berlin in 1961, with Bastianini, Fedora Barbieri and a Leonora, Mirella Parutto, who later sang mezzo. Another Trovatore, from Covent Garden in 1939, has been issued often. Jussi Björling, Gina Cigna and Gertrud Wettergren are on hand. Three of the Berlin quartet recorded Trovatore commercially, so interest lies mainly with Parutto, who creates arches of lustrous sound. If you enjoy a lavish show of vocal splendour, hear her and Bastianini in ‘Mira d’acerbe lagrime’, but then a profligacy of vocal display is evident throughout. Corelli, in full sweep, does not spare himself, although he eschews the poetry he brought to parts of Tosca. Barbieri, Bastianini and the well focused Agostino Ferrin, who clearly enunciates the short notes in ‘Abbietta zingara’, create a tense ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ before Barbieri launches herself at ‘Deh, rallentate’ like a hound from hell, fangs flashing. Oliviero De Fabritiis augments the exuberance. Good sound.

“The poetry missed by Corelli was supplied by Björling in 1939. Sound here is less good but one can hear the fresh condition of Björling’s voice and how much warmer is Wettergren’s than Barbieri’s: less the virago than is the Italian. The Times wanted more fury from Wettergren. Her flame has a softer glow. The ‘italianità’ comes from Cigna, with her strong bottom notes and vocal power. Björling brings more variety to Manrico than Corelli but matches the Italian’s ardour when necessary. He is truly beautiful in Act 4. Mario Basiola treats ‘II balen’ more like a love-song than Bastianini does. Throughout the opera he is lighter of voice, in colour and weight. Vittorio Gui conducts as vitally as does De Fabritiis.”

Il trovatore | Tosca (both with Corelli)

Il trovatore (with Björling)

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Tully Potter, Reviewing Great Conductors of the Third Reich in Classic Record Collector

Great Conductors of the Third Reich

“It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry over the first of this superb batch of videos, a devastating critique of the time-beaters and time-servers who entertained the Nazi regime and its lackeys so well. There they are, pinned down for ever by the film-makers, often with Nazi insignia prominently displayed in the background and major officials of the Third Reich such as Joseph Goebbels prominent in the audience. Max von Schillings, soon to die but looking for all the world like a Prussian general, directs the William Tell Overture; a sequence of excerpts from Die Meistersinger features Leo Blech (who should have known better, being Jewish), Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler; two snippets of Beethoven’s Ninth bring us Furtwängler again—with some good shots of Gerhard Taschner—and Hans Knappertsbusch; and finally, Clemens Krauss is seen in Schubert’s Unfinished. An eloquent, incontrovertible indictment by Frederic Spotts in the booklet is worth almost as much as the video itself. Compulsive watching.

Caruso: A Documentary

“Two tenors are well served by documentaries. The greatest of all, Caruso, is treated to such a well sourced and researched programme—made by A&E Television—that you wish it were twice as long. The wish comes true, in a way, because Bel Canto Society has appended My Cousin, the enjoyable silent movie in which the tenor plays two roles. The documentary involves both Caruso’s son Enrico Jnr and Andrew Farkas, who collaborated on the biggest and best biography so far. We learn of the tenor’s complicated love life but his career and its significance are fully covered. I had not realised how much archive footage of him existed.

If I Were a Rich Man

“A key figure in the Caruso programme, Peter Rosen, was also involved in the enjoyable film about Jan Peerce, another singer from a humble background. An interview Isaac Stern did with the tenor forms the backbone of the piece; and Stern returns to act as host and narrator—his words scripted by Martin Bookspan, no less. Failing sight (not mentioned here) caused Peerce to retire from opera but he had a second career as a touring recitalist and was still singing magnificently in his late 70s. Musical highlights include a stylish ‘Il mio tesoro’, the least wimpish version since Tauber, and an early music hall sketch in which Peerce appears as a singing frankfurter seller! We learn of his courage in bringing religious solace to Jews in the Soviet Union, and of the problems of eating kosher when on tour in Japan. Splendid stuff.”

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Richard Fawkes, Reviewing in Opera Now, “Screen Gems”

“Bel Canto Society produces a huge amount of often rare footage of singers. Richard Fawkes focuses on their collection of Franco Corelli.

“Those who saw him on stage will tell you that Franco Corelli was not simply the best tenor of his generation but, Caruso notwithstanding, the best of all time. Why, then, isn’t he a name on everyone’s lips in the way that Caruso is, known to those who have never been to an opera or bought an operatic recording? Largely because he had a comparatively limited career due to a stage fright he could never overcome.

“One way for those who never saw Corelli to find out why he was so highly regarded is to burrow through the offerings in the Bel Canto Society catalogue. This is the organisation founded by the indefatigable Stefan Zucker (who features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest tenor) to make available on video performances of singers, from concerts to feature films, from opera productions to TV appearances. Much of the material predates video recording, so the visual quality is not always all one might wish. But generally speaking Bel Canto’s cleaning up of the sound is exemplary and makes all these tapes worth watching.

“First port of call has to be Corelli’s 1956 appearance in the film Tosca. Corelli was 30 before he made his operatic debut in 1951. It had taken him six years to get a top to his voice. In 1956, the director Carmine Gallone, who has the distinction of having directed more opera films than anyone else, decided to film Tosca on the actual locations in Rome, using actors miming to a prerecorded track. He planned to use Ferruccio Tagliavini to sing Cavaradossi but was having difficulty finding an actor. It was Aldo Relli, who had been cast as Sciarrone, who suggested he consider his younger brother who looked good and could also sing (Relli was the stage name of Ubaldo Corelli). Gallone duly auditioned Corelli and promptly offered him the role both as singer and actor, making him the only singer in the film to be seen on screen. Maria Caniglia sings Tosca (acted by Franca Duval), Giangiacomo Guelfi, Scarpia (played by Afro Poli).

Tosca made Corelli a star. He not only looks the part, his singing picks you up and transports you. His cries of ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, and this is perhaps the key to Corelli’s popularity: he is a very visceral singer with the power to seize the listener’s emotions and not let go. This power can be heard to great effect on a CD of Tosca (also available as a download or Webcast) recorded in Parma in 1967. He really lets fly, holding on to his notes (it may be self-indulgent but it is exciting) and demonstrating quite phenomenal breath control. But he also sings when necessary with subtlety and shading. It is a virtuoso performance well worth acquiring, even though the poor soprano singing Tosca manages to go off-key in ‘Vissi d’Arte’.

“Also on CD is a thrilling account of La Gioconda (also available as a download or Webcast), recorded live in Philadelphia in 1964 with Mary Curtis-Verna in the title role and Mignon Dunn as Laura. As a bonus, the set contains 70 minutes of his second Philadelphia appearance in the role, opposite Tebaldi. The remastering captures all the excitement and brilliance of the live performance, although being recorded at the beginning of winter, the Tebaldi version has more than its share of audience coughs.

“Other Corelli CDs in the catalogue include a strongly cast Rome Opera production of Il trovatore, now also available as a download, recorded live off air in Berlin in 1961 when Corelli was at the peak of his form, a Carmen (available as a download or Webcast) with Freni and Simionato, and an Ernani (available as a download or Webcast).

“On tape again is a 1958 made-for-television film of Turandot (#544) with Lucille Udovick impressive in the title role and Corelli singing with animal excitement, and Corelli in Concert, a 1971 video of arias and Neapolitan songs which is an object lesson in vocal artistry. The audience goes appropriately wild. And yet this tape, perhaps more than any other, goes a long way towards explaining the Corelli enigma. Between arias, between phrases even, he looks decidedly uncomfortable. He licks his lips, his eyes do not communicate warmth or enjoyment, he rarely smiles. It is clear he does not want to be there. It does seem amazing that a man with such enormous talent, who gave so much pleasure to so many people and received such adulation, could not overcome his fear of stepping onto a stage. We can only be thankful we have the evidence of these recordings to remind us of what a truly great artist Franco Corelli was.

“Other Bel Canto titles include:

The Glass Mountain, the 1950 feature film starring Michael Denison as a composer who returns to Italy after the war to find inspiration. The film made an international star of Tito Gobbi who appears as an opera singing partisan. A wonderful, moving film.

Del Monaco at His Most Thrilling! Del Monaco was the tenor for whom the phrase can belto was coined. This 1969 German TV appearance has him dressed casually in a sweater alongside a penguin-suited orchestra in a repertoire that mixes arias from Norma, Macbeth and Die Walküre (what a heldentenor he would have made) with the baritone aria ‘Largo al Factotum’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Ridi, pagliaccio, an absorbing 1942 film about the creation of the Leoncavallo opera which stars Paul Hörbiger as the real-life Canio and Gigli as the singer who created the role.”

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Greg Sandow, Reviewing in The Wall Street Journal, “Opera Recordings Join the Digital Revolution”

From The Wall Street Journal

by Greg Sandow

With enormous delight, I’ve been watching a very old opera video. My excuse—as if I needed one—was that the video was recently released on DVD, by the invaluable Bel Canto Society, but I would happily have watched it on an old-fashioned videotape, or maybe even cranked it up on a movie projector, if I had one.

It’s a 1954 performance of Donizetti’s silly, tender comedy “L’elisir d’amore” (or, in plain English, “The Elixir of Love”), made as a movie for Italian TV. Opera, of course, was far more central to Italian life half a century ago than it is now, and some people think they know what that means: Performances were easygoing, homemade and maybe a little slapdash. But Bel Canto Society—a nonprofit organization run by Stefan Zucker, who bills himself as “the world’s highest tenor”—proves that all this is a myth. “L’elisir” is meticulous, beautifully directed, full of lovely detail. The tenor lead, a shy little innocent, can’t decide whether to join the army. He looks up at the hulking, pompous sergeant and, almost like a child, plays for a moment with the buttons on the sergeant’s uniform.

The singers—the little tenor, the pert soprano, the pompous baritone, and the fatter baritone who descends on a 19th-century Italian town like a whirlwind, selling quack remedies—are all accomplished comics. Though the tenor, Cesare Valletti, goes beyond accomplished. Fumbling with his hat, he’s like a classic circus clown, the kind who’s sad as well as funny. He finds money for the quack’s elixir. He’s radiant! The elixir doesn’t work. He’s crushed!

His acting is especially a revelation, because he’s so well known, even today, as a singer—elegant, ravishing, full of light and shade, impassioned. But then all the singers have a kind of confidence, verve and, above all, a colloquial ease that you’ll never hear today. And why not? They’re performing in their own language, in a tradition their whole nation understood, and in an age when unamplified singing was mostly still the norm. Just listen to Giuseppe Taddei, who plays the quack, and has a huge and sumptuous sound but doesn’t bother using it when he clowns around. Then suddenly he’ll pour it out, and it hits you like a force of nature.

But here’s a question. Bel Canto Society has been releasing videos like this for 18 years, on VHS tape (along with CDs of old opera performances). Why are they only just beginning to appear on DVD? The answer is that Mr. Zucker is a manic perfectionist, and that he follows his perfectionism even at untold cost to his business. “We’ve been hemorrhaging financially since 1999,” he says, in his inimitably urgent and high voice. “Our distributors abandoned us, because their customers didn’t want to buy VHS tapes.”

But he couldn’t find a way to convert the analogue video and sound on those tapes to digital (as DVDs require) with the quality that he demanded. “People in my field tell me, ‘Stefan, you’re nuts. Put out the best you can, do what you can.’ But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Finally he found an analogue-to-digital converter that he could live with. As he describes the choices that he made, he might almost be Valletti, deciding how he’s going to sing a crucial high note. So if this all seems way beyond obsessive, Mr. Zucker at least is obsessing like an artist. Audio professionals, in any case, will understand the distinctions that he makes, and his DVDs have a sonic and visual clarity we don’t always see in transfers from old material.

He has more than 900 VHS releases; it’ll be a while before we see them all on DVD. I’m especially salivating for Verdi’s “Otello,” burningly sung by Mario Del Monaco, a tenor from the ’50s with a giant voice and temperament, who just about defines what this opera is about.

But among the DVDs already available, two stand out for me, besides “L’elisir.” These aren’t filmed operas, but instead are films about opera, starring famous opera singers, and they might sound unpromising. What would we expect from 1936’s “The Charm of La Bohème,” in which two opera singers live out in real life the pathos of Puccini’s opera? Or from 1942’s “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” in which the wrenching story of the opera “Pagliacci” is presumed to be true, and the composer writes the piece after meeting the main character? Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

But both films—filled with that unstoppable old-time singing—are anything but awful. “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” especially, unfolds with touching dignity, never trivializing either life or art. We see Beniamino Gigli, a devotedly honest tenor of the era between the two world wars, play the singer who created the leading role in “Pagliacci,” first trying out his big aria as the opera is being written, then nailing it with searing passion at the world premiere. Hokey, you might think. But like “L’elisir,” and so many of those old performances, it all seems real.

Mr. Sandow, who writes for the Journal about music, is a composer, critic and consultant.

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Press Coverage of Corelli Interviews

Encore (the magazine of BMG classical music service) reported:

Franco Corelli, known as “golden thighs” to opera audiences, was one of the world’s leading tenors from his La Scala debut in 1954 until his unofficial retirement from the stage in 1976. His matinee-idol looks coupled with his thrilling high notes earned him cult status during his singing career. A recent survey by the magazine Opera Fanatic [the radio program, really] named Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, out-polling even Björling (second), Caruso (third), and Domingo (nineteenth, tied with Jacques Urlus).

Jeannie Williams wrote in USA Today:

Look out Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti: Italian tenor Franco “Golden Thighs” Corelli, the Mel Gibson of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s, may be back. Corelli, who left opera in 1976, made a rare weekend appearance on a New York radio show, “Opera Fanatic.” He said he quit too soon, he wants to sing Verdi’s Otello and do recitals. His reappearance would sell out Carnegie Hall in hours….” (“Starwatch”)

Michael Redmond treated the same story in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Last week’s big buzz had to do with a live radio interview given by Franco Corelli to the irrepressible Stefan Zucker, host of “Opera Fanatic.” During the interview, Corelli indicated a clear interest in returning to the stage to perform and record the title role of Verdi’s Otello, the brightest jewel in the Italian tenorial crown.

Corelli never sang this role during the years that he was the most brilliant and exciting tenor alive…. Well, this was news,…It is also a matter of public record (i.e., listeners heard Corelli say it), as well as a matter of on-tape record. By early this week, Corelli was waffling about the whole thing, saying that he had been mistranslated. The interview had been conducted both in Italian, which Zucker then translated, and in English. A difficulty with Corelli’s explanation is that he had said it in English. Hmmm. So why all the fuss? Simply because a return by Franco Corelli to sing Otello, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for that matter, would surely become a candidate for “hottest operatic ticket of the 90s”…. I had had the privilege of overhearing Corelli sing while he was teaching in Newark. The tenor sounded fantastico, high notes and all….(“Corelli Comeback: Yes or No?”)

Audrey Farolino wrote in Page Six of the New York Post:

Will he or won’t he? That’s what opera fans are wondering about Franco Corelli, considered the world’s best and sexiest tenor during his heyday from the 1950s through the 70s. Corelli worked music lovers into a fever pitch earlier this month when he suggested on WKCR’s “Opera Fanatic” program that he would still like to perform in Verdi’s Otello, something he never did during his career. Since then, “the phone here has been going wild,” says Stefan Zucker, the show’s host….(“Corelli: Coming Back?”)

On one of the programs Corelli described his diet, which Jeannie Williams then reported in USA Today:

Sixties superstar tenor Franco Corelli says he’s eating nothing but bananas and yogurt daily, plus water and coffee—and it works.

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News also made mention of the Corelli shows and the prospect of a comeback.

Listeners having voted Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, Stefan Zucker booked a date at a concert hall for him to be interviewed by the audience and me and be presented with an award. Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News, Bill Zakariasen in the New York Daily News, Iris Bass in Sightlines, Jeannie Williams in USA Today and Tim Page in Newsday all noted the event in advance, while Albert Cohen in the Asbury Park Press described the audience’s reaction:

Zucker arranged for a fascinating evening when he brought Corelli to the stage of Merkin Hall in New York City for an evening of talk. Part of the fun was the capacity audience. Talk about fanatics! Whenever someone recognizable entered, the applause would erupt. Jerome Hines, the Scotch Plains basso, was greeted warmly.

Pandemonium took over when Corelli appeared. Everyone was standing, whistling and shouting “Bravo.” The fans really went crazy when he was given his “Tenor of the Century” plaque during this unusual evening. (“Fans Go Wild over ‘Tenor of Century'”)

The Honorable David N. Dinkins, Mayor of the City of New York, proclaimed January 7, 1992 “Franco Corelli Day.” On that occasion Stefan Zucker interviewed Corelli in Gould Hall, taking a microphone into the auditorium à la Phil Donahue so that the public could speak with him as well. After intermission mayoral representative Dr. George Seuffert presented Corelli with the proclamation, which among many things cited his “thoughtful expertise and delightful sense of humor” in interviews.

Joseph Li Vecchi wrote about the event in Gramophone:

When Corelli walked out on stage at Florence Gould Hall the audience reacted as if Caesar had just returned from the conquests in Gaul….Corelli was interviewed by Stefan Zucker and he answered questions from the audience. We were also treated to a number of his recordings….Corelli fans are devoted to the great tenor and one lady even drove in from Cleveland for a chance to meet him. [Another came from Raleigh, another from Miami.] After the interview there was a reception….

Li Vecchi then described Corelli’s vocalism, citing high notes and diminuendos, and maintained:

There is no voice before the public today with Corelli’s combination of power, range and color….