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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.