Classic Archive 28: Great Opera Singers

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Classic Archive 28: Great Opera Singers. Gundula Janowitz, Rita Streich, Elisabeth Grümmer, sopranos; Isabel Strauss, mezzo soprano; Wolfgang Windgassen, tenor; Tito Gobbi, Ernest Blanc, baritones; Boris Christoff, Gottlob Frick, basses. Orchestre National de l'ORTF; London Symphony Orchestra. Peter Maag, Alain Lombard, Hans Wallat, Charles Mackerras, Eric Robinson, Georges Sebastian, conductors. (EMI Classic DVD 5996889; 117:55).

Wagner: "Dich teure Halle" (Tannhäuser); "Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen . . . Elsa! Wer ruft?" (Lohengrin). "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" "So ward es uns verhiessen," "Mittag. Die Stund' ist da," "Höchsten Heiles Wunder!" (Parsifal). Weber. "Leise, leise" (Der Freischütz); Puccini: "O mio babbino caro," "La vedete Firenze," (Gianni Schicchi); "Tre sbirri" (Tosca). Mozart: "Guinse alfin il momento . . . Deh, vieni non tardar" (Le nozze di Figaro). Donizetti: "Ah! Tardai troppo! O luce di quest'anima." (Linda di Chamounix). Dvorak: "Mesícku na nebi hlubokém" (Rusalka). Verdi: "Ehi! Tavernieri!" (Falstaff), "Credo in un Dio crudele" (Otello). Mussorgsky: "Oj! Dushno! Dushno! Svetu!" Boris Godunov).

The aforementioned Sondheim concert is the sort of extraordinary event that the home video market so desperately needs and that may be the key to its survival. There simply is no way to experience the full impact of such a concert on YouTube, where the best you can hope for is a piecemeal reconstruction of the concert with long pauses between each piece as the next one is found and brought up for viewing. (And that assumes that every performance of the concert is even available on YouTube.) For important concerts and complete opera performances, especially when one cares about technical excellence, DVD is still the way to go.

If YouTube does threaten the existence of any kind of classical video product, it is releases like this one from the BBC that is essentially a hodgepodge of performances with two things in common: they are the same musical genre, and the performances are drawn from the same archival closet. Otherwise, this is an interesting mix of staged, semistaged, and concert performance excerpts for which the DVD format is not especially helpful and in some ways seems less convenient than it would be to sample these performances on line, free of charge. One should be mindful, however, of the pristine technical quality that a DVD offers, versus the more variable quality of online viewing, which so often is undermined by technical gremlins of one sort or another. With a DVD like this, one also can enjoy careful documentation of when and where a given performance actually took place.

Nine singers are listed in the heading of this review, but four of them are the actual headliners this release was designed to celebrate, and they are all singers who are likely to be unknown to most current voice students-unless they have spent a fair amount of time with classic recordings. Soprano Gundula Janowitz was a prominent singer in the 1960s and 1970s who specialized in the operas of Strauss, Wagner, and Mozart in a career that brought her very rarely to America. Her one and only engagement with the Metropolitan Opera was as Sieglinde in von Karajan's production of Die Walküre, in which her pure, pallid voice sounded thin and lifeless beside the stentorian Siegmund of Jon Vickers and in comparison to richer-voiced peers like Leonie Rysanek and Regine Crespin. This disk allows one to reappraise the voice of Janowitz, and a voice teacher and student might very well profit from some careful viewing and listening to her distinctive sound. …