Great Performances (1971– )
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The Art of Singing: Golden Voices of the Century 

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Episode credited cast:
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Rodolfo in 'La Boheme' (archive footage)
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Herself (archive footage)
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Himself (archive footage)
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Franco Corelli ...
Himself (archive footage)
Giuseppe Di Stefano ...
Canio in 'Pagliacci' (archive footage)
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Herself (archive footage)
Kirsten Flagstad ...
(clip from 'The Big Broadcast of 1938') (archive footage)
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(archive footage)
Thomas Hampson ...
Host (in televised version only) / Himself in interview
Giovanni Martinelli ...
Himself
Magda Olivero ...
Herself
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Herself (archive footage)
Rosa Ponselle ...
M-G-M screen test for Carmen (archive footage)

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25 March 1998 (USA)  »

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Features Don Quichotte (1933) See more »

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An outstanding documentary, on the finest opera stars of the 20th century.
2 May 2009 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

This is a wonderful and informative documentary on the great operatic stars we have grown to know and love. Although it is nearly 2 hours long, it never fails to keep me interested, and I loved the short and relevant commentaries by Magda Olivero, Schuyler Chapin and Thomas Hampson.

Enrico Caruso is considered to have the most beautiful tenor voice the world has ever known. From what I saw of the extract from My Italian Cousin, he was also a great actor. Martinelli, in the 1930s, did many Vitaphone films, and I think, although I am not hugely familiar with him, he had a truly lovely voice though not huge in size, especially in "Torno e Surriento." "Ombra Mai Fu" was very well sung by Benjamino Gigli, whose voice was as secure at 60 as when he gave his debut.

Tito Schipa's voice was very soft, as Magda Olivero says in her commentary. I particularly loved the words he used to describe singing, and although his voice isn't large, it had phenomenal control and faultless tone colour. Thomas Hampson introduced Guiseppe De Luca. His phrasing, style, voice and diction made him one of the greatest baritones of the twentieth century, though I was disappointed that Tita Ruffo wasn't mentioned. I found Luisa Tettrazini's singing very moving, and it's a shame very few of her work remains, except in document.

The film "Evensong" introduced us to Conchita Supervia, who treated us to "Quando Me Vo" from, as that is from one of my favourite operas La Boheme. We were then shown an excellent screen test of Carmen performed by Rosa Ponselle, who made her debut at the age of 19, opposite Caruso in "La Forza Del Destino".

I fell in love with the beautiful "Standchen" by Schubert, after hearing Richard Tauber accompanying himself at the piano. An operetta veteran, Tauber had a wholly unique voice, though the vibrato sometimes undermined the true beauty of his voice.

I am full of praise for Chaliapin, an outstanding singing actor, born to play Boris Godunov and Mephistopheles. His voice was robust and his acting beautifully matched that, and Don Quichotte is where he gives one of his finest performances. The Norwegian soprano, Kirsten Flagstead specialised in Wagner, and the broadcast of her singing Brunhilde's war cry from "die Walkure" quite rightly brought the house down, as that was outstanding. A vivid and exciting actor, Laurence Tibbet gave a suitably feisty and charismatic Escamillo as he performed the Toreador Song with his enormous baritone voice, as part of the film "Metropolitan."

The beautiful Sampson and Delilah aria was elegantly performed by Rise Stevens, who looked so beautiful when she did the film "Chocolate Soldier" opposite Nelson Eddy. Of course she was a beautiful woman. Lauritz Melchoir provided a complete contrast, with a powerful rendition of "Wintersturmme". The Italian bass, Ezio Pinza, specialised in roles like Don Giovanni, and I was surprised by the subtlety and command he brought to the Coronation Scene from "Boris Godunov", featured in the underrated "Tonight We Sing".

The 1956 broadcast of La Boheme by Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi is one of my favourites. La Boheme is an opera that is guaranteed to bring you tears. About Bjorling, if you haven't done so already, listen to the Swedish version of Lensky's aria from "Eugene Onegin". The late Spanish soprano De Los Angeles performs an aria from "La Vida breve" and it was lovely, though she does sing slightly flat in other recordings. It is pretty much the same thing with colouratura Joan Sutherland, whose Lakme wasn't her finest hour, but she does amiably with a truly difficult aria from Meyerbeer.

Leontyne Price is considered by many, myself included, as the finest contemporary Aida. Here, her character's sadness is portrayed flawlessly in the documentary, and Price impresses with the rich tone of her voice. Another favourite of mine, is the towering performance given by Boris Christoff in the 1956 broadcast of Boris Godunov, introduced by Jose Ferrer. Here, Christoff, almost single handedly gives a terrifying, yet sensitive performance of the tsar. Magda Olivero was literally brought out of retirement to do Tosca, and she was marvellous, at the age of 65.

The tenor Fritz Wunderlich sensitively sang the tenor aria, from Mozart's masterpiece, Magic Flute, and it is a shame he died so young. The wonderful Jon Vickers sings "In Des Lebens" from "Fidelio", and he is as at home as he is in Wagner and Verdi. Also, check out his terrifying performance in Pagliacci under Karajan, he was amazing. "Non Piangere Liu" from "Turandot" is sung with magnificent presence by Franco Corelli. The opera itself is a gem, and is special to me, and I sang in the adult chorus when I was 14 3 years ago, and loved every minute of it.

Di Stefano was regarded as the definitive Caverdossi, but he is very good here. He was anti-musical, but he had a beautiful voice with pianissimos that tenors would envy, and such sensitivity in his acting. He also had a lot of generosity about him, as he was very handsome and a "typical Sicilian" as Nicola Rescigno recalled. Another highlight was Maria Callas' Tosca. She inspired a great many, with her musicianship. Tito Gobbi is the best Scarpia of the 20th century, no question, though Sherill Milnes almost gives him a run for his money. I have a problem with Callas going sharp when she goes high, and she was very temperamental. However, she is recognised as a unique and very concentrated artist with outstanding musicianship and acting.

In conclusion, an outstanding documentary, with plenty of interest for opera-buffs. 10/10 Bethany Cox


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