As with previous Bel Canto Society issues, the films made in the studio for television have to be distinguished from those made, sometimes on location, for the cinema. Here, two in the former category – the Otello and La traviata, both directed by Franco Enriquez (who later gained fame at Glyndebourne) – are a cut above the rest; indeed, were the sound better, they would rank among the most successful video representations of those works.
Both have exemplary casts, with the grossly underrated Rosanna Carteri as heroine. In the 1954 Traviata she fulfils practically every vocal and interpretative demand predicated by the role of Violetta. Her portrayal breathes heartbreaking sincerity and is sung with the natural, easy, warm Italian tone now in such scarce supply. You really can’t fault her singing, and of how few Violettas can that be said? I found her portrayal deeply moving on every level. She is fitly partnered by the vocally and visually handsome Alfredo of the Egyptian-born tenor Nicola Filacuridi and by the veteran Carlo Tagliabue as his father: for once we have a Germont pere of exactly the right age (the baritone was 56 at the time) and one who has retained his powers as a Verdian unimpaired. Sanzogno’s conducting is traditional in the best sense. Enriquez’s unfussy direction has the cameras in the right place most of the time and avoids the extraneous effects of other films of this opera, notably Zeffirelli’s (DG).
Even more recommendable is Enriquez’s entirely different treatment of Otello in 1958, another RAI production. Here he uses subtle lighting to make the most of black and white and to portray the dark doings of the plot. His close-up technique never worries Carteri who sings a glorious, full-throated, tender Desdemona. As her Otello, del Monaco is more sensitive than on either of his audio-only recordings and suggests, vocally and dramatically, all the Moor’s outer power and inner agony, using his piercing eyes to unerring effect. One is also reminded that he was the best-equipped tenor ever to essay the part. Capecchi, more familiar in buffo roles and in Mozart, proves a wholly plausible Iago, bluff, charming, insinuating. Studio confines sometimes inhibit the truth of the outside scenes, but rather this than Zeffirelli’s overdone ideas in his film.
The RAI Pasquale of 1954 is almost as good as the two Verdis, marred only by Italo Tajo’s overdone mugging in the title-part. Alda Noni, remembered affectionately by older opera-goers in the same part at London’s Cambridge Theatre in the late-1940s, remains a charming, minxish though now more buxom Norina. Sesto Bruscantini is a model of a Malatesta, Cesare Valletti even better as an Ernesto in the class of his teacher, Tito Schipa. Erede’s seasoned conducting and a resourceful staging makes this a delightful experience.
By contrast the film of
The two works featuring the young and comely Jarmila Novotna are films accompanied by music that adapt the respective scores by Smetana and Oscar Straus to a director’s whim. In the case of The bartered bride the revered Ophuls, in one of his first films, provides a very free version of the original but makes the result amenable by virtue of his wit, the screen peopled with quaint characters. Novotna looks lovely, sings sweetly, but the picture quality is very poor.
The noted 1934 film Evensong, derived from Beverly Nichols’s story, itself based on Melba’s career, features Evelyn Laye as student, star and elderly prima donna and Supervia in a bit-part allowed to sing extracts from her repertory. Both are, in their different ways, charmers, but the samples of Supervia are the more important as a precious souvenir of her art. The copy here is excellent.
“Ten Tenors” preserves the work of the singers mentioned as they either star or guest in films. Among the latter are McCormack, Lauri-Volpi and Piccaver whom I had never seen before, more fascinating mementoes of the great but exceedingly short in length.