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Opera Fanatic
A film directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre (1999)

Experience Classicsonline

Here is the kind of film for which DVD was made.  It will appeal to a very limited audience and is therefore highly unlikely to be seen on British television as it now is. However, for that limited audience it could well be something to be seen over and over again.  A brief description of what it is will probably be enough for you to decide if you are part of that select group.

A very opinionated bearded man with a very high speaking voice - and apparently an even higher tenor voice – Stefan Zucker – visits a series of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos who appeared in Italian opera roughly between the 1930s and the 1970s.  They include Leyla Gencer, Fedora Barbieri, Marcella Pobbe, Anita Cequetti and Giulietta Simionato.  Although for the interviews camera angles and movement are conventional there are also a number of linking scenes, intercut with them and not necessarily in chronological order. These show Zucker and his film team travelling from one location to another and discussing what they have heard or what they are about to do.  These sections are filmed with a hand-held camera.  In addition there are frequent extracts from black and white films made by these singers in the 1950s and 1960s. 

The film’s weak points are easy to identify.  It is surely too long, repeats itself too often, and Stefan Zucker’s questions, asked in very slow Italian are often not understood by the interviewees - there are subtitles. No chance is given to the interviewees to expand on matters on which I am sure that they have much to say that is of interest.  Nonetheless I found it fascinating from beginning to end, and enjoyed this wonderful series of stately ladies each with strong opinions and a splendidly stagey manner.  All are distinct from each other, from the formidable Marcella Pobbe who wants to talk about herself rather than other singers and makes this very clear indeed. Anna Cequetti manages to say next to nothing of substance with enormous style. Then there is the very frail Gina Cigna and also Carla Gavazzi whose career was short but who gives probably the most interesting and intelligent answers to Zucker’s questions. 

The main purpose of the trip was to discover what was special about singers of this era, and how they differed from those of today.  Both are more apparent from the black and white film extracts than from the interviews.  Although these singers differed greatly from each other, there is a clear sense that for all it was the projection of the words and of the emotions behind them that was fundamental to their art.  These films are often poorly produced with sets and costumes that are sometimes frankly comical, but the patent sincerity of the singing makes this irrelevant.  All too many singers of today seem concerned above all with beauty of tone and what they see as the musical line.  Even when they achieve this, however, the lack of phrasing derived from the words all too often leads to results which can be curiously lacking in drama.  For all the occasional, and sometimes more than occasional, infelicities of phrasing, line or intonation in the singers in this film, their performances do have a dramatic life for which these deficiencies can be readily forgiven. 

As I said at the start, this is not a DVD for everyone, but if you do have an interest in Italian opera or in these singers you may well find it as riveting as I did.  And what a splendid Christmas present it would make for any opera enthusiast who thinks that they have everything!

John Sheppard 



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