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The Art of Singing: Golden Voices, Silver Screen

The relationship between celluloid and singing is nearly as old as film itself. But if the marriage has been a long one, it has not been entirely harmonious. As "The Art of Singing: Golden Voices, Silver Screen" makes clear, albeit sometimes inadvertently, music and the movies -- or more accurately, opera and film and television -- have commingled in a manner that's served neither form particularly well.

With:
Narrator: Thomas Hampson. With: Magda Olivero, Jon Vickers, Rise Stevens, Giovanni Martinelli, Nicola Rescigno, others.

The relationship between celluloid and singing is nearly as old as film itself. But if the marriage has been a long one, it has not been entirely harmonious. As “The Art of Singing: Golden Voices, Silver Screen” makes clear, albeit sometimes inadvertently, music and the movies — or more accurately, opera and film and television — have commingled in a manner that’s served neither form particularly well.

And yet what treasures have been preserved thanks to film and TV! As this docu, a compilation of clips, interviews and commentary, makes clear, music lovers are the richer for the trove of visual records that exists thanks to the enterprising efforts of certain producers, directors and, of course, singers.

To be sure, one wishes that the talents of such golden-age paragons as Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar and Mary Garden had been secured on sound film, rather than silent, but at least a visual representation of their art now exists.

We’re luckier when it comes to Conchita Supervia, Richard Tauber and Feodor Chaliapin, where sound film stunningly captured these legendary performers.

For the most part, this two-hour program runs chronologically, concluding rather abruptly with Maria Callas singing Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” at Covent Garden in 1964. Moving briskly, the broadcast provides glimpses of Jussi Bjorling, Franco Corelli, Victoria de los Angeles, Kirsten Flagstad, Ezio Pinza, Leontyne Price, Beniamino Gigli, Luisa Tetrazzini and Fritz Wunderlich among others. Impressively, the bulk of the clips feature complete arias.

Among the prizes here are an MGM screen test of the incomparable Rosa Ponselle; Bjorling and Renata Te-baldi singing a duet from “La Boheme”; and the riveting Boris Christoff in a scene from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”

The interviews — with the likes of Jon Vickers, Rise Stevens, Giovanni Martinelli (taped in 1968) and Magda Olivero — provide insights, yet one wishes more veteran singers had been tapped.

Unfortunately, baritone Thomas Hampson’s narration, though generally well informed, is often unctuous, like some latenight pitch for the 100 greatest arias of all time. Nonetheless, the lack of concluding remarks rankles.

The docu deserves kudos for its generally high picture quality, all the more laudable given the age of much of the material. But sound quality is a problem; on a standard TV, dynamic range is limited, tone color often blurred.

Still, it’s the pictures that count here, and this program provides them in abundance.

The Art of Singing: Golden Voices, Silver Screen

Docu; PBS, Wed. March 25, 9 p.m.

Production: A Thirteen/WNET presentation of a BBC/IMG Artists/Ideale Audience/La Sept Arte/IMALYRE-VTCOM/France Telecom co-production. Executive producers, Stephen Wright, Pierre-Olivier Bardet; producers, Mark Pickering, Peter R. Smith; conceived by Christian Labrande; director-writer, Donald Sturrock.

Cast: Narrator: Thomas Hampson. With: Magda Olivero, Jon Vickers, Rise Stevens, Giovanni Martinelli, Nicola Rescigno, others.Music consultant, John Ardoin; editor, Clare Palmer; sound, Germain Boulay, Jerome Devanne. 2 HOURS.

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