Opera: Two to Six
Excerpts from Tosca, Faust, Rigoletto, Die Meistersinger and Lucia di Lammermoor.
Joan Sutherland, Phyllis Curtin, sopranos, Mildred Miller, mezzo-soprano, Nicolai Gedda, Charles Anthony, tenors, Jerome Hines, bass. Bell Telephone Hour Orchestra, Donald Vorhees, cond. 

VAI 69706, Color Video, TT: 53 minutes. 

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This release from Video Artists International is Volume Six in their "The Bell Telephone Hour" series featuring a 1968 broadcast.  Entitled "Opera: Two to Six," the show presents a series of operatic ensembles, beginning with a portion of the Scarpia-Tosca confrontation in Act II of Puccini's Tosca. From there, the show proceeds to the final Trio from Gounod's Faust, the Quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, and the Quintet from Wagner's Die Meistersinger concluding  with the Sextet from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Each of the scenes is staged, with costumes and modest scenery. But the focus is most decidedly upon the singing by an impressive group of artists, many among the greatest of their era. Pride of place goes to Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, who sings beautifully and idiomatically in Italian, French, and German repertoire. He also demonstrates an elegant, winning stage presence. This is a fine souvenir of one of the 20th century's greatest tenors.

It is always a treat to see Tito Gobbi's masterful portrayal of the villainous Baron Scarpia. Here he is in typical voice for this period in his career -- robust and warm in the middle registers, somewhat hard and driven on top. The diction, facial expressions, and stage movement are all those of a master performer.

Gobbi's most famous partner in Tosca was, of course, Maria Callas. Fortunately, two of their performances of Act II  (Paris, 1958 and London, 1964) are preserved on videotape. Both are riveting experiences, presenting two of the greatest singing-actors of their time. In that context the Gobbi-Sutherland confrontation is of considerably lower voltage. Sutherland, for all of her vocal greatness, was never a commanding stage presence. Nevertheless, she does contribute a radiantly sung "Vissi d‚arte."

In the Rigoletto and Lucia excerpts, Sutherland is, of course, much more on home turf. She delivers splendid performances in these two famous ensembles, with the expected top notes ringing out with extraordinary beauty and security.

Phyllis Curtain provides lovely, compelling vocalism in the Faust (albeit with some textual slips) and Meistersinger excerpts. Jerome Hines is  physically and vocally imposing (if not particularly Gallic) as Mephistopheles, and a dignified Sachs. Mildred Miller has a grand time cavorting as Maddalena to Nicolai Gedda's Duke of Mantua in the Rigoletto quartet. Tenor Charles Anthony, always the consummate professional, makes a solid contribution to the Meistersinger and Lucia ensembles.

In between the performances of the various ensembles, conductor and host Donald Vorhees talks with the singers. In these discussions, all of the artists emerge as engaging, thoughtful, and down-to-earth. For the most part, these chats do not interrupt the flow of the program, although a clumsy attempt to read the Rigoletto Quartet in a stilted English translation could well have been omitted.

The camera-work, sound and picture quality are all quite fine. Production and artistic values make "Opera: Two to Six" a most enjoyable hour of viewing.

K.M. (January 2001)