Jeanette MacDonald: Princess of Opera & Operetta
Kultur D2421 30 mins.
What a difference a nose makes! From the Voice of Firestone telecast of September, 1958 — more than a year prior to her Met debut, in November 1959 — the instantly identifiable voice of vintage Moffo pours forth from what seems to be a young Beatrice Arthur as Musetta. The nearly unrecognizable twenty-six-year-old soprano is in spectacular vocal shape, reminding us that "Quando me'n vo" can actually have a saucy, unforced charm without all the cutesiness that has become commonplace. Moffo is equally effective in a costumed "Un bel dì," slightly lightening her timbre as the teenaged Cio-Cio-San, a role she had already performed on Italian television in 1956.
By the January 1963 telecast, when a post-rhinoplasty Moffo appears with Robert Merrill (who offers a stolid "Some Enchanted Evening") at a gala dinner honoring Richard Rodgers in the Waldorf Astoria Grand Ballroom, she has become the glamorous star who was voted one of the ten most beautiful women in Italy. With clouds of cigarette smoke swirling up from the tables of society folk, Moffo delights the audience with an idiomatic jewel song, as well as Rodgers's "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and an oddly laid-back "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." Finally, from March 1963, at which point she was fully ready to host her eponymous TV show in Italy the next year, Moffo offers a deluxe costumed "Balatella" and as sexy and delicious a "Love Is Where You Find It" as one could imagine, helmed by Arthur Fiedler and complete with slinky evening dress, vocal obbligato and star 'ography.
Less enticing is Jeanette MacDonald's television debut and only Firestone appearance, from November 1950. It's always interesting to hear a singer primarily known from film in a "live" situation, where you can more accurately assess the voice for size and color. I had always assumed that MacDonald's fluttery soprano was probably smallish and somewhat the victim of early recording limitations, but she certainly carries over chorus and orchestra. By 1950, when the soprano was forty-seven years old, her voice was still in excellent shape, with its characteristic quick vibrato. The star herself looks a shade matronly, and her trademark spunk seems to have been traded in for a "grande dame" attitude, but the prolonged and enthusiastic accolade from the studio audience indicates that the public's adoration after decades of movie musicals was intact. My gripe is with the video itself, which clocks in at only thirty minutes: the picture often darkens to almost black for several seconds, and three of the tracks are orchestral. (I hate that on operatic recital CDs, and here, too, it feels like filler. Firestone's conductor of choice, Howard Barlow, has almost as much screen time as MacDonald.) Santa Claus makes a lengthy appearance ("Friends, do you realize that it's just thirty-five shopping days 'til Christmas?") to hawk all sorts of swell items available at our local Firestone store. In "March of the Grenadiers," "Will You Remember" and "Italian Street Song," MacDonald has discarded her cinematic "pretty mouth" for the very dropped jaw that one associates with a singer attempting to "beef up" her sound. Perhaps that accounts for some mushy diction, as well. The entire show is cloaked in movie soundstage shtick: for the repetitious "Charlie is My Darlin'," MacDonald is poring over sheet music when interrupted by a dresser with her kilt and sash for the "next scene."
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