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"Teatro alla Scala: The Golden Years"

DVD Button Interviews by Enzo Biagi with Claudio Abbado, Mirella Freni, Antonino Votto, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Giulietta Simionato, Maria Callas, Romano Gandolfi; rehearsal and performance footage from 1960s to 1980s. Dynamic DVD 37728, 87 mins., subtitles

Recordings La Scala Cover 216

THIS DVD, which promises to be the first in a series of documentaries about the great Italian opera theater, is itself divided into two parts, each originally aired on RAI, Italian television, in the early 1980s. The man behind these programs was the distinguished print and television journalist Enzo Biagi, who adored opera, lived in Milan and revered this house above all. Although his style was simple and straightforward—he originally titled these shows, A Reporter at La Scala—his direct questions and unobtrusive manner drew candid responses from his subjects. Biagi wasn't entirely benign, either; he famously crossed Silvio Berlusconi, causing a five-year hiatus in Biagi's television career.

The DVD is a composite of two programs: Oggi si prova (Today is rehearsal) and Ieri e Oggi (Yesterday and Today). Each features an odd blend of footage from productions in rehearsal and performance from the 1981–82 season, and interviews with singers of the1950s into the ’60s, along with some interview material with participants of those productions (Lohengrin, Falstaff, and Simon Boccanegra). But, taken as a whole, the combination works, and the interviews are fascinating.

This was a time when La Scala maintained its position as the great temple of art it had been, with a level of vocal excellence and beauty of production that is enormously impressive. Watching part of a music rehearsal of Simon Boccanegra with Freni, Piero Cappuccilli and Nicholai Ghiaurov, with Abbado conducting, you see artists for whom this repertoire is second nature, joking around a bit while pouring out stunning phrases. Freni is interviewed, always unpretentious and direct, and shown in some footage as Alice Ford in a Falstaff production that directly preceded the Boccanegra—a reminder of her effortless vocalism and abundant charm on stage in this role. We watch Giorgio Strehler, communicating in German, put soloists and chorus through their paces in Lohengrin rehearsal, hands on, passionate. A brief filmed snippet of the resulting performance reveals Ezio Friegerio's stunning setting, with (an unidentified) René Kollo and Anna Tomowa–Sintow as Lohengrin and Elsa.  

Abbado's love for La Scala is touching in his interview, and Luca Ronconi's understanding of operatic acting versus naturalistic acting reminds us that there have been stage directors who specialized in and understood opera's unique demands on singers in terms of stage craft.

The old-timers with whom Biagi speaks are riveting personalities. Giulietta Simionato tells of Toscanini trying to talk her out of singing the notoriously voice-wrecking role of Santuzza. Her vocal security is demonstrated in rare (unless you like YouTube) rehearsal footage of the mezzo being dragged along the floor, hanging on to Franco Corelli's leg, singing flawlessly as her Turiddu rejects her. So much for the notion that opera in the ’60s was a "park and bark" affair. Mario Del Monaco, every bit as animated in interview as on stage (those blazing eyes) describes his life as a heroic tenor and his run-ins with Maria Callas, who is only seen in interview for barely a minute. Callas is also a looming presence in a talk with Giuseppe di Stefano, who apparently didn't need to wait for the age of regietheater to sense a shift in operatic priorities; the tenor felt that happen with the arrival of Visconti, and stormed out of the legendary Traviata mounted for Callas in 1955. He speaks of Callas the woman vs. Callas the artist and reveals some frank opinions about American audiences—and Pavarotti. The only other performance emanates from Covent Garden in 1964, not from La Scala, as Callas melts hearts with "Vissi d'arte." But, as no film survives of the diva singing at La Scala, it's an appropriate inclusion. After all, as Del Monaco puts it, "La Scala was Callas." —Ira Siff 

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