he TV variety show is as extinct as the pterodactyl, but there was a time, thirty years ago, when Ed Sullivan ruled the Sunday-night prime-time lineup. In between his acrobats and stand-up comics were some of the biggest stars of the Metropolitan Opera. This new video gives us a ninety-five-minute sampling of these singers (there’s also a forty-five-minute version), and there’s more glamour, guts and style here than in all eight hours of the Levine gala.
Fashion and hairdo fanatics will have a field day with this tape, which draws mainly from shows of the late sixties and early seventies. There’s enough eyeshadow and pink lipstick for a cross-dressers’ convention, and Anna Moffo’s towering, pneumatic bouffant seems in imminent danger of explosion. Earlier footage from the show’s black-and-white era includes a past-her vocal-prime Illy Pons doing the polonaise from Mignon, plus two Eileen Farrell appearances — a thrilling “Un bel di,” which she sings in a frumpy house dress while wearing a wristwatch, and “Pace, mio Dio,” delivered by remote from the amphitheater in Spoleto, Italy, with an unidentified Thomas Schippers accompanying at the piano.
Robert Merrill appears in four out of nineteen selections. His “Largo al factotum” is elegantly hammy, and he is paired with an impassioned Roberta Peters for the second-act Traviata duet. Jan Peerce, nearing the end of his career, joins him for the final Carlo-Alvaro duet from Forza, and a lot of howling goes on between them. The tape’s finale finds Merrill in a duet medley with Judith DePaul,; Lillian Sukis and Nedda Casei.
Leontyne Price stands and delivers a “Vissi d’arte” so ravishing that she doesn’t need to move a muscle. A fresh-voiced Beverly Sills tosses off the fioriture of “O luce di quest’anima” as easily as if she were merely breathing. Birgit Nilsson punche out “Pace, mio Dio” with her trademark vocal heft and stagewise economy of gesture. Maria Callas, vocally steady but unflatteringly filmed, does “Vissi d’arte” in costume on a makeshift set. Richard Tucker gives 110 percent in “Vesti la giubba,” and Franco Corelli demonstrates star charisma in duets with a nervous Dorothy Kirsten and an edgy-toned but determined Renata Tebaldi. Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne work pure magic in “Mira, o Norma.” This tape is a tasty appetizer. If we’re lucky, there may be many more courses to come.
Great Moments in Opera. Maria Callas, Eileen Farrell, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, Anna Moffo, Birgit Nilsson, Roberta Peters, Lily Pons, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Robert Merrill, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker